After months of dreaming about returning to Thailand to volunteer with the Elephant Nature Park pups, I finally found the nerve to book the long flight across the world for my first solo adventure abroad. I don’t know if it was my approaching birthday, or the dissatisfaction I felt from not really challenging or inspiring myself over the past year, but I somehow silenced the angst-ridden flyer in me long enough to hit the yellow ‘purchase’ button on Expedia. A few weeks later, and after some thirty hours of travel, I touched down in Chiang Mai shortly before midnight, rather jaded and disheveled from three grueling, sleepless flights. It felt surreal as I plopped my backpack down on the russet, teak floor of my quaint guesthouse. I looked around in awe at the modest chamber, overflowing with disbelief that I’d actually made the trip alone. As I tucked myself in for a night of well-deserved slumber, brimming with pride for actually boarding that first plane, I was lulled to sleep by the familiar sound of a chirping gecko, affably welcoming me back to his homeland from his cozy nook beside my night table.
I awoke with renewed spirit after – shockingly – only about five hours sleep, eager to spend the next four days reexploring the city on my own. I headed down to the garden for breakfast, and was immediately welcomed by Gavin, the outgoing Aussie expat who owned Baan Khun Krub. A fellow animal-lover, he was keen to hear about my journey to Elephant Nature Park to volunteer with dogs later in the week. As we chatted about the city, I enjoyed the most amazing breakfast in the quiet courtyard – a steaming cup of ginger tea, banana custard over purple sticky rice, a heaping plate of fresh fruit, and a banana pancake the diameter of a basketball. I was in heaven.
I can’t say enough about Gavin and his partner Dom, or about my five-night stay at Baan Khun Krub – the sense of community and family that fills their small guesthouse is overwhelming. The hosts go out of their way to make sure their guests enjoy their stay, and Gavin is simply one of the nicest, most welcoming people you’ll meet. I am so grateful to have stumbled across the listing as I nervously, and somewhat hastily, arranged my trip a mere three weeks before my departure.
My first day in the city was spent doing a bit of temple hopping – revisiting a few temples I’d explored with Stephan when we visited a couple years ago, as well as a bunch I hadn’t previously seen. As I wandered the streets of Chiang Mai’s Old City, I popped into Warorot Market, a veritable sea of vendors alongside the Ping River. Armed with a handful of baht and extremely limited Thai, I attempted to obtain a few fresh lychees and mangosteens – a seemingly daunting task when everything is sold by the kilogram and you’re struggling with broken words and awkward gestures. Eventually, though, I made my way to a gentleman who was content to sell me a literal handful of fruit for less than a buck; and I was able to walk away with my head held high and mouth full of deliciousness.
With an undying love for nature’s tranquility, I decided to escape the city the next day and headed to the Monk’s Trail – a short, 30-minute hike that follows a serene, moderately-steep footpath up to Wat Pha Lat (‘the temple at the sloping rock’). The trailhead is about 6 kilometers west of the Old City – behind the Chiang Mai Zoo – and can [sort of] be accessed by the city’s prominent red trucks (rot daeng). I’m not sure if the drivers I was showing Google Maps to didn’t know the exact location of the trailhead (it does say it’s on an unnamed road), or if they just didn’t want to make a one-way trip out to the middle of nowhere, but getting to the trail was not the easiest of tasks. Seriously… try pantomiming ‘antenna’ to your next taxi driver (the trail is relatively near a giant radio tower). Fortunately, after much rejection and haggling, I eventually hopped songthaews for about 80 baht to a location near the trailhead, where I was unceremoniously dumped on the side of a steep, deserted road. But hey, at least he got me close.
Once I finally arrived at the trail, the hike was beautiful and unexpectedly serene. I never saw another person the entire way to the temple, save for a couple of locals collecting mushrooms near the start of the path. The trail was narrow and densely-forested, but well-defined by the weathered strips of saffron sashes the local monks had tied to trees to delineate the route. The forest was lush and tranquil – the only sounds the rustling of towering palm fronds and the intermittent, muffled melodies of songbirds hidden high up in the canopy. Climbing the final stretch to the temple, a banister of buddha statues leads the way to the sacred shrine. Peering through the foliage, I could see a pair of expressive nagas guarding Wat Pha Lat’s entrance. Built on a sloping hillside, a small waterfall trickled alongside the temple, and the rocky outcropping atop the falls afforded some nice views looking back to Chiang Mai city. The temple itself was quite peaceful, with only a handful of visitors wandering around the secluded grounds.[Note: There are two options for making the return trip from the temple: (1) follow the path back down to the trailhead and eventually to one of the more trafficked roads behind the university, and attempt to find a red truck back to the city center; (2) continue past the temple to Sriwichai Alley, the main road heading up to Doi Suthep, and try to flag down a red truck headed back to the city. With rain eminent, I opted for the latter option. After about 10 minutes, I was able to flag down a rot daeng back to Chiang Mai University for 40 baht.]
After a successful first solo hike, and at Gavin’s recommendation, I decided to head back over to Dui Suthep-Pui National Park to explore Doi Pui, the highpoint of the mountain bordering Chiang Mai’s west. During my last visit to Chiang Mai, Stephan and I took a motorbike up the mountain, exploring Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, then heading down to the Hmong village and eventually making our way to a small, out-of-the-way café for some locally-grown hilltribe coffee. Knowing how beautiful the forested hillside was, I was excited to head for the summit for some cooler temperatures and some more quiet time out in nature.
This time, I effortlessly hopped red trucks up to the temple at Doi Suthep (80 baht via a stop at the university). Once there, though, getting to the summit of Doi Pui was an unexpected challenge. Gavin had suggested it would be another 40 baht to get up to the summit from the temple; and this would have been true if I’d been traveling in a group of 10 people that could fill the back of the songthaew. However, I was traveling alone, which meant the drivers were trying to charge me 400–500 baht for a roundtrip ride to the summit (less than 20 km roundtrip, and including an hour or two to walk around up there). At some point during my half hour or more of frustrating haggling, a shy-but-seemingly-curious Japanese guy strolled over, loitering as if he too were interested in checking out Doi Pui’s summit. He spoke very little English, so I wasn’t entirely sure if he was looking for a hike, or just kind of wandering about until he found something interesting to do. Eventually, seeing I was having no luck with drivers and was completely unwilling to back down on price, he headed up the street in the direction of the summit.
After a significant amount of forced patience, a couple of girls wandered over looking for a ride up to Bhubing Palace, which was about halfway up to the summit. The driver offered me a ride for 60 baht round-trip up to Doi Pui viewpoint, a couple kilometers shy of the peak. Knowing that was probably the best I was going to do, I agreed, and we were on our way. About half a kilometer up the road, we passed the Japanese traveler who had intriguingly watched my failed transactions about ten minutes prior. As the songthaew slowed, I began whispering ’60 baht, 60 baht!’ from the back of the truck, trying to make sure he wasn’t about to get a hose job to hop on the vehicle. I’m not sure he even knew where we were going, but he handed over 60 baht and casually hopped in the back of the truck.
When we finally made it up to Doi Pui viewpoint, the driver pointed uphill and announced, ‘two kilometer.’ He then indicated he’d be back to retrieve us in an hour or hour and a half. I thanked him, snapped a couple photos, and headed up the hill. My new adventure partner then pointed in the same direction asking, ‘you go up?’ When I replied that yes, I was headed for the trail at the summit, he grabbed his small daypack from the ground and joined me on the uphill climb.
As we trudged up the winding road, we quickly realized just how steep the climb actually was. We kept walking and walking and I thought to myself, ‘this cannot be only two kilometers to the top.’ After a little over three kilometers, we finally reached a sign for the loop trail that lead to the summit. Three kilometers and we weren’t even at the summit?! I rolled my eyes in exasperation. We’d already been walking for some thirty minutes and, even though we had no clue how long the trail was, I was certainly hell-bent on getting to the top.
We followed the steep, muddy path, quickly accelerating our pace – foolishly thinking we might actually have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it back to the viewpoint in time to catch the driver. About halfway up the trail we reached a sign reading ‘1 km to summit.’ We looked at each other inquisitively, then down at the clock on my companion’s phone; we were now totally not going to make it back down in time. When I suggested we continue, he immediately agreed. Loving his will to just keep going even though we had no freakin’ clue when we’d ever get back, we climbed on. By the time we reached the top, the peak had become entirely socked in by clouds, precluding any view of the surrounding countryside, save for a sliver of terraced, green hillside. I proudly exclaimed ‘view!’ as I threw my hands out to present him with his hard-earned view of the encroaching cloudbank.
As the first few raindrops began to sprinkle down, we turned and retreated down the trail with a sense of urgency similar to our ascent. We reached the road some 2.5 hours after we began the trek up from the viewpoint, and knew we still had another 3 kilometers ahead of us with a threatening rainstorm. I told him it was okay and that we’d get a ride, as he looked bewilderingly at me. No sooner than the words left my mouth, a black pickup truck fortuitously came hauling up the isolated road, presumably from the nearby campsite. I threw my arms out with excitement and waved down the vehicle as my new buddy smiled shyly. A kind gentleman rolled down the window, his amused family in the backseat, and agreed to deposit us all the way back at Doi Suthep. We thanked him profusely and clambered into the truck bed. As the truck pulled away, the cool, welcome breeze blowing through our sweat-drenched hair, my companion looked at me and confidently declared, ‘you a little bit crazy!’
With a few minutes for actual conversation, since we were no longer jogging breathlessly up or down a mountainside, I learned that my new friend was from Tokyo, and that he was just beginning his English studies at Chiang Mai University. His teacher was from England, and he seemed excited about the program. Going forward, I hope that his weekend escapade with one crazy American helped build his confidence in using the language in whatever bizarre situation comes his way next. When we finally arrived back at Doi Suthep, we offered an appreciative wai to our gracious couriers and parted ways – him in the direction of the temple, me back to the city.
My impromptu adventure up Doi Pui was easily my favorite part of Chiang Mai, and what traveling is really all about: meeting a stranger on the side of the road, encouraging him to embark on a hike of undetermined length, and convincing him to hitchhike back to civilization when said hike turns out to be four-times longer than expected. It doesn’t seem to matter where I go – I always meet the most amazing people who, no matter how quickly they enter and exit my life, leave my heart full and my stories plentiful. Thanks for the adventure, my friend… my trip to Chiang Mai wouldn’t have been the same without your carefree spirit!