How much thrill and exhilaration can you pack into one week? As much as you have the nerve for. And twice that, if you're in Chiang Mai, as I can attest from my recent week here.
Far from its beaten tourist trail of beaches and full-moon parties, stands this ancient city ringed by mountains and 1500-year-old rainforests. Packing in more adventure and wilder surprises than any online trawling could have prepared me for. All, while being serenely steeped in culture and grounded in 7 centuries of history!
With not much of a fixed plan and a whole lot of thirst for the outdoors and adventure, I found a great match in Chiang Mai. My things-to-do list here was full of stuff I'd never done before. Ziplining for 3 hours through a rainforest canopy, hot air ballooning at sunrise, washing and feeding elephants, exploring limestone caves, soaking in a 250m high waterfall, meeting Thailand's highest spot, street-shopping at night markets, visiting gorgeous 500-year-old temples, and relaxing in the thermal spa waters of hot springs.
As you might have guessed, there wasn't a dull moment anywhere to be found.
1.Ziplining: Through a 1500-year-old rainforest and my biggest fears
"It's time you met the rainforest..." goes the tagline of the aptly named Flight of the Gibbons. Also, time to meet your biggest fears - heights, speed and everything in between. Snapping cables was the latest addition to my list of fears as I stood harnessed on the edge of a wooden platform high up a tree, looking down at a never-ending sea of treetops. Another one of those 'can't believe the things I get myself into' moments where fear and excitement madly weld into each other till I can't tell them apart. But that moment mid-air makes everything-before and after-pale in comparison.A moment long enough to gasp at treetops way below and feel like a gibbon. A moment too short to get used to being suspended in the air the way only gibbons ought to be.
2.Hot Air Ballooning
The morning began eventfully enough at 6 am, watching the balloon inflate from the inside. Followed by climbing into the wicker basket and lifting off before we knew it, and locking eyes with the sunrise from way up in the clouds. An hour of flying later, we were completely enveloped in the clouds for 5 long minutes, making it impossible for our pilot to see a good landing spot. So much so that we landed in a swamp! Which turned out to be a good thing as it necessitated another smaller flight to dry land. Nature never misses a chance to show us who's the boss.
3.Washing and feeding elephants at Baan Chang Elephant Park
"You're going to get very wet and very dirty," Sumit, our elephant park guide, had warned us that morning, with all the serious innocence of a man who lives with and for elephants. I nodded along with the rest, failing at suppressing a raucous laugh. He led us to the baskets of sugarcanes and bananas we were to carry. Feeding these giants turned out to be more fun than I'd expected, and our baskets were empty soon. At their muddy 'swimming pool', we were each assigned an elephant to wash and scrub. Just watching them walk into the water and hunker down was a majestic enough sight for me to want to hang out with these gentle giants all day.
4.The caves and cave temples of Chiang Dao
About 70 km north of Chiang Mai and inside a mountain, is this limestone cave complex. After a colourful beginning, things get dark, damp, twisted, slippery and eerie the more you make your way in. If it's any comfort, a few meditating Buddhas show up in random crevices now and then. Unless you get claustrophobic and you don't take a guide with you, it is quite the experience getting lost in all the bizarre formations.
And this is just me getting started with my Chiang Mai adventures! Click here to read the second part of my grand holiday.