Tubelights on the ceiling, loud music, baskets of hens, food shacks offering local brews and milling crowds awaiting buses — Mo Chit Station in Bangkok could easily be in India. I was there because I was about to embark on a 10-hour ride to Chiang Mai. Fellow travellers had told me it was a good break from the bustle of Pattaya and Bangkok. Since I’d planned the trip at the last moment, the tickets for the over-an-hour flight were exorbitant and no train tickets were available. The staff at the Bangkok hostel where I was staying told me of an option: a bus from Mo Chit terminus.
Buses to Chiang Mai leave on the hour and many prefer the last one at 10pm which reaches early next morning, but I took a morning bus since I wanted to see the countryside. Green expanses and sleepy hamlets zipped by as we drove. The bus experience wasn’t very Indian: passengers were plied with snacks and meals. We were even given a welcome drink!
You can feel the chill of being in a hill station the moment you get off the bus at Chiang Mai. I made my way to the hostel (Rs550 per night), showered and headed out to explore the night bazaar. It’s spread along several blocks and here, you should bargain using smiles and namastes (Thais use this greeting too). Good buys include yâam (shoulder bags), tribal handicrafts by nomadic tribes like the Akha from the Thai-Myanmarese border, northern- and northeastern-Thai hand-woven fabrics, opium scales, hats, silver jewellery, woodcarvings, iron and bronze Buddhas.
To keep your energy and nutrition levels high, there are food stalls that sell delicious local dishes like octopus soup (10 baht) and the prawn and squid fried rice (30 baht). Wash it down with pomegranate juice or tender coconut.
For foodies, Thailand is a wonderland. At the Anusan food market, try the Thai-Chinese seafood restaurants. Each tapri (food stalls that the locals insist on calling a restaurant) has its own seating area. I picked Phra Lena Restaurant because it had the largest prawn-filled aquarium. Possibly because it’s a tourist favourite, the prices in Anusan are higher than in Bangkok. Nothing costs less than 175 baht, but once you sample the food you won’t mind the bill.
From Chiang Mai, you can take a bus to Baan Chang Elephant Park at in Mae Taeng, which is an hour’s ride away. Here you get to scrub and bathe an elephant, feed him/her and spend a day around these magnificent creatures. The centre is firmly against teaching elephants to perform tricks, but you can get a bareback ride on an elephant that will take you through the jungle and bring you back to the bus.
Another place that will make animal lovers’ hearts go pitter patter is Mae Rim’s Tiger Kingdom. It took me a while to get used to the idea of touching the magnificent beasts because you can’t help but notice they could maul you with a loving pat. Gathering my courage, I chose the medium tigers. For those who are braver, there are large tigers and if you’re looking for a more Disney-esque experience, there are small tigers. Though 420 baht seems expensive, the pictures and memories make it worth every penny. Cynics will probably say the tigers are drugged for the benefit of tourists but the caretakers insisted the animals were drowsy because we’d come on a hot day.
While in Mae Rim, don’t skip the snake farm. Here, you can see a spitting cobra, an albino cobra and some huge boa constrictors. It’s fun, thrilling and educational.
By the time my Chiang Mai trip came to an end, I realised I hadn’t explored the treks and adventure sports for which this northern town is a famous. But as my bus set off on its return to Bangkok, and as it set off, I started planning my next trip to Chiang Mai.