After our complete failure to obtain visas for India in Bangkok, we headed north for another attempt. The Indian consulate in Chiang Mai was completely different from the Bangkok visa agency, but no less confusing. We showed up bright and early and milled around a driveway / porch area with a group of others for quite a while, until a man sitting at a desk decided it was our turn to head inside for an interview. This took some time as well, and all told it was about four hours before we got out of there with instructions to return a week later.
We spent a few days in Chiang Mai in 2010 during our bar trip. It’s a fun, very accessible town– almost too well-equipped for the traveler seeking something familiar (e.g., bagels). It’s harder to get a real feel for the place. This time we stayed in a guesthouse located outside of the walls enclosing the old city (and tourist epicenter), which helped. We rented a scooter and explored all sorts of backstreets and the outskirts of the city. We took a dinnertime tour of a few street markets that are well off the general tourist trail, trying a variety of previously unknown dishes, with some hits that we returned to on our own (lots of pork!) and only a few misses (cubes of congealed chicken blood are outside my texture tolerance, it turns out). We wandered the more tourist-centric markets and “walking streets” that Chiang Mai is known for, and even made it to the zoo to see the famous pandas and our favorites, the giraffes and hippos. Brian took advantage of our prolonged stay to have some clothes made, which he’s been waiting for (and talking about) since our last Southeast Asia trip in 2010. We were tipped off to a delicious local restaurant outside of town featuring, for some reason, a country western band (and no English menu, but a super friendly staff). And we also found time for bagels, of course.
Several days later (still sans passports) we hopped on a bus headed north to Chiang Rai, the northernmost city in Thailand. Except for some impressive temples, it’s an unremarkable city, but very well-located for exploring the countryside. As the attractions are rural and a bit spread out, it’s also (in our opinion) best explored with a guide. With the help of ours, we mapped out a full day of adventures, including a trek through the rice paddies to a small village (the uphill part via elephant), lunch at a village house, a slow boat ride down the Kok river to a hot spring, and a few temple visits.
The highlight was undoubtedly the elephant trek. We were both a bit leery of doing it at all, but agreed after getting the background from our guide: The elephants involved are each owned by a local family and spent months learning to work with a specific mahout, usually a family member. They were originally used for logging, until the government prohibited it. The rice paddy treks enable the families to earn money for themselves (and their elephant food funds– they eat a *lot*) to replace the logging funds. Incidentally, if you’re trying to get up to the village on foot, it’s a much longer and hotter trek –the elephants can ford the streams and contend with the foliage much more easily. We lucked our with our elephant, Ti– she was pretty mild mannered and after the mahout contented himself that we weren’t entirely inept, he hopped off and let us take turns perching behind her ears. This is a very fun way to travel, if somewhat scratchy and occasionally very wet (Ti took every opportunity to thoroughly spray herself– and her substitute mahouts– whenever a stream came along).
After our rural adventures we returned to Chiang Mai and to the consulate with fingers crossed. This time we were able to pick up our visas for India so easily that it was almost anticlimactic. Mission accomplished, we left the city early on the morning of October 15 and flew to Cebu City to start our exploration of the Philippines.