5.0 | Chiang Mai: A Month of Firsts

After a rough January, February was heavenly in comparison. Unlike the usual chilly, snowy and dark Februaries of Canadian winters, wintertime in Chiang Mai mostly comprised of sunshine, long hours of daylight, and an average of 26ºC. This month was also a month of firsts. From climbing up a waterfall and doing Muay Thai, to walking side by side with free roaming elephants and crafting paper from their poop, this February has been my favourite month of Remote Year so far.

First Stressful(ish) Transition

Moving from Tokyo to Chiang Mai was one of the more stressful transitions. As nomads that are moving every thirty odd days, a 23kg suitcase, 10kg carry on and a personal item are what most of us carry. Those are pretty standard limitations for flying within North American and most of Europe. However, within Asia, weight restrictions are much smaller. We had a 20kg limit with a 7kg limit for both the carry on and personal item. Boy was it challenging. On transition day, we stuffed our jackets with our electronics, we wore multiple layers of winter clothing fully aware that Thailand was going to be upwards of 26ºC, we sat anxiously at the boarding area waiting to see if the airline would weigh our carry ons at the gate. For most of us, we could have avoided the hassle by upgrading to an extra 5kgs for $45USD. But for most of us, 5 months in, money was starting to be tight and our false confidence in our monthly packing routine got the better of us. We were supposed to be nomads after all.

First Month of Feeling Local

For the first time I felt I truly lived the Remote Year experience this month. It was the month I did the least amount of side tripping. With an exception of a weekend trip to avoid a visa violation, I stayed put for the full five weeks and made Chiang Mai very much my home.

With a month consisting of five weeks instead of the regular four, this meant plenty of opportunities to see Thailand’s neighbouring countries. Our group filled the seats of Air Asia left and right. To Cambodia, to Vietnam, to Laos, to Bangkok, to the Phi Phi islands. Side trips have been both a yay and nay of Remote Year. On one hand, it is where you can bond the fullest with the other travel mates. It is much easier to get to know one another once broken up into smaller groups. It’s also where one can see the benefit of Remote Year, using the countries as a base while one travels to all the neighbouring cities that are also on the bucket list. On the other hand, the group is rarely all together anymore. Participation in Remote Year planned events are at an all time low. Even at our tracks, the numbers are dwindling. Apart from the first three days in Chiang Mai, the forty of us were never all together in Chiang Mai at any other given time. Side trips are also the easiest way to go above and beyond our budgets. And a few of us are finding it the hard way.

For me, the toughest part of this month was sitting out on the side trips in anticipation of upcoming sidetrips in March and April. A big group headed for Cambodia and Vietnam. Another group headed for the islands. A handful of smaller groups followed subsequently. To be in Thailand for five weeks and not head south to an island, that was tough for me to swallow.

On the bright side, by the end of the five weeks, I felt very local to Chiang Mai. I’ve explored both in and out of the city walls. I had my favourite coffee shop and a barista that knows me. I worked with a local company on small animated project. I rented a scooter that allowed me to get acquainted with the more suburban areas. And most importantly, I could start walking around most of Chiang Mai without Google Maps.

First Time with Elephants

Our day at the Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary started bright and early. We got picked up from our apartments and were driven 2 hours north of Chiang Mai. When we got there, we changed into a blue t-shirt and shorts. The uniform we wore was actually to keep the elephants calm and not to scare them with new tourists every day. We got the opportunity to feed them, made some vitamins for them, and went on a two hike walking side by side with them. We pit stopped at a mud bath where we cooled down the elephants. And finally, in a nearby river, we bathed and cleaned them before they went back to their home. I was in awe every minute of that day. It was surreal having such large and majestic animals free roaming around and walking right next to me. This was an absolute highlight of the month and probably the year.

First Time Climbing up a Waterfall

As part of my track this month, I was taken to a waterfall that we could climb up on. It was definitely one of the most unique and strange places I’ve been to. The rocks beneath the waterfall has a mineral deposit that makes the rock rough and stick. There was enough traction to be walking up the waterfall as the water gushes right by your feet. I don’t have the best pictures here as I put the camera away; but all I can say is that it gets steeper and it’s definitely worth a visit. After our waterfall visit, we made our way to the Si Lanna National park where we ate on a floating restaurant located half an hour into the center of the lake.

Chiang Mai quickly became one of my all time favourite cities. It was friendly. It was warm. It was nomad central. I was surrounded by people who are trying to pursue their dreams and start ups. It was inspiring. It hustled and bustled with a quiet but confident energy. It was artsy. It was tech savvy. It had delicious food. The coffee shops, the sidewalk food stalls, the greenery, the streets of small local shops, the night markets of handcrafted goods. It was a cornucopia of things I want in an ideal city. It’s one I would revisit, and possibly even live, in a heartbeat given any opportunity. It’s a city I feel a second time around would still bring my a month of firsts.

The only caveat? I visited Chiang Mai during its winter time and it felt like the perfect summer. Summertime in Chaing Mai…may be a whole other story.

Notable places to visit:

  • Bua Thong Waterfall (aka. the Sticky Waterfall)
  • Huay Tong Reservoir
  • Clay Studio in the Garden
  • Puffin in the Lake
  • Chiang Mai Mountain (Elephant) Sanctuary
  • Si Lanna National Park (Mae Taeng)