I had a week of no plans and complete freedom to decide where to go. Northern Thailand had caught my imagination. I heard it was a place of mountains and forests and trekking. That was enough to inspire me to find a way to get there. Being a true romantic the discovery of a journey by night train to Chiang Mai finalised my decision – I had to go.
I headed to Bangkok railway station the day before I was due to travel with hope but caution. I had been told by my Thai family that it would be very busy as it was the National holiday and everyone was going North to escape the city. I turned up at the counter and asked for a single, top bunk and was given a place straight away. I was amazed, grateful and excited for the next adventure.
I had nowhere to stay and no idea really of what I would do when I got there, but I had set things in motion. Just as I was pondering these questions my eyes caught sight of a tourist office on the upper level of the station. I thought it might be worth asking for suggestions in there. Sure enough I got my answers. The staff were brilliant and I sorted out a hotel for the first night and a 3 day trekking tour into the forest away from the main tourist trail. They were quite astonished that I had managed to get a train ticket as minutes earlier a couple of tourists had been told the train was full!
“I had nowhere to stay and no idea really of what I would do when I got there, but I had set things in motion.”
I love to travel by train and this was no let down. It was well organised and a great way to meet people. I met a lovely couple just down the road from me, who were studying for PHD’s and we had a long and interesting conversation about the scams they had experienced in their first few days of arriving in Thailand. I was soon rocked to sleep. The only downfall of the carriage was the air conditioning which was on maximum. I slept in full clothes and fleece and was still cold.
“I love to travel by train and this was no let down.”
Early morning arrived and I enjoyed watching the beauty of dawn on the hills and rice fields as we shunted into our final destination, Chiang Mai. I was greeted at the station by a friendly lady who drove me to my hotel and confirmed my tours. I decided on the spur of the moment to book a trip to visit a mountain temple and the King of Thailand’s gardens later that afternoon. This turned out to be a good choice.
Bhuping (or Phuping) Palace is the King of Thailand’s winter residence and the open gardens are a real gem. I had done no research and so had no expectations, but I was amazed at the attention to detail and beauty. Roses of every variety and perfume flourish here in the cool mountain air, tree ferns adorn the forest garden, orchids fill the glass houses and it costs only pence to enter.
“Roses of every variety and perfume flourish here in the cool mountain air”
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or The temple of the White elephant is the holiest temple in Northern Thailand. White elephants exist and are considered sacred across Asia. Legend in Thailand says a white elephant carrying a relic of Buddha on his back wandered up the mountain near Chiang Mai, trumpeted three times and then fell down dead. The local people took this to be a sign and a temple was built on the spot the elephant died.
Wandering through the temple was a real sensory experience. Outside rows of bells were being rung by visitors, flames and incense smoke was rising, people were processing around a central point, the sunlight shone through a statue that glowed yellow and all around were the views over the mountains, forest and town below. The creativity, the beauty, the interactivity of the site is something I will take away as a great memory and something to incorporate into my own faith.