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The Gap Year Blog

Week Two - By Volunteer Jess Hawthorne

10 May 2018 15:10 PM

We arrived in Chiang Mai on Sunday and spent the evening exploring the Sunday Market. Stalls stretched down the streets in every direction as far as the eye could see, selling everything imaginable. 

Local temples allow food stalls to set up right outside their doors, and we managed to get a seat here to enjoy some food, some of us using the opportunity to try the popular mango & sticky rice for the first time.

The following morning we set out on foot for our first full day in Chiang Mai. We saw the monument of the Three Kings that founded the city, and then spent the rest of the early afternoon relaxing in a park with cold drinks and ice cream. 

At about 4pm we drove up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the most impressive temples in Chiang Mai. We climbed 306 steps to reach the top and were treated to an amazing view over the entire city. That evening we went to a rooftop bar and then packed our bags ready for a 2-day trip out of the city the next morning. 

Tuesday was definitely a highlight for us all. We took a trip to Karen Elephant Sanctuary and got to spend the day with 3 elephants. 

We were taught simple commands to direct the elephants and given bags full of banana and sugar cane with which to feed them. We spent a bit of time stroking them (and taking a lot of pictures!) and then walked with them across a small stream and up to the hut that we would be sleeping in that evening. 

After lunch our guide taught us how to make “medicine balls” of rice, herbs, sugar, banana and more, all ground together in a giant pestle and mortar. After feeding the medicine balls to the elephants, we led them to a mud bath and waded in to give them a spa treatment. We all got completely filthy, but the elephants had a great time. They took a dip in the river afterwards, and we stood on the banks throwing buckets of water over them to wash the mud off.

That afternoon we explored a short cave system before driving to a river bank to collect food for the elephants. We arrived back at the camp with enough time to shower before dinner.

That night a fire was lit outside our rooms, and the men from the sanctuary taught us how to make sticky coconut rice. They chopped bamboo from opposite our rooms, closed one end and filled the tubes with sticky rice. It was then topped up with coconut milk mixed with sugar cane, closed with a banana leaf and left to cook on the fire. A little while later the rice was cooked and the bamboo split open with a machete. We scooped the filling from the inside with our fingers by fire light, it was delicious. 

The next day we hiked through the jungle to a waterfall. It was another scorching hot day, and it was a welcome relief to cool off in the cold water once we reached the falls. After a paddle in the cool water we headed back down, devouring ice creams once we reached the bottom.

We returned to Chiang Mai in the afternoon and spoilt ourselves with giant burgers and milkshakes - a nice treat after days of rice and Pad Thai. 

For our final day in the city we treated ourselves again to a traditional Thai massage. Songkran (The Thai New Year festival) had definitely started early in Chiang Mai, and we got completely soaked walking the short route back to the hostel, as the celebrations involve water fights breaking out in the streets! We packed our bags again and left for our 12 hour bus journey south to Kanchanaburi.

We arrived at about 9am and got a taxi to our hostel. For breakfast we went to a very Instagram-worthy café where we all feasted after our long journey. We devoured piles of French toast, waffles and ice cream, washing them down with fruit shakes in a vain attempt at a balanced diet.

Afterwards we walked to the JEATH war museum and learnt some context behind the prisoner of war camps that were stationed here, and how the famous “Bridge over the River Kwai” was built. We then took a long boat down the river Kwai to a temple in a cave system.

After the cave the boat took us to one of the three prisoner of war cemeteries in the city. It was immaculately kept and quite emotional walking amongst the gravestones reading the messages from loved ones.

Our final stop was right beneath the bridge where we got a cold drink at a floating bar/restaurant and got to see a train pass over. We then walked across it ourselves and visited a garish and brightly coloured temple on the other side. 

We spent Friday evening relaxing outside our hostel rooms and learnt a new card game from our American neighbours. Saturday morning we enjoyed a welcome lie-in before heading out to visit some of Kanchanaburi’s temples.

We were not prepared for the number of steps we had to climb. The ascent starts through the mouth of a dragon, but from then onwards the climb seems like it will never end. We all struggled in 40+ degree heat and only one of us made it all the way to the top. The neighbouring pair of temples were beautiful and (thankfully) accessible via cable car, so our legs had a much-needed rest.

In the evening we took a short walk to a night market for dinner, and then relaxed in our rooms under the air conditioning.

For our final full day in Kanchanaburi we visited Hellfire Pass and took a dip in some hot springs. Tonight we pack our bags again, because tomorrow we’re heading to the islands!

By Jess Hawthorne – Frontier Volunteer | South East Asia Ethical Adventure Trail

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!