Living as foreigners in Vietnam means we have to have Business Visas. Per Vietnam’s current rules, we need to renew our Visas each year, and are required to leave the country and come back again in order to do so. Some consider this a huge nuisance. For us, it’s a great excuse to travel!
For our first official “Visa Run” we chose to visit the nearby country of Thailand. Flights from Vietnam to Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok take just 1.5 hours and are often only $50 USD round trip. Domestic flights within Thailand are equally fast and affordable and so it was easy for us to enjoy a relaxing week in Thailand’s northern mountain region city of Chiang Mai before returning to Bangkok to handle our Visa paperwork at the city’s Vietnam Embassy.
The weather in Chiang Mai in November and December is truly divine. Zero rain, low humidity, cool mornings and sunny afternoons topping out around 83°. It was an especially welcome escape from Da Nang’s October-December rainy season.
We stayed in a wonderful Airbnb studio apartment run by hosts Ohm and Walter who rent several properties in Chiang Mai’s Nakornping condominium. Their kindness as hosts and the beauty, comfort, and location of their apartment was one of the many highlights of our time in Thailand.
Every day in Chiang Mai was a visual and culinary adventure! Our northern Thai food introductions came through Chiang Mai Street Food Tours and our explorations through the Warorot Market and the city’s numerous Night Markets. Memorable standouts included khao soi, mango sticky rice, chocolate-banana waffles topped with Oreos and an ice cream cone (okay, that one probably isn’t a native Thai dish), mango curry, beverages made from butterfly pea flowers, and even scorpions! Here’s a video of that last one:
It’s impossible to visit Chiang Mai and not encounter many of the city’s more than 300 beautiful Buddhist temples, which are known as “wat” in the Thai language. Our favorite three wat were Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, located on top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai and reachable only by climbing the dragon sculpture flanked 300+ steps to the top; Wat Chedi Luang Varavihara where we enjoyed participating in a “Monk Chat” with a monk in his mid-twenties with whom we and other visitors discussed Buddhism, marriage, books, attraction, pain, family, aspirations, and other fascinating topics; and Wat Sri Suphan, AKA the Silver Temple, which is made entirely from silver-hued metals. As is the custom with many temples in Thailand, only men are allowed inside. Cheers to Mark for taking great photos of Wat Sri Suphan’s stunning interior etchings and reliefs. Mingled within the traditional design themes were some surprises: spaceships and superheroes!
Massage services abound in Chiang Mai, ranging from super cheap foot massages enjoyed from a chair on the sidewalk to luxurious multi-day spa experiences in palace-like settings. There’s also an especially unique massage program at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution which builds trade skills for its inmates to use after their release. We wanted to support their efforts (and to be able to tell the story of that time we had massages in a women’s prison (obviously)), however on the day we visited they were fully booked. Instead, we went for the next best thing (probably an even better thing!) which was a Thai massage at the nearby Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners, a stepping stone organization that employs the massage-trained prisoners after their release. The cost was just 200 Baht, the equivalent of approximately $6 USD, for a 1-hour massage. We were given freshly washed loose cotton tops and pants to change into before having our feet washed and then taken to the massage area. This large open room held about a dozen massage stations and was clean, tranquil, and comfortable. We’ll admit that we were nervous about receiving our first-ever Thai massages because our friend Corey described it as the most painful experience she’d had in her life. Thankfully we weren’t tortured, but our massages bore notable contrast. Robin had a temperamentally gruff but physically gentle masseuse who delivered an amazingly therapeutic experience. Mark’s masseuse had a wonderful sense of humor which was matched in scale by her girth and stature, the full force of which she put in her efforts, making Mark wish they’d agreed on a Safe Word.
Another “massage” experience you can enjoy(?) is at a “Fish Foot Spa.” This is better explained in video than in words:
Other highlights of our time in Chiang Mai included the Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders (where we placed one of our Fairy Doors), a Ladyboy Cabaret, Catmosphere Cat Café where that cats are referred to as “Catstronauts” and named after Star Wars and other science fiction characters, the trendy new Nimman neighborhood with its public art and ice cream cafes, the Chiang Mai University Art Museum, and the Lanna Folklife Museum.
A particularly impactful experience for us was visiting and learning from the Elephant Nature Park. ENP is a nonprofit organization, located on a 90-acre property approximately 1.5 hours north of Chiang Mai, best known for their work rescuing and rehabilitating elephants who were enslaved as tourist entertainers or loggers. Their visitor and volunteer programs provide a responsible way for people to interact with these remarkable beings. They’ve also rescued hundreds of cats and dogs, many of which are eventually adopted by the tourists who visit the park (we enjoyed looking at a map illustrating the numerous places in the world where the animals had been adopted to!). We hope that everyone will someday have the opportunity to visit Thailand, but we join ENP in wanting a future in which all people will have the information to understand that it’s terribly wrong to ride an elephant (it damages their backs) or to patronize the businesses that use elephants for entertainment (such as having them paint pictures, play soccer, etc.). Elephants are often brutally tortured, both physically and mentally in order to achieve their submission, and then further tortured when trained to perform. You can learn more about Elephant Nature Park here.
In closing, we had a fabulous time in Chiang Mai. The food is insanely delicious, the people are friendly and gentle, the Thai language is easy to speak, the markets and traffic are much more peaceful and organized than Vietnam, and English is far more widely spoken. As a Westerner, you can enjoy the exotic flair of SE Asia without stepping outside of your comfort zone. While we’re already planning to return for another visit someday, we couldn’t see ourselves enjoying living in Chiang Mai as much as we love living in Da Nang, Vietnam. By the end of our trip we were missing Vietnam’s energy and occasional borderline chaos. It’s more challenging to live as foreigners in Vietnam but that’s what makes it so interesting and rewarding!
We of course took photos and videos of all of the aforementioned food, cultural activities, and more (such as the monitor lizards we accidentally hung out with in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park), which you can view HERE.