Chiang Rai, an area in northern Thailand, is home to unforgettable food, lush landscaping and animals galore. Here’s how travel writer Anne Roderique-Jones spent 24 hours in the mountainous Thai city.
There are a handful of luxurious hotels in Chiang Rai, but I chose to stay at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort: an eco-chic lodge that sits atop a ridge overlooking the hills of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. With teak furnishing, luxe bedding, a well-stocked minibar and an in-room tub that can fit approximately 12 grown adults, this hotel is for the traveller who aspires to be one with nature, but prefers high thread count to hiking. It’s also the ideal getaway for animal lovers – include visits to tiger temples and elephant sanctuaries on your itinerary.
I’m not exactly a morning person, so hanging out with an elephant is the perfect way to start the day. This particular Anantara property is home to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation that works to facilitate street rescues and provide employment for elephants and their mahout (that’s the elephant caretaker) families. Just spending the night here, I felt like I had instant good karma.
The hotel offers guests a chance to bathe, dine and even do yoga atop the gentle giants. Personally, the thought of practicing downward dog on an elephant’s back was a little too daunting, so I opted for the ‘Walking With Giants’ experience instead. Essentially, I took a lazy stroll with an adorably massive elephant – and because of that good karma – a baby. Note: watching every step is non-negotiable – even the youngest elephants’ droppings will wreak havoc on your footwear.
Cuisine is celebrated in this part of Thailand, and foodies flock for the curries, Khao Soi noodles, lap moo and Pla Som – a rather fragrant fermented fish dish. Come mid-morning, I wanted to get a local’s perspective by visiting a food market. Don’t expect fresh flowers and artisanal ice pops, like you might find at home. Here, I found such goods as century eggs: a blackish-green, hard-boiled variety that was thoughtfully displayed in front of nude mannequins. I slurped a bowl of blood soup with the locals and delighted in to-go items like frogs, a massive pig’s head and intestines that resembled a furry skin sweater.
After a market haul, I returned to the Golden Triangle resort for a cooking class that showcased some of the most popular dishes from the market, and included unlimited Thai white. Free-flowing wine is always a good idea in my book, but was especially appreciated after I liberally sprinkled white-hot chili peppers into my noodles (ok fine, it was for the perfect Instagram post… guilty!). That cold wine masked my tears and most likely saved my life. Trust me: if you’ve not experienced a fire lit directly into your mouth, then you don’t know what a Thai chili overdose feels like. Tread lightly.
As a bonus, the Golden Triangle Elephant resort offers guests day-trips to Myanmar. Amazing, right? Yes, in theory, but while I was thrilled to log another stamp in my passport, I became unreasonably nervous doing so that evening.
To cross from Thailand into Myanmar, one breezily walks across the boarder with simple paperwork in hand. It’s as effortless as ordering from Amazon, but for some illogical reason I had visions of being apprehended while crossing. Look, I’m a mid-30s freelance writer who wears sensible shoes and SPF 70. I’m too old to know where to score good drugs and I don’t carry contraband. But my paranoia has a mind of its own.
Surprising nobody, I did in fact make it safely across. However, I was drenched in nervous sweat and needed to take the edge off. Maybe that’s why I beelined it to buy some betel leaf. A vice favored by locals, these chewable leaves are filled with chopped nuts, toasted coconut and a lime paste that binds it all together. Sounds lovely and exotic, right? Mine also included a hefty amount of tobacco that I chewed and swallowed (hint: don’t swallow). Curious bystanders watched anxiously, and while I wanted to maintain the utmost street cred, dizziness hit quickly and nausea soon followed. I spat my leaf in a nearby bin and began my search for a new pair of sensible sandals.