Lunar New Year is the time in south Asia when all the expats go on vacation. China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan all shut down in some way; everyone has public holidays and reunion dinners, so the foreigners tend to take off. True, plenty of people stick around. There are fireworks in Hong Kong, even if most of the shops are closed. Some people say you should spend one CNY in Hong Kong, but I have yet to. Last year we went to Siem Reap, so this year, we looked for the cheapest flights to Thailand.
I had never been. There were some protests in the south and Bangkok, but nothing too dangerous, so we booked a trip to Chiang Mai, in the north. It was slightly different than other vacations I’d been on recently because of all the scheduling. We had to arrange most of it in advance: pick ups for trekking, booking time at an elephant park. Adventuring, it turns out, takes more planning than visiting temples and random sites.
Over the span of the trip to Chiang Mai, we went hiking, swimming, ATVing, water rafting, and bamboo rafting; we spent a full day at the Elephant Nature Park where they rescue elephants and bring in volunteer tourists to help feeding and generally let you frolic with the elephants; we got 2 massages and ate buckets of Thai food that burned my taste buds with spice; we made international friends from Spain, New Zealand, Estonia, Malaysia, and met up with old friends who were traveling and living in Bangkok; and we celebrated P’s birthday. It was the most active vacation I have ever done.
The highlights for me were threefold: the elephants, quad biking for the first time, and seeing old friends. The elephants were amazing. We were simply wandering around a open park (with a guide, of course), feeding elephants, watching them play, learning about their history and health (one was having surgery for an abscess and had been rescued from a place where she was given amphetamines), and playing with them in a river while they cooled off. We learned to stay on the side because that’s where they can see you and to not go in between them lest you become a ‘sandwich’. It was relaxed and freeing to be in nature. It also felt good to know we were supporting a good cause: rescuing elephants from inhumane conditions.
ATVing was the surprise of the trip. We left our third day in Chiang Mai unplanned until the night before, and we decided between ziplining and quad bikes. The first quad bike company we called was fully booked, so we started looking at the zip line places, trying to see if any did half days so we would have time for massages. Then the hotel receptionist came back with an ATV option, cheaper, with 1, 2, or 3 hour options, for the exact timing we wanted. Deal.
We got to the tour and it was 5 big Israeli guys who were super experienced (examined each bike in detail just in case), and 5 Italian teenage girls in stylish clothes. All 10 of them were doing the three hour, while we were doing two. The instructor took off into the road, then turned onto a dirt path through the surrounding woods. He may have been feeling us out. It was easy, going 20k, mostly flat, a little turny. Then it got intense.
They sped around the road, (it ran around a lake) and turned off into the woods in these dirt loops of increasing difficulty. The path was about 2 inches wider than the bikes, full of ruts, and turns. There were downhills with massive tree trunks on either side, trails along a canal full of water, pin turns I would struggle to take on a mountain bike. Numerous times I feared I would crash, and I did, at a low speed, once (I hit some bamboo. No damage). The gear shifts would stick a lot, resulting in occasionally being in the wrong gear, or accidentally going into neutral (not fun), and the trail was definitely not ‘beginner’. While the Israelis were spinning tires, taking banks, kicking up dust, possible jumping off moguls, I was carefully watching my path and occasionally daring to go above 20kmph. By the time we’d done two hours, I was exhausted, covered in dust and happy to turn back.
Adventuresome. It was a good holiday, then we topped it off by going to Bangkok and seeing a friend. One of the most memorable vacations of my life, and it was only 5 days.