Jenss Family Travels: Thai Tricks and Treats

Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.

There’s a reason Thailand has been near the top of the list of favorite places to visit by travelers worldwide over the last few decades. Not only is the scenery some of the most striking on Earth – the culture, history, food, and friendly people all combine to offer a diversity of unique and enriching experiences. Like most of Southeast Asia, Thailand’s affordability seems to set it apart from other exotic destinations. The key to revealing its splendor, however, required some preparation, or in our case, a good sense of improvisation once you get there. Most importantly, it required setting priorities.

Unless you have more than a couple of weeks to explore the country, which most Americans don’t seem to have, you shouldn’t expect to see all that Thailand has to offer. Since we had sixteen days, we thought we could take in a little bit of everything. As we headed for the airport on our final day after touring Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Wat Pho (easily one of the highlights of our trip and a “must see” for anyone visiting the country), we seemed to have visited everywhere we possibly could, but at a price: we were exhausted!

The islands to the south, as I reported in my last blog post, can either be a party paradise or rejuvenating retreat – normally not a lot of chance for error there as long as you don’t mix up the two. From Bangkok up north, however, the options become more numerous, and the distances between them far greater. At a friend’s recommendation, we hired a driver to take us from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai and beyond – into the mountainous northern region of the country where they offer elephant treks, an ideal adventure for the boys. We figured this was a good idea because it 1) kept us off of another plane; 2) was less expensive; 3) allowed us to see more of the country; and 4) gave us access to a set of wheels. There were also hill tribes to visit, including those with women wearing long metal coils around their necks. There were temples to see, history to absorb, restaurants to sample and shopping to be done. Did I mention relaxing or home schooling?

The distance between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is about 740 kilometers (460 miles), and was thus divided into a two-day drive. The major points of interest along the way are Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, each being the capital of Thailand, respectively, between the 13th and 18th centuries. Unlike the many other temples we’d seen in China, Japan and even Bhutan, many landmarks have not been restored or rebuilt in any way, thus preserving the site’s ancient charm, with ruins still unchanged after centuries of harsh Thailand weather. In Sukothai, we rented bikes to get us around the different locations, giving us not only a better view of everything, but some much welcomed breeze in the oppressive midday heat.

When we reached Chiang Mai in the late afternoon on the second day, there were only another 130 kilometers to go before we reached the small town of Pai, where we had booked a two-night stay in the mountains. Three hours and dozens of switchbacks later, we finally arrived. Completely worn out, we skipped dinner and went straight to bed.

The drive was worth it, as the accommodations and scenery were lovely. The Pai River Mountain Resort had cheap, charming cottages that overlooked the Pai River, where we would go elephant trekking and bamboo rafting on Halloween (see the boy’s blog for a full run down on that adventure). It’s too bad we didn’t have more time to enjoy it because in order to see the long-necked women in the Pa Dong villages, we ended up driving another six hours round trip to Mae Hong Son in order to do so. We stopped along the way to visit the Tham Lod Cave, which was bat-infested and the boys absolutely loved it. Pretty fitting for Halloween, I must admit.

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For our three days in Chiang Mai, we were originally booked at a hotel right in the city, which we decided to cancel in order to allow ourselves at least some time to relax. Once again, TripAdvisor came to the rescue with its high marks for the Fern Paradise Hotel, just located 15 minutes from town. The owner of the hotel converted old rice barns from the area into guest cottages on land he purchased from his father in-law, whose passion was tropical ferns. This combination, along with the owner’s insistence on teaching us about the history of the property and Chiang Mai, made it the perfect spot to take it all in, without even having to leave the grounds.

So would we recommend the same type of itinerary to others going to Thailand? If we had to do it all over again, we probably would have opted to fly directly from Phuket to Chiang Mai and hired a driver from there to visit the mountains. If ancient ruins are your thing, driving back down to Bangkok could be well worth it. If not, you can always get your fix by adding an extra day to your Bangkok segment since Ayutthaya is only an hour or two from the city, depending on traffic. Just make sure your driver speaks English well! I realize that may sound obvious, but we made this mistake and paid for it by not having as much control over what we were doing. Since we couldn’t communicate well, we pretty much had to rely on his recommendations. Ultimately, this was all part of the unpredictability and surprises that made our trip to Thailand so memorable.  We may not have thought so at the time, but like most memories, they’ll only get sweeter with age.

Photos: Rainer Jenss

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