Waylaid in nomad heaven

The Lanna capital of Chiang Mai emerges from the clouds in Thailand’s mountainous jungled north....
The Lanna capital of Chiang Mai emerges from the clouds in Thailand’s mountainous jungled north. PHOTOS: JOE DODGSHUN
Locals and tourists alike flock to the pop-up restaurant carts that line Chiang Mai’s streets and...
Locals and tourists alike flock to the pop-up restaurant carts that line Chiang Mai’s streets and night markets for cheap, authentic and tasty dishes.
A young mahout (elephant keeper) feeds out sugarcane at the Happy Elephant Home, one of the...
A young mahout (elephant keeper) feeds out sugarcane at the Happy Elephant Home, one of the growing numbers of parks looking after elephants rescued from cruel situations.
Families light candles in memory of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Chiang Mai’s Three...
Families light candles in memory of Thailand’s late King Bhumibol Adulyadej at Chiang Mai’s Three Kings Monument.
A climber ascends vertically on a tough route at Crazy Horse Crag, a recreational climbing  area...
A climber ascends vertically on a tough route at Crazy Horse Crag, a recreational climbing area developed along sustainable lines.

Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s north, is famous for elephants, jungle and foreigners boasting of exceptionally high living standards. During an unintentionally extended stopover, Joe Dodgshun explored how to enjoy it all and have a positive impact.

My laptop clapping shut has the effect of a meditation gong and I become conscious of the Thai students all around me, all engrossed in their own devices or chattering away over iced coffee and taro buns. Outside, the evening sun is making its early and rapid disappearance.

I seek it on the fifth-floor balcony, finding balmy respite from the cafe's harsh air-conditioning, but it's too late - the temple-tipped mountain of Doi Suthep slips into the darkness.

As I navigate through tech-filled tables, I start noticing a collection of foreign faces behind some of the displays. They're not online booking their next hotel, they're digital nomads.

When they finish work and leave the cafe, they'll go to yoga, home to all-inclusive apartments, or simply dine out since foreigners don't bother cooking here. All this costs nothing, given what they earn working remotely.

The northern city of Chiang Mai was for centuries the seat of the powerful Lanna Kingdom, and now, a place where expats, wealthy Thais, tourists and digital nomads live like royalty.

Conservative estimates put Chiang Mai's transient digital nomad population in the thousands, almost nothing next to the millions of international tourists visiting annually.

But together, these short-to-medium-stay visitors are capable of a hefty impact.

Although Thai infrastructure struggled with 2016's record 32 million tourists, the country hopes to top last year's tourism takings of 2.51 trillion baht ($NZ105billion).

Chiang Mai is also the world's No1 digital nomad city, an increasingly popular pilgrimage destination for the growing number of people living a life of combined work and travel. Along with the extra cash, increased visitors will compound the environmental degradation and socio-cultural issues Thailand has seen since it became a tourist favourite in the early 1970s.

So far, tourism is largely contained within the moats and sandy stone walls ringing Chiang Mai's old town, where Western restaurants and agents selling jungle adventures jostle for space with street food carts and rows of dark teak houses.

My jandal-clad feet carry me further into Nimmanhaemin, darling of digital nomads and the visiting hip, an Instagram-dream of cafes, shared workspaces and trendy restaurants.

Home to pretentiously named apartment blocks with pools, it's here that claims of gentrification ring the loudest. This is perhaps a fair claim since the daily minimum wage in Chiang Mai is 308 baht (about $NZ12) - the same as a fancy meal in a tourist restaurant might cost you.

The reality is, this isn't something that'll stop many people from flocking to wonderfully cheap spots like Chiang Mai. Case in point, me. I decide to let any feelings of guilt dissolve with an hour-long massage (why not, at only 200 baht).

As a tiny lady pushes and pulls my body in directions I didn't think possible, the remarkable thing is not the zen-like calm this induces, but rather that such massages are helping my masseur rehabilitate into society.

All the masseurs at Dignity Network's three massage centres are ex-prisoners of the Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institute. For these women, massage offers a doorway back into a working life, instead of likely being left stigmatised and destitute after release.

For the increasing number of visitors wanting to have a positive impact while on the road, one way is simply redirecting your money to where it helps most.

If you want to put dollars directly into local pockets, look out for markets like the one found outside the Bank for Agricultural Co-operatives on Fridays, where farmers turn up to sell their fruit, one scalping a young coconut to give me a tender orb of flesh brimming with juice.

The environmentally minded will find vegan restaurants and countryside cooking schools where you can pick ingredients from organic kitchen gardens and cook mouth-watering/burning dishes yourself, as well as restaurants employing disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

Or eat out at the night markets, making a Thai tapas trail as you sample street food; or sit elbow-to-elbow with locals slurping Khao Soi, a curry noodle soup adored in the region.

On one such night, we pull up chairs to enjoy a few rum and sodas in one of Chiang Mai's street-side bars, but as it happens, there's a dog sleeping next to my chair.

A crotchety old dog who latches on to my leg in the blink of an eye and then trots off into the night.

It's just a tiny bite, but the dog is unknown and the damage is done - doctors prescribe me a five-shot series of rabies vaccines and the lovely side effects these entail start to unfold.

Funnily enough, a few of the many volunteering programmes Chiang Mai visitors can get involved with make sure the city's street dogs are vaccinated and cared for.

Seemingly, such projects need more assistance.

I also learn to be wary of the ubiquitous 7-Elevens. If you're feeling bad about constantly having to buy bottled water, the assistant giving it to you bagged up, along with a straw, doesn't help. You can avoid this with three words, the most important a visitor can learn: ``Mai ao krap'' (don't want). This not only firmly but respectfully repels tuk-tuk drivers and the like, but it will also stop anyone plying you with more plastic that you and the environment don't need. Even better, buy a reusable water bottle and look out for water-refilling stations as you stroll or bike through Chiang Mai: refills hardly break the bank at 1 baht.

As I navigate the city's scooter-filled streets, I notice statues of elephants everywhere and excitedly ponder the chance of meeting a real one. But as controversy around cruelty in the country's Tiger Temple has proven, the reality of animal welfare in Thailand can be less than rosy and you likewise have to be careful of the company you choose to visit elephants with.

The famous Elephant Nature Park is one of those doing it right, but its government funding and regularly booked-out tours mean your money may be better spent with a smaller outfit. I instead get picked up by the co-founder of the Happy Elephant Home, a small company which buys elephants from circuses or trekking camps.

Here, no-one is allowed to ride the elephants.

People are fine with this after learning how riding platforms can damage elephants' backs and that riding is only possible once elephants' spirits have been broken through caged torture.

Armed with freshly chopped sugarcane and bananas, I feed a troupe of four, walk alongside them and try to avoid drowning while slapping mud on their backs as ``elephant sunblock''. As insistent trunks repeatedly try to sneak their way into my fruit satchel and we all get thoroughly drenched, I gladly note that these particular beasts still seem spirited enough.

Another Chiang Mai community leading the way in nature protection is that of the Crazy Horse Crag.

An hour's drive away, the crag is northern Thailand's climbing mecca, a collection of limestone cliff faces and caves topped by a ragged horse-head-shaped pinnacle.

Led by crag guardian Loong Nan, the community has built up tracks, eco-toilets and other facilities by hand over the years, something our climbing group appreciates, sheltering in raised bamboo huts while a rain squall passes and mosquitoes hunt at ground level. I'm soon clambering up a cliff, turning at the top to stunning views of monsoon-fed valley greenery, something that will hopefully be preserved for future travellers and Thais alike.

Countryside eco-resorts and village homestays enjoying similar views are the best bet for green-minded visitors happy to stay outside Chiang Mai and teak guesthouses are ideal for those looking for a low-carbon city stay. Just remember your mosquito repellent.

As I sip a post-climb coffee brewed with locally grown beans, it's not hard to come to terms with the fact that my rabies vaccination schedule dictates a longer stay in Thailand. Indeed, as more tourists and digital nomads are finding, Chiang Mai is very hard to leave.


If you go
Flights, day or sleeper trains and ‘‘VIP buses’’ from Bangkok. Auckland flights with stopovers in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Hong Kong also available.

 • Former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Lan Na translating to ‘‘land of a million rice fields’’
 • Regional population of more than 1.5million, about 200,000 of whom live in the Chiang Mai city area
 • The region is home to hundreds of hill tribes of various ethnic backgrounds
 • Languages spoken: Thai, regional dialects and, commonly, English
 • 1 NZD = about 24 baht

Digital nomads are mobile workers using the internet and new technologies to travel while working for clients in different cities, countries or continents. These remote workers travel nonstop, stay in one spot for months at a time or have seasonal bases and are often drawn to developing nations, where their foreign currency allows them an excellent standard of living.



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