Thailand has my heart. I love this country so much. While I only visited Northern Thailand as part of my three-country ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) tour — coming directly off of an hour flight from Mandalay, Myanmar, which is also part of ASEAN — it was just enough to make me fall in love with the culture, the people, the massages, the elephants, and the food; so mark my words: I’ll definitely be back!

In partnership with ASEAN and Mastercard.

We landing in Chiang Mai from our one-day Mandalay journey in the evening. Considering the rural elements we were in for the past several days, it was nice to switch it up to a big city. Upon arrival, we immediately went to our hotel — the Anantara Chiang Mai — where we were pleasantly greeted with bespoke cocktails and a delicious Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese dinner at their old British colonial house turned restaurant within the hotel aptly called The Service 1921 (the decor is ‘secret service’ inspired). And after about an hour or so, we left to take advantage of the famous Night Market before bed.

5:30AM rolled around a bit too quickly, but the excitement of a hot air balloon ride over Chiang Mai killed the sleepiness. About 20 minutes away from the hotel, we were greeted to morning coffee while we watched our balloon inflate. This was actually my third hot air balloon ride (my first being in Northern California) and my second one this year (remember the South of France?), so my nerves have have been conditioned to calm down. However, I must note that this was the first time being in such a small basket: it was just Beca, our pilot, her co-pilot/trainee, and myself. The last few times I did a hot air balloon ride we were in a basket of about 20 people, so Chiang Mai was really something special and the views were breathtaking. A big thank you to Mastercard for making this moment possible.

After about two hours in the air — not to mention struggling to find a place to land amidst the wet rice fields — we did land post-hovering the locals’ homes and celebrated our ride with a traditional champagne toast. Breakfast ensued back at the Anantara Chiang Mai where — if you can believe this — I ran into my dear friends Natalia and Chris on their honeymoon whose wedding I was at just days prior in the south of Spain! Note: this was not planned.

With only about 16 hours in Chiang Mai, we packed our bags, got a quick tour of the ancient city and downtown, and began our five hour journey northeast to the Golden Triangle in the Chiang Rai region. On our way, we stopped by a few ruins and the epic White Temple, which is a handmade temple that won’t be complete until approximately 2080 (yes, twenty-eighty); but enough of it is already complete to get an idea of what it’s going to look like. We finally pulled up to our hotel — the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort — and were immediately greeted to the kindest staff and chair massages while checking in (a nice prelude to the massage treatments we got the next day). Considering how wiped we were, we posted up in our own hotel rooms, ordered room service, and called it a night.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai

For a dose of luxury, stay at the Anantara Chiang Mai Hotel & Resort. It’s a beautiful, modern “open-style” resort just off the Ping River surrounding a 1921 colonial house-turned-restuarants, green lawns, and a relaxing pool.

Where to Stay in Thailand’s Golden Triangle

While other Anantara resorts may appear to be more luxurious and modern, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort was one of my favorite places to stay (not only because this was one of the first hotels we stayed at for longer than one night), but because the resort surrounded a massive elephant sanctuary; and if you’re like me and believe elephants are powerful creatures, you’ll feel easily at peace here knowing they’re in your immediate vicinity. And if you want to spend some time with these incredible animals, you can grab breakfast between 8:30 and 9:30AM to feed a baby elephant bananas for free (the best!); or you can pay to spend more quality with them within their sanctuary like walking or even (safely) riding them. Lastly, make it a point to get a massage here: hands down the best massage I’ve ever had. If you arrive in the evening like we did, you’re not going to notice the sanctuary’s expansive grounds until led sheds upon the land at dawn. Gazing out over my room terrace was really like something out of a storybook; and if you looked closely, you might spot an elephant or two starting their day. That’s one of the joys about this resort: the respectful integration with nature.

The Golden Triangle is a region where three countries meet — Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos — and most notably known as one of the most extensive opium-producing areas (which, if you’re curious, there’s a museum all about it in Chiang Rai). Besides that, it’s a great spot to transport by small speedboat over to the Laos side and snag some souvenirs for an hour or two, and then head back. It was a quick prelude to the next part of our trip, fully submersing ourselves in the jungle of Laos by riverboat all the way to Luang Prabang from the port Huay Xai.

To be continued…