Chiang Mai – Thailand’s Culture Capital

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When we first started planning our honeymoon, the first thing we agreed on was that we wanted to meet elephants. We’d both had fantasies of seeing an elephant up close — and were pretty sure we would both burst into tears. It didn’t take much research to learn that the best place to do it was in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. We built our itinerary around having an ethical elephant experience, but in doing so, discovered our love for this incredible city.

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After a short flight from Phuket and a fifteen-minute cab ride, we arrived at the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. The hotel, situated on the grounds of the former British consulate, is a stunning collision of architectural grandeur against the urban epicenter surrounding it. Upon checking in, we were greeted with butterfly pea juice, matching jasmine necklaces and a short neck-and-shoulder massage by their talented spa staff, a practice we pray will make its way over to America.

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The first thing we did after dropping off our bags in the room was catch the afternoon high tea, a hat tip to their British origin. The tea and pastries were as delicious as they were beautiful, and it was the perfect way to decompress after our journey while still keeping a touch of elegance.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the grounds. Every detail of the hotel seemed to be chosen with precision – from the lotus flowers floating in jars lining the riverwalk, to koi ponds filled with lily pads and meticulously manicured gardens.

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While we could have easily spent our entire time inside the gates of the Anantara, its close proximity to the hub of nightlife in Chiang Mai made it especially appealing. The hotel is only steps from the famous Night Bazar, which stretches for blocks during the evening hours, seven nights a week. We picked up some Christmas presents, window-shopped and finally tasted the infamously smelly-but-delicious fruit, durien. For the record, I loved it. (Scott wasn’t such a huge fan.) For dinner, we walked to Ginger & Kafe, place I’d found online that specialized in Chiang Mai’s signature dish, khao soi, a spicy, rich stew that still has my mouth watering just thinking about it.

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After checking out the nightlife in Bangkok and Phuket, we were curious what the gay scene would be like in Chiang Mai. Spoiler alert: we were notdisappointed! Just a block from the Night Bazar, Charoenprathet Road houses a stretch of gay bars and cabarets. We stumbled into Ram Bar, a whimsically festooned bar at the end of the street just in time for their 10 PM nightly drag show. What followed was honestly one of the best evenings of drag either of these two homosexuals have ever seen. 

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The incredible dancing and performance level of these queens was staggeringand the special effects — which included haze, bubbles and, I kid you not, one of the performers lighting her own hands on fire — had us howling to the point that we both lost our voices. Plus, Scott got dragged onstage for an impromptu dance!

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When researching places to meet elephants, we didn’t realize how much of a problem tourist operations are for these incredible animals. Thirty years ago, when Thailand outlawed the logging that had leveled more than half of its rainforests, thousands of elephants that had been used by the logging industry were out of work. Too traumatized — and too valuable — to return to the decimated forests, most of them were forced into the tourist trade. In zoos, circuses, and the illegal logging trade that still persisted, these elephants were torn from their herds, held in sub-standard conditions in crowded cities or tourist-heavy beach towns, and brutalized at the hands of humans. But thanks to the work of Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center in northern Thailand, these incredible creatures are being given a new home. No rides, no abuse, no tricks to perform — just elephants living together in the forest, like they’re supposed to be.

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Our day was spent with eight other people, getting to meet two elephants — both sisters, aged twenty and three years old. Through the course of the day we got to feed them, go on a trek with them through the jungle, bathe them in the river and feed them their daily vitamins. It was truly one of the greatest moments in either of our lives, getting to see these beautiful creatures up close and in a sprawling jungle environment free of cages or chains. The Elephant Nature Park philosophy is to let the elephants do whatever they please, never forcing them into an activity. Rather, these creatures are very social and always seemed to enjoy the human interaction, especially the parts that involved ripe bananas.

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The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai is, without question, one of the most incredible hotels in the world. Built by hundreds of traditional craftsmen in the style of a Lanna village, the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai makes guests feel like they’ve taken a step through time, wandering the streets of an idyllic Northern Thai city.

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The villas — all large, luxurious and with individual architectural flourishes and floor plans — are secluded and peaceful, perfect for a romantic getaway. Our villa alone had to be ten times the size of our New York City apartment, complete with private pool and two stories of ultimate luxury.

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The grounds, which extend for more than sixty acres, are dotted with temples, ponds, multiple pools, and immaculate gardens.

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Shortly after checking in, we attended a private cooking lesson with Chef Juno, one of the chefs at Le Grand Lanna, one of the many restaurants on site.

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The staff at the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai made us feel so welcome and appreciated, from giving us a guided tour of the grounds to booking the perfect dinner table, with a prime seat to watch a traditional Thai dance performance in between courses.

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During our stay we kept checking joking that it honestly felt like we were living in a dream, which is exactly what the Dhara Dhevi strives for. The hotel is so large that at times it felt like we had the place to ourselves. We couldn’t recommend it more to couples looking for an ultra-luxury hotel with a romantic setting that transports you into another world.

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By the end of our honeymoon, we admit, we were pretty exhausted. Our two weeks were packed with such complete overload of the senses — from the pristine beaches that went on for miles, to the thumping music of Bangkok’s nightlife, to the most flavorful food we had ever tasted. We knew it would be hard to adjust back to normal life. But we find that our trip lives on, whether it be a funny anecdote that pops into our mind, or finding sand at the bottom of our suitcase and remembering the warm waters of Phang Nga Bay. We went off in search of a paradise, to find something untraditional and exotic, and Thailand delivered all that and more. As for being gay travelers? It went beyond feeling accepted. There is something every gay person feels in a new space – the feeling that you’re being clocked. In Thailand, no one ever batted an eye or looked twice as we held hands across a dinner table. It’s just not a part of Thai culture to judge. Now that we’re back in the states, the only thing to do now is plan our return.