A Week in Chiang Mai

by David on November 8, 2009

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Well I’ve been taking it easy in Thailand’s second-biggest city, the northern capital Chiang Mai. It isn’t exactly small, but the pace here is much more easygoing than Bangkok. Motorcycles generally stay off the sidewalks here, and the street vendors are a little less aggressive.

I’m holed up very comfortably in the Rux-Thai guesthouse, just outside the mile-wide moated square that is the Old City. I’ve got my own little neighborhood here, a network of narrow sois (lanes) lined with dozens of colorful shops and restaurants. I have a few favorites, but I still try a new one at least once a day.

I am getting very used to the easy lifestyle here. I eat all of my meals out, often with a Thai beer. Altogether I spend about 10 dollars a day on food and I could get away with less. I see now why people come here and don’t want to leave.

Meals at a sit-down restaurant run from 30 baht ($1) to about 100 baht in most of the places I go. One could drop 250 or 300 baht in the more expensive places here, but usually those places are offering western dishes like burgers, fries or pizza. I’ll stick with my 40 baht panang curry, thanks.

Another thing Chiang Mai has loads of is temples (or wat.) There are so many, most open to visitors, that one eventually experiences wat fatigue, and even the most ornate golden stupa makes you yawn. Some of them are quite remarkable though, and I’m glad I took the time to visit a few.

Tours and Treks

There are “tourist information” stands everywhere, eager to sell you on daytrips to hike mountains, visit temples or ride elephants. I decided on two of them. The first was a half-day trip to an elaborate Wat on top of Doi Suthep, which is a mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai.

The Wat itself was quite a spectacle, but the real attraction for me was the surreal view of the city offered by the Wat’s majestic seat at the mountaintop. The temple was cool to visit, but it was so completely touristed-out that I think much of its original magic was missing. I have felt that at each of the temples I’ve visited, and I guess it is unavoidable.

The other trip I took was a full day trip to the summit of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon. I was a bit weary of the packaged feel of the guided-tour experience after the previous day, but I ended up being very glad I went.

On the way up the mountain we stopped at two incredible waterfalls, and two hill tribe villages. I wasn’t aware of the hill-tribe stops when I signed up, and I probably would have opted out of the tour if I knew they would be included. I am fascinated by tribal cultures, but I’d been to something similar in Mexico, where a tiny authentic tribal village is visited by repeated busloads of tourists every day, and it felt a lot like we were visiting exotic human beings in a zoo. The villagers are now part of a symbiotic relationship with the tourism industry, so it’s hard to look upon the scene as an “authentic tribal village” when they are now reliant on western visitors. Just the fact that we pay to come to see them completely erodes the traditional culture that we are supposedly interested in seeing.

On this trip it wasn’t as bad as in Mexico. There was a cluster of craft stands around where the buses pull in, and the tourist rabble seemed to be confined to that general area. On the hillsides opposite us, I could see farmers tending crops with handmade tools, perhaps the same as they would be doing if I wasn’t there.

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The real prize for me on this trip were the Royal Pagodas. Near the top of the mountain, the Thais built two towering Pagodas to honor the birthdays of their king and queen. From the main area, there is a grand marble stairway leading up to each. Both are ringed with two levels of polished stone balconies, and are flanked by elaborate, well-curated gardens.

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The two look to be almost mirror images at first, but when you climb up to take a look you see that they’ve been designed to reflect the differences between man and woman. The Queen’s pagoda is decorated in softer tones, mauves and blues, and the whole place gives a very comforting, nurturing vibe. The king’s is colored in reds and browns, adorned with wooden carvings of dragons and serpents. There is an air of pride and strength about the place.

And the views are incredible. The whole complex felt very… holy. The perfect place to sit and meditate, if only there weren’t hundreds of tourists. Still, it exceeded my expectations and was the highlight of my day.

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The view from the top of the mountain itself is rather non-existent, due to a mist that surrounds it virtually all the time. The coolest thing I did see up there was the aftermath of a landslide that devoured a steamboat-sized chunk of the road a few weeks ago. The debris leveled whole tract of undergrowth on the slope below, but it left the jungle canopy intact, creating something of a cavern in the middle of the forest.

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New Friends

Until yesterday my time in Thailand had been very much a solo thing. I ate alone, walked around alone, visited temples alone. I don’t mind doing things on my own, in fact I usually prefer it, but most of the tourists I see here are couples and groups, and I felt a growing desire to socialize.

Through the Couchsurfing website, I learned that Thursday night is Quiz Night at a local expat pub called the UN Irish Pub. There would be a team of Couchsurfers, and anyone was welcome. There’s quite a community of expat westerners in Chiang Mai, and this pub seemed to be its epicenter.

I’m so glad I went. I met almost a dozen travelers and expatriots, and it was nice to chat with people in everyday english once again. The crowd was pretty much all twentysomethings, some lived in Chiang Mai, some were just passing through. There were three American girls, a German girl, a Czech guy, a Turkish man, a Canadian guy, and two English boys in our little group.

It was a real easy night, and 2am came quickly. There was always a lot to talk about, because everyone was full of travel stories and plans. I’ll meet with the same group on Saturday for another regular night out. Such a great crowd, and I’m looking forward to meeting the Couchsurfing communities in all the other cities I visit.

This post was written on Friday the 6th. As I publish this post, it is the evening of Sunday the 8th and I just landed in Krabi today. In the next post I’ll talk about the excellent remainder of my time in Chiang Mai, post some pictures, and tell you what I think of the islands.

{ 3 comments }

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 8, 2009 at 9:03 pm

looks and sounds awesome~

Erin November 9, 2009 at 10:06 am

Great photos. I’m really enjoying your travel photos and stories. Thanks.

Nadia - Happy Lotus November 9, 2009 at 10:33 am

Hi David,

Reading this post makes me want to book a ticket and head back East! :)

I also love the photos too. Thank you for sharing them with all of us. Glad to hear that you are having fun!

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