It is a favorite hobby of those on the travel trail to swap stories of places they’ve been, warnings that they’ve heard from places that they’re going, and a raft of advice on what places are worth pursuing and what places should be given a wide berth. One of the most consistently recommended locales from almost anyone you’ll talk to is that of Thailand’s second city: Chiang Mai. Situated in the Northern mountains of Thailand and peppered with Buddhist wats and shrines, it is spoken of with great reverence and in whispered tones that evoke images of a metaphorical land of milk and honey. Those singing the virtues of the city do so in such a strong and passionate manner that it isn’t a place that they’ll even bother recommending you to visit: they’ll just naturally assume that you’re already planning on going.
When finally setting foot in Chiang Mai, however, my initial reaction was, let’s say, less than positive. Walking down the streets for the first time, I couldn’t help but think, “This is it? This is the promised land that everyone has been talking about? Why, it’s nothing more than a series of streets lined with tourist cafes and guest houses, all enclosed by sidewalks overflowing with obnoxious gap-year kids wearing ironic sunglasses and Singha Beer singlets.” Despite what folks will tell you, the tuk tuk and taxi drivers, though slightly less obnoxious than Bangkok, are still here and still pushy; the tourism industry isn’t more laid-back and low-key than in other areas (in fact, I think there is a higher percentage of tourists in Chiang Mai at any given time than most of the other cities I’ve visited in Thailand, aside from the islands); and it isn’t a city the brings back memories of the way Thailand used to be, as it is still a concrete jungle with a modern heart that continues to push into the future.
Despite the first impression, however, I had already booked ahead a week’s worth of accommodation, and so I stubbornly decided that’d I stick it out and wait a few more days before making my final judgement. And before I knew it, a few days had passed, then a week, and then two weeks, and now I still find myself here hanging out amongst the quirky coffee shops and second-hand book stores, walking down the street side-by-side with orange-clad monks, and mingling amongst the crowds vying for a quick bite from the many food vendors. The charms and allures of the city aren’t the type that you immediately notice; they’re more the type that seep into your consciousness as you take time to slow down your routine and relax into the surroundings. Between the misty atmosphere from the nearby mountains, the laid-back vibe resulting from college nearby (Chiang Mai University), and the combination of small details that you can’t help but notice, Chiang Mai is the type of place that grabs your heart before you’ve noticed it and begs you to stay a little longer. It’s the type of place that makes it feel as though you’ve found your second home.
As mentioned above, it isn’t so much the temples, the restaurants, or the activities that grabbed me; it was the attitude of the people and the small details of everyday life. Here is my best attempt at capturing a bit of the heart of Chiang Mai:
The cultural experience of Chiang Mai extends well beyond the excursions around the artsy cafes, indie fashion stores, and jovial food vendors, however. The Northern region of Thailand is home to its own share of history, having been the entrance point for the Tai people immigrating from China, having been heavily influenced by the Shan empire (what is now Myanmar), and being the center of the Lanna Empire, which eventually acquiesced to the powerhouse that was Ayuthaya. And, as such, the wats and temples are as densely packed in here as they are just about anywhere in Thailand. Hopefully you haven’t become “templed out” yet, but if so, I apologize. This will be one of the last “Wat” posts I’ll put up for a while (well, maybe one more past this one):
Given the forests and mountains that surround Chiang Mai, it isn’t surprising to learn of the abundance of wildlife that inhabits the area. The elephants are the largest draw to the area — being the national symbol of Thailand (and the actual meaning of “Chang”) – but while staying here, I chose a different path and had the pleasure of bonding with a few of the locals kitty cats that once roamed these hills. Though not for the faint of heart, this was certainly and experience that I’ll remember for a long time:
Finally, given that two out of my previous three posts turned out to be food-only posts, I’ll go easy on the edibles for a while, but I will offer one beautiful picture of a variant on the local dish of Khao Soi (normally a working mans’ dish of curried noodles, topped with crispy fried noodles and usually served with pickled vegetables). In this version, the diner is given complete control to “paint” the flavor of the dish, with a variety of toppings and sauces playfully presented on an artist’s pallette:
I’m here in Chiang Mai for at least another few days (as I said, it really sucks you in and refuses to let you leave), but past that, I’m going to be rolling back through Bangkok for a few days on my way into Cambodia. Until then, cheers from Chiang Mai!
Postscript: 50th post — woo hoo!