Does Chiang Mai suck?

If you’ve ever planned an extended trip around southeast Asia, you may know that Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” offers several proposed itineraries. One focuses on beaches, another on the former spice-trade route around Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – and then there’s what they call the traditional southeast Asian tour, starting in Bangkok, wending east through Cambodia and then taking Vietnam from the bottom to the top, flying west into Laos and circling back south through Chiang Mai to Bangkok, before flying further south to either Malaysia or Singapore. This latter course is more or less the one we followed.

Sometimes we’d feel self-conscious about traveling by the book – and it’s true that we did occasionally see some white faces in a new city that we’d already glimpsed in a previous one. But it saved us a lot of research and planning time, and when we wanted to deviate, of course, we did.

Our first port of call – and first deviation from the traditional route — was the gorgeous, mosquito-replete isle of Ko Phi Phi, off the west coast of south-central Thailand. We were just getting our legs under us at that point, working through jet lag and figuring out how to say hello and thank you in Thai. We made limited conversation with the hotel staff, all of whom seemed to work six 16-hour days a week. Our favorite was Pai, a sort of morose waiter guy. We’d sit looking out at the water before dinner, and he would shuffle over like Eeyore, if Eeyore could carry a tray of beers. We did not have a lot of shared language in common, so it was hard to get to know him very well. (Added to the fact that we were just two in a constant revolving door of foreign hotel guests arriving on his shore, and probably not of great individual interest to him.) But we did manage to learn that yes, he worked a lot. And that for travel in Thailand, he recommended visiting the north: Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. So, two votes for Chiang Mai (and surrounds).

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we’re in Luang Prabang, assessing our options. Turns out there’s a daily LP—>Chiang Mai flight on a smallish prop plane belonging to Laos Airlines, which Lonely Planet endorses as having “a rapidly improving safety record.” I gave myself a stern talking-to and climbed aboard. (And it was fine, obviously, as it always is, but a phobia is as intransigent as a two-year-old, and requires a lot of cajoling and discipline.)

Annnnd — our first day in Chiang Mai was not a huge success. The city had been described to us as the cultural heart of Thailand, with an old walled city center and a good university. But upon arrival it seemed kind of like an endless strip mall with temples, and chockablock with advertisements for things to do outside Chiang Mai. Economically, the city seemed oriented around helping tourists go bungee jumping. Or pay for sex. All the sex tourists we had been told to expect but ultimately not encountered in Phnom Penh — possibly due to Khmer New Year— were out in force in Chiang Mai, flirting creepily with dressed-up Thai ladies in the bars and massage parlors that exist for this purpose. I’d rather that sex commerce be legal and regulated than clandestine, so officially all this should be fine with me, but these particular examples of the phenomenon felt gross.

Plus, I stupidly tripped on some obstacle-course feature of the sidewalk and twisted my ankle, painfully though not seriously. I was still able to walk, but being minorly injured took most outdoorsy activities off the table.

We did have some delicious khao soy and some tasty curries that day, and located the train station and procured second-class tickets on a night train to Bangkok for later in the week. After these modest successes, though, we got some beers and — with apologies to Pai — debated whether we should leave early.

However, as you may have guessed, matters improved. And, having managed to overcome our bad attitudes and enjoy Chiang Mai, I think we developed extra affection for it. Chiang Mai was our underdog, falling in the late middle of our nomadic April, and when we found things to love it felt like we and the city had achieved a mutual triumph.

So, here’s what to do in Chiang Mai, if you ever happen to be a) there and b) us.

Visit temples. Really! We almost didn’t get it up to visit many temples in Chiang Mai, having seen our fair share over the previous couple of weeks. But the ones we visited in Chiang Mai were interesting and unusual, and among our favorites of the trip. I think this may be part of the “cultural heart of Thailand” thing we failed to notice initially. Gorgeous murals, a beautiful teak-and-gilt temple that was one of the most beautiful we’d ever seen, and the stupifyingly huge, 600-year-old stupa of Wat Chedi Luang. The stupa was once the tallest building in the Lanna kingdom, and has a wonderful palpable eerie energy.

Take songthaew. Taxis in Chiang Mai are savvy about overcharging tourists, and tuk-tuks are fine but not really up to the traffic and scope of the city. Plus they’re not much cheaper. Enter the songthaew, basically a covered pickup truck with benches in the back – they’re cheap, they’re everywhere, and locals actually take them. And you can watch the world go by out the back of the truck. Really really fun.

Find the local eating establishment with the least pleasant ambience and eat there. While in Chiang Mai Kevin and I talked about our respective traveling strengths and weaknesses. I would say that my strengths are a decent knack for languages and for the pidgin-and-miming communication that kicks in when language runs out; and a facility for tasks related to planning and organizing. My weaknesses are significant: I am anxious in the face of the unknown and often assume that things will go wrong; I get shy at all the wrong moments and hate bargaining; I have a tendency to want to throw money at all problems; and I want stuff to be cute.

All of which is to say: When in Thailand, do not let me pick your restaurant. I had one of the best meals of my life in one of the least attractive settings: a humid, windowless, semi-underground concrete food court in the Warorot market. At one point one of the exceedingly nice Thai cook ladies came over and took one of my forks, gave it a cursory wipe with a sodden rag, and handed it to another customer. But the food was just transcendently fantastic, and I’m so glad I didn’t miss it. (So maybe there is one more strength to add to my list: I am tolerant of mystery meats, and not overly concerned about hygiene.)

Anyway, here are all of our pictures of Chiang Mai, culminating abruptly in our visit to this very food court.

P.S. What are Kevin’s strengths and weaknesses, you ask? Well. I would list his strengths as: A big supply of dogged persistence in the face of obstacles, which often makes the difference between having an awesome new experience and missing it. A chivalrous generosity to his travel partner, whether in the form of offering to carry her extra stuff or willingness to ask for directions, make restaurant bookings and bargain about fares, despite the fact that it’s harder for him to understand what people are saying. A contagious excitement and appetite for new experiences, particularly those that relate to food. And an openness to being moved by things, whether beautiful or awful. Weaknesses: Not very organization-minded and inclined to leave his dirty clothes on the floor; sometimes too attached to a particular vision of how things might go and thus inflexible when the need for a change of plan arises; reluctant to snack if the snack options are less than spectacular; and – this becomes problematic more often than you’d think – totally intolerant of bath gel. It’s soap or nothing, baby, and that’s just the way it is. On the whole, though, I think you can tell that I’m getting the good end of this deal.

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