Without trying to sound like a Thai tourism tout looking for commission, I can safely say Chiang Mai is a superb little city. It is my favourite part of Thailand so far. I love cities. I’m one of those weird people who loves the hustle and bustle of city life. No-one looks at you in a city. They just move about like hamsters in a giant cage, going from A to B. There’s always that unique moment when you find inner peace amongst it. The noise drifts away and I’m content in my own skin. Anonymous to everyone else. Dublin, London, New York are places that I’ve felt this chilled. Bangkok and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) too have been contenders but I’ve yet to feel that moment where it resonates with me with those two. Denise on the other hand is a country girl at heart. She loves quiet, peace and harmony. She loves to walk and take in the surroundings around her. To mindfully take in every step. The word Serenity has an important meaning to her everyday life. Chiang Mai offers both. The day we arrived at the train station we definitely weren’t in Bangkok anymore. This is more of a large town feel than major city, yet a city it is. We had planned to book our hostel again through Hostelworld.com but our Bangkok hostel were recommending Vieng hostel and booked our first night stay for us. We decided to take just the one night and then work from there. It was 700 baht (€19.00, $21.44, £14.15) with breakfast. A very nice hostel to look at, in the centre of the old town and super clean. We had a separate shared bathroom and it might as well have been private, as much like siaphae hostel in Bangkok we never encountered anyone else in bathrooms/showers. The downside of this hostel is that it was actually a little away from the atmosphere and the mens toilet were filthy. Generally that wouldn’t normally bother me at all but as the place was so pristine everywhere else it was a bit poor. We went out walking and realised that the Sunday walking street was being set up. If you ever are going to Chiang Mai make damn sure you are here on a Sunday! Thousands of people fill up the long Ratchadamnoen Road spreading out into the side streets and into the various Wat (temple) courtyards. All manner of street trade is here from food stalls, crafts, clothes, blind buskers, young and old, Thai and Farang (foreigner) all weaving in and out. Even the Thai army personnel (remember the country is under Martial Law since June last year) walk around taking it all in. It’s across between Bangkok’s Kho San Road and Hua Hin’s market that we had experienced last June when we decided to do this trip. It’s definitely been a highlight so far. So Monday morning we went out for a walk to take in the city.
When you strip back the red Songthaew taxi vans http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songthaew , scooters, tuk tuks, pass through the Tha Phae Gate into the old ancient walled inner ‘Old Chiang Mai’ you will find a maze of lanes with hundreds of guesthouses, tiny restaurants and eateries, massage parlours, bars and coffee houses.
Cars, people, tuk tuks and scooters weave through the narrow lanes at a snails pace. It’s as close a place I’ve ever seen that is chaotic and chilled out all at the same time. It really is a crazy place. Sure, there are GoGo bars across the moat in the newer parts of the city if that’s your thing and much like Bangkok you will also see older Western men with younger Thai girls. There’s no escaping that, it’s part of the furniture almost. I want to be judgmental and scorn on it, but if the Thais are accepting it in their own country then that’s something I have to swallow and move on with. One of the other observations too is the dirt and dust. Get used to it. There are a lot of cats and dogs in this part of the world. And rats? Get used to it. I guess there’s a reason for all of the cats. But yet we sat on the side of the road on little plastic seats getting served by 70 odd year old Englishman while his 30/40 year old Thai missus cooked up the grub from a little hut, cars whizzing by on one side, Moonmuang Road Lane 6 (good food area this!) on the other.
Denise has been struggling on the first few days with food cross contamination. When you go into any indoor place you can’t see where the food is being prepared, the language barrier makes it difficult and then apart from being a coeliac, shrimp is everywhere and she has an allergy to the little buggers. So we opted for here. Plain rice, plain chicken, sliced cucumber (I think) with a dipping sauce on the side for her, plain rice, spicy pork with anything thrown over the top for me and two bowls of chicken broth. Absolutely gorgeous, filling, no sick stomach for herself and the whole meal cost 60 Baht (€1.62, $1.83, £1.21.) What a bargain! Go with your gut feeling. If there is a crowd eating, be it locals and fellow travellers, and the food looks and smells too good not to miss out on, then DON’T miss out on it. As for Denise’s ongoing search for gluten free food, she found a place called Butter is Better. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293917-d1945662-Reviews-Butter_is_Better_Bakery_Restaurant-Chiang_Mai.html They not only make gluten free food but it’s damn good too. Pancakes, buckwheat pancakes, cheesecake, bagels, fruitcake and more. It’s slightly pricier than the norm but who cares when it’s safe to eat in a country that doesn’t understand the meaning of the word coeliac?
Chiang Mai is an arty city. Many of the back alleys have graffiti like a big concrete canvass in any area without greenery or guesthouse doubling up as a restaurant. A vast majority cater for vegetarians and vegans.
There are people of all looks and age cycling around lazily. Couples young and old, gay and straight, ladyboys, singletons, groups of families, friends all intermingling without any care or disdain for the people around them. There’s a real sense of individuality here and no cares. It’s bliss. There’s even this old Italian guy cycling around all day offering free hugs to anyone. There is a real love for coffee here too. Almost everywhere you go there is coffee, be it from the menus of small Thai outlets serving up Thai food, International fare, breakfast menus with iced chai latte and teas of every description in some places to fully fledged coffee shops, and little coffee street side stands. Here’s the thing, it’s not great coffee but it is consistent! It almost tastes the same everywhere so if you like it you are in luck! And yes it has Starbucks too. But it is shit expensive and want to charge 150 Baht (€4.07, $4.59, £3.03) to use their WiFi. Shame on you Starbucks! Every single place in this city no matter how small and cheap looking offer free WiFi. At least the Starbucks tastes the same as at home so that’s saying something. There’s a 3 storey one in the new city opposite Tha Phae Gate if anyone is looking for it. And yes there is McDonalds, and yes there is BurgerKing too. And yes, if you are a backpacker on a budget, these places will take a good portion of it. If you do crave a bit of Western food inbetween the far superior Thai equivalent, you can always grab a huge slice of pizza from a street vendor for 100 Baht (€2.71, $3.06, £2.02.) I was tempted as I’m a bit of a pizza whore truth be told, but I might never be here again and the Northern Thai cuisine is slightly different from the rest of the country. I’ve stuck to the local food, as has Denise when possible. Banana fried in rice paper? A whole fresh fish taken out of the bucket still alive and charcoaled to perfection, a selection of the freshest fruit made into a smoothie as you wait? Sneakily ordering a mango sticky rice before finishing a chicken skewer or Pad Thai or a Morning Glory? Where do you stop? And how are these people so bloody skinny? It’s all fresh, it all tastes better than the last, and it costs feck all. But as budget travelling is all about budgeting, it gets to be a balancing act. Are we eating because it looks/smells/tastes too good to leave it there or because we are hungry? All of these 50 Baht coffees x2, 40 Baht rice dish, 60 Baht this and that all adds up very quickly. Factor in accommodation then too. Then any alcohol. Then travelling around A to B and then any trips we want to make. Budget is well and truly blown if you don’t keep track. I’ve a small pocket diary and I account for everything. We have to know what we are spending, and what we are spending it on. It would be crap if we spent all of our daily budget on somewhere nice to stay but couldn’t afford to leave the bedroom. But sharing a wooden plank with a bunch of cockroaches so we could go out and get pissed every night would be pointless too. We have to keep a balance and that’s tough, as we take it day by day. On our second day we walked down through the lanes and popped in and out of a few little guesthouses/hostels asking for prices for double rooms. After 2 or 3 we came across Wieng Bang Guesthouse with a Lonely Planet sticker. Room available for 450 Baht (€12.20, $13.78, £9.10) per night, private bathroom. We couldn’t get to see the room but took it anyway. As hostel/guesthouses go it’s the worst of the 3 so far in the sense that it is a little dated and the private bathroom was a shower head over the toilet. Yet it was a far better location and price. The staff here were far more helpful than the previous hostel (mind you the older lady is quite tempermental, but her English is very good) and it was 250 Baht cheaper per night. This didn’t include breakfast though. We’ve totted it up and after paying for two coffees, getting a bit of grub etc we’ve probably paid out around 6/650 Baht so the real savings have been in the improved location. There are other options around here too with double rooms going with shared bathrooms for as little as 250 Baht. You get what you pay for, some have A/C and some have fans. Again, no breakfast. All have WiFi. It’s a learning curve for us as novice backpackers to get our balance right for what we need/want. There are some real gems out here to be found and keeping patient can work out well. Getting a nice place to crash, that provides good help for local info, a decent breakfast to set us up for the day and not break the bank will in turn keep our budget under control. Not eating everything in sight is another but it’s just too damn good! We’re getting the balance right and hopefully by the time we reach Cambodia we will be much better at this. If you didn’t care as long as you had a bed, and aren’t too fussy about what you eat, stick to local fare, it can be very very cheap. If, you want some sort of decency then pay a bit more (but don’t be afraid to shop around and always insist on seeing the room first!)
Chiang Mai is also a cooler climate being up North in the mountains. The evenings and early mornings have a slight breeze. It can get cool at night so having some long sleeves just in case is handy. It’s dry season so it’s warm but not too humid/sticky, but farther South is very hot. There are a multitude of things to do on the outskirts of the city or further afield if you want to travel to Pai or Chiang Rai. Most of the guesthouses have info but shop around. Remember everyone is on a cut so if the price is low, chances are you will stop ten times along the way to more expensive areas. This is part of everyday life. The bigger tourist attractions are the Tiger Kingdom and various Elephant parks. Now I won’t judge people who go to these attractions but animal welfare is terrible throughout South East Asia. Anytime you have an opportunity to ‘ride’ an elephant DON’T do it! It is cruel, no matter how many tricks they do or how cute the baby ones look. A lot of these elephants are saved from a life of hard labour like logging but they are now in parks walking round and round the same path for the tourists all day everyday. Sure, it’s a better life but it’s still not right. We went to one of these nice parks at Hua Hin last June, and yes we got the elephant ride and saw the baby dance for us. It was amazing and humbling. But I left with a sour taste that has never left me. The Elephant Nature Park http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/ who have saved countless of these beautiful animals is a far better bet. You do not ride the elephant here and you can stay for a day, overnight, a week etc working with them, much like a zoo, caring for them, washing them, feeding them and then sit back and watch them wander happily in acres of protected land. These will live out their lives here, safe, unharmed and happy. The same organization have started to convince other parks in Thailand and Cambodia to start following the same practice. With costs starting at 2500 Baht (€67.54, $76.39, £50.65) for the one day pass it’s pricey but if you want to have an encounter with an elephant knowing you are helping to protect them, then this is the place to go. As for the Tiger Kingdom, I’ve heard reports of them being drugged so people can lie across them for a photo. Some people on various sites have said it’s a nice place but having a close encounter with Tigers who sit still while you hover around them doesn’t sound right no matter how ‘tame’ they appear to be. We have two Yorkshire Terriers and if they want to chill out or don’t want a hug they will let us know. So for these tigers to never get annoyed or rebel gives me the impression that they indeed might be drugged. We decided not to visit here because if it turned out to be something that left a bitter taste in the mouth we didn’t want that experience. A Tiger Kingdom should be tigers in a protected environment with lookout areas for humans to get up close and that should be it. But that’s my opinion. Everyone to their own I guess. Chiang Mai has literally unlimited supply of temples (Wats) all around the city. Some are small, but some are absolutely mind blowing. There is one in the centre of the old city called Wat Chedi Luang. It’s a huge stone temple that housed the original Emerald Buddha, Thailands most revered Buddha image. An earthquake part destroyed the temple 600 years ago. Even today it’s impressive. Another worth seeing To Doi Suthep. Over at the North Gate of the old city a line of Songthaew taxis gather and as soon as they fill up they drive up the mountain. This costs 50 Baht. The trip up to the mountain temple is a crazy experience, much like a roller coaster. The view of Chiang Mai from the top is outstanding, especially is it’s clear. It was a little hazy when we were up there but the view was still worth it. On the way down the taxi will charge 60 Baht. There’s no other way down so they can charge what they want. It’s 40 Baht if you want to be left off at Chiang Mai zoo. We also went to see some Muay Thai boxing. It’s good fun, the bouts are full on, you can bet with the touts if you want, drinks aren’t too expensive and it goes on for about 2 ½ hours. Great value for money. We walked into the National Boxing Stadium and picked our seats for 400 Baht (€10.80, $12.22, £8.10) each. Some nights have a few guest fighters. Ours had a Canadian and he won with a stunning punch in the first round. The atmosphere was electric for this main event.
As with booking the sleeper train from Bangkok to get here, it needs to be booked in advance to get back the other direction too. That meant a trip back to the station in a taxi. The reception at our hostel did this for us for a 100 Baht (€2.70, $3.05, £2.02) per ticket commission. We had thought about staying in Chiang Mai for another day or two but like I mentioned earlier our host is a little grumpy Thai lady. ‘Passport quickly! Quick!’ ‘Tickets will be here at 6pm, pay now.’ So turns out we are leaving today! Oh well. Chiang Mai it’s been great!
We walked with our bags, still a little unsure whether we actually wanted to leave yet and flagged a taxi back to train station. ‘How much you give me?’ was his response after we woke him up. 50 Baht. No probs and not much longer we were sitting on the train heading south to Bangkok again. I think we have left at exactly the right time. Stay too long in any place, you start to see the cracks. We’ve left my personal favourite part of Thailand so far and haven’t overstayed the welcome. Places like this make me want to come back in the future. For now though it’s onto Cambodia.