Boy, do we love Chiang Mai. This will be a long one.
The day had started with another one of those lucky moments when everything seems to magically fall into place. One of Thailand’s best features, as far as I’m concerned.
To make the trip up to Chiag Mai, we would need to get back to Sukhothai, not the Old one where we were staying, and then all the way back to Phitsanuluk, before boarding our train to Chiang Mai, where we would arrive around dinner time. It would be a full day of travelling, but we had what seemed like a good place at the end of the day so we were cool about that. The only thing that needed solving, and we had tried, was the first bus.
We had walked around the previous day, trying to figure out where the buses stopped in Old Sukhothai. That old-falling-apart one would do, or even a Mini-van. Something to get us back to a city, a big one. But, for the first time, we’d had some trouble with it, people did not speak a lot of english (read close to nothing) and didn’t seem all that interested in trying to help us. Maybe it was the time of day (we understood that someone was missing at all the places we tried), or maybe it was something else, but we woke up that morning with no clue about that bus. Not too worried because in the end you can always find someone to drive you anywhere, albeit for a price.
Packed our bags, had another go at the coconut pudding, said goodbye to Paolo, and asked him to call us a tuk-tuk to drive us to that only road in town, about one km down the road from the guesthouse. My backpack was really heavy and I was in no mood to start the day sweaty from that walk.
The tuk-tuk showed up promptly, we loaded our bags and, a couple of minutes later the driver was dropping us off near a huge bus, of the VIP kind. This was one of the places where we had tried to get information the day before, a store that had a sign stating it was a bus stop. However this was the first time we actually saw a bus there. We tried again, with a different person and were told the bus to Sukhothai would show up briefly, maybe 15 minutes. Ok, we could deal with that. We lit a cigarette.
Two minutes later we noticed the driver of the VIP bus talking to the lady who had provided the information, and two minutes more she was telling us that this bus, this very one, would be able to take us to Pithsanulok! We boarded, even before the end of the cigarette! It would save us another bus, and we would be travelling in style. We were also the only two passengers on that double decker.
We made it to the train station in Phitsanulok, and had some time to kill before the train to Chiang Mai. Dropped the big packs at the luggage depot, and walked out of there, to explore the town. A 7-Eleven stop later (thank you for Slurpees), and a brief stop at the market and we (well, I) needed some food. We moved back to the station, walked past an amulet market that’s going on in there, and saw a guy eating what looked like a delicious dish. It had a lot of chillies on top of rice and chicken. My kind of lunch. Walked to the lady selling food, pointed to the dish he was having, and I was served one of the tastiest meals so far. Had a Coke with it and payed 45 baht. A little over a euro. I was set till dinner time.
The rest of the day was a breeze. Stuck on the train, looking out the window as the world went by, and catching up on the books loaded on our Kindles. We made it to Chiang Mai on time.
Since every tuk-tuk and songtaew driver knows the train schedules, a lot of them make their way to the station, and wait for the farangs. There’s a lot of us on those express trains, and business is guaranteed. Good for us.
One of the drivers talked to us, we told him where we wanted to go, agreed on the price and waited for the thing to fill up with other tourists. It was a short wait. When it was full, we were on our way, and soon were being dropped outside Sri Pat Guesthouse.
A lovely place, perfectly located to explore the wonderful city of Chiang Mai. You can tell the family that runs the place is really proud of their guesthouse, and with good reason. The place looks like something from a design magazine, it has a small pool, and a little balcony with two tables facing the street, ideal for a stop while people watching. Rooms have balconies too, ours was small but big enough for a smoke.
When we go back to Chiang Mai, we’re staying there again, for sure.
I‘ve said that Bangkok is my favourite city in the world and, yet, Chiang Mai is my favourite in Thailand. Strange, I know, but that’s how I feel. Perfect size, amazing vibe, cooler weather are just some of the things that we loved in this city.
If I had to pick one place in the world to live, this would probably be it.
Everything you’ll want to visit is in the old town. You don’t need to worry about transportation, just make sure you have comfortable footware. You’ll want to visit Doi Suthep, and then it might be a good idea to get a motorcycle, but that’s it. You can have all the food you want, religious landmarks, shopping, massages, and you can do it all on foot.
On that first night, as usual, we just dropped our bags on the room floor and went out for our first street food meal in town. Also a recurring thing, we’d only have to walk around the corner, and were greeted by over a dozen stalls, each one selling food that looked more delicious than the next. We settled on one that had a free table, and had another great meal.
We had planned to get one of Nancy Chandler’s maps. I love maps, and these seemed like very nice ones. We got it at Back Street Books a couple of days later, and would get the Bangkok one when we got back to the capital. Mainly as souvenirs. We didnt’ even use them, as they looked too pretty to mess up.
There’s plenty of sites around that are worth a visit, and please make sure you spend a weekend there as Sunday Walking Street is something you should definitely not miss. A huge avenue is closed to traffic, and becomes a monster market. By now we were pretty accustomed to markets and their brothers, the night markets, but this one is on a different level.
Even the wats open their grounds to merchants, and every corner of the street is taken by people selling all kinds of things. You can find the usual t-shirts and designer ones, alongside hipster hats and button-downs, pancakes and sauces, fruit and leather goods. You’ll also be able to purchase handicrafts made by the Chiang Mai police force. Coconut chips and glassware, and a ton of massage stations set up along the way. You’ll find music students playing their instrument of choice, old ladies singing with support band, a pop star that will sing while people take selfies, dozens of selfies, a few blind musicians bands, sitting in a line on the floor… It’s a mess. A lovely, vibrant, exciting mess.
It’s something that we would find fascinating over and over again. They way these huge markets are set up, most daily, in a flash, and disbanded with the same speed as soon as the time comes. We would go by street corners where we had amazing meals in the evening, and were hard pressed to find the same place the next morning.
On Chiang Mai’s Top Ten is Doi Suthep. When you’re ready for a visit, you can go to Mr. Mechanic and get a motorcycle. You’ll find them easily, they have several on the old city, and the bikes are in good shape. As soon as we had cleared the paperwork (leave your passport or a fistful of baht), and he made sure I was certified for that bike (‘Do you know how to ride bikes ?’) we got out of the Old City and enjoyed the heavy traffic until we go to the base of the mountain, and then it’s just us and the road.
Doi Suthep, the wat, is on top of a mountain a few minutes out of town. It’s a must visit, even though there’s a stall mall at the bottom of the mega stairway that leads up to the temple. You make your way through the throng of tourists dumped by dozens of buses, into the tunnel made by the stalls, past the children dressed in ethnic garb that know only one word of english (‘Money’), up the hundreds of stairs and you’re there. Enjoy. It’s still a wonderful place and if you’re lucky and there’s no fog in the air, the views are amazing.
The road up the mountain can be tricky though, you should drive with extra care. On the day after we went up there a local pickup slid off the road and plunged into the abyss. Not nice at all. If you’re feeling the stress of driving on a mountain road, or even if you’re not, you can stop along the way. There’s a viewpoint on the way up where you should be able to get a bird’s eye view of Chiang Mai, weather permitting.
One landmark you might want to skip is the Chiang Mai Zoo. Yes, there’s a panda, actually a couple of them, but they might be hard to see, as they sleep a lot. And the rest of the zoo is just one sad animal after another, visitors feeding them non-stop and, as soon as there’s a break in the feeding frenzy, the animals start acting like junkies, furiously pacing back and forth, waiting for the next fix. I’m not an expert on wild animal care, but we left with a strong suspicion that some of this behaviour is probably abuse. We were sick about this, and left the place much faster than we had expected.
If you’re looking for animal fun, you’ll find Chiang Mai is a nice place for a meeting with elephants. Try to find a responsible place, and book your trip. You’ll probably manage to do that at your guesthouse, but you’ll have no trouble finding people selling every kind of tour. Tourist agencies are a staple of every place we visited. The elephant camp can be one of the nicest memories you take from Chiang Mai, and you’ll have a lot of those in this city.
While in town were also looking for a place to get a massage, and read about Lila. They have several shops around town, and are staffed by ladies who, at some point in their lives did something that got them in jail. They learned their trade while imprisoned and now a lot of them found a job working there. We went to one of their locations and glad we did. The place was immaculately clean and the quietness was welcoming. And so were they. Amazing massage, a very cool project.
We also happened to be walking by the Lanna Folk Museum on a Saturday, and there was a small market in front of it, with music and a lot of activities for kids going on on the museum’s grounds. It looked so fun that we went in and soon we were involved in them. I made a flower from wax, and tried not to embarrass myself while doing it. Don’t think I made it that far, but the flower was good enough to pin on the tree they were making. The kids were having a blast, and we were too.
There’s always a lot of things happening, and more so on weekends. Students practising routines on the school grounds, photography exhibitions organised by NGOs, markets... We had a jazz festival going on at the time, with daily concerts at Pratu Thapae, next to the huge wooden door. Some of the bigger hotels had food tasting stalls, complete with chefs.
Another place that made us feel extra welcome, and one that saw us come back time and time again was Café de Thaan Aoan. We went there for breakfast, or tea. Yummy milk shakes, delicious pancakes and crispy bacon with scrambled eggs. We found it while looking for a place to have breakfast, in between wats. They made the best pineapple pancake I had in the whole month. I could swear the two pancakes were hiding a whole pineapple inside them.
If you feel that you should visit a wat (or ten), Chiang Mai has you covered. We went to Wat Phan Tao, Wat Chedi Luang Varavihara, Wat Phra Sing Waramahavihan, Wat Phakhao and a lot of others. They’re all amazing, but we do have a thing for wats. On Chedi Luang I got my first monk offered bracelet, the white skinny ones. I was following a monk around the temple, as I do, trying to get a decent photo, and he sat down in a huge chair and started fiddling with a huge roll of string.. As I positioned myself for the shot, he invited me to kneel in front of me, and made a bracelet. Wrapped it around my wrist, and said a prayer while he doused me with water. The camera survived, and I was a different man.
You can visit one in the morning, and students will be going from class to class, and come again in the afternoon and they’ll be taking care of the garden. Or drop by one of the wats that have Monk Talk, and you’re given the opportunity to speak with a monk. He’ll answer the questions you might have, while practising his english.
The temples are always on our bucket list for all the cities, as you might have noticed, and Chiang Mai has some of the one’s we liked the most.
Speaking of cameras, we had to go to Graph Café. I had to visit this other one, since I had promised I would on Instagram. Instagram is big in Thailand (really really big) and, as soon as you start adding Thai-related hashtags to your photos, you’ll start getting local followers. Another cool way to find out about spots for a visit. Graph Café, even though it’s very small, is a place made for Instagram. It’s a tiny room on a corner, but what a lovely tiny room it is.
The decor is classy, cool and modern. They have a lot of vintage cameras on wooden cabinets, black and white photos on their walls, old school coffee machine and the sweetest barista you can meet in town. He seemed really thrilled to meet us, we spent a few minutes with him, posted a shot on Instagram and traded tips and tricks. I guess that’s what photographers do. The cherry on top of this was that one of the cameras on display was my first camera, the one my father used to shoot with, passed down to me: a Canon AE1.
He gave us a couple of bananas for the road when we were saying our goodbyes, and they were delicious.
As in most cities in Thailand, Chiang Mai is a place where you should walk. But the scale here is more manageable that Bangok, for instance, and by going in and out of a hundred sois you’ll discover hidden corners and amazing gardens, delicious food and some nice architecture. This is also a city with great street art, probably the best we found.
In the end we had to stay in Chiang Mai for an extra day, for astronomical reasons. The full moon was getting close, and it was impossible to get a plane to Ranong, the city where we’d have to get on a boat to the island. All the seats on all the flights out of Bangkok were taken by people going to Koh Phangan, where the famous full moon party takes place, and we had to wait it out.
Not a problem as the good people at Sri Pat managed to secure our room for an extra night, and there’s no better place to spend an extra night than Chiang Mai. Heck, we could probably spend the rest of our lives here.
Not a lot of photos still unposted, but a few are up on maiquemadeira.com. Hope you enjoy them.