From what I had heard, Chiang Mai was a black hole for backpackers, a place for souls to escape the bustle of Bangkok and the endless parties of Phuket. When I would tell people I was venturing to Chiang Mai, the reaction was usually along the lines of “Awwww wow I’m so jealous. I spent a month there when I was backpacking.” People raved that it was a highlight in their Thai journey, so with a cheap flight booked I had hopes of a perfect Weekend Ramble experience. But any expectations I had made were slightly construed once I arrived and explored the mountain city.
My only plans were to see an old friend, who I had not seen in about two years. Cesar, a friend I had made while doing some Spanish language immersion in Northern Argentina eight years ago was working abroad in Australia. On my Birthday a few weeks ago, he sent me a ‘Happy Birthday’ message along with the info that he would be in Thailand to dive all of November and part of December. Knowing I would be in Chiang Mai, I told him my dates and he was awesome enough to grab a night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
But first, I had one day to myself. Taking the red line R3 bus into town, I sat next to a middle-aged Australian couple. They were sitting across the aisle from each other, so they could both have a window seat. The man wore a thick mustache that connected to his large sunglasses and low hanging baseball cap. Her hair was freshly permed, as she looked out the window like an excited dog occasionally leaning over the aisle to tell him news like “This is the shopping mall I read about! Oh it’s so easy to get here isn’t it?” to which he would stroke his mustache and nod, clearly in his own world. I thought they were just another bored middle-aged married couple on holiday in Asia. But after I eaves-dropped their conversation with another woman, an expat, I learned that they had retired here a month ago (like many retired couples, looking for a cheaper, warmer retirement option) and were just learning the bus routes. Where was I, in a public city bus filled only with foreigners? This was certainly going to be an odd cultural weekend: one not normally seen in Asia. Then again, maybe Chiang Mai is not really Asia.
After hopping off the bus and heading to my hostel, went out for a wander, and bought some chicken satay. After a siesta, I decided to meet up with some couchsurfer’s meeting a thirty-minute walk from my hostel. So I meandered, through little streets and a large modern hospital complex. I noticed a lot of craft breweries and coffee shops, not normally seen elsewhere in South-East Asia. But one thing that will never change, even with all the expats, is the number of glitzy temples on every corner.
At Hush Cafe, I met up with two Russian couchsurfer’s: One from the Ural mountains, who has been living here with his girlfriend for four months; and Alex from St. Petersburg, who spends the cold Russian winters in South-East Asia. I got a weird vibe from the Russian from the Ural’s and had to pull a lot of the conversation out, but of the two Alex was pretty funny and talkative. We finally decided to go get some dinner, and they recommended we eat at Maya, a large mall nearby. The mall was glittering and clean, with kitschy handcraft stalls with hipster goods outside. Everything felt so fake, so tailored to the expats and tourists. I realized this as soon as I noticed that more than half of the faces I had seen since landing belonged to Westerners. After dinner, the other Russian decided it was time to go back to his girlfriend, which I was happy for. So Alex took me for a ride on his scooter back into town.
We decided to cruise around for some live music, my one true addiction. After asking some friends, Alex knew just the place. We walked around, chatting a while and stopping here and there for a beer.
Eventually we stopped at the main bar street, packed with drunk foreigners and locals trying to sell things on the streets.
We shared a beer or three and headed into Roots, Rock, Reggae, a reggae bar with great live bands for a great evening. Bars shut promptly at midnight here, and the metal gates close on the dot. So we got in bed fairly early.
The next morning I woke up a bit later than I would have liked, but I’ll blame it on the beers. Cesar would be arriving around noon, so I waited around a bit before heading to the train station to pick him up. There are some friends you can go several years without seeing, and know that when you see them again you will just pick it up right where you left off. This is one of those friendships, one that has lasted through three continents.
We caught up for a while in a minivan red car back into town, and at some point noticed a wedding procession and decided to follow that rather than taking the minivan back to the hostel. Horns blared as we walked along with Thai locals to a temple, where we were offered some water to counteract the harsh sun of the day.
We were a bit too hungry and out of place to linger long, but this is the kind of local experience worth treasuring. It’s also the only place where I’ve found more locals than foreigners, yet a few expats still lingered for a cultural experience like us. After dropping off Cesar’s bags, we went directly to feed our famished tummies. Cesar’s been on a train for fourteen hours, so we make it the priority. Cesar’s a vegan, so we go to a local place called Ming Kwan conveniently around the corner from the hostel. Cesar walked up to the cooks and asked, “No meat, right?” to which the cook pointed to a sign reading:
“All products made of plant, mushroom, or soy products.”
It was vegan heaven. And it was so incredibly delicious, we ate there everyday.
There’s a happy vegan.
I recommend the Kao Soi, a North Thai specialty of noodles in a spicy coconut broth topped with crispy fried noodles and other fixin’s. Thai food plays with sweetness a lot more than other Asian cuisines, but this bowls has a perfect harmony between everything. The sweetness from coconut, savoriness from mushrooms, spice from chilies, sour from lime, and bitterness from pickled roots. I, of course, made it dragon level spicy with a bit too much pepper sauce. Instead of chicken, they use mushroom stalks for a surprisingly identical meatiness.
With full, happy vegan tummies we went in search of Chiang Mai’s best temples. This would turn out to be a relentless journey through dozens of temples, but how else is one to enjoy Thailand? They do all get a bit repetitive but I just want to drink in all the gold covered goodness.
I do get a certain pleasure from the glitze of Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism. If there’s space, throw in an emerald. If it’s not gold, make it gold.
It’s a stark contrast to the somber natural influences of Zen Buddhism, but Thailand would not really be Thailand without its golden temples. So we enjoy. But I find it interesting how I compare certain aesthetics elements to Catholicism, just in showing the wealth of religion through extensive gold plating. But the most interesting temple of the day would be Wat Chedi Luang, which was built in the 14th century during the Lanna Kingdom. Now it is merely a ruin, yet it still serves as a relic to the power of the Old Kingdom of the Golden Triangle.
As a non-vegan, my tummy gets a bit hungry soon after. But I blame that more on the small portion size rather than the sourcing of what’s in the bowl. So we head to the Saturday market to be surrounded by tourists, kitschy goodies, and some snacks.
Where do you find a mountain of squid in the mountains?
Neither wanting squid nor horror-show amounts of meat, we opt for my favorite: mango sticky rice. This rice is cooked using a flower, giving it a unique blue-green color. He may have used food coloring, but who cares with sticky rice this good.
We’re both a bit too tired for a night out on the town, but we grab a beer on the party street to catch up a bit more. It’s difficult fitting two years of life into just a few conversations, but we try our best.
Our goal for Sunday is to get to a temple I found randomly called Wat Pha Dat in the mountains. I don’t know why, but it looked interesting on the map and I heard rumors of a waterfall. Not knowing where to go or what to see there, we head out with google maps telling us the directions. Our hostel loans bike’s out for free, so we ride to the outskirts of town near the Chiang Mai zoo. Last time Cesar and I road bikes, we road from Aalborg to Hals, on the East Danish Coast. While we did get the best strawberries I’ve ever tasted, the ride took about three hours after getting a flat tire and warping the back wheel. So our only hope was to come back home without a flat. We ride to the outskirts, and learn our destination is up a hill more treacherous than our shitty free bikes will escalate. So we make a recourse, and after asking a nice person in a fish costume at the zoo learn that we must venture through the huge Chiang Mai University complex. So we enter, and ride through the massive University to the other side and stop for a bowl of noodles before making our journey. We figure we can park our bikes at the foot of the mountain and hike up, so we find a little random backstreet and make the hike. After a good thirty minutes walking through mud and forest, we summit on a nice view of the unexpectedly huge city.
Locals are camping out and enjoying the shade and the view, sitting on dry outcroppings of a wide waterfall.
The weather is much cooler up here, so we enjoy not being in 33 degree weather for a while.
Where are we going? Neither of us knows. We walk up the hills and come onto a road, and my phone says the temple is just up to the left. We walk a bit and come onto a large stupa with a nice temple.
I suppose it was nice but it wasn’t that nice. Only upon returning later that evening did we learn we hadn’t even made it to the end: where a huge beautiful temple complex and a native village awaited. Pity, this was one instance where I wish I had done my homework a bit better. But the walk through the forest and waterfall visit was enough to make me happy.
We got back down the mountain, back into the heat and back onto our bikes. The search of the best temple continued!
Today’s best temple: I have no clue what it was called. But it was gorgeous and gold covered!
We stopped by the Silver Pagoda on the way back, which I did not choose to go into but Cesar said was interesting enough. It all looked a bit too constructed for tourists for me, which it did turn out to be. We hopped back on our bikes and headed back, which took a little bit longer because somewhere along the way I got a flat tire. Old habits die hard I suppose. After dropping off our bikes, we headed to the Sunday Market for more kitschy goodies.
Tonight as well, Roots, Rock, Reggae, had a great local Reggae band for our slow dancing to enjoy. Alex from the first night was there as well, but he seemed to still be a bit hungover from our Friday night together. We didn’t stay until the bars closed, but long enough to enjoy the good music.
All of my days have run together in Chiang Mai. They all seem so identical, eat vegan food, look at temples, look at the same kitschy clothing stalls, and get a beer and listen to reggae. Is my life so boring that I can’t even change up routines when in a new location or does Chiang Mai just offer a lot of the same thrills? Or perhaps I’ve just spent too much time here when I should have gone to Pai or elsewhere for new experiences. Regardless: I had one more day to enjoy.
Monday started with my favorite temple of the whole trip, Wat Phra Singh.
The harsh sun made the stupa blinding to look at. We went back to the hostel to recharge a bit and made friends with an Icelandic traveler named Osk who wanted to head to a park to enjoy the evening cool down together.
It seemed to only be expats and tourists in the park, yet there were some locals playing Sepaktakraw. Its a bit like volleyball, but with feet.
We met up with Alex, a Brit, and Toby from Germany. Everyone wanted to go to a night market, which I can’t really say no to. I do love a night market, even if I do it every day.
The Night Bazaar is specifically tailored to tourists, though. We spent a bit too much on European priced food, but the atmosphere was nice and the company was good. After eating, I decided to get back to sleep for my early morning flight the next day.
Chiang Mai is an interesting place, mainly because it feels more removed from Asia than anywhere else I’ve been on the continent. Even Hong-Kong, a former colony, is more in touch with itself. During my time in Chiang Mai, I saw far too many expats and resort going tourists for me to feel like I was experiencing something truly unique. What I will say, is Chiang Mai is an excellent break from the cities of Bangkok or even Hong-Kong. The food is good, and the nightlife is just right for those craving some calm. There are places to get more in touch with the locals, which we found when we were biking around endlessly near the University. I think Chiang Mai is a nice city, and Thailand is certainly a great place to introduce oneself to Asia. It is clean and friendly, but a bit too sterile compared to Cambodia, Vietnam and even Hong-Kong to a certain degree. While I am happy I went, I am mainly happy to have seen Cesar in a perfect catching-up city. Chiang Mai was a perfect city to see an old friend. It was quiet enough to take our time in, and not crazy enough to distract from our conversations. For that, I am grateful that I came.
Thank you for reading! I apologize for the different tone to this piece, but I guess not every trip changes us in the same way as others do. This was mainly a trip to catch up with an old friend and thus did not make for the most in terms of material. I hope to see you again soon though for some new adventures. Thank you again for sticking with me!