Sawasdee! It’s been a fairly fabulous adventure here in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand and a favourite vacation destination on account of the relatively mild daytime temperatures and liveliness at night. We’ve been enjoying a bit of both – after a relaxing first day spent wandering around getting our bearings, we were ready to immerse ourselves in the craziness of this town.
We’re learning that markets spring up randomly (or it seems that way, to us) and often all around Thailand, and although the food is always amazing, identical versions of many of the “unique” and “handmade” souvenirs on offer for tourists are suspiciously found at several other stalls. The Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market, however, felt a bit different – Montrealers may appreciate the comparison to the Souk @ SAT; more of a gigantic craft fair with real-live artisans selling interesting, useful things they appear to have actually made. The sheer size of this market was unbelievable, stretching on for blocks and blocks, enlivened by buskers (my favourite act was the all-blind rock band belting out Thai power ballads) and sprinkled with unbelievable temples, each more ornate than the last.
We took a break from the market at a huge pub where we amused ourselves watching the fascinating dynamics between farangs (westerners) and their local companions. Our invented game of “spot the sex tourist” was played in full swing, and major points were awarded for the sighting of one elderly British guy surrounded by giggling Thai women and three or four small children of mixed heritage… family reunion?!Finding the atmosphere a little depressing after awhile, and no longer enjoying the dance remixes of 90s classics, we ventured further into the back alleys of Chiang Mai’s old city, ending up at a tiny bar with Canadian and Australian flags on the wall – sort of a commonwealth theme. Actually, we were more attracted by the pool table and lack of crowds – there was only one other group sitting at a table outside. Upon closer inspection, we found they were actually two jovial Australian gentlemen and a small collection of local ladies of the night, whose invitation to join them for a drink we eventually decided to accept, admittedly with some morbid curiosity. It was so much fun to talk to them – Thais are perpetually laughing and joking around, and these girls were a riot (when I could understand them). They each cheerfully and matter-of-factly told me how their chosen (and I use the word loosely) line of work is supporting children or aging parents – Thais, they imparted seriously, are “always for family”. That was the sobering reality, but their wide smiles were somewhat reassuring. Business was slow that night – “no boy-fren tonight!”, one of them grinned. They seemed to be having so much fun, though, that it hardly mattered.
Our second day in Chiang Mai was great as well. For some reason the cost of renting a motorcycle is astronomical here, so we got a scooter instead and went exploring. (Nota per la mamma di Riccardo: è molto sicuro di guidare qui, e Riccardo è stato molto attento!) Our destination for the day was Wat Prathet Doi Suthep, a spectacular temple complex reached after climbing 400 steps. It had been a while since we’d been in a temple (we were a little templed out from India), but this one was quite amazing. Buddhists like a healthy amount of gold and incense in their places of worship, making for a surreal atmosphere, made more so by the incredible views of the surrounding mountains and forests. Tourists were matched in number by pilgrims who consider this temple holy, as it contains relics of the Buddha. We joined a group of them inside a small shrine where a monk sprinkled us with water and tied white strings on our wrists, uttering a serious-sounding blessing that may well have translated into “get out of my temple, you ignorant farang parasites.”)
In the evening we went to a muay thai fight. The whole production was extremely entertaining, from the boxing itself to the people watching it (such as the German bikers we narrowly managed to avoid trouble with). While Riccardo was off taking photos, I hung out with the all-gay bar staff and got hustled into betting on the matches for shots of Thai whiskey and Jagermeister. I did lose a round or two, as Riccardo noticed with dismay when he came back to pay the tab, but I assured him that I definitely got our money’s worth. (Sorry there’s no photographic evidence of the livelier moments of our trip – I hate to be the nerd taking pictures instead of actually having fun. Maybe next time!)
There’s no shortage of organized activities for tourists in Chiang Mai – things like elephant bathing, cooking or massage courses, ziplining, and visits to tribal villages. There are even a couple of tiger “sanctuaries” where visitors can pose with the cats (whom one can only assume are heavily sedated). Guest houses take a cut when activities are booked through them, and our hosts were happy to propose a slew of excursions. None of the activities on offer really interested us, though; they all seemed a little contrived. We asked whether it was possible to ride out to Doi Suthep National Park and do a little trekking on our own, but were told it wasn’t; we could only go with an organized tour. Thinking this sounded a bit weird, we decided to head out of the city on our trusty turquoise scooter and go check it out for ourselves. Once we got past a couple of large, pesky “NO ENTRY” signs, we were thrilled to discover the most amazing path, extremely steep and completely secluded, covered by a dense canopy of soaring teak trees and bamboo. We followed the path all the way up to Soi Yan Waterfall – a pretty amazing reward after the exhausting climb (particularly exhausting for us, as we’ve done virtually no real exercise in over a month).
On our way back, we decided to go in search of a restaurant we heard was superb, but first took a detour through a very interesting and colourful local market. One lovely young man selling scrumptious barbecue pork skewers received probably an entire night’s business from us, and we got lots of bemused but warm smiles from people who couldn’t quite figure out what we were doing there. We eventually did find the restaurant we were looking for and were so glad we did – it was a gorgeous place to watch the sunset and have an impossibly sweet mai tai.
Today was our last day in Chiang Mai – we leave in the morning for a three-day journey by slow boat down the Mekong. I’ll post some news when and if we arrive!