Continuing north from Sukhothai, our destination was the classic traveller’s destination of Chiang Mai. The city has achieved a kind of legendary status as a backpacker nirvana; I was excited to find out why and to see if it would become one of my favourite places in Asia like everyone assured me it would. We arrived with few plans – we had 10 days before we needed to leave the country for Laos and a couple of ideas of attractions we wanted to see, but otherwise were looking forward to having some serious chill time.
Our 6 hour bus costing us £4 each got us to the city in the afternoon. My first impressions of the place were good. The old city where we spent 90% of our time was enclosed by a picturesque moat which seemed to keep out the majority of the heavy traffic. Narrow walkable lanes with hipster cafes and a myriad massage parlours branched off from temple studded roads lined with street food and produce markets. It was uncrowded, chill, safe and trendy. It quickly became clear why everyone loved the place. The city seemed to be successfully blending the best of East and West.
There were all kinds of food to be found. There was pretty amazing Thai food of course, especially at the night markets where we happily grazed the stalls for delicious pad thai, fried rice, grilled meat skewers and mango sticky rice. There were loads of places serving really good and reasonable western food; we had some excellent wood fired pizza, big American style burgers and some decadent french toast. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh fruit shakes and Jake was obsessed with the Thai milk tea. There were even other asian cuisines around – Jake had takoyaki and there was “fresh” sushi (although we didn’t risk it).
Round our guesthouse there were plenty of hippie cafes that were all too easy to chill in all day long. Endless cheap smoothies/coffees/teas/beers, free WiFi, awesome decor and comfortable seating meant you never had to leave. We spent plenty of time reading, writing and chilling in such places, and it was undoubtedly time well spent. Jake had a Thai massage he describes as “euphoric”.
Every Saturday there’s an amazing night market just south of the old city so we spent our first night here. Now I’ve been to plenty of night markets in my time, and to be fair they usually just sell a ton of useless crap. But the markets in Chiang Mai were actually amazing, certainly the best I’ve ever seen. We… spent a lot more money than we planned. Jake finally bought himself a new wallet, sunnies and a phone case. I bought a top, a bookmark and a magnet. We can’t be buying too much because we’re just going to have to carry it for the next 3 months, but for all these items we actually couldn’t resist. Jake improved his skills in haggling (a tiny bit) and we only spent about £20 for everything.
We visited a couple of temples because we felt like we should, and they were of course super beautiful. Whilst checking out Wat Chiang Man, a young Thai man engaged us into conversation and enthusiastically talked to us about his country and his upcoming trip to the UK. We were half expecting him to try and drag us to a shop selling dodgy gems or tailored suits, but he did nothing of the sort. He had just wanted to chat to us and maybe practise his English. We’d found people in the south of Thailand to be relentless in their pursuit of parting you with your money, but people in the north seemed much more genuine and welcoming. It made hanging out here all the more relaxing. You felt like you could blend in a little more, instead of it being such a “us and them” feeling.
We also got off our butts and did something a little intellectual for a change and visited a couple of museums in town. The Lanna Folklife Museum taught us about the religious and cultural beliefs of the locals, and showed us intriguing artifacts relating to superstitions and local crafts. The Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre educated us on the history of the nation, from disparate kingdoms to its occupation by the Burmese, and how it reacted to the threat of European colonisation. There was also information on the hill tribes north of Chiang Mai and how they live. However after a couple of hours we were thoroughly museum-ed out and had to spend another day doing nothing to recuperate.
We also did two very awesome and memorable activities whilst in Chiang Mai, but because I want to write loads about them, I’m going to dedicate a separate post to them. So… go read my next post…