Chiang Mai and Pai
11.29.2014 - 12.07.2014 90 °F
I was looking forward to the South East Asia portion of our trip but it seemed to perpetually be a month away so I was particularly excited when we touched down in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For this portion of our trip, Shawna and I decided to slow the pace of our travels as both of us were feeling a little exhausted from our touring. We gave ourselves six nights in Chiang Mai and two nights in Pai, a small town a few hours drive away.
Chiang Mai is an ancient walled city in northern Thailand; a must when visiting there. The old part of the city was build 700 years ago and is surrounded on all four sides by a formidable brick wall and outer mote. The city of Chiang Mai itself is home to over 300 different wats or Buddhist temples, many of which are found within the old city. Although Chiang Mai is one of the largest cities in northern Thailand, the area around the old city has experienced little vertical growth giving it the feel of a much smaller town. The old portion of the town is small enough to walk across in an hour or so.
Chiang Mai is one of the top tourist destinations in Thailand; a fact illustrated by the large number of westerners walking the streets and filling the bars; cheap and delicious restaurants abound. The locals are incredibly warm and friendly and happy to help with directions or simply join in a conversation.
Chiang Mai is a pleasure to explore on foot and, after spending three weeks on driving tours, Shawna and I had practically lost the ability to walk any significant distance. Our hotel was right outside the southern gate giving us easy access to all the city has to offer. Inside the ancient walls, traffic is minimal and streets are easy to navigate. Centuries old wats and temples are found on almost every block and an array of street food is available at every turn. One could spend four days simply wandering, eating, drinking and enjoying the sites.
We were fortunate that the sun shown on us the entire time we were there with little humidity. We selected a recently built hotel near the outskirts of the old city and were pleasantly surprised by how nice it was considering the price. There was a restaurant with decent food on site and nice pool to escape the heat.
After taking an extremely long red eye in from Sri Lanka, Shawna and I took an overdue nap at our hotel after we arrived. Once rested, we headed out to the night market which was located next to our hotel. The entire market is several blocks long and took over an hour to walk the length of. The streets are blocked off to cars and scooters and quickly fill with pedestrians. Both sides of the street are lined with food vendors, glass blowers, people selling beautiful paper lanterns and all types clothing. Local ladies sell half liter bottles of Thai beer out of plastic coolers on the sidewalk for 50 cents a piece.
With beer in hand, we strolled from food vendor to food vendor sampling all sorts of street cuisine. On the menu are all sorts of marinated kabobs, small bowls of spicy curry, piping hot spring rolls and an array of deep fried bugs and spiders which the locals munch on like snacks and the tourist dare each other to try (no, we didn’t). We grazed and shopped for a few hours until the heat and the crowds drove us to find a proper meal elsewhere. We picked the best rated restaurant we could find which happened to be a very authentic Thai restaurant called Huean Phen. This was our first Thai meal and we were quite impressed. Thai food is wonderfully spicy and hearty.
The next day, we decided to explore the old city on foot. There are many Buddhist wats inside the old city and several ruins as well. It is easy to fill a day or two walking from wat to wat. Eventually the heat sent us back to our swimming pool to cool off. We decided tonight was the night for a classier meal so we ventured to a restaurant on the river outside the east gate in an old teak house called, not surprisingly, Teak House. The house itself was teak from floor to ceiling with tables on the veranda as well as down on the front lawn. After dinner we headed up stream to a bar with live music overlooking the river. We drank Chang beer and shared desserts until late into the evening eventually making our way home via tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is a three wheeled scooter with a bench in the back used to ferry tourists around the city. They are found in most asian countries and are a convenience the west would be wise to embrace.
Unfortunately, Shawna woke with the dreaded “Chang over” and wasn’t up for exploring. I decided to head out on my own for a day of sight seeing. It was quite enjoyable to soak up the local culture, shop for $3 teeshirts and sit and sip thai coffee while watching the locals go about their daily business.
Thailand has been a tourist destination for much longer than much of South East Asia. It certainly felt more accessible than some of our other stops. It was striking how much more Thailand caters to tourists after visiting Africa and Sri Lanka. Food is tailored to western palettes, and it is very easy to get around. One hears languages spoken from many countries around the world; we encountered more Americans here than at any other point on our trip. One could make the argument that the emphasis on tourism distracts from a more authentic cultural experience but, for me, it was a welcome change. Thailand certainly had a more casual comfortable feel than many of our previous destinations.
We decided to spend a day trekking in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, about and hour and a half west of Chiang Mai. Being that we hadn’t had any real exercise in a while, we decided to do the full day hiking tour to a waterfall. This turned out to be plenty of exercise but a challenge we weren’t quite up for. By the time we were headed back down to our truck, the sun was setting and we were stumbling down the mountain, barely able to lift our legs.
We decided to spend the next two nights in Pai, a quaint little town in the mountains north of Chiang Mai dubbed “Little Switzerland”. The way there is an arduous three hour drive up a winding mountain road (762 curves in all). Luckily Shawna and I had the foresight to take some dramamine before the trip to ward off car sickness. Once in the mountains, you almost forget you are in a tropical country. Pine trees line the roads and the temperature can drop into the 50s at night.
Our first morning there, we decided to book a tour to the peak to watch the sun rise over the valley. I’ve never seen a sight quite like it. Words can hardly describe the experience. You feel as if you are sitting at the same level as the sun as it climbs over the lower peaks in the distance. Fog fills the valley below you like a viscus liquid. It looks like an artist’s painting of a fairy tale. <insert pic>
After the sun had risen we made our way back down to our hotel to make up for the sleep we had missed getting up before sunrise. After we awoke, the sun was quite intense so we opted to sit by the pool for the day and read. That evening, the whole city was celebrating the Thai king’s birthday in town. The streets were full of revelers and merchants selling food and souvenirs. Contrary to how most people celebrate their birthdays, the king actually outlaws the sale of alcohol on his special day. Luckily we found the one restaurant in town that was willing to sell beer, albeit in paper coffee cups, to people willing to risk the kings wrath. We alternated between sipping beer and watching the celebration go by and hopping from food cart to food cart sampling various spicy Thai dishes.
The next day we headed back to Chiang Mai for one last night before heading off to Laos. We decided to try our hand at Thai cooking. Our cooking class was one of the most enjoyable I can remember. We each cooked four separate dishes and each person in class we responsible for cooking the entire dish themselves. We made spicy curries, crunchy papaya salad and piping hot spring rolls amongst other things. We intend to practice our culinary skills once we return home.
Chiang Mai was certainly a highlight of the trip for me and a good introduction to Thailand. It is one of the first places I’d like to come back to on my eventual return to this wonderful country.
This thing was a foot long. No kidding!