We arrived in Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand with luck on our side for the 12 hour overnight sleeper train from Bangkok. In short, we had read some pretty miserable stories about screechy tracks, pushy local food vendors, toilets that were of the hole over the track variety. All signs were leading to rickety coach cars that were the remnants of the 1970’s. And we saw those… from the window of our brand spanking new train car with a smooth ride, chilly air conditioning, a bed concierge (yes, you read that right, though I’m certain I’ve bestowed an elevated title for the job), and for the most part clean toilets (cannot understate the importance of the words clean + toilet together anywhere in Asia). Luck put us on the inaugural trip of this brand new time slot service of the Bangkok-Chiang Mai Express. And did you know that monks get preferred seating on all modes of transportation?
We arrived in Chiang Mai during the mother of all festivals, Loy Krathong (thousands of lanterns released in the night sky and candles floating down the river). Every bed in the city was booked with the thousands of tourists in their elephant printed m.c. hammer pants/ no we did not.
It was hot. It was crowded. There were a shit ton of selfie sticks and iphones up in our faces. Far too many idiot gap year traveler’s turning the streets into a circus and we heard this year was considerably toned down (no pageants, parades, nor fireworks) as Thailand was mourning the death of the King. In spite of the wall of crowd, watching the lanterns ascend across the night sky was stunning.
There was no love lost when the city emptied itself of visitors post festival and we were free to explore Chiang Mai in a resumed stateof normalcy, with her cracked sidewalks, frogger type traffic patterns, university students, massage parlors, street meat vendors, and all. Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a constant buzz of cars, motor bikes, scooters, and mopeds. The morning sun is harsh and hits the haphazard blend of buildings in the most unflattering of angles. In spite of the sweat that drips from your brow and pours down your back, you are made to feel cold by the concrete unfriendliness and the total lack of any color other than gray. By the afternoon the hot heavy air that sits over the city is thickened by the diesel fumes and exhaust from the spectacular amount of traffic that builds and clogs the main boulevards. On the surface, it’s a place to easily to dismiss.
But on closer inspection, Chiang Mai begins to reveal herself to the interested by the mouthful. The winding alleyways that lead to secluded gardens that turn on to the street with the noodle carts. The fruit + veg markets that explode with color and smells and seem to turn up unexpectedly in narrow and dark corridors. The refreshing taste of fresh mango and pineapple and the steaming hot takeaway soup that looks like pee in plastic bags. If you look even closer, you can find the symmetry of the stalls in the Waororat Chinatown Market and the after dark delightful chaos of open air dinners of unknown meat parts (so good) had while seated plastic stools in parking lots.
And the absolutely excellent bowls of cheap fresh noodles. Every.Single.Day.
Chiang Mai is also a famous hub in the universe of the digital nomad* (tribe of ex-pat working professionals who only need a reliable internet connection to earn income)- the ranks of which we now are officially a part of). Fully wifi’d up it has a profusion of independent coffee (i.e. what the world was pre-Starbucks) and fruit smoothie bars that one can work in for hours in exchange for a purchase of a single beverage. Chances are 50/50 the bearded guy with the full arm sleeve of tat’s or the barefoot guy sharing the table with you have left Munich or San Diego behind and are creating a post for their travel blog or writing code for an emerging tech start up. No doubt, we eased ourselves right in and felt quite at home. Seriously, the Nimmaniman neighborhood is an Eastern version of the hipster hamlet of Brooklyn-skinny jeans, wayfarer frames, overly expensive locally sourced, hand crafted artisan coffee, and all.
When the city heat got to be a bit too much we headed to hike to hidden monasteries, waterfalls, the highest peak in Thailand, found some elephants to play with, giggled through the ladyboy cabaret show, and walked through many ancient Wat’s that dot the town. Another favorite- ducking into the air con of the ubiquitous 7-11’s to see the young monks read through the comic books.