The cool morning air nipped at my exposed limbs as we sped along the streets of the northern city of Chiang Mai. Fresh off the night bus, we awoke as the city did too, observing monks in sunset hued robes collecting their daily alms as we rode to our guesthouse. Upon our early arrival, we discovered that the reception was not yet open for the day, and we sought refuge at the nearest café that was. This little place would be one of our new favorites. The tiny mom and pop establishment seemed to be tucked discretely into the wall, and I’m not even sure of it’s name, only that the friendly couple who owned it served up the best 30 baht noodle soup we’d had yet. Simple and delicious, it was exactly what we needed to chase the chill of the early morning.
After a much needed nap, I ventured out of our cozy room to go explore. We were on Moonmuang Soi 6; a popular area that hasn’t grown out of it’s cuteness. Along the alleyway there were charming little restaurants, a couple of shops and hostels to the right, and to the left towards the street was a big spice and produce market, a few more little cafes, a tea house and the best smoothie place I’ve ever missed. Accurately named Happy Smoothies, they made the best tropical fruit, yogurt and coconut concoctions, as well as humongous fruit salads with honey and muesli (for only 45 baht!). My go to was the avocado smoothie, made with avocados the size of my head! Happily nourished, I made my way down a few alleys and came across an enticing leather shop. Owned by a rad Thai guy named Jack, this tie dye and moccasin haven called out to me. I discussed getting a couple of items handcrafted, and all of a sudden I was on the back of his moped ripping around the city while my friends napped. We passed through a large fabric market, made a stop at a local bike shop, and then to where his custom painted van was parked. One of those vans I’d be honored to camp (or live) in.
As the sun set, we discovered the area’s many restaurants, including and Indian place in a touristy bar district. It was dangerous for the traveller’s wallet, but with food and people so awesome we couldn’t not go back. Also on the nighttime itinerary was a trip to the city’s night market, which sold a colorful array of hill tribe handicrafts, jewellery, knick knacks, clothing, and had multiple booths selling delicious dried fruit of every kind. Enthusiastically running around in sequined peacock like costumes, a group of lady boys also promote their cabaret show at the night market, offering a sneak peek of choreography that was definitely eye-catching.
We spent Halloween in Chiang Mai, and although I did get the chance to carve a pumpkin for a friend, I probably wouldn’t have noticed my favorite holiday pass by had I not known the date. Using leftover UV paints, we did our best to ‘dress up’ for the occasion, bought some candy and initiated our reverse trick or treating; running around handing out candy to almost everyone we passed. It brought a smile to people’s faces and ours, except maybe the few who were just plain confused. The night ended in that bar district, where a Halloween celebration was alive and well.
One of the main attractions of Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep, is still probably my favorite temple thus far. Be it the long winding road up the mountain surrounded by lush forest, the stunning view from the top, or the glowing golden chedis within, this temple gave me a lingering feeling of joy that very few similar places of worship can instill.
On the way back from the temple on the mountain we made a stop at the Chiang Mai Zoo. Although it was impressive in size and they did house some cool animals, it was a lot of walking up hills in the heat. The highlight was probably the zoo’s aquarium, which featured a long underwater tunnel where you can marvel at sharks and giant groupers passing overhead.
One day after a long night out we were swept away on the back of a local friend’s scooter and taken to a large lake outside of town. There we sat in a bamboo hut style booth and ate fragrant roasted fish and rice, awaiting a ‘surprise’ from our host. The waiter came to the table holding a mysterious little pot. As we removed the lid, out jumped squirmy grey things, desperately trying to escape as they were picked up one by one and eaten alive. Not by us. The thought of living freshwater shrimp from a hot lake makes me think of parasites, not an appetizer. But hey, to each their own. We watched a heated rowing competition as we savored the hot fish, gazing out at the calm water and the surrounding parkland that was a nice break for the senses after being in the city. On the drive back we took an alternate route around the lake, where local Thais were picnicking and jogging in the refreshing shade of tall trees.
If you ever visit Chiang Mai, definitely rent a bike for the day. Or two. It’s cheap, fun, good for you, and a more intimate way to see the city. As we rode single file down busy roads ringing our bells, we passed beautiful temples, parks and interesting shops that might otherwise go overlooked. Experiencing enough of the city life for a while, we ended our last day at a welcoming Thai massage parlour, preparing ourselves for adventures ahead in a little town I would grow very fond of; Pai.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” -Henry Miller
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