Chiang Mai is the only major stop on the backpacker circuit in northern Thailand, and it seems to have a little something for everyone. For the spiritually-minded, Chiang Mai has a plenitude of wats, some offering 3-10 day meditation retreats (which we seriously considered but didn’t have time for) or afternoon “monk chats.” For the active traveler, Chiang Mai is a very popular place to book a multi-day trek to visit hill-tribe villages, including the famous “long necks” (i.e., women from the Kayan-Padaung tribe who wear brass rings around their throats, giving their necks an elongated look). And for the shopper, Chiang Mai is famous for it’s handicrafts and night markets, selling everything from embroidered textiles to paper umbrellas. With so much to see and do, you can’t go wrong, right? Well, read on, my friends…Chiang Mai was really lovely but one thing in particular really ended up being the thorn on our rose.
As a city, Chiang Mai is pretty cool. The city center used to be walled in and protected by a moat, though little of the wall remains except for the corners and the city gates. Still, it’s pretty neat! I mean, how excited would you be to live in a town with a freakin’ moat?!?
Within the walls sits a plethora of wats…you can’t walk a block without running into one, they are like Starbucks here. We spent many a day wandering around wats. The “Big Three” within the walled city are Wat Prasingh, Wat Chiang Mun (the oldest wat in Chiang Mai) and Wat Jedi Luang.
In the back of Wat Jedi Luang, there are some beautiful old teakwood buildings that contain life-size wax replicas of monks within plexiglass display cases. Needless to say, we were surprised, fascinated, and a bit creeped out by these.
One day, we rented bikes and rode out to Wat Umong, a forest wat outside of the city center, in order to attend a talk by a western monk entitled “What Buddha Taught.” It was really informal…there were only about 6 of us sitting around an outdoor gazebo listening to a monk talk about the Buddha’s teachings. Jeremy and I have been practicing meditation lately and we’ve become really interested in learning more about Buddhism. The talk was super interesting and the monk (we think he was English) was surprisingly well-versed on current events; during his talk, he mentioned the credit crisis, iPod touches, and the contemporary Australian philosopher Peter Singer. I didn’t take any photos at the talk, but Wat Umong itself was really lovely. It is not ornate and gilded like the wats in the city center, and the rustic nature of the grounds is thoroughly charming.
Also, this wat is unusual in that it has an assortment of tunnels that lead to little altars and shrines to the Buddha.
There are a few sights right outside of Chiang Mai that are really popular, too. You’ll have to rent a scooter (as we did) or take a tuk-tuk to get to Bo Sang, a “handicraft village” (if by “village” you mean, “street with shops”). It was kind of lame, but we did wander around some of the alleys off the main drag and there are families actually producing things like handmade paper and painted umbrellas (apparently Chiang Mai is really well known for these).
We also scooted out to Mount Suthep, where Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (a.k.a. “The Wat on the Mountain”) is located. It was a really lovely place, but incredibly crowded, too.
There weren’t any wax-figure monks in plexiglass cases at this wat, but they did have this weird thing:
Apparently whoever made this statue did not think too highly of their mother. Or there is a cultural “lost-in-translation” moment here that we are not understanding.
So enough about wats…what about the other activities that Chiang Mai has to offer? Well, we didn’t end up going on a trek because, like northern Laos, it is burning season in Chiang Mai too, and after our Luang Nam Tha experience, we decided to skip it. I think this was a good decision, because the day we rented the scooter, both Jeremy and I had problems with the smoke…I ended up with a sore throat and cough for days, and the white spots on my purse had turned completely grey. Gross!
We did, however check out Chiang Mai’s biggest tourist attraction: the markets. We were lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai on a Saturday and Sunday, so we got a taste of the weekend mayhem. Saturday night’s market is much smaller and more relaxed…Sunday’s market is absolutely nuts! The entire length of the main street in Chiang Mai’s city center is blocked off and the road is filled with handicraft stalls, people offering cheap massages, and snack treats. Even if you had the energy to walk from one end to the other, it would take you hours, since the wall of people is so thick. It was so crowded, Jeremy couldn’t deal with it and went home early.
So…wats, treks, and markets, what more could you ask for, right? Well, the thing is…are you ready? You might want to sit down.
Jeremy and I don’t like Thai food.
I know! Can you believe it? Us! Lovers of all cuisine! Equal opportunity eaters! We just don’t care for one of the world’s favorite ethnic foods! I was shocked to find out too! But guess what? It was a two-way street: Thai food doesn’t like us either. We had (ahem) issues in Chiang Mai…to the point where we were afraid to even eat Thai cuisine. We actually sought out Western food like spaghetti and hamburgers in Chiang Mai. I know! Us! Can you believe it? I mean, we ate congealed pig’s blood cakes (unknowingly, but still) in Penang, and something called “cockles.” And it was northern Thai food that took us down.
It was depressing. When you love food as much as we do, you can have the most amazing time in a place, but if the food’s not good (much less, making you sick), then it’s hard to really enjoy yourself. And the weird thing is, we like Thai food in the States. We just didn’t like it in Thailand.
So, there you go…that was our Chiang Mai experience: days spent lazily wandering in and out of beautiful wats, an incredibly interesting talk by a local monk, riding around the walled city on our rented bicycles…but the pea under the princess’ mattress was the food.
Sorry, Chiang Mai. Let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?