Note: I had many more pictures to share but due to internet issues, I am only sharing a small sampling.
After traveling and sleeping through most of Saturday, I started exploring Chiang Mai on Sunday. To my surprise and joy, Chiang Mai has been quite mellow and I’m glad that I chose to spend my few days in Thailand up here.
I rose early on Sunday, hoping to find the monks collecting alms at Three King’s Monument, hope to a statue of the three kings who designed and built Chiang Mai in the 1200s. To my dismay, either I missed the monks or the information I received was incorrect. I was still happy to be up and about, but I quickly realized that the rest of the old city was not. Very little seemed to be open before 9am. After a little searching, I managed to find an open café along the north wall with a cute little garden patio for breakfast.
Caffeinated and nourished, I headed off to look at temples and the moat. The old city of Chiang Mai, measuring roughly 1 square mile, is surrounded by the remnants of a medieval wall and a moat. Chiang Mai means new city, and was so named because it was founded in 1296AD as the new capital of the Lanna empire. The city was surrounded by a defensive wall and moat to protect it from neighboring kingdoms. Before coming to Chiang Mai, I saw the stream of blue water on the map, but I didn’t really understand what it was. I’ve never seen a working moat before. Upon seeing it in person, it’s very clear that it is a moat and it’s quite impressive to think that engineers figured out how to reroute a river to create this moat in 14th century. The water is mostly stagnant, so it’s not particularly beautiful, but the lush trees that run between the busy road and the pools of water are quite picturesque. The wall, however, is equally impressive. It’s level of decay varies, but I could clearly see the wall along the boundaries of the old city.
As I headed west along the north wall, I began to look at the city’s numerous and impressive wats (temples). I meandered by Wat Kun Kha Ma, the Horse Temple, and Wat Ratchamontian, which has beautiful dragons outside that offer great curbside appeal. I explored Wat Lok Moli, which is located just outside the city walls. Scared away by a stray dog, I headed to the northwest corner to see the Hualin Corner Wall and glimpse a bizarrely Italian mansion. As I went, I carefully navigated the extensive traffic, using my well-honed jaywalking skills to cross the busy streets. Individual transport in Chiang Mai seems to include bicycles, mopeds (Jakesters to my Florida readers), and a few four-door cars, although mopeds clearly are the most popular. Hired transport involves tuk tuks, red songthaews (red trucks), and, of course, regular taxis. After spending 36 hours in airports, I wanted to spend as much time walking as possible. So, while the traffic in Chiang Mai certainly isn’t great, it was possible to safely cross the streets as a pedestrian. Although, I may have a different definition of safely than others.
Amused by the transport whizzing around, I turned back east and walked toward Wat Chiang Man, my favorite wat so far. Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and contains two prized statues of Buddha. I’m sure both of these statues are beautiful, but as they’re kept behind a series of three gates, I couldn’t see them closely. I was much more taken with the murals on the wall, which depict the life of Buddha. I was also pleased to stumble into two native Thai’s, who answered some of my questions about the temple and Buddhism.
Buddhist wats are generally complexes, containing a variety of buildings. Each wat I visited was different, but most seemed to include a vihear or wihan, the main meeting and prayer room (what Christians would think of as the chapel); a stupa or chedi, a tall conical or bell-shaped building that contains the relics of Buddha; a ubosot, a holy prayer hall where ordinations occur; a mondrop, a pavilion used to worship religious texts or objects; and a Ho Trai, a temple library. Across the wats I visited, I saw white strings connecting the various Buddha’s and objects. I asked the brothers I ran into about these and they explained that they connect the sacred objects together and then during special ceremonies, these strings are connected to worshipers, conveying blessings upon them. The direct translation of the Thai word for the string was “sacrament.” One of the brothers was Christian and the other was Buddhist, so it was quite interesting to hear them explain this concept and to see them both together praying at this wat. They clearly respected each other’s faith and were happy that I enjoyed their favorite wat.
From Wat Chiang Man, I slowly wandered towards the Chiang Historical Museum, detouring when I saw the Swiss Consulate sign. I was interested to see what the consulate would look like in Chiang Mai, but despite the two signs clearly pointing down the street I was on, I couldn’t find it. I assume that either the Swiss packed up and went home or only the initiated know how to find it. Disappointed by the Europeans, I went to find out a bit about the history of Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai served as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom during the Mangrai Dynasty from the 13th to the 16th century, when the Burmese conquered the city. In the late 18th century, the Siamese helped drive out the Burmese and Chiang Mai became a subordinate state of the Siamese Kingdom. Eventually Chiang Mai became a province and now it is the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand.
After wandering through the city and absorbing Lanna archeology and history, it was time for some relaxation. Back home in the US, I rarely have enough time or money to spend on a massage, but here in Thailand, massages are cheap and they’re everywhere. Despite my love of massages, I have a hard time relaxing. The few times I’ve made it to a spa, the staff normally ends up needing to order me to relax. My time in Thailand was no different. I shared a hearty laugh with my masseuse when I couldn’t get my muscles to relax correctly. Yet, as always, I enjoyed indulging, both in the massage and the free ginger tea that came afterwards.
Blissed out, I wandered to Wat Phra Sing, which was a little too crowded for my state of mind and then found the only park in the old city: Suan Bua Hat. The lack of public greenspace is definitely an adjustment for me. I’ve spent much of my adult life enjoying city parks; in fact, they’re one of the reasons I’ve loved living in Chicago. So far, Thailand doesn’t seem to have many public squares or parks. Suan Bua Hat felt a little run down, but it was definitely busy, so I curled up in with a smoothie and people watched for a few minutes.
I ended my busy day with the Sunday Night Walking Market. This market rivaled the San Telmo market in Buenos Aires, both in the size of the crowd and the number of vendors. As a vegetarian, I’m naturally wary of street food, but I’ve been lucky in Thailand. For 25 baht (less than US$1), I got to munch on samosas while perusing the stalls. I am quite pleased with the purchases I made, although my bartering skills are still severely lacking. Completely exhausted from walking around, getting my muscles pounded by a masseuse, and temple gazing, I crawled into bed.
I rose early again on Monday, ready to head out of the city for a cooking class. While I frequently make curry at home, they tend to be Indian in nature. I was quite excited to learn how to make Green Curry, Stirfry Tofu with Cashews, Coconut Milk Soup, Papaya Salad, Spring Rolls, and Mango Sticky Rice. Our small group of ten began the day with a trip to a market, visiting stalls with different kinds of rice (sticky and not sticky), coconut milk, and the ingredients for curry paste. We then set off to an organic farm and outdoor kitchen about 30 minutes from the city. We explored the garden, discussing and tasting the herbs and vegetables that we would be using during the day and then got started chopping, grinding, and simmering. By the end of the day, I was impressed with my own creations and incredibly full. I’m looking forward to finding an Asian market in the US and attempting to recreate my success.
On Tuesday, I decided to indulge in some relaxation. I took a yoga class in the morning and then headed back to the massage studio to have the most patient masseuse scrap all the dead skin from my feet and stretch out my travel worn soles. After three weeks of walking almost everywhere and years of callouses, my feet are in heaven. (There are places here where you can have fish eat the dead skin off your feet. I seriously considered going there, but after hearing a horror story about bacteria from my cooking classmates, I decided not to tempt fate and headed back to the massage place that treated me so well on Sunday.) While I was once again blissed out after my massage, I was also quite warm. Tuesday was the first day where I really began to feel the heat of Chiang Mai. Perhaps it was because I started the day with a work out, but the sun outside felt stifling. Feeling this heat, I decided to spend the rest of the day catching up on work and internet things in a quaint café with amazing internet access (seriously, it was better than anywhere in Australia!). While sitting in the café, I was finally able to identify a bizarre musical trend I had noticed since arriving in Thailand: shops and restaurants tend to play mellow remixes of US songs from the 2000’s. I keep hearing music and recognizing the lyrics but not the tune and end up very confused.
On my last morning in Chiang Mai, I explored Wat Chedi Luang and the Lanna Folklife Museum. Upon entering this wat, the first thing I saw was the shrine housing the Inthakhin, or City Pillar of Chiang Mai. This shrine is off-limits to women. I, of course, am happy to respect Buddhist traditions, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the sign describing why women weren’t allowed in (see below). Next to this beautiful shrine is massive gum tree. Rumor has it that as long as the gum tree stands the city will have good fortune. On the other side of the tree is the main temple, which contains an incredibly tall standing Buddha surrounded by dozens of smaller sitting Buddhas. Behind the temple is another impressive building: The Great Stupa, a towering brick pagoda that once housed the famed emerald Buddha statute. The stupa was damaged in an earthquake in 1545, but it still stands as the tallest structure in the old city of Chiang Mai. Behind the stupa, the wat continues. There are several smaller temples with monks at meditation, a huge reclining Buddha, and a fascinatingly large, Chinese-influenced seated Buddha. All of this was quite impressive, but the best part of my morning was watching a young monk talk on a cell phone through the window of a nearby building. It perfectly captured what I saw every time I entered a wat: the juxtaposition of ancient, beautiful, religious art and artifacts with the tools of the 21st century.
Sadly, I only had three and a half days in Chiang Mai and I needed to work and sleep during much of that, so there’s much of the city that I missed. For instance, I had hoped to get out and do some hiking, but ran out of time and energy. However, there was one prominent tourist destination that I specifically avoided: elephants. I love elephants. The ecologist in me loves them. The child in me loves them. They’re brilliant and calm and beautiful. During the two weeks, I spent in Kruger National Park, I saw countless African elephants and it was never enough. They’re magnificent to behold. Since Thailand is famous for the other species, Asian elephants, I and most of my contacts assumed that I would like to see them in Chiang Mai. Yet, I decided against an elephant tour. Until recently, most elephant parks did not treat their animals humanly and regularly allowed tourists to ride them, which is incredibly damaging. Now, most parks claim to be humane and offer tourists the chance to simply spend the day with the elephants. While I’m sure that some of these places do treat their animals well, I struggled to find trustworthy information about any of the parks. The few people who I knew had spent time in Chiang Mai and shared my concerns about animal welfare said they avoided the parks because they couldn’t be sure about the conditions. I met a few people in Thailand who thought they went to a place that treated the animals well, but they noted that to get to that park they had to drive by animals that weren’t being treated well. Since I didn’t want to risk supporting a park that treats such intelligent creatures badly, I avoided this option all together. I opted instead to check out all the lovely stone and wooden elephants that cover Chiang Mai and left with a smile on my face.
As I wave goodbye to Chiang Mai, I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who encouraged me to come this far north. Thank you for all of your advice! I’m also still reflecting on Thailand as a whole, but will wait to share my thoughts until I visit Bangkok at the end of my trip.