The Way North: Bangkok to Chiang Mai (Part IV)

7 Apr

CHIANG MAI

I’ve been dreaming of going back to Chiang Mai lately, it’s been a year since our trip and I guess it’s a good time as any to finally start writing about it. Before I forget – though I know I probably won’t.

So far A and I had been through Ayutthaya, a quick stopover at Lopburi, then onto Sukhothai. The last travel segment from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai by rail was a pain. We had to leave Uncle’s house at 5am to get to the bus station which would get us to Phitsanulok, 2H away from Sukhothai. Then from the Phitsanulok had to hightail it by tuktuk to the train station to catch the 7:30am to Chiang Mai. We felt like we were on the Amazing Race. Next time for this leg, maybe I would just take the bus from Suhkothai instead.

We were majorly bored on the train, with too many are-we-there-yets. A had finished her book an hour into the trip and was now reading mine while I drifted in and out of snooze-mode. Our butts hurt and we were getting antsy since we had been up and travelling since 5am, and cranky for lunch. But a major plus on this 6H train ride was seeing the view out the window turn from dry farmlands and plains, into cool cricket forests as we wound up the mountain and into Thailand’s 2nd largest city. Despite my mother’s warnings about never sticking any body parts outside of moving vehicles, A and I passed the time sticking heads, arms, legs, and dangling fingers outside the train window to touch the trees, wave at railway construction men, and babies from the towns we had passed.

At around 3pm, we stepped off the train thankfully, cranky and sore from some 10H of travelling (any more, and this was like flying from Manila to Milan). Grabbed a tuk tuk to take us to the Montrara Happy House on Thapae Road. In the 15min ride from the station to the hotel, I fell in love with Chiang Mai. It was a far cry from Bangkok’s concrete hustle, but was a lot more busy than any of the other Thai cities we had been to on the way. We drove through art shops, secondhand book stores, furniture shops, Swedish families in Thai pants and flip flops, backpacking couples, and biker dudes. There were sunny street-side cafes with bohemian names, and massage and manicure places everywhere — everything nice clean and cool.

And our little hotel was awesome! We couldn’t have asked for a better home base for our last 6 days in Thailand. We were only planning to stay overnight and check if we could find a better hotel when we got there, but we liked Montrara so much we ended up staying all through Christmas. The staff was wonderful, and the rooms clean and neat, though a bit small. The room cost us around THB 1,000 per night, if I remember it right — with hot water, cable TV and air conditioning. Though the hotel didn’t have an elevator (so we had to huff & puff our way up 3 flights of stairs to get to our room), Montrara had the best location ever!

A really Happy House!

It was a few steps away from a night market right at the Thapae Gate with a lot of yummy Thai food to try, skirts, pants, earrings, nice shiny things. Not sure if it was a regular thing there or if it was there just for the Christmas week (strange, for a largely Buddhist country, that night market had a Christmas show every night!) A and I loved having Chiang Mai pork chops, pad thai, snow cones with fruit, crepes, salads, sushi, milk tea, while enjoying the evening’s show.

Our favorite stop before going back to the hotel to pick up great reads for the night

The Sunday night market along Thapae Road is a must-see for any tourist in Chiang Mai for great souvenirs, but do go early (it starts around 3pm). When the crowds rush in, the streets get so packed, which can totally kill your shopping buzz.  This is great for souvenir shopping, though very touristy. My best finds were: handmade earrings of hammered brass, beautifully packaged dried ingredients for Thai dishes like Tom Yum (with neat, handwritten instructions for my foodie friends!), colorful pouches from the mountain tribes, and my now-favorite keffiyeh (scarf) made of combed bamboo fiber.

Thapae Road on a regular day is pretty busy too, and here we found a tour operator that gave us great prices on day tours to some interesting places in and around Chiang Mai. We signed up for three day-tours which consisted of: elephant riding, a short jungle trek and river rafting on Day 1 (THB 600); a trip to to Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand, and a visit to a Karen Hill Tribe on Day 2 (THB 500); and Day 3 visiting Chiang Rai, and the Golden Triangle — looking over Burma, then crossing the Mekong into Laos’ border town (THB 1,000). We got a pretty good deal since we signed up for more than 1 tour.

Here’s what we saw on those tours.

DAY 1

Riding an elephant is pretty magical. The mahouts (elephant trainers) seem to be quite dedicated to their animals, and to go crashing through the jungle a’la oilyphaunt seems to be a really cool way to get around!

An elephant walkabout

Our little jungle “walk” took us through the forest, up a hill, then down to a river where the elephants cheekily sprayed us with water. Then we took a raft trip downstream where we caught glimpses of large butterflies, colorful birds, and monitor lizards. There was a Burmese couple on the tour with us, and we were burning to ask them everything about their country and political situation, but unfortunately we were too shy to do so. After river rafting and a simple lunch, we hiked to a nearby small waterfall. The water was FREEZING, none of us swam at all!

DAY 2

Our tour van went up into Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak. At over 2,500 meters above sea level, it commands a glorious view of the foothills around it. According to our guide, this is mountain itself is one of the foothills of the Himalayan Mountain Range. The mountaintop itself is a vast nature park, featuring the mighty Wachirathan waterfall.

The fresh air was glorious. It was a beautiful day in December, perfect blue skies, and a crisp breeze. Our tour group went up and down the twin hills to see the commemoration Chedis for the Thai King and Queen. Surrounding the Chedis are beautifully manicured lawns, blooming bushes of every color trimmed into hedge hearts, elephants, and other cute things.

A glorious garden at Doi Inthanon

After visiting the Chedis, we walked through some kind of forest canopy trail, to visit the shrine of another well-loved Thai king. The tour van also took us to a gorgeous botanical garden on a hillside with a charming waterfall at the top! It was all so picturesque and lovely.

DAY 3

Our tour took us to Chiang Rai, the Mae Hong Son border into Burma, and then we went crusin’ down the Mekong River, and into the Laosian border town of Don Xao. More about that trip in the next post.

On our last days, A and I visited temples in the old city by foot. We had quite the workout, but it was nice to see Chiang Mai a little closer — with the houses, shops, schools, and alleys. My favorite wat was this tiny flower of a temple around which a hulking home depot and a grocery store grew.

Terracotta, Saffron, and Gold

On our last morning, we caught one of the red roving “tourist taxis” up to Doi Suthep, to see another temple, famed for it’s beautiful golden Chedis and an Emerald Buddha.

By this time, were all watted out, and ready to fly home.

Thailand is so lovely, and in our journey from Ayultthaya to Chiang Rai we had seen at  least three dozen edificial testaments to sacredness and love for God. Sure, today most of these temples are kept more as tourist sites, but it cannot be denied that within these ruins run a hallow majesty — a serenity —  that makes itself known when you gasp in awe, and lasts well beyond shutter clicks. And that feeling of mystic wonder makes you feel truly blessed by Buddha.

Thank you, Thailand, for showing us all of this!

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