21.03.2008 - 26.03.2008
It's with excitement that we arrive in Chiang Mai--particularly for Renato. He's been planning to visit Thailand for years. It was near the top of his list of travel sites, perhaps even at the top. Stories of pristine beaches and great spicy food—both available at low cost. What can possibly beat it?
We start our Thai adventure in Chiang Mai—the once upon a time Northern capital of the various different kings and tribes that were in area. Chiang Mai is a short 1hr flight from Luang Prabang. Or a 2 day boat ride down a brown, dirty river. No cabin. Just a seat. We flew. From Chiang Mai we'll be traveling south through Thailand until we reach the beaches of Koh Phi Phi, Krabi coast, Koh Samui, and more.
For those who know Chiang Mai from 10 years ago... it seems to have grown a lot. We believe its the 2nd largest city in Thailand. And it shows. It has all the quaintness and serenity of a sprawling, dirty Asian city with little planning and zoning policy as constraint. Vendors here have had years of dealing with westerners and tourists and it's rubbed-off on their general surliness. Their perspective: tourists are here strictly for the locals' profit. Their goal is to extract money from our wallets. Little consideration goes towards providing a pleasant experience for the customer (and perhaps winning return visits). And don't expect smiles.
There are several highlights, of course. They begin with Do Suthep temple at the top of Chiang Mai. Do Suthep sparkles with gold leaf. Things are of giant stature. It's a very cool temple. And it's very different than any of the old Khmer ruins you see in Cambodia, Laos or elsewhere in Thailand. Most memorable is the huge golden temple (maybe its called a 'Chedi'?) housing the most prominent Buddha statue.
Some pictures of Doi Suthep:
Patty covered in gold?
We also visited the winter palace, BhuPing palace, of the royal family. It's still a functioning location. US dignitaries have stayed there. There, you tour the gardens, which are quiet, lovely and very naturey. Quite a difference from the old concrete jungle that dominates Chiang Mai. Ren wishes he could enter one of the buildings. But ok, the flowers are pretty. This one`s getting ready to bloom.
We really enjoyed the Sunday walking street. It's not just another market; it has a pleasant air to it. The food was great and cheap--lots of fresh stuff, and freshly fried stuff. You could pick and choose little items (almost a dim sum like approach) and sit down at your leisure to eat. We both really dug it. Plus, the casual shopping there was very pleasant. There's reason for it—the folks at the Sunday street aren't paying for the their booth all week long. It's a once per week business for them. Thus, they've less financial pressure and less interaction with tourists to frustrate them. And, it really shows. Many smiles around. Negotiation didn't frustrate them and banter was welcome. Both of Patty and Ren purchased crud that night.
Ren at the Sunday walking street feasting on a fine drink of `Birdy`.
And the happy couple enjoying a foot massage later on the same Sunday.
This is remarkably different from the “Night Bazaar” which takes place every night of the week. Vendors there are tired of tourists. There's no pleasure in the air. And there's less variety in the merchandise in the stalls. To their defense, these vendors are paying for stalls everyday, and this is likely to be their only business endeavor. It seems like they're under greater pressure. Just the same, neither of us cared for it. And the food we ate was below par. Well below.
Other highlight was our kitschy trip to see the hilltribes. There are several tribes of non-Thai (perhaps once upon a time from China) people who live in the borders between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. They're not wanted by Myanmar—in fact they're running away to safety. While they're not allowed to be Thai citizens, the colorful tribes bring tourism dollars into Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Particularly the Karen tribe with the long-neck women (they wear coiled chains around their neck from childhood through adulthood giving them the appearance of elongated necks). As such, they're welcome by the Thai government. And the tourist agencies. The tribe folks are authentically tribe people. They remain farmers and the men work in the field while the women put on a show for the tourists. With support of the Thai government (?) there are some efforts to improve their quality of life. We did see some solar panels in a few of the towns we visited.
Ren bothering the local children...
Images of the Karen tribe...
Financially, our hotel cost has hit an all time low ;-) This isn't necessarily by design, but our little home away from home is clean, safe, in a reasonable location, provides AC, wireless internet access, and a tv. It just thoroughly lacks style. And, the beds are too soft. All of this can be yours for less than $40/night at the Sri Pat Guesthouse.