Blog // Tales from the trail
'Woah!', we cried from the back of the Songtao, Chiang Mai's clever public transport system, as we drove into the walled city from the main bus terminal. The city was heaving compared to when we were last there a mere 3 years ago, and as we got out standing in-between a McDonalds and a Burger King, a lot more commercial. Struggling to walk the 300m to our guesthouse through the throngs of Chinese tourists pulling selfie-poses by Tha Phae gate, we wondered whether we would still like the ancient city as much as our last visit.
As it was, we'd arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and were staying right at the beginning of the famous Sunday night walking market, which runs almost the length of the walls down Rachadamnoen street. So, the reason for some of the businesses had been explained - that and Chiang Mai having become a hit with the increasing numbers of Chinese travellers. Dropping our bags we already had a date to make - a catch-up over some Reggae-bar cocktails with Keith's cousin, which led to a very congested stroll through the market, some delicious street food noodles and a return to our quirky guesthouse's roof-top patio with a view of the city's roofs, lightening flashing in the background.
And so began the re-kindling of our love affair with the utterly charming city - a blend of ancient and quirky, casual and quality, unassuming and understated.
Over the course of the next couple of months we would spend over 5 weeks in and around Chinag Mai (2 of those doing our Permaculture Design Course at the Panya Project) and it soon began to feel like 'home'. When you travel for extended periods of time, you come to instantly appreciate those places that you return to because they feel so familiar, and easy. No need to work out (worry about) how things work - where to stay, where to get your morning cup of coffee from (although in Thailand that has never been a problem - the iced, no-sugar varieties becoming a daily staple to combat the heat), where the ATM is, how to get around, etcetera etcetera.
Chiang Mai is a walled city, a defensive measure back in the day against the nearby threat of Burma, and was the former capital of Lanna, between 1296 and 1768 because of its proximity to the Ping River and the overlooking Doi Suthep hill. Today the walls mark the old town, now a tourist hot-spot which is easy and fun to explore by foot and bicycle.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, a particularly revered temple for the Thai people, sits high on the green hill often shrouded in cloud and is one of the city's main attractions. We ventured up to the temple on our scooter one day; a bit of a tourist theme park at the impressive temple itself, we carried on up to the top, parking up and traversing the last couple of kilometres by foot to see the view from the other side of the hill. Unfortunately a cloudy day, but the view was still impressive and a sprout walk is always a nice activity!
Chiang Mai has a lot to offer and really presents itself as a city with a conscience. There is evidence all over of initiatives going on to reduce the carbon footprint - bring your picnics to the national park, but don't bring your polystyrene; numerous water-refuel stations to reduce the number of plastic bottles; a public transport system whereby for a fixed price you can go anywhere within the walls - just hail and hop-on/hop-off; public working spaces to encourage a sharing of creativity and reducing waste; 'organic', 'chemical-free', 'handmade', 'hand-woven', 'social enterprise' - some of the many labels you will see across the city's products. In a nut-shell, we liked it.
The exception, however is the prominent display of advertising for Tiger Kingdom and the many, many elephant parks. Unfortunately, the exploitation of animals as frankly, vulgar tourist attractions is prevalent across Thailand, but, I hope, that this starts to change with the growing consciousness of travellers.
Back to the positives though - coffee and food! Yes, Chiang Mai certainly does food and the local speciality, Khow Soi, is worth eating every day in my humble opinion. A rich curry coconut soup with rice noodles and chicken, served with sour lime, pickles and crispy noodles to go on top. Scrummy. The global experience is also catered for, satisfying those cravings you get when rice has been on the menu for months. This is the place to come for that awesome light-crust pizza, hand-made burger with real cheese, warm sour-dough bread or chocolate cake - in my mind those naughty-but-nice things, when done occasionally, are worth every extra Baht to absolutely satisfy that craving, that can otherwise get you down, weary almost!
Massage is also a huge bonus; there are parlours galore, cheap and cheerful or for only a bit less cheap relatively, you can find quite a luxurious spa. You can all too easily find yourself sat down, nodding off to an hour's delicious foot rub for the equivalent of 4 British pounds. One socially-responsible initiative we were more than happy to support was at the Women's prison, which has a reform centre set-up to teach female prisoners more productive skills, such as Thai massage, that will help them break free of the drug-trades that they are often born into.
We had many sprout adventures in Chiang Mai, including with various friends who joined in the fun along the way; we will definitely take away many fond memories of the city and hopefully next time I'll be in a better position to actually buy some of the wares from the night market. And I'm sure there will be a next time, so for now, 'so long and farewell'. Over and Sprout.
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