Chiang Mai: The Bad, the Good, and the Silly

Before we post about Vietnam, where we are now, we want to finish some posts about Thailand, where we were last.

The northern city of Chiang Mai is billed as one of the top tourist attractions in Thailand. Frankly, we’re not sure why.

It makes a useful jumping-off point for treks into the nearby mountains, and there are a slew of Buddhist temples and some big street markets. Maybe we were just spoiled by the small city of Luang Prabang in northern Laos, which has all of those things plus ridiculous amounts of charm. We expected something similar in the old quarter of Chiang Mai.

But apart from some pretty temples, a small moat, and the ruins of brick walls, we didn’t find as much charm there as we’d anticipated—just a lot of hostels and guesthouses and souvenir shops and travel agencies, interspersed with modern stores and offices and restaurants. Pleasant enough, in a crowded kind of way, but nothing out of the ordinary for Southeast Asia.

A beautiful altar with strings radiating out from the Buddha, which worshippers sit under while praying

By far the most interesting things to see were the beautiful Buddhist temples and monasteries (called wats) that appear every few blocks in the old quarter. They’re peaceful places of carved and gilded wood, sweeping tile roofs, gold-leaved or emerald-green Buddhas, and every style of religious architecture practiced in Chiang Mai in the past 700 years.

Unfortunately, many of the sights around Chiang Mai that are heavily marketed to visitors involve turning captive animals or impoverished ethnic groups into tourist attractions. Get your picture taken snuggling up to an overfed and possibly drugged tiger. Watch highly intelligent monkeys ride little bicycles. Gawk at the government-organized “tourist villages” where poor tribal refugees are encouraged to perpetuate disfiguring traditions (hugely elongated earlobes, stacks of heavy brass rings around women’s necks) so visitors will pay an entrance fee to take pictures of them.

Seeing signs for such “attractions” everywhere—and knowing that hordes of tourists are keeping them in business—leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

What Chiang Mai is good for is what we went there to do: settle down. The city is full of expatriates, many of them retirees, who come because apartments are easy to rent, the cost of living is low, the infrastructure is well developed, medical care is abundant, and the great outdoors are not far away. The high-rise apartment we rented was every bit as nice as our old one in Virginia, though just half the price. It was perfect for spending a few weeks living like non-vagabonds.

Khao soi is egg noodles in a rich curry broth served with slices of pork or sausage and fried wonton strips

Our neighborhood, centered on Nimmanhaemin Road west of the old city, was frequented by students from nearby Chiang Mai University and by Chinese tourists, so it had a different feel than the backpacker areas of the old city. It was full of tiny and delicious eateries, including a fried chicken stand right across the street from our building that I might have patronized every night if Melissa had not been thinking of my future health. Our area also boasted several restaurants that excelled at Chiang Mai’s signature dish (which we did eat nearly every day): khao soi, which consists of egg noodles in a rich curry broth covered with crunchy strips of wonton and slices of barbequed pork or savory sausage. Yum!

What our neighborhood seemed to have most of, though, was coffee shops. Many of them featured Chiang Mai’s latest craze, toast. Young people would line up in the evening for a plate of thick toasted white bread coated in margarine and sugar or covered in honey and whipped cream. It always looked a bit blah to us, but apparently local students think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Besides eating toast, the other craze in our neighborhood is taking a picture of yourself in front of every spot on Nimmanhaemin Road. Every self-respecting cafe or shop has a sign or a mural or (better yet) a large fanciful statue in front of it to attract the selfie crowd. For fun one afternoon, Melissa and I went up and down the street taking pictures of each other mugging at every photo spot. We even got my stuffed penguin, Pingu (who accompanies us on all of our overseas travels), into the act.

Our time in Chiang Mai coincided with the city’s yearly flower festival, which featured parade floats made of flowers and pretty orchid displays in a local park. After enjoying the blossoms, we strolled though the Saturday night street market, held in what was (and still is) the silversmiths’ district just south of the old city.

Young woman frying dumplings in night market
Woman selling silver jewelry at night market

Another day, as we wandered around the old city looking at its famous Buddhist temples, we passed one that wasn’t in our guidebook. The small prayer hall covered in red and gold designs looked intriguing, so we went through the open gate. The only person there was an elderly monk. As we usually did, we nodded politely to him and kept our distance (some very traditional monks aren’t comfortable being in close proximity to women).

We had a long talk with this friendly and well-traveled Thai monk, who has been to the United States and Europe as well as Asia

But this man, who looked to be in his 80s and was lounging on a seat in the sun, was in the mood to talk. In surprisingly passable English, he asked where we were from. When we told him Washington, D.C., he replied with glee that he’d been there—as well as to New York, Minnesota, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, California, Arizona, and even Alaska—visiting friends at Buddhist monasteries in the United States. He also mentioned similar visits to Europe, India, and Japan.

We certainly weren’t expecting to run into a monk who’s even better traveled than we are in a small, out-of-the-way monastery in a corner of the old city. Maybe Chiang Mai does have some hidden charms after all.

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