Everything that Glitters
Just a 6 hour bus ride north from Sukhothai, we arrived to Chiang Mai on a Friday ready to spend a week exploring and stuffing our face with the city's amazing food offerings. Being the 2nd biggest city in Thailand behind Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a very leisurely feel compared to the Bangkok craziness. The old city is partly surrounded by a brick gate, each side having one entrance. It was pretty cool to know that hundreds of years ago traders would travel by river to the end of our street, walk down our block, and enter the city through the same gates we walked through every day. This city, blanketed in temples, seemed like it would be a very intriguing stop for us... it seems we may have over shot that a bit.
On our first night, we stumbled upon Halal Street and found some food that literally made our mouths water just looking at it. A fellow traveler from Canada came and sat with us for dinner and gave us a little insight on Chiang Mai since he had been staying there for a while. He explained it as being a very spiritual town due to the 300 temples the city holds and that he had come there to take some long term meditating courses at a monk monastery. We also found a little shop called Turtle Ice Cream just inside the inner city Thae Phae gate that makes the most amazing homemade icecream weve ever had. That first night gave us a great first impression of Chiang Mai, little did we know that as our visit progressed we would not enjoy it as much as we thought.
Our opinion of Chiang Mai is that it's a city catered specifically for tourists. Everywhere you turn you see vendors selling souvenirs, clothes and trinkets by the masses for 5x the normal price. There are taxis and tuk tuks yelling and beeping at you every five steps you take, trying to take you to the Tiger Kingdom to hang out with sedated tigers in a cage. Don't get us wrong, we definitely understand that money needs to be made, but it became nerve wrecking to have to prepare to tell people "no" over and over once we stepped out of our hostel. We also realized that the best things to do in Chiang Mai were at least an hour or two outside of the city center where we were staying. Definitely out of our budget plan, a tour would have to be booked to hang out with elephants or go zip-lining through the jungle. We made the decision to hold out on these excursions because we figured we would have the opportunity again.
There were two things, however, that we could not pass up. The first one was a cooking class that was held at Baan Thai Cookery School, just a 10 minute walk from our guesthouse. Once we got there, we were taken to the market and shown all the vegetables, spices and oils that the Thai use in their dishes. Then we got back and started cooking. We each learned how to make four delicious dishes ranging from chicken fried rice and spring rolls to tom yam soup and green curry chicken. The experience was highly enjoyable and we both vowed to have a dinner party for our loved ones whenever we got back to the states to show off our new cooking skills, so look out for that invite.
The second excursion that we could not pass up was visiting Doi Inthanon National Park, which is home to the highest point in all of Thailand. Since it is located an hour outside of Chiang Mai, we knew we had to book a tour. We visited and emailed a couple tour companies and found an agency not too far from us that offered us a great deal within our budget. We got picked up early the next morning by a Thai woman named Cam and her driver, Mr. Big, which she jokingly laughed at due to his small stature. Cam gave us a little history about Doi Inthanon, mentioning that it's nicknamed the Roof of Thailand, due to the 8,415ft. elevation at the highest point. We first visited two beautiful waterfalls situated in the park, Wachirathan and Siriphum Waterfalls. Then we went up to the highest point which, in our opinion, was a little anti-climactic because we thought we would have a great view of the clouds but instead it was situated in the forest and landmarked with a huge sign.
Our next stop was the Royal Twin Pagodas which was built by the Thai army to commemorate the king and queen's 60th birthdays. They are situated on a mountain separated by two peaks and giant staircases. We ascended the queen's side first which was a beautiful purple color surrounded by gardens of all types of flowers from all over the world. The inside held a standing Buddha and an intricate decorated ceiling. On our way to the king's side, we noticed we were literally walking through a cloud. We looked up and couldn't even see the other side until the clouds passed by it. It was an incredibly surreal experience knowing that we were so high up. After running up the steps like Rocky to the king's side we entered the brown pagoda to see a gold sitting Buddha surrounded by gorgeous lotus flowers.
Once we got our pictures we left to our final stop which was visiting the white Karen hill tribe. They live in bamboo houses on stilts, weaving stunning scarves and clothes by hand. The happiness and peace in their community was almost tangible and opens your eyes to not needing many material possesions to lead a happy life. Trav bought some yummy dried pineapples which are his favorite and I bought some tribe made strawberry wine. We left our day trip with our minds refreshed and our bodies tired.
Chiang Mai was a great and not so great experience for us. The high tourist prices, necessity of having to book tours, and having to constantly tell people that you did not want or need their services or products were the low peaks. We were missing the "thainess" that we experienced in the smaller towns on the slow journey north. Fortunately, eating amazing food everyday, having had the best green curry chicken in my life, learning how to make it from scratch, and getting the chance to visit the "Roof of Thailand" were the high peaks. Goes to show that you will not love everything while traveling, but you will always learn something new.