Siem Reap was the last of Cambodia for this journey. I had enjoyed my stay but now it was time to head back. The flight to Thailand marked the beginning of my return to India. I still had another week to go and I had planned spending it in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand.
Deva and I had landed in Don Mueang early in the evening and used up an irrecoverable hour of our lives standing in a line to get our visa. I never could understand why the Thais have not moved on to an e-visa process when countries with lesser resources have. The entire process is neater and smoother. Anyway, we had planned to take a train to Chiang Mai and when we checked the timings, we found that there was an overnight train that would leave from the Don Mueang railway station itself. We had managed to bypass Bangkok completely!
We killed a few hours getting from the airport to the railway station, stopping to eat, raid a 7Eleven but the train was late by around an hour. A Thai man sitting next to me on the platform complain about how the military government cared little for the citizens. I heard his stories while we waited since there was nothing else to do, unless you count swatting the buzzing mosquitoes. The train arrived eventually and we boarded it. This was my first time travelling in a Thai sleeper carriage and I was pleasantly surprised. It was rather luxurious with two tiered sleepers. The staff even came about to set up the beds!
Two Tier Luxury
The night was spent comfortably enough but come morning, both of us were looking for respite from the freezing air conditioner. We went to the pantry car where the open windows showed a Thailand unlike I had seen in my previous trips. Hills with misty tops and farmlands stretching far and green. I had heard good things about North Thailand and I was looking forward to seeing it myself.
Mountains and writing just go together
The train reached Chiang Mai a few hours later. The coaches spat out a throng of tourists. Deva and I managed to find a songthaew (shared taxi) which was willing to take us to the Old Town for a reasonable amount. Our fellow passengers were tourists who were not too willing to talk. Since we had not booked a hostel yet, we took a random drop in the Old Town and attended to the first order of business. Food!
Resuming the gastronomic affair
The food was delicious but I was taking my own sweet time to adjust to how expensive Thailand was. After 3 months in Vietnam and Cambodia, I was appalled at the price difference but I knew I would get used to it eventually. We also booked a hostel while we ate and headed over to the northern end of the Old Town.
The hostel was a neat little establishment and we freshened up before heading out to a co-working space. One of the main reasons for choosing Chiang Mai for this leg of the trip was to check out the digital nomad community that is making this Thai city one of it’s major hubs. Reaching Punspace, I realised why it was so. The entire experience was a seamless and affordable one. I managed to get some work done which felt nice after so many days of lethargy and inactivity. However, I think I am more of a cafe person.
Co-working spaces be like
We headed back to the Old Town towards the evening. There was a lively setup of food carts around the North Gate. The delicious smell had all our attention and we had our dinner there before moving forward.
We crossed over into the Old Town and were greeted with live music coming out of one of the places close by. This place was North Gate Jazz Co-op and it would go on to become our favourite hang out in the coming few days. It was a small establishment which was crowded with people of all ages and races. The place was so crowded that the sidewalk had to make do for us initially! The in house band played amazing jazz music with an unexpected amount of tightness.
All that Jazz!
We stayed for a beer and few songs and finally decided to hop when the band took a break. We made our way to the Pub Street and settled in Roots Rock Reggae for the night, a reggae bar with psychedelic ambiance. The band was playing some nice songs and despite the lack of a crowd, the place had nice vibes about it.
I remember going back to the hostel happy about having decided to come to Chiang Mai and knew that I was going to enjoy my week here.
Markets and a Malfunctioning AC
Mitesh came in early next morning and completed our big fat reunion. We booked a room big enough to fit the three of us in the Old Town and quickly moved our luggage to the new guest-house. There are not many options when you start looking for rooms to house more than two people. We rested a while and then decided to head out to the Chiang Mai market towards the east of the Old Town. The others wanted to get souvenirs and stuff while I had to replenish my depleting wardrobe. There was so much that I had learnt in the past few months regarding packing a backpack.
We wandered through the lanes of the market area looking at interesting touristy things. Deva suddenly realised that he was missing his phone and ran all the way to the place where we had broke for lunch. He had left it on the chair there but the owner had kept it safely for him. We shopped for some clothes as well and Mitesh bought a t-shirt that might have fitted him on a better day. Shopping can be fun if done right!
Markets in Asia have a chaotic feel to them which make them all the more mesmerising. Everyone around is playing an independent part to make a chaotic whole.
We walked back towards the Old Town and stopped to get Deva a tattoo. He must have been contemplating it for a while because he knew what he had to get and was strictly business about it. No haggling about the price, no seconds thoughts, no nothing. We were in and out within an hour with another member joining the inked community.
We hit the pub scene again that night after grabbing some dinner. North Gate Jazz Co-op was jam packed as usual.
North Gate Jazz Co-op
We sat there for a bit and then headed to the Pub Street, hopping from one place to another. It was an overdose of music that night. We heard all kinds of sounds, ranging for jazz, classic rock, space reggae, punk and metal, club and latin beats, all in one night! The last place in particular was pretty amazing! I never managed to learn what it was called. It is unlisted on the map and there was no board proclaiming it’s name outside. It was just an awesome place with a crowd that was charged well past midnight. The band played some amazing tunes and I joined the audience in dancing through the night.
I stood talking to some travellers after the band had called it a night. The Pub Street was dying but I managed to get an invite to another party that was going on somewhere. However, I was busy looking for Deva whom I had lost somehow. Mitesh had called it a night much earlier. Eventually I did find Deva and we went to grab a late dinner before heading to the room.
Here we found Mitesh sleeping comfortably despite a malfunctioning air conditioner. The compressor was not working and there was an unbearable rattling sound coming from the machine. We tried turning the AC off but the room had no windows or fan. The night went horribly there on. I was not able to get any sleep in the room so I went down to the lobby around 4 AM and found Deva trying to steal a standing fan. He gave up the effort and decided to sleep in the lobby itself. I was struggling with the mosquitoes so I decided to give up on sleep altogether and started reading.
Dawn broke in a few hours and I was waiting for the guest house staff to get up in order to tell them about the air conditioner. That took a while and by this time rains started pouring. It continued raining all morning so we had ditch our plans of heading out to a few places a bit further from the town. We amused ourselves by looking up weather forecasts and hopping coffee shops. With a sleep deprived head and rain washed plans, the morning was not particularly productive.
Half the day had passed before the rains let up, so we decided to roam around in the Old Town itself. Chiang Mai is famous for it’s temples and it has a LOT of them. There are temples everywhere; dotting the Old Town, all around it, on top of a hill, in a bunker, everywhere! Surprisingly though, almost all of these temples are extremely beautiful. There is a lot of detailed artwork and gold plated stupas. The temples see an impressive amount of patronage from the local populace and then there are the tourists, of course. We joined the throngs as they moved in and out of the temples, clicking pictures and admiring the beauty of the place. Some had beautiful murals on the walls and Buddha statues that were more than a thousand years old. It might be possible to spend days at end just wandering through the lanes of this town and exploring one temple after another.
There is a separate section on temples down below. Do check it out!
The famous Sunday market of Chiang Mai had set up by the time we were done with the temples. We walked around aimlessly enjoying the menagerie of experiences. ISCON bhakts chanted Hare Rama Hare Krishna while dancing on the streets, there were random street artists performing, people were getting express sketches made by artists, various interesting looking items were on display and sale.
We had managed to blow a considerable amount of money ere we covered the long stretch to the other side. I had completed my quota of souvenir shopping. On this side of the market, we had walked into an area full of food stalls. We decided to go crazy with the food. We had pork ribs, omelettes, sushis, papaya salad, pad thai, juice and more. For some reason I have been ravenously hungry ever since I had come to Thailand. Either the portions here were too small or something was wrong with me. My hunger proved insatiable again and I gave up on my effort to feel full.
The Art of Pad Thai
Mitesh returned to the room while Deva and I headed to North Gate once again to get our daily doze of jazz. I was too broke to drink so I stood on the pavement tapping my leg. Our favourite in-house guitarist was not playing tonight but the music was good anyway. We were tired with all the walking that we had done throughout the day and called it a night soon after. We returned to the hotel to find that our room situation had been sorted. The staff had given up on attempts to repair the AC and moved us to a double room which an extra bed thrown in. It was cozy and good enough for us so we settled in without complains.
Beyond the Old Town
The next day’s weather was more conducive for some tourist activities so we rented out bikes and headed out of town. One of the more famous temples of Chiang Mai is located on a hilltop to the west of the city. I enjoyed riding the gear-less bike but Mitesh, who was pillioning with me, had his qualms about my speed as we bent around the curves. 😅
The beautiful road wound around, climbing higher up the hill and ended at the foot of the temple. We parked our bikes and followed the inviting smell of waffles. I really loved those fresh made waffles and we filled ourselves with them.
Then came our turn to negotiate the 300 odd steps up to the actual temple. It is a daunting task when done on stomachs full of waffles but we managed it somehow. 😁
It's a long way to the top!
There were a lot of people out here. We had to buy tickets at the gate but it was not much of a hassle. We bought them and got inside. The temple was quite a spread on the top of the hill. There were various smaller shrines all around the main complex. We walked around and realised what the fuss was all about. There was an exhilarating view of the Chiang Mai city from up here. The entire countryside looked green and beautiful.
We walked around and clicked photos, some of which were stupid. 😎
After a complete circle of the compound, we entered the main building to find more people, a golden pagoda, lots of statues and monks performing ceremonies.
We did not spend much time in here. One quick round and we got out. We headed back down the steps and got our bikes from the parking. Then we headed down the slopes (I think Mitesh had gotten used to my riding by now 😄).
At the base of the hill was the Chiang Mai zoo that we had crossed earlier that day. We turned in and admitted ourselves.
When in Zoo
Armed with a map, we tried to figure out a route that would take us through all the exhibits that we wanted to see. Our primary goal was to see the Pandas! The sun was up high and neither the animals nor we, were happy about it. The Chiang Mai zoo was something of a disappointment. The animals did not seem well taken care of and some were positively cramped for space.
We walked about and eventually reached the Panda exhibit. Turned out that there was a separate ticket for this place. We paid that as well and walked in. The pandas were just beginning their lunch as we got in. They were extremely funny and adorable creatures. I had heard once that pandas were not extinct just because humans kept them alive for their cuteness. It seemed so true! I was having a hard time imagining how this animal would survive the wild.
🐼 Panda 🐼
We had some exclusive time with the pandas for a while before a wave of tourists swept in. The male panda ate his lunch and went to dose off in utter disregard of the spectators. The female seemed to be loving her audience’s attention and came forward to greet them. We had spent enough time in the area and went back out to face the heat of the day. The next on agenda was lunch. We stopped in the food court to have some food and laze around. Deva and Mitesh made the most of the empty cafeteria by lying down and taking power naps.
Post Lunch Trauma
We walked around a bit more after that. The zoo complex was well spread out and beautiful. We ran into a tusker around a corner. Despite it being with it’s mahout, I was reminded of the stories Heng had told us during the elephant walk in Sen Monorom. We stood to a side and let the massive beast walk by. Then we went and saw some more animals and birds, winding our way back to the exit where we had parked the bikes.
Love in Chiang Mai
We came back to the guest-house for a couple of hours of rest. Then we picked the bikes again and headed to the east of the town to check out the night market. It was a disappointment after the impressive Sunday market, so we walked around looking for a pub to sit in and enjoy a couple of drinks. Somehow we ended up by the river, on a beautifully lit iron bridge where a lot of locals seemed to be sitting and enjoying their evening. There was a hint of a breeze and a restaurant nearby was blaring pop music from the 90’s. We decided to sit down and enjoy the evening at the bridge.
It was only when the mosquitoes got the better of us that we got up and headed back to get our bikes and rode them to the guest house. Pub Street was alive as usual but we were too tired tonight. We settled for getting some Sang Som and brought it back to the room to drink and discuss society and capitalism. It had been a good day.
The next morning, Mitesh and I left a sleeping Deva behind to go and check out a few more temples that were remaining. We saw three of them and decided that we were officially done with the temples that this city had to offer. There was no doing them “all”.
Deva and Mitesh decided to head to a co-working space for the rest of the day and I decided to save some money and headed back to the room. I worked a bit and got a two hour sleep as well which my body desperately needed. When I woke up, I headed out to the computer bazaar where we had decided to meet up. It was a mini Nehru Place of sorts with all things electronic for sale.
Once our geekiness had been satisfied, we headed out to the street food stalls next to the North Gate. All of us were almost out of cash and had decided to wait till the morning to exchange dollars instead of withdrawing from the ATMs. Consequently, the food seemed a little expensive and we ended up eating papaya salad and mango with sticky rice.
After dinner Mitesh headed back to the room and I followed my nightly ritual with Deva to drop by the North Gate Jazz Co-op. Tonight was open mic. The two of us sipped on water, the only thing we could afford, while we watched some talented individuals put up impressive performances.
Since Deva was craving for some Oreo ice-cream, we got a tub from a 7Eleven on our way back. We woke up a sleeping Mitesh to finish it up and debated on what was so special about Oreo. We eventually agreed that Oreo was like Vodka, tasteless by itself by a good mixer for anything else! 😜
The next day was our last in Chiang Mai and we had something planned for it. We had decided to take a cooking class and surprisingly all three of us had been enthusiastic about it. So we had booked it the previous evening and headed to the place after checking out from our guest house and dropping the bags at the reception with the ever laughing receptionist. She had a very unique way of laughing which had amused us all. 😄
The cooking class was a typical touristy affair. Our instructor, Sui, was a lady of dry humor and she walked the class through the basics of Thai cooking. There were 8 other people apart from us, mostly English and females. We learnt about the Thai spices and then took a trip to the market to see what ingredients went into cooking the amazing food.
We spent some time there and then headed back to the class to start some cooking. All of us had been here since 9 AM and were somewhat hungry. Fortunately, we were eating as we were cooking.
We learnt how to cook stir fried, the Thai curries, spring rolls and sticky rice with mango. The cooking class somehow made it seem easy but when I tried it back home, I found out that the real challenge was procuring those ingredients! 😑
Pounding on a mortar to make the red curry paste was probably my favourite bit. Everyone took turns to do the hard work and the result was well worth the effort. All of us enjoyed the cooking class and returned to the guest house with stuffed stomachs.
Eventually it was time to head to the railway station in order to catch our train out of Chiang Mai. We reached the station with time on our hands so we decided to eat some more. There really is no end to our gluttony. Around 6 PM, we boarded the train that was headed south. The journey was an uneventful one, with the train rumbling down the dark rail corridor. We sat in our berths, reading, working and talking about life like old friends always manage to.
Temples of Chiang Mai
Wat Lok Molee was the first temple that I saw on the way to our hostel. The white casting against the red brickwork looked amazingly beautiful and simple.
Wat Lok Molee
Wat Umong Mahathera Chan was similarly right next to our guest-house in the Old Town. It was another one of those nice smaller temples that was not very crowded.
Wat Umong Mahathera Chan
Wat Chiang Man was the first of the bigger temples that we saw. Apart from the scale, there was a certain charm in how the old dilapidated structures and fading murals mixed with the renovated work.
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Phra Singh was bigger still. The golden stupa was positively dazzling. But for me, the highlight of this temple were the wax statues of monks whom I mistook for living figures. Such unreal level of detailing!
Wat Phra Singh
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is on top a hill 15 km west of Chiang Mai. The drive was amazing and the temple was worth the 309 step climb. There are waffles at the base of the temple to get you started. 😄 The view of the city from up top makes the trip worth the while.
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
Wat Umong was mostly built underground and had chambers connected by tunnels. It is a little way out of town and there are very few tourists here. The natural setting makes it all the more peaceful.
Wat Suan Dok is massive! The size of the main temple is mind boggling. Then there are the whitewashed mausoleums to one side that add grace to the setup.
Wat Suan Dok
Wat Phan Tao was mostly made of wood and bamboo. It was interesting in it’s own sense.
Wat Phan Tao
It is amazing how all the temples in Chiang Mai strive to maintain their uniqueness despite, or perhaps because of, how they pepper the map.
There are more pictures in the album below. 😊
Whether you enjoyed the post or not, do leave a comment!
Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Chiang Mai leg of the trip.