After a hectic Bangkok experience, I headed up via nightbus (even in second class, the plushest bus trip I’ve ever made) to Chiang Mai in the north. This is Thailand’s second biggest city and former capital of the Lanna kingdom pre-unification; a prized university town and cultural centre comprising an old walled city and its modern outsprawl.
I stayed in a basic little guest house in the old centre, close to the cultural action, and passed a brilliant few days soaking up the city. The pace of life here feels surprisingly slow, considering the size and significance of the place, and the strong tourist and expat presence seems to blend pretty nicely with the local rhythm. Wandering and cycling along the myriad of charming soi (laneways), you encounter a temple at every turn- some grandiose and touristed, others more private and serving as primary schools, monks’ university campuses and local meeting places.
I did my fair share of temple touring- almost to the point where all the wats became one- which both spiked my Buddhist curiosity and sated my temple appetite for a long, long time. Wat Phra Singh is the city’s principle, most famous temple- a large complex of a main and many sub-shrines, exquisitely designed and decorated in way which you surprisingly quickly become accustomed (and even numbed) to out here. As I arrived at the end of the day, tourists were departing and the whole area was overrun in orange by the resident shuffling monks- some sage and sober looking older men, and many young, chatting boys deeply involved in their smartphones. True modern spirituality…
Wat Chedi Leung was an impressive site, hosting the largest chedi/stupa in the country, and now a romantic set of crumbling ruins, though the temple highlight by far was Doi Suthep, set dramatically on a hill overlooking the city. After a long climbing taxi ride out of town, and a grand 300-step staircase, the visitor is rewarded with eyefuls of gleaming gold and spectacular views over the landscape below.
This place was a hubbub of ritual, with some devotees circling the great golden chedi chanting and carrying flowers, others pouring oils into a trough flanked with varyingly posed Buddhas, others lighting incense at shrines… And I of course took the chance to get involved- inside one of the temples, a friendly old monk was dutifully chanting and flicking water over devotees, and called me over for a sprinkling. A sign next to him read, “Holy cotton- make success everything you want”, which seemed like either a tantalising promise or a slightly un-Buddhist commandment; either way, I signed up for that too and am still sporting a grubby little piece of magical string around my wrist. I really do need to get to grips with the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy and practice while I’m over here- right now it’s fascinating but yet overwhelmingly unfamiliar.
In other cultural wanderings, I gave some time to the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre, housed now in the former Lanna palace. An impressive establishment, though not a scratch on your standard European museum, it provided plentiful interactive displays documenting the history of the city from prehistoric to present- most interesting I thought were displays describing the ancient Buddhist/pagan principles for the design of the city, based on miracles and myths and cardinal points and layers of age-old symbolism. They don’t do things by halves, out here… I also spent time wandering the local markets and bookshops- and broke my no-souvenir policy to buy some bargain silk scarves in the bustling night bazaar (distinctly less bargainous when sent home, since even Thai international postage is NOT cheap…). Cultural highlight of the city, however, was possibly my first proper Thai massage- an hour’s pampering (and admittedly, episodes of less comfortable skeleton cracking) at a 5*esque spa cost me all of £4, and I’d go back for another in an instant…
Eating was a particular adventure up here- despite suffering two charming episodes of food disagreements, and taking refuge a couple of times in the Thapei Gate’s Macdonald’s, I had some wonderful and weird local fare. Best of all was the gigantic portion of spicy fish and noodle soup I ate for breakfast at a very local market the morning I arrived, for all of 40p (and incidentally, not the cause of aforementioned discomfort).
I also discovered the joys of sticky rice, which you can get in blue, green, pink, purple, yellow (dyed naturally by flowers)- and exotically wrapped in banana leaf. And alongside a proliferation of indulgent curries, it was here I tried my first local roti- a fantastic fried crepe concoction that they often serve with nutella (my weaknesses follow me), which is proving the downfall of my waistline already. Then there was the bizzare Vegetarian Centre- a wonder of a tucked away local canteen/market, operating totally in Thai, where hearty and wholesome serve-your-own veggie meals range from free (yes, really) to about 20 pence. I left the city pretty sated… Due to the abundance of rather chasey street dogs out here, plus a hint of heat wimpishness, I haven’t even been running once yet- lucky the north is the country’s trekking heartland, really.