Sunday, August 24, 2014

Chiang Mai -- The Jewel of Northern Thailand

Last week I saw a Friday holiday on my Korean work calendar, which of course meant that I needed to find another place in Asia to explore! I chose Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and was not disappointed.

Thankfully, there is a well-placed evening Korean Air flight from Seoul to Chiang Mai, which put me in at about 11pm on Thursday evening. The immigration line at Chiang Mai airport was slow, due to a horde of Chinese tourists which arrived just before my flight, but thankfully at the end of the process my Vietnamese girlfriend Xuanhoa, who had flown in from Ho Chi Minh City via Bangkok, was waiting for me.

Wat Phra Singh
We took a taxi to the boutique hotel that I had booked on Agoda, tucked away on a quiet side street in the old city of Chiang Mai. The hotel was not easy for taxi or tuk-tuk drivers to find, but I liked the quiet location in a quaint residential neighborhood. And Xuanhoa had prepared balloons and cake for my (early) birthday! Though I was exhausted from a long workday and 5-hour flight, I felt very welcome.

Friday started slowly for us, and we eventually walked around the old city near our hotel to find a Thai food restaurant for lunch, operated by an old, thin expat and what seemed like his Thai wife. Such cafe/restaurants are common in Chiang Mai. Actually, the city appears to have a booming expat scene, boosted by Bohemian tourists who decide that life is better operated at a northern Thai pace. Given the friendly and calm nature of the city, I can't blame these expats for settling there.

Full from a tasty and healthy Thai curry lunch, we wandered to the Wat Phra Singh, an impressive Buddhist temple in the old city built in the northern Thai (Lanna) style. Most Thais are practicing Buddhists and I could see several Buddhists, including Xuanhoa, bowing their heads in front of the Buddha statues. Thai Buddhist temples are quite different from Korean Buddhist temples — a lot more color, spires, and gold-painted thin Buddha statues with the deities wearing pointy hats — rather than the fat, bald, happy Buddhas which one would see in Korea or Hong Kong.

Doi Suthep
From here, I decided we should go see the most fascinating temple in Chiang Mai — Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep — situated in the mountains overlooking the valley that Chiang Mai sits in. One cannot leave Chiang Mai without ascending up the mountain to see the gold-plated pagoda, and the view of Chiang Mai below. Reaching Doi Suthep was a bit challenging. We convinced a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the nearby Chiang Mai zoo for 80 baht, then found a songthaew (red pickup truck with covered bench seating in the back) to take us up and down the mountain for 200 baht, stopping along the way for 45-60 minute stops at a hill tribe village and the Bhuping Palace Gardens. Nothing photoworthy in the hill tribe village — just little shops and the pathetic Doi Pui "waterfall". The palace gardens, a royal retreat in the winter for the Thai monarchy, were pretty and green though the palace buildings themselves were quite dull. We also got caught in a brief afternoon rain shower, but considering we were visiting Chiang Mai during summer rainy season we got rather lucky with the weather during our 3-day trip.

Doi Suthep made the trip up the hill totally worth the effort. It has a spectacular pointed gold pagoda surrounded by elegant buildings and statues nearby. Though mobbed by tourists in the late afternoon, you can still feel the holiness of the place as you walk around in your bare feet, see the Buddhist imagery and the Buddhist believers praying nearby.

Back in town, Xuanhoa and I changed for a Friday evening dinner date with my Samsung colleague Reg, who had booked a reservation at the Dhara Dhevi hotel, a 20-minute drive outside the city. When we arrived I felt we had arrived at a royal palace... the architecture is spectacular! The restaurant did not disappoint — delicious curries and stir fry dishes delighted our palates. And we were treated to an entertaining traditional dance and music performance as well. We certainly paid tourist prices (3600 baht for 3 people with cocktails), but totally worth the journey.

Traditional dance and music at the Dhara Dhevi hotel
On Saturday, Xuanhoa had booked us for an elephant tour at a rural camp about an hour away from the city. Interestingly, our tour group consisted almost entirely of Middle Eastern tourists, and we were led by a very smiley Thai lady nicknamed "Gift". The camp we visited, Chok Chai, was mobbed by Chinese tourists and offered its fair share of kitschy time-fillers: a ride down an ugly muddy river on a bamboo raft (without life jackets!) and a ride on a ox-drawn carriage along a dull highway. We did get a photo op on the back of an adorable baby elephant, then watched a rather silly elephant show. We all had the opportunity to pay to feed bananas and sugarcane to the grown elephants, then we watched a 30-minute show of elephants standing on their hind legs, elephants kicking soccer balls, elephants painting, elephants dancing to "Gangnam Style". It was certainly cheesy.

The tour guide then herded us onto a 2-person seat on the back of a very large elephant, who was guided down a steep, muddy river valley into the raging river below. The whole time I was fearing falling off the elephant or being thrown off in an elephant act of rage, but thankfully our elephant was well-behaved. Though the elephants were huge creatures and probably could carry far more than the weight of 2 people on their backs, with all the tourists churning through this tourist factory the Chok Chai camp felt a bit exploitative. I didn't see any signs of elephant abuse, but I couldn't help wondering how these elephants were treated when the tourists weren't around.

After a buffet lunch, we left the elephant camp in the afternoon for a couple other kitschy tourist traps outside of the city. First, we stopped at a Karen long neck tribe village. The women in this village wear heavy copper rings around their necks to elongate them. These women eat, sleep ... basically spend their whole lives wearing these rings. Painful to see! The handicrafts that the Karen women made looked nice but I was not in the mood to purchase, and it is clear that the Karen moved to near Chiang Mai to be closer to tourist dollars. We then stopped at Tiger Kingdom, full of tigers in cages who look sedated, particularly the larger tigers. People pay to get pictures with these zombie tigers, but I did not want to support this zoo. Granted, the tigers in captivity may have better lives than tigers in the wild, but still I did not find the Tiger Kingdom to be super pleasant.

Look how adorable the baby elephant is! I hope he is treated well at the camp...
When we finally returned to town we had the elephant van drop us off in front of the Wat Chedi Luang temple in the center of the Chiang Mai old city. Another very impressive temple, adorned with ferocious-looking dragons on the outside. In the evening, we reunited with Reg and ate at a delicious vegetarian restaurant named Anchan in the trendy Nimmanhamin Road area just outside of the old city. The restaurant's slogan, "You Won't Miss The Meat," proved accurate! We finished the evening at the North Gate Jazz Co-Op, watching expats jamming out tunes in front of a mixed tourist/local audience. Not your typical Thai tourist night out, but the music was decent and Xuanhoa had never heard live jazz before, so was worth the trip. Xuanhoa and I finished our night by taxiing to Reg's hotel, Le Meridien, and walking around the night bazaar nearby.

On Sunday, having already checked off the major tourist attractions, Xuanhoa and I decided to rent a motorbike to drive ourselves around a bit. Super cheap: 150 baht for the rental (with 1000 baht deposit) and 100 baht to fill the tank with gas. Definitely the cheapest self-mobility vehicle I have come across in my travels! We were able to wander a bit outside of the old city with the bike, with the highlight of our afternoon definitely being the Wat Suan Dok on the western part of town. Another grand temple, this one was decorated with much pointier tops than the other temples. Actually, the design sort of reminded me of the Mormon temple in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. But, all in all it was a lazy Sunday. We drank coffee and treated ourselves to Thai massages, which are always painful for me!

At least this elephant seemed happy...
3 days was enough to take in Chiang Mai, but not enough to have a restful vacation. I slept about 3 hours on the overnight flight back to Seoul and reported dutifully into work on Monday morning, exhausted and wishing I had more time to explore the jewels of Southeast Asia.

1 comment:

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