Have you ever experienced the sadness of leaving a place that you knew had etched a permanent beauty in your soul.
I felt that immense sadness as I bid adieu to my host Chaibutr in Chiang Mai and left for the airport.
When I was researching extensively on Thailand and the places to travel to, I found very few Indians talking about Chiang Mai, while a lot of Western people recommended Chiang Mai as an absolute not-to-miss wonder. So I decided to travel to Chiang Mai too, along with the mandatory beaches in the South. After wandering in Bangkok for two days, I expected Chiang Mai to be the same, another bustling city. To tell the truth, I didn’t like Bangkok much, it was the same as any other city like Mumbai or Delhi, crowded and tiring to explore around.
But Chiang Mai was a pleasant surprise, right from the first moment when I entered the city moats. As soon as we landed in Chiang Mai airport, the vibes had become slower and more relaxed.
When we checked the distance from the airport to our Airbnb stay, we saw Grab and Uber cars available. Grab was new for us , and they were offering discounts on first ride, so we booked a Grab taxi. A Nissan Juke arrived immediately. The driver was very helpful and as the car moved, there was soothing oriental music playing and I immediately began to appreciate the views outside.
The First look of the old city:
Chiang Mai’s old city is surrounded by wall ruins and moat in a rectangular fashion. It was so picturesque, there was hardly any traffic on the road and the weather was pleasant even in March because Chiang Mai is located in the northern mountains of Thailand.
I must tell you a fact of traveling.
Fact- Your experience in a city is often influenced by the people you interact with. The kinder the people, the more memorable the place.
Our host Chaibutr who we met on Airbnb was the quintessential soul of Thailand. Amazing fact about her- She had worked all her life in Aditya Birla in Bangkok, so when she found out that we were Indians, she was so happy to host us. Her favourite line was “Chale Chalo!!”
She deserves a post all by herself.
Once we settled into our homestay, we decided to venture out on our own. Just outside our lane, we happened on a local stall where a kind lady was setting up hot water to boil. It looked like an extension of their living quarters. The lady smiled at us, and I asked, “Food?” She pointed out to several noodles in the counter and meat. I told her- “Fish for me, and pork for my friend.” And pointed out to all the kinds of noodles, by which I hoped she understood that I needed whatever she thought was best for me.
The result was food that makes my mouth water as I write about it.
After the food, we wandered around the streets, and banged on a locked door outside a shop that said, “Bike for rent”. Suddenly, a scooter passing by stopped, and pointed to his seat. We didn’t understand and he didn’t know English. But since it was daytime and there was no fear of anything going wrong, we sat on his bike, and he took us to the other corner of the old city to a bike shop that was open. How kind of him!
We rented the bike. The advantage was that the bike shop was also a local tour agency, with an array of pamphlets about local day trips on display ranging from elephant camps to tiger kingdom to underground temples. The girls knew a little bit of english, and gave advice like, “Police may catch you khaa. Give only 400 Baht, get day pass khaa, no more than 400 khaa. Wear helmet always khaa, show Indian license khaaa.” It was so sweet, the khaaa in the end. I think “Kha” is a polite ending for a female.
I had no intention of spending money by taking a local tour with an agency, so I asked her for the map of Chiang Mai, and she gave one to me. Not only that, she circled all the places that I wanted to visit along with directions.
Now armed with a map in hand, helmet in head, we started on our first day trip to Doi Suthep temple which was 30km away.
Wat Phra Singh
There are pictures here that show Chiang Mai in the past centuries and how much change it has undergone since its capital days.
My favorite, of this Siamese cat in Wat Phra Singh lazing around
Bike ride to Doi suthep
Once on the road again, we rode towards the mountain of Doi Suthep which was a breezy and slightly cold ride as you go higher up.
On the way, you will glimpse Chiang Mai university where Ice, Chaibutr’s daughter studied Psychology. Also, I glimpsed some zoos and waterfall boards on the way.
Once at the top, you reach Wat Phra Doi Suthep
You have to climb 309 steps to the Pagoda. A hawker aunty tried to sell me an authentic meditation bowl that made a unique soothing music. I really wanted to buy it, but it was a bit beyond my budget. I regret it now.
We had mango smoothies and climbed up.
We wanted to spend the evening exploring the food markets of Chiang Mai, so we headed back to the city.
Evening in Chiang Mai
Evenings are the best time to explore Chiang Mai on bike or on foot.
The food markets will just be setting up, Didgeridoo bands will be playing in the old city wall grounds. The authentic, relaxed feel of the markets where everyone would be eating out, coupled with the feel of the green water in the moats. We came upon Chiang Mai gate market, where the smell of spicy Thai food was wafting in the air. It was the best place to be in the evening.
The night ends only at 11 pm, but till then we kept hanging out at one night market after another, hunting souvenirs at bargains. I did a good deal of shopping here, because the prices were better.
We visited Anusarn night market which was big enough to keep us occupied for the night.
A chance encounter with the famous Lady boys of Thailand
As I was haggling with a lady for a ripped shorts, my friend suddenly screamed at me and said, “There…!” I didn’t know what happened. He said, “I saw a lady boy. Beautiful one.” And next I started running through the street to catch a glimpse of them. We had decided that we will not go to Pattaya or Patpong or any of the sex tourism areas of Thailand. But I used to wonder about the famed lady boys and thought I will never see them in my travel considering the way I was avoiding the areas where they performed.
I ran fast and saw them. Four of them, and one of them blew my breath away literally. She was so beautiful, I can never doubt her gender. She was a goddess. They were handing out pamphlets to passersby, and taking selfies with people. I kept nudging my friend to go ahead and get a pamphlet from them. He was scared, as was I. After observing them for a long time, I went ahead and said “Hello.” The one who appeared like the leader said, “I am Lily. We have opened the first cabaret show in Chiang Mai, in Anusarn Market at 10pm. Please come. Thank you.” I took the pamphlet and we smiled and ran away.
My friend yelped in excitement, “We talked to Lady boys!!”
First Day in Chiang Mai ends:
We were tired. We decided to go to the cabaret show the next night. We were really excited. We planned to wake up early and go to the morning market, and from there up in the mountains to a little village where Hmong tribals still lived. Hmong people are ethnic tribe from mountainous region of China who migrated and settled in Laos, Vietnam and North Thailand.
As soon as we drove back to our stay, Chaibutr came out to urge me to have authentic Thai tea and her cinnamon bread with honey. We chatted with her, and then went upstairs to have a good night’s sleep.
I was happy that I still had two more days in beautiful Chiang Mai.
I made a youtube video of our bike ride along the Chiang Mai moat, you can check it below.