More on that later. First, let me tell you about Chiang Mai.
I don't have a lot of time--work is overwhelming this week--but I'll try to be as descriptive as I can. Chiang Mai is far smaller than Bangkok, and far more relaxed. You can actually walk around. On the other hand, the entire town is geared primarily toward tourists. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing--in fact, it's often convenient.
<rant> I hate it when people go searching for "authentic" experiences. Is the Eiffel Tower any less authentic because people hawk keychains in front of it? Is it any less the structure that it's meant to be? Of course not. But whenever tourists visit countries where the people aren't primarily white, they're immediately upset that their experience hasn't been authentic enough. What are you looking for, exactly? Dire poverty? Do you want people to reject modern conveniences simply so that they can appear quaint to you? That. Is. Racist. </rant>
Okay--enough ranting. Here are my favorite things about Chiang Mai:
- New Friends - At my hostel, I was fortunate enough to meet the effervescent Rupal (from England) and the sweet Anca (from Germany), two other solo female travelers who quickly became my companions. We were practically inseparable, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.
- Elephants - As far as activities are concerned, this was easily the highlight of my trip to Chiang Mai. On Rupal & Anca's recommendation, I visited Happy Elephant Home, a small elephant sanctuary about an hour north of the city. They have only five pachyderms--three adults and two babies--all of whom have been rescued from mining and logging companies or trekking camps. What's more, I was one of only three people on the afternoon tour. We started by chopping up some sugarcane with machetes. Yeah, that's right--I said machetes. (I'm really bad at using a machete, you guys--but not dangerously bad.) Then we went to feed our new friends, who are basically gigantic dogs. They just want to eat your food. They will poke you with their trunks until you give them the food. It was magical. I have video and I will watch it whenever I am sad for the rest of my life.
- Ploen Ruedee Night Market - Most markets in Southeast Asia are largely the same, and quite frankly, I'm about marketed out at this point. But Ploen Ruedee Night Market is different. The focus is more on food than on clothing or souvenirs, and its many booths feature cuisine both from Thailand and from around the world. The small square where it takes place is strewn with different kinds of tables, and even bales of hay, all centered around a stage where live bands play. Strings of festive flags and lights dangle from one end to the other. It was right next door to my hostel, and I wouldn't have even known it was there if it weren't for Rupal and Anca--it was through an unmarked door and behind a wall. Chiang Mai's regular Night Bazaar is a well-known hotspot for tourists, and I visited that, too--Anca and I discovered we were both pretty good Jenga players over a round of 90 baht mojitos--but Ploen Ruedee was still my favorite. It's basically for hipsters, so it's slightly more expensive--but not absurdly so.
- North Gate Jazz Co-Op - This little hole-in-the-wall jazz place is simply delightful. Bands play every night at 9 and 11 p.m., and there isn't a lot of seating, so the crowd usually spills into the street. We were sitting upstairs--a little harder to see the bands, but still fun. In my last post, I mentioned that I might go to North Gate or to a rock club frequented by locals. That night I did go to the rock club, Nabe--and I was disappointed. It was indeed frequented by locals, but I must have come on weepy acoustic night. It was just this one guy up there with his guitar, and while he had a nice voice, it made me a bit depressed. I left after his Simon & Garfunkel medley.
- Temples - Like most cities in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai has some spectacular temples. But personally, I preferred some of its less famous temples to the ones more commonly frequented by tourists--they were just prettier. Wat Bupparam, right next to my hostel, was very old and very beautiful. And Wat Phan Tao is entirely made of teak. At Wat Chedi Luang, one of the more famous temples, I did get to participate in Monk Chat, which is exactly what it sounds like. I sat down and chatted with some monks for a while--novices who were trying to practice their English. And while Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was ridiculously busy, it had spectacular city views, since it's on top of a nearby mountain. I'm very glad we took a taxi instead of hiking the monk's trail. Too hot.