Imagine Asheville, North Carolina in the summer (for those who can), the city of my birth and hometown for 18 formative years. Rolling green mountains, haunted by mists in the early and late in the day, a vibrantly diverse but quaint city center and a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and extreme sports addicts. Now add to that image: elephants, tigers, delectable Thai cusine and everything for one-thirtyith the price. Ladies and gentleman, this is no fantasy, this is Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
Close to the borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand. With a population of around 160,000 but boasting close to one-million inhabitants in its sprawling low-profile urban area, the citys epicenter is still surrounded by remnants of square brick fortress walls and a moat (which is apparently good for fishing) since in the early centuries Chiang Mai was constantly at war with Burma and in the 1500s was temporarily occupied by the Burmese.
My Chiang Mai experience has been a good one, so there will most likely be several posts dedicated to my weeklong stay here. It all started with disembarking from the train and then deciding to walk from one end of town to the other (where my $30, 4 star, pre-booked hotel lie in wait). The climate was a few degrees cooler than Bangkok so walking and sightseeing seemed to be a suitable option, even though I was toting my 50lbs of luggage.
Much like Asheville, I crossed the muddy Ping river that lie adjacent to the city and I could see the misty green peaks in the distance that reminded me of mine own Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon I came upon the city center’s eastern gate, or what was left of it.
Perusing the streets and many Wats I came across, I was surprised at both the lack of tall buildings and apparent age of the structure that were still within the confines of the old walls.
It took me a good 30 mins to walk from east gate to west gate and then another 15 to make it to my hotel, The Furama Chiang Mai. First, a quick review of The Furama. Excellent overall, well deserving of the 4 stars. Huge room, panoramic view of the city, western bathroom, 2 separate pools (including a rooftop pool), decent fitness center and the coup de grace: free high speed WiFi. All for the neat price of $30 per night.
Over the course of the subsequent 3 day 2 night stay at The Furama, I spent most of my time catching up with online business, writing and hanging out with the Australian ladies I met on the train.
Each night consisted of a famed Chiang Mai, “Night Bazaar”. Saturday night was the standard nightly street market with local stalls set up outside the city gates east side. Most of the goods were the typical knock-off handbags, watches, shoes, jewelry and EPL jerseys. The difference in Chiang Mai is that there are serious deals to be had if you are an experienced haggler. I like to think I showed the Aussie girls a few good sales tactics and helped them get season 6 of Greys Anatomy for around $12. We soon tired of getting hassled by vendors (at least we weren’t being asked to go to Ping-Pong shows) so we headed off to a famed rooftop bar for some beverages and I had the privilege of buying the girls their first Thai bucket drink.
The real action comes around every Sunday night in Chiang Mai, when inside the walls of the city the center streets are shut down to traffic and a street market of mammoth proportions takes place.
There are vendors selling handmade goods and souvenirs as well as all the lovely northern Thai food, fruits, vegetables and meats. There is even a small carnival set up for children that includes a mini ferris wheel and a bounce house. There was a noticeable lack of the typical street vendors hocking the off-brand touristy goods, I think they relegate those schemesters to outside the city walls on this night. The Sunday night bazaar is obviously a big attraction for tourists to visit, but for the most part this is a celebration for the Thai locals of Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas to come together, sell their goods to one another and see and be seen about town. There are also a variety of street performers, singers, dancers and here is a video of a full band:
Around 10pm the night bazaar starts to close down and the people go home. Westerners (or party loving Thais) can then go to a number of bars operated by expats from around the globe. There is an American themed saloon (featuring last years NFL games), a UN Irish Pub, a Mikes Burgers, and a bar called The Wall, dedicated to Pink Floyd.
When Monday comes around all returns to normal and the people and tourists of Chiang Mai pick back up their hiking boots, mountain bikes, kayak paddles, climbing harnesses, etc., and go about enjoying the natural wonders of nature that Chiang Mai has to offer. I have been enjoying these wonders myself and I will be posting more about the adventures, jungles, cuisine and tigers of this beautiful area. Here is just a little teaser for you cat lovers