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Chiangmai Surprise

Chiangmai, Northern Thailand

Situated a breezy 316-metres up the hills and 700-kilometres from the stifling heat of Bangkok lies Thailand’s cultural jewel, Chiangmai.

While considered a city, its ambient feel is that of a lovely old town of compact neighbourhoods, small alleyways, a constellation of charming Wats (temples), a colourful streetlife, a fun night scene, and energetic night bazaars.

Temple at the Heart of Chiangmai’s Old Town

Chiangmai is reminiscent of charming old sections of European towns but with a distinctive Thai-style. This is the beating heart of the real Thailand. Except for the dreadlocked blond and blue-eyed British traveller who told all within earshot that he was a true Rastafarian, mon. There’s a million of these sorts on The Banana Pancake Trail. All amazing people. All good for a laugh

The centre of life in Chiangmai revolves around the walled city (Chiang Mai means “New Walled City”). The entire compound is surrounded by a moat.

Walking along the perimeter, one still finds many sections of the old tower gates and the crumbling yet still distinct remnants of the ancient city wall. Within these gates lie the city’s finest Wats interspersed with guesthouses, fruit juice stands, exceptional restaurants (try Huen Phen resto across the school), markets and bazaars, plus Thai-massage spas. Chiangmai’s got  an overall funky and cool vibe.

Oh yes, and there’s that group of 2-metre tall Dutch backpacking chaps who have now achieved Gandhi-esque gravitas upon spending 3-days in a life-changing hilltribe trek; their claim to fame having skinned rodents during the trip. Life just isn’t the same since, as evidenced by the dramatic change in attire; gone are the western methods of dress, they now wear fisherman’s pants matched with Beer Chang tee-shirts. True Asians to the core.

Chiangmai is reminiscent of all the charms of quaint old sections of European towns but with a distinctive Thai-style. This is the beating heart of the real Thailand.

Cosmo Chiangmai

Happy House Guesthouse, just a few steps from Phra Pokklao Alley’s Julie’s Guesthouse (where everyone and their mother’s cats’ cousins footstool seems to have made their residence), is a charmingly small guesthouse of ten rooms and a breakfast nook that opens to the small street. The owner speaks English exceptionally well, is extremely helpful, and doesn’t burden her guests with a hardsell on the ubiquitous tribal treks and all the little tours Chiangmai’s strong tourism infrastructure has on offer. She’s quite content to have a lovely chat and is a wealth of information.

The usual sumptuous Thai fare of paad thai noodles, spring rolls, and papaya salad served by the Happy House guesthouse kitchen is quite lush especially when paired with the ice-cold Singha. Singha just goes so well with everything, including fried grasshoppers, bubble gum, khao soi, potato chips, and debris from a dilapidated Michelin tyre. Ok, perhaps not the potato chips.

Most of the main temples are within walking distance around the old city. Wat Chedi Luang is the most impressive; an 86-metre tower that was reconstructed from its ruined state. It looks magnificent to this day. A charming ornate temple behind it goes to show that lovely things come in small packages. The little temple was the most beautiful of the lot. I wanted to take it home and give it to my nan which I think she would quite fancy…with a Singha.

The eye of Chiangmai’s nightly shopping hurricane is the appropriately named Chiangmai Night Bazaar, called so because: it happens in Chiangmai; at night; and is a bazaar. Laser accuracy at its finest.

It’s got quite a bit of history behind it too.

The Chiangmai Night Bazaar (along the intersection of Loi Kroh and Chang Klan Road)  is a distant echo of the old Yunnanese caravan trading trails that stretched from Southern China to Burma (at its Indian Ocean coastline).

And you can buy everything here. The intricately woven Hmong Tribe bags, blankets, and jackets (a paradigm shift in profession from Hmong people having planted opium poppies previously) were ludicrously cheap at 280-baht for the bags to 800-baht for the jackets. The fastidiously-crafted elephant carving made of wood and non-precious gemstones went for 750-baht. This inflated in price to 1650-baht upon reaching the duty-free shops of the Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The Ferrari F-50 at 3,750-baht…was not available.

Breakfast View from Happy House Guesthouse

Tired from shopping? The food restaurants around the night bazaar serve the finest freshest seafood and the most

Chiangmai Charm, Chiangmai Class

wonderfully spicy Thai dishes cooked to perfection. Fresh strawberries and strawberry shakes abound. Thailand’s northern  region grows these succulent red kisses of culinary lust.

If all that isn’t enough, the ultimate in Chiangmai bargain-hunting is the Sunday Market  (Th Ratchadamnoen) within the old city wall. It is a colossally festive affair. Food stalls abound in culinary glory just outside the city wall: barbecued meats, paad thai, curries, Chiangmai sausages, grilled squid, mango w/stick rice, you could eat for hours.

The market/haggling starts at 2pm and ends 10pm. On offer are all the wonderful Hilltribe arts, crafts, and clothing. Unbelievably cheap and exceptional quality.

Street performers attempt everything from classical thai dance to Motown covers to launching a satellite into space. A magnificently-restored bright-orange VW Kombi is converted into a mobile coffee shop.

Need a massage? There’s hundreds of lazyboy chairs and masseuses providing nirvana on their fingers transferred to your abused feet for 200 baht per blissful hour. Save your money for this once-a-week event, definitely.

The eye of Chiangmai’s nightly shopping hurricane is the apt-named Chiangmai Night Bazaar, called so because: it happens in Chiangmai; at night; and is a bazaar. Laser accuracy at its finest.

Chiangmai’s party nightlife is busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. The backpacker boozecruise involves a required visit to the rooftop THC bar, a hippie/reggae bar just outside the eastern perimeter of the walled city. Going up the four flights of steps to the roofdeck, you’re treated to a visual delight of locally-designed graffiti. A British backpacker designed a mural of spray paint  in exchange for free Sangsom buckets. Bring back the barter system, I say!

Kombi Coffee

THC Bar is a low-ceiling convivial affair with wall-to-wall Thai straw mats for the sitting and the flirting. It’s THE place to meet other backpackers.

From THC, boozing cruisers head for Lucky Bar just a 50 metre walk ahead. The front portion of Lucky’s has a pool table and a small bar. Explore a little bit more and a little alley in the back leads to a nightclub with trance music squealing louder than a pig-slaughter in a Mae Hong Son piggery. One of those places that has to be experienced than talked about.

Riverside Restaurant (TH Charoenrat) confects beautiful meals amidst lovely interiors. The seared duck and sweet and sour Pla are ready for the devouring. It’s a nice place for dinner and has a good live cover band. The crowd really gets into the music, most likely trying to burn off the luscious meal.

Brasserie just a few steps down the street is the crossroad for blues music aficionados, with famous Thai bluesmaster Took cookin up sweet riffs ala Hendrix, Dylan, Clapton et al. Quite enjoyable. The thing with blues though, after an hour or so, it’s the musicians who enjoy the playing,while the listener’s just plain depressed and bored as an iron ore shaft in Borneo. Too much pentatonic makes you catatonic.

Certainly the gem and sweet surprise of Chiangmai’s nightlife is Rasta Bar on the north side of the old city wall. This is where Chiangmai’s mod and ska scene meet. Exceptionally-restored Lambrettas and Vespas are parked outside. The in-house band is smokin’. Fantastic covers of Sublime, The Beat, The Specials with Thai ska thrown into the mix. The crowd is sociable and free-spirited. It’s legitimate local-flavour in all its youthful glory.

Rasta Bar: Where Ska and Chiangmai’s mod set meet!

While less glamourous and hyperkinetic than Bangkok, Chiangmai prefers to live life in notable minor key. That is where its charm lies. It’s smaller population and horizontal development blends perfectly with the street scene, the tribal art, and the cultural monuments. It provides the visitor a true taste of Asia. On the one hand, rambunctious, fast-moving, and surreal; on the other, laidback, accommodating, and genteel. Even the dreadlocked Caucasians are no intrusion. They have found their own nuanced role in adding to the city’s graceful, unique, and addicting enchantment. Travellers together with locals. All roads lead to Chiangmai.

Another bowl of Khao Soi, mon?

Khao Soi: Chiangmai lushness in a bowl

– J.S.