…Chiang Mai

Over the long weekend, we took yet another little vacation out of Dhaka (didn’t I mention that “hardship pay” before?) and headed out to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Thailand is a popular destination from Dhaka, though most people head to the beach resorts. The flights are moderately annoying—you either fly over night (and the long flight’s only 2 hours, so you’re not really well rested), or you fly all day (leaves here around lunch, etc.)—and that’s held us back from visiting there in the past. But… Chiang Mai was totally worth it!

All the temples had dragon guardians outside

SO much to do… nice and compact old town… access to shopping if you need it… etc.

We arrived late Thursday evening and checked into the Tamarind Village Resort after a quick dinner at Burger King (yes, we are fast food deprived). The Tamarind is highly recommended by me, especially because of the shower. Wow. It was awesome. A rain shower (which I usually hate) with the drenching force of an ocean wave… The ginger-scented bath products sealed it. I showered a whole lot more than I normally do, just to enjoy the shower. It’s a good thing there’s been a lot of rain there recently, or I might have drained the country dry.

Besides the shower, our room was lovely. It was the room featured on their in-room channel, so we felt pretty special, but it was really just a base rate room that we booked on hotels.com. Their base rate rooms were just perfect for the two of us, but when there are three, we’ll probably need something a little bigger.  Their breakfasts were very filling and had enough diversity to keep me happy every day. There were Thai options, an egg-station, meats, fruits, breads, juices, etc. Tasty.

Wind Chimes to keep the birds away? or to make a constant prayer? (sources differ) Our hotel had them, so did all the temples.

On Friday, we (more-or-less) followed the Lonely Planet’s recommended temple walking tour. It was a little warm, and we got lost in the beginning as old town Chiang Mai doesn’t seem to have many street signs, but we saw the major temples and sights. At Wat Phra Singh, we even saw a huge crowd of novice monks (all between 12 and 16 years old, and a common thing to do as a post-elementary schooling option, even for those who will never be professed monks) who were visiting the royal temple on a 4 day retreat. They were all very cute and excited to be there.

After sitting down in a garden at the back of the temple, a 20-something monk who turned out to be one of the retreat chaperones asked if he could sit with us. Apparently it’s quite common for the young monks to want to practice their English skills and some temples have set up special chatting areas to encourage English speakers to both learn about Buddhism and the monk’s lifestyle while the monk learns new words and accents. This wasn’t one of those areas, but serendipity struck. We talked a bit about his home temple, and where Bangladesh was. He was most impressed that we, of very pale skin, were living in this kind of hot, tropical climate. I am not quite sure he understood that we were not ethnically Bangladeshi, but I was amused, particularly when he opined that he’d prefer lighter skin too. That’s not the kind of thing you hear every day from a monk!

After we left Wat Phra Singh, it began to rain. We’d been heading for the Cultural Center and Museum, and decided to have some lunch before we went in. We stopped at a roadside noodle joint, just as the deluge began in earnest. We were the only foreigners there, but it was pretty packed with locals and the turnover was quick. We had beef noodle soup, about half of a normal American sized portion, but still sufficient for lunch. For two bowls of soup, and two bottles of Fanta, we paid 84Bhat… about $2.50.

This guy guarded a little consecration temple at Wat Phra Singh

We left there with the rain still coming down in sheets and headed for the museum, and its promise of air conditioning. The museum was nice enough, particularly if you like dioramas with little tiny people working little tiny farms and machines. However, the textual explanations were a little tedious, and hard to read. It seemed like they focused almost entirely on listing the genealogy of the king related to the events depicted, and didn’t get enough into the actual excitement of the event. The building was lovely, and the dioramas and artifacts were really excellent, they just need someone to go in there and tidy up the ponderous explanations. The gift shop at the end of the museum was also really nice, though we didn’t get anything. They had good stuff we didn’t see anywhere else, including items related to their special collections and hill tribe art.

By the time we’d finished the museum, I was pretty worn out and swelling up like a southern sausage, so we headed back to the room for a little nap, dip in the pool and then a massage at Khulka, a small but welcoming spa that didn’t feel mercenary or skeezy, as some of the massage places seemed to. Their prices were slightly higher than the average, but it was made up for with private curtained treatment areas, soft lighting and cheerful service. I had a delightful foot and leg massage, and if I’d had more time would probably have gotten a pedicure too.

A fat Buddha. The story goes that he used to be a handsome man who desperately wanted enlightenment, but couldn't spend enough time meditating because all the young women were chasing him to ask him about the path to nirvana. So, he prayed that he'd be ugly and they'd leave him. It worked, and he became fat and bald, and none of the young women chased him any more. So he smiles, because he's happy.

We walked from there to the night markets to see what the fuss was all about. And the fuss was about crazy tourist shopping. It was the first market shopping I’d done since Guatemala’s Chichicastenango, and much more appealing to me than the pretend “artisan” shopping that is popular in Egypt and India. If I want to buy tourist crap, I’m going to buy it from a mad market, and feel like I got a good deal, rather than a tourist store that your guide brings you to under the premise that they will “teach” you something and then won’t let you leave until you buy something.

We took a tuktuk back from the night market, in the hopes of saving what was left of our tired feet for the next day’s adventures. Unfortunately, the act of getting in and out of that vehicle stretched something in my belly a little too much, and left me a little tearful. Thankfully, I had a chance to enjoy the in-room tea pot and hot shower to cure some of those ills.

On Saturday, we woke up early to get breakfast before our day tour to the hill tribes and other outlying sights. A high recommendation for the team at Wayfarers Travel. They were the only company we could find to offer a one day trek (One Day Trek – Hilltribe Trail   (ref. CMT1D)) that did not involve visiting fake villages and sights. Our day hike visited three different hill tribe villages: Lamu, Karen and Palong. There were not many people in the villages, as they were mostly out working the harvest, but in the drier season, you apparently get to meet a lot of people. The Palong wore the most interesting woven outfits, and I would have liked to see them doing the actual weaving and embroidery work, but that takes place at a different season. Our particular visit was near the end of the rainy season, but it’s been a remarkable rainy season, and there was flooding in many parts of Thailand in the last few weeks. Our trek, which crossed several streams, was slightly more vigorous than it normally would be, because of the rains. We had to take off our shoes to cross rocky streams several times, and I wished I had my hiking sandals on instead of my hiking shoes. Our guide, in typical awesomeness, hiked the entire thing in flip flops.

Alongside the trail, some of the Karen weavings.

We stopped for lunch and let our tour guides surprise us with lunch. They played it pretty safe, fried rice, noodles, chicken stir fry and lemongrass soup, and were shocked to see that we ate it all. Apparently the foreign tourists usually don’t eat much at the lunch stop. We loved it, and finished it all. After lunch, while discussing the history of Buddhism, one of our guides finally figured out that we were pregnant, when I asked if I could sit down in the shade to hear the information, rather than stand in the hot sun. They were both pretty surprised; I was surprised they didn’t notice. But, perhaps all American women are round balloons in their eyes. I feel pretty round right now.

After the hill trek, we stopped at the Chiang Dao caves, where a 1/3 km trail wends between stalactites and Buddha statues deep underground. It was a pretty cool cave, and there are options there to do actual spelunking, but, of course, you don’t do that kind of craziness while 7 months pregnant!

We rounded out the day with a tour to the Doi Suthep, a golden temple on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, and a quick walk out to a really lovely waterfall just off the road to Doi Suthep in the national park. If I’d had more time there, it looked like a great waterfall to play in, and it’s popular with locals as a picnic spot. Outside the park itself were a bunch of stalls catering to day visitors, selling everything from frog or duck satay to toasted silk worms. (The bamboo worms didn’t look bad, but the silk worms looked like something from a horror film).

Other than temples, we didn’t do the typical Chiang Mai visit, which appears to include an elephant ride through the forest, rafting on a bamboo float, the night and day zoos, the tiger and gibbon parks, the butterfly park, etc. There’s even a coin and a stamp museum for the collectors. We were really just thrilled to breathe some clean air, revel in a little mud (or a lot of mud at some points on the rainy trail!), and be away from the dense population of Dhaka. Chiang Mai’s whole population could live in the tiny neighborhood near the embassy here in Dhaka, and yet the locals bemoaned the traffic and pollution. Little do they know what it could be.

All in all, I’d go back, and think it’s a great place to visit. I’d recommend Chiang Mai to family and friends, with and without children. There’s everything: history, adventure, culture, animals, food….

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