Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand, and often referred to as the “capital of the north”. Many people will do Ayutthaya as a day trip from Bangkok and then take an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, missing most of what lies in between. We had instead took a few days traveling north via road to reach Chiang Mai to see some of these overlooked parts of the country. After four full days on the road we were ready to take a break and sink a bit deeper into Thailand’s northern hub.
Wat Doi Ti
Having stayed in Lampang the night before, we did not have too far to go to arrive in Chiang Mai. As we left Lampang we spotted a temple with a giant golden man (which we thought was an image of buddha but soon found out we were wrong) in the hills we were passing. The was the beauty of having a vehicle of your own; when you see something that looks interesting you have the flexibility to make a quick detour to check it out. This is exactly what we did now, intrigued by this extremely large golden statue looking over the road below.
Wat Doi Suthep
After visiting the Doi Ti temple, which was dedicated to the monk Sumanathera, Golf wanted us to see Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It was a logical follow-up since the temple of Doi Suthep was created in large part because of a dream this famous monk had in the 1300’s. While there are a few versions of the legend the basic story is the following: the respected monk Sumanathra had a dream which lead him to Pang Cha where he found a mystical bone (said to perhaps be buddhas shoulder bone). This bone was carried with the monk for some time. While it would show signs of magical powers to the monk, it would always appear normal to the current king. In the mid 1300’s after delivering the bone to Lamphun on King Lanna Kingdom Nu Naone’s request the bone split into two pieces. One of these pieces was placed by the King on the back of a white elephant which was released in the jungle. The elephant is said to have climbed up Doi Suthep mountain (at the time called Doi Aoy Chang meaning Sugar Elephant Mountain), and trumpeted three times before dying. This was taken as a sign and the construction of the temple began.
Today the temple has grown over the many years, yet it still remains atop the mountain Doi Suthep 15km from Chiang Mai and in the middle of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. As we ascended the windy roads of the mountain we stopped for a view at one point. Looking over the city of Chiang Mai we could tell the difference from Bangkok right away. The city was large but manageable with no towering sky scrappers. Even the vibe at the viewpoint was immediately different. There was a local playing beatles on his acoustic guitar, and a truck set up selling coffee and food, as well as hill tribe women selling their crafts. While there were often vendors in the south, we hadn’t met any hill tribe people yet and the hippy types were not easy to spot in the big metropolis of Bangkok.
The temple grounds of Doi Suthep are a major complex, as we became aware of before we could see them. There is a parking area for tourist buses and songathiews, which offer rides from 60 baht each way ($2). After passing the cars and people we ascended the dragon stairway (as we had grown accustomed to seeing), and paid our entry fee (which only the more frequently visited temples have). Although Doi Suthep was really packed with a lot of tourists and locals praying, we found it very beatuiful and interesting. The central point of Doi Suthep is a block big and raisded a story above the rest of the complex. There is a large stupa in the center, and along the sides you can see different little altars to Buddha along with some larger altars with monks offering prayers for people. Ben went into one and joined a group of locals who were donating items for the monks and in return were receiving a prayer. After the prayer (which was in Thai) the monk continued the blessing by sprinkling water over the items and the people with a piece of splintered bamboo. Allyson received a prayer and blessing from another monk. We think he really enjoyed his job as he was very liberal with the water (that he sprayed all over the crowds of people). Many of them ran away frightened of the small rain shower he was creating, but those who stuck around got a reward. Allyson was one of those lucky people. After the liberal spraying the monk then tied blessed pieces of string around wrists. He draped it gently over Allyson’s wrist, as he cannot touch a woman.
Caryl had a more interesting experience. She chose to make a small donation and then find out her lucky number. This is done in many different ways in Thailand, as they are really into lottery tickets, fortunes, and the like. In this case, Caryl grabbed a bunch of sticks with different numbers on them, and placed them in a cup. One then gets on their knees before buddha, enters a bowing/prayer position (and says a small prayer or asks for guidance in an area of their life), then gently rattles the cup, until one stick falls out – that being your lucky number. Caryl managed to get a bit overzealous and after about 20 seconds of shaking, all the sticks clamored out of the cup onto the ground below her. She took it smoothly and decided that the first number she spotted while picking up all the sticks would be her lucky number. Us youngsters were quick to disperse at this embarrassment, with a little chance to laugh into our shirtsleeves as well.
Despite the large crowds, the temple was very impressive, and a really good experience. We even spotted Golf around a few times with his camera enjoying it as well. As we were leaving the temple we all took our turns signing a golden cloth that would then be used to wrap around the pagoda soon for the year 2014. We wrote our names for luck as well as wishes of love and light. It felt special knowing that a tiny part of us would stay with this temple and the many spirits that came to it over the following year.
We had the pleasure of experiencing a trip to the immigration office in Chiang Mai. And don’t worry, this was an optional visit on our choosing, not the beginnings of a possible deportation or anything as fun as that. Originally we had planned to cross the northern border at Mai Sai into Myanmar. We and our visas and had confirmed at the embassy this border crossing was open. They hadn’t however told us that once we crossed this particular border crossing we would be unable to travel more than 15km by land due to the travel restrictions for foreigners within Myanmar (don’t worry you will see lots more about this topic later on our blog). Luckliy we figured this out before making the cross and then came to the realization we would need more time on our Thailand visa to make our journey south again to catch a cheap flight from Bangkok to Yangon. The easiest option would have been doing a ‘visa run’ at the northern border with Myanmar, but with single entry visas in our passports and unsure of how this whole visa run operation worked we didn’t want to risk it. The ‘visa run’ to Laos would cost pretty much the same as applying for a 7 day extension at immigration. This was the option we went with. Even if it was a pricy (and we say this with terms relative to Thailand prices) extension it was well worth it. An hour and $30 later we were set officially with an additional week of legal freedom in Thailand.
Coming to a ‘meet in the middle’ agreement on where to stay in Chiang Mai wasn’t the easiest, especially since the two Scharpf girl planners were involved (Amanda and Caryl). We had booked our first night online to ensure we had a space to stay. When we showed up at MD House immediately we were relieved we only booked one night. Caryl and Allyson had been the first ones to arrive at the hostel since we were dealing with immigration. When we arrived about an hour after they had they were both still sitting in the lobby. On top of this there was a group of very drunk early 20 somethings loudly being a nuisance just outside the lobby in the pool. We weren’t really thrilled with this first impression and Caryl, who had been simmering in this ruckus for an hour now was ready to scream. Once we got in to our room it was okay, but needless to say we were looking for new accommodation for the following days that very night.
The next morning the scene was completely different outside by the pool. People were eating their breakfast poolside in peace while an elderly woman was sunning her legs. It was hard to believe that it was the same place and these people were patrons of the same establishment that seemed to be full of loud drunk partiers. But we guess they would have been hung-over. Regardless, the decision had been made, we were moving out after breakfast. Caryl was so determined to move elsewhere she even agreed to roll her suitcase almost eight full blocks through the town (instead of taking a cab) to the new location. Maybe our backpackers lifestyle was beginning to rub off on her a little.
With a little poking around we stumbled across Sculpture Hostel. What really caught our attention was two things: art and wine. The outside of this hostel had a small little patio that had some amazing artwork which drew in most people passing by. They also had placed a sign outside with a big question mark under the word ‘wine’. After inspecting the rooms (where were private, had en suite bathrooms, and were comfortable and nice) and ensuring they had space over the next four days we made the decision to move here. Our decision ended up paying off well. The location was great, the space was quite, the art all over the place was inspiring.
There is a reason Chiang Mai has a huge draw for foreigners, both ex-pats and visitors alike. The north of Thailand is beautiful. It is full of green lush jungle with waterfalls and rivers. On top of that the vibe is was more slow paced and laid back. The prices in the northern part of the country are a fraction of those in the south. Put a city in this space with all the amenities and foods that you can’t find in many other parts of the country and you have yourself a little gem.
We had managed to find ourselves a nice place to stay with a cool atmosphere and good location at a great price. Now we were on the hunt for a good place to call our ‘second home’ for massages and facials over the next few days. The Scharpf girls all have a spark of wellness in them and massage is integrated into their personal health regimens (even when at home) as much, or maybe even more, than a check-up at the doctors.
Thailand is known worldwide for its unique style of massages. While in Thailand, we were eager to try them out. Caryl had originally wanted to get one almost every day, but on our road trip they had not been as convenient to get. Now that we were in Chiang Mai there were massage parlors everywhere. And, with this much competition, the massages are incredibly cheap. The Scharpf ladies made it a family outing nearly every day to get some sort of massage while we were in Chiang Mai. While the massage were a high priority, we all decided to treat ourselves our first night instead to facials and/or pedicures. Amanda was eager to have all the dead skin that had accumulated on her little tootsies over the past few months of tromping around scrubbed off. Ben went for the deep cleaning of the facial pores. Allyson and Caryl went for both.
The next day we all decided to try out Pranom Health Massage. It was conveniently located 100 meters from our hostel in a very quite and quaint courtyard. This place had a large staff, and the simple parlor design was completely open: the street side had no walls, so you could walk in, see if there was a masseuse available, then change into the ultralight and comfortable “fisherman pants,” and lay on the pad on the ground and they would start right away. Between the pads on the ground where the staff would provide the massages, there were sets of bars, so the masseuses could balance their weight if they needed to step on your back, etc. While that might sound a bit painful, they were all quite good and kept us coming back for more. In addition, if you were waiting for someone else to finish their massage or wanted to relax afterwards, you could sit out in the courtyard and have some free tea and use their wifi. The best part is the cost of a massage was 150 baht (that’s less than $5 and maybe the equilivant of the cost of a beer or two). The price tag pretty much settled it for Amanda. No drinking all week — instead it would be a massage every day for five days!
Amanda and her mom and sister would alternate between foot and leg massages, shoulder and back massages, full thai massages, and Caryl would sometimes go next door to get her hair shampooed for a head massage. Ben also participated in the massages about half as often, but he stuck to the full body Thai-style massages.
An environment like this and this lifestyle penetrates your brain, and brings a bit of bliss into your mind. You feel more relaxed, your muscles feel better, and you tend to want to eat a healthier meal afterwards, just like after a run or workout. Getting some time in for our bodies and relaxation between a bit of site seeing was a perfect was for us to unwind after four days on the road. It was also just what Caryl and Allyson needed to end their trip before returning home. All of us indulged in the chance to start or end our days with massages, cups of tea, and even a bit of reflection and meditation when we could. It is amazing what a little time for your body can do after continuously traveling for so long. Traveling all the time isn’t a vacation like some people think. Even with not having demanding jobs or the same stresses as we did at home, it is to forget to take time for ourselves. In fact sometimes it is harder to do so. These five days were a treat and a gentle reminder to us to be kind to ourselves no matter where we are or when we happen to need it.
Food (International Delights)
Which came first, the tourists or the foreign foods? It’s a hard question to answer as one often drives the other. Either way, Chaing Mai has the many options of cuisine and funky atmospheres to go with them. We won’t lie — we did indulge in some of the foreign foods, even with the northern Thailand specialties being extremely tasty. But we couldn’t pass up the chance for a good burrito any longer. Stopping in at Loco Elvis (don’t ask) one evening on the way home we found ourselves ordering things such as guacamole and pulled pork burritos. Ben found himself in quite a happy place for that meal. This particular bar/restaurant had a Route 66/USA theme to it. Many of the food and drink joints did have some kind of funky theme. We found this quite entertaining even when we weren’t eating at the establishments. Some of our top spots that we did have the chance to stop in on were Sushi in the Sky with Diamonds (which had reasonably priced sushi), THC Bar (where you could watch gin drink glow in the black lights and listen to good beats), and Hot Chilis (where you could sit in large swing between bites of sticky rice and mango). While there was talk of getting pizza one night we never did succumb to the urge. Instead we mainly stuck to fueling our bodies with our hearty favorite northern Thailand dish of Khao Soi. After massages we would often go for a $1 smoothie filled with mango, papaya, and pineapple. No matter what type of food or atmosphere you are looking for you really can’t go wrong in Chaing Mai. Everything you want is there, and never at a high price.
Being a larger hub with many geocaches we had set aside one afternoon to partake in on one of our favorite travel hobbies. We hoped to find some interesting places and learn some history about Chiang Mai along the way. The added benefit of exercise is always a plus. Together we marked our notes with coordinates and read aloud the stories and background information of each site. The route was fairly easy, mostly along the Old City walls. We managed to find a couple of the caches, but we were deterred from finding more as we could tell others were sneakily looking for them as well. It was strange to see others who were very obviously trying to be sly (like us) but it was also very obvious what they were doing. Caryl felt it was absolute nonsense all this slyness and wanted to shout from the tops of the walls what we were doing and where they were hidden. So much for being sly. As the day carried on and the temperatures began to rise we slowly got distracted by iced coffee stands, food carts for lunch, and beautiful temples. But I guess that is what geocaching is all about; finding unique and neat places, even if you are looking for the cache.
Wats of Chiang Mai
There are so many wats in Chiang Mai to visit, much like many parts of Bangkok. It seems every corner you turn there is a new wat awaiting for you to come inside and explore the grounds. We could have spent a good portion of our time in Chiang Mai visiting wats, but being we had visited many over the last couple weeks (and even Caryl and Allyson had their fill from only seven days) we never sought out temples to visit while we were in the area. Instead we let ourselves wander upon them when the time felt right. Sometimes this would be during the day time, other times we would be lured in my the sound of the chanting monks at night. Two of our favorite wats we stumbled into were Wat Lok Molee and Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn.
The first, Wat Lok Molee, we decided to take a peek at mid-day after our geocaching adventures. This quiet temple had a couple meditation halls and pagodas as well as a very large and old stupa (probably built in the 1300’s). The mixture of ancient and more recent pagodas, statues, artwork, and stupas were surrounded by well maintained gardens, ponds, and flowers. Overall the space was one of the more peaceful spaces within Chiang Mai, offering a great space to escape and do some meditation. Amanda and Caryl took some time to make an offering and a small meditation here. Wat Phra Singh Woramahaviharn caught our eye at night with the light reflecting off the shimmering gold of the pagoda. This temple seemed to be a bit busier when we there, perhaps to it’s central location in the middle of Old Town. Despite this it was a beautiful sight to take in at night, making it one of our favorites in the area.
Chiang Mai Night Markets
We had heard that there is a large night market bazaar every night not far outside the old city walls in Chiang Mai. On the second night in town we decided to go for a nice night stroll to find this hyped up market that everyone speaks of. Caryl and Allyson, as they are here on holiday for a vacation (and to see their lovely daughter, of course), also were enthused at doing some end of trip shopping at the discounted Thailand rates. So off we ventured out of the old city and approached a street filled with little stands that had been set up just a couple hours earlier. On our way into the bazaar, Caryl explored the wax candles in exotic colors that were carved to look like roses and flowers, while Allyson checked out the scoop on t-shirts and comfy casual pants with typical Thai prints. And these were from the stores before the main section of the market. They were warming up for the big show.
The market was in full swing when we arrived, and was about the size of a large warehouse, but without any roofing. There were rows upon rows of booths lit up showing off their clothes, purses, watches, carved wood figurines, fake name brand electronics, jewelerey and sunglasses, as well as being surrounded on the edges with a few restaurants and a bar or two. There was also a stage set up here and there for live music. This was definitely a mainstay to the tourist scene in Chiang Mai.
For us this was now almost week four in Thailand and we had learned that all the night markets basically sold the same stuff. Those that were primarily for locals would sometimes be missing some of the more souvenirs items that were still very cool. But basically it was the same things. We enjoy these markets as they are great for people watching and seeing what interesting stuff is available in Thailand, as well as usually good for some delicious street-eats. If you ever needed anything — the market was there for you and almost 98% of the time could provide you with whatever you needed.
Since this particular night market was hit up by many foreign visitors haggling was a part of the game and the fun. Allyson proved to be an undiscovered master in the art. Ben looked at a couple items (board shorts and a USB-battery charger), and got the hawkers down a bit in price, but ruthless Allyson would then come in and cut the price down in half again. It was good that Ally was discovering this new skill, as Caryl and Allyson had a long list of shopping to do and it would ultimately save them a lot of money. We discovered a couple of here secrets to the art: her techniques of using the calculator to inch down the price, as well as her willingness to shrug off the hawkers and walk away.
In addition to this ongoing large night market that occurred everyday there were other night markets that would happen weekly at different locations around the city. These weekly markets tended to sell more ‘artisianal’ handmade goods. And unfortunately since they were only once a week they tended to draw huge crowds. Allyson and Caryl decided to scope out the Saturday night market. Arriving a bit later they found out the hard way that the crowds converged fast and by late evening it was almost impossible for then to move around the street let alone shop for anything. Eventually it got to be too much and they had to leave. They found their way back to the good ol’ nightly bazaar then to do their last minutes purchases. Here they found the entire scene was like a ghost town, and the vendors were eager to unload goods. Turns out while everyone is at the weekly Saturday night market this is prime time for bargain purchases at the bazaar!
Animal Adventures and Hot Cocoa
You know all those photos you see and stories people tell about hanging with tigers, and lion, and bears in Thailand. Wait… maybe it was with elephants and not bears. Anyway, the chances are that any of the exotic animal bonding in Thailand happens in the north part of the country. And since Chiang Mai is such a hot spot for tourism there are ample opportunities to get your wild animal fix filled nearby. For us the need to hang out with wild animals wasn’t high on our list. Wild animals are cool but we just as much enjoy chilling with the street dogs and cats that roam around everywhere. Amanda’s sister, Allyson, however has been a passionate animal lover (from the domesticated to exotic) from a young age. She is that person who adopts the cats that no one wants because they came from laboratory research studies. Seriously, we aren’t joking here. So for her a trip to the north of Thailand without some encounter with the exotic would be incomplete. Respecting this we let them take their time to hang out with the tigers at Tiger Kingdom and spend the day washing and playing with baby elephants at Ran-Tong Save and Rescue Elephant Center. We in the mean time continued with our regimen of massages and finding sunny places to enjoy coffee and hot coco (yes, even in Thailand one enjoys hot coco from time to time).
Bor Sang Umbrella Festival
The Bor Sang Umbrella Festival is a colorful weekend centered around the handmade bamboo umbrellas made in the nearby town of Bor Sang, approximately 20km from the Chiang Mai old city. The festival happens only once a year and we happened to be in the area during this time. We chose to go to the festival the day Caryl had rented a car (primarily for the purpose of seeing the Tigers). We arrived just before noon just as the festival was opening. When we first walked in, we were greeted by dozens of colorful umbrellas hanging over the intersection, glowing like neon coins in the sun, and leaving a neat pattern of spotted shade on the asphalt. Then we found a booth where you could paint a miniature umbrella for yourself. Ben and Caryl stepped up right away to join the little children in this activity. Caryl having the warm heart she does soon donated her half painted umbrella to a child wanting to practice their painting skills. Ben and Allyson finished putting their artistic touches on their parasols before we moved onward.
Armed with personally painted mini-parasols we walked along the streets taking in the sites of almost all the shops and homes decorated with brightly colored umbrellas. Many of the shops were selling souvenirs, but there were many geared toward local visitors as well, and we saw a couple school buses of kids arriving and exploring the festival. Near the entrance to the festival was a large building with a courtyard in back, where dozens of people were working, showing the different steps in making umbrellas, using simple, traditional tools. The umbrellas are really just made of bamboo and a colored mulberry paper, and we were able to watch as women made the underpinnings that would extend out as the base was lifted up to open the umbrella, and others worked on making the mulberry paper. This paper was then coated in wax, to be hand painted afterwards. It was really a neat experience to see and appreciate this artisan work being done in the same way as it has for hundreds of years. We are not naive enough to assume this is how they are all made nowadays, but it was enjoyable and interesting nonetheless.
The street food at the festival was a particular treat as well, as we had a delicious lunch khao soi (one of our favorites), and we found many good things to snack on, including Amanda’s taro flavored ice cream, and an Azuki red bean flavored one as well, with actual cooked red beans in it. They appeared to be setting up for a band to perform later in the evening, and just as we were walking back to the car to leave, a parade began with elegant ladies on bicycles riding around with the handmade umbrella parasols. The parasol party was just getting started!
Once Caryl and Allyson had departed for Bangkok, we moved to a new hotel The Royal Guesthouse for our last night in Chiang Mai. We were sticking around another day before heading up to Mae Sai, the northernmost point in Thailand, which shares a border with Myanmar. We checked in to this very large, dilapidated yet somehow charming, hotel. We took a few moments to be grateful for $5 hotel rooms (that were simple yet clean) in the northern parts of Thailand. This particular hotel even had a swimming pool. After a few minutes of chilling out in our new digs we headed out to do a run with the Hash House Harriers. Chiang Mai happens to actually have a dedicated Hash Pub near the night market. This was our first destination as transportation is provided from this location to the Wednesday night run.
This was the first place we’d ever seen or heard of there being an official Hashing bar. The owner was a expat Hasher that had been hashing for the last 30 years. He had opened the bar with his wife, and it was not limited to hashers only, but was the meeting point for two runs a week, and the groups would often find their way back here after the runs as well (we like to call this the On After). The second surprise was there was a privately hired songthaew that picked people up and carried the needed supplies every week to the run. We had assumed we would be riding in whatever locals car that had space but this was not the case. The songthaew even had a hashing bumper sticker on it. It was like a Hash Songthaew! After meeting some of the other hashers and chatting for a while, the songthiew arrived, already loaded with the ice chest, beers, chairs, etc.
The driver took us about 10 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai, and we parked next to an abandoned building on the side of the road. This was the gathering spot for everyone. The locals proceeded to all put on their gaiters, while the rest of us chatted. The scenery on our run was beautiful, but the run itself was not. The trail had us going around rice paddies, cutting through banana groves, back yards, and jumping irrigation trenches. On one such occasion Ben got caught off guard and attempted to jump over an enormous trench. He did not realize how deep the trench actually was until he was up to his neck in water. Later Amanda lost her shoe in the mud while trying to shortcut (we know, we know… no shortcutting bastards!) across the rice paddy fields , and Ben fell for the same mistake. So overall, despite being a perfectly flat course, it was quite challenging and adventurous one. When we got back to the circle at the end, we were dirty, itchy and cold – but had had a blast. The down down’s waiting for us at the end always made things even better.