Chiang Mai: The Anti-Bangkok

After celebrating Christmas Day at school with my students and fellow teachers, I packed up my backpack once again and headed out bai tiao (to go travel). I planted myself in a seat on an overnight bus, something that I've come to know too well in Southeast Asia, and headed north. 9 hours in and out of sleep later, and I had arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand's most popular city. Riding on a bus all night isn't ideal, but it's cheap and easy and saves you on accommodation for the night.

The first thing I encountered stepping off the bus was the weather. It was COLD! Okay, it was cold-er than Phrapradaeng. It was only about 50F/10C, but this was the coldest air I've felt for more than 8 months! I immediately put on another layer of pants and a scarf and shivered dramatically. The second thing that struck me about Chiang Mai was how small it was. Growing up close to NYC and now living near Bangkok, for me, cities mean skyscrapers and masses of people. Chiang Mai was nothing of that. There were no tall buildings and definitely no mobs of people like I've often encountered in Bangkok. The buildings didn't raise more than ten stories here and there, this was a city that moved at a slower pace… and I was liking it.

Chiang Mai's style and atmosphere has been heavily influenced by the slower way of life in Northern Thailand, where village life still exists. Street markets sell goods in the style of villagers, very similar to what I saw in the northern villages of Vietnam. Gone is the mass produced trendy Western clothing that's for sale everywhere around Bangkok. I found Chiang Mai to be everything that the capital is not; clean, relaxed, walkable, friendly, cheap, and charming.

Over the next two days, I met up with some fellow teachers and spent most of my time wandering the streets and indulging in the Northern way of life. I was introduced to Khao Soi, a northern Thai curry dish that's main ingredient is curried perfection.
Photo by  Andrew Ho

Photo by Andrew Ho

Khao Soi consists of a coconut based curry served with egg noodles and topped with crunchy noodles, red onion, pickled cabbage, chilies and lime. I can confidently say that it is one of the best dishes I have eaten in Thailand. I'm a condiment queen and the toppings were a perfection addition to this warm and comforting curry. I'm used to eating hot curry in hot weather, and having a bowl of Khao Soi on a chilly Chiang Mai night with a Singha beer to wash it down was perfection. I feel quite cheated that I cannot have it every day in Phrapradaeng!

Chiang Mai is home to over 300 temples, which means you can probably never be done exploring them, if that's your thing. Besides indulging in new cuisine, I took an afternoon to explore Wat Phra Singh, a temple dating back to. 1345 and home to the city's most admired image of Buddha. The grounds consist of three temples, a large chedi, a reclining Buddha, gardens, and a temple library. The grounds were lavishly decorated for the New Year including a bustling market filled with tourists, both Thai and foreign.

After visiting each temple and seeing the creepy lifelike replicas of dead monks, I took refuge in the shady gardens that surround the wat. Temple grounds are the ideal place for monk spottings, always and exciting and unnerving experience as I try to steer clear of them so I won't accidentally touch them (Thai cultures forbids monks to touch women and vice verse, and it's respectful to move off a path to let them pass in front of you). I always have visions of my klutzy self tripping and falling on top of a monk to the horror of everyone watching, and then it ending up on random Thai Facebook pages…

Above: Lifelike replicas of monks. Below: real living monks.

One of my favorite attributes of temple interiors are the elaborate painted doors and walls that fill the space with life and color. I think literally every surface of a temple is decorated in some fashion, the bolder the better. The exteriors are just as beautiful and unique. Many temples are decorated with mosaic that is made from broken porcelain cups and teapots (china, as we Americans would call it). And the gold, there's always so much gold!

Wat Phra Singh consumed me for a few hours, as I snapped photo after photo trying to capture its beauty before leaving in search of my next coconut shake. That night in Chiang Mai led my friends and I to a popular backpacker bar area, Zoe, filled with travelers indulging in shisha and cheap drinks. My favorite part of that experience was discovering the 40 Baht Mexican food cart serving up black bean burritos well into the early morning. It was tasty and cheap, sometime Bangkok sorely lacks.

Somewhere along my city strolling I passed by an adorable Anuban school that made me stop and peer through the gate into a parallel Northern universe. Chiang Mai is a city that's cheap, relaxed, surrounded by mountains, and offered delicious food and a break from the sweat fest down South. It's basically Bangkok's polar opposite; I will definitely be returning.