Thursday, 8 May 2014

Thailand post #2: Chiang Mai

Continuing with my month of posts about the eight weeks I spent in Thailand with my girlfriend, this post is about Thailand's 'second city' Chiang Mai. This city was absolutely my favourite place in the whole of Thailand, due to it's beauty, culture and friendly atmosphere. 

We arrived at around lunchtime, after taking a 17-hour night sleeper train from Bangkok. The train was supposed to take around 12-hours, but it made a long unexpected stop on the way. The train was very comfortable, with chairs in the carriages until around 10pm, at which time a member of staff comes round and turns the chairs into two bunk beds. We got a decent amount of sleep in and felt safe. Having gone on many long bus journeys during the rest of our trip, train travel is definitely much more comfortable and an all round much nicer experience. 

Arriving at Chiang Mai Railway Station

The most popular area of Chiang Mai is the Old City, which is surrounded by city walls, with a north, south, east and west gate. This has been restored, but is still an impressive boundary surrounding the beautiful old city. We decided to walk from the railway station to the Old City, which is around two miles, to stretch our legs after the long train journey. Even before we got to the Old City, walking through the outskirts, we immediately felt Chiang Mai was much nicer, less busy and less hectic than Bangkok. We headed to a guest house to dump our bags and then went to explore.

Within an hour, someone had stopped us to have a chat. Having spent a few days in Bangkok, we were immediately worried that they would either try and turn the conversation around to trying to make us buy something in a pushy way, or that they would be distracting us to try and steal something from us. As it turned out, the person really did want to just have a nice chat with us. We stopped and chatted to a few other people while in Chiang Mai too. The people are lovely and aren't hell-bent on using pushy sales tactics to extract money from you. 

We already knew from researching ethical elephant camps that we wanted to go to the Elephant Nature Park, near Chiang Mai. One of the first things we did was find their main office and go and book our day trip for a couple of days later. We wanted to go somewhere where they did not allow people to ride on the elephants and where they were well looked after. The Elephant Nature Park ticked all the right boxes for us. My next blog post will be all about our trip there, as I don't think a quick mention on this one would do it justice, as it was such an amazing day!

Ladyboy Cabaret Show, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

On our second night, we visited the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, which a lot of people had recommended to us. This is a short walk from the Old City and is in a district of it's own. The main Night Bazaar has it's own dedicated area, with many lovely market stalls and plenty of places to eat and drink. The road immediately outside the entrance to this also has many market stalls that pop up each night. There is a really great atmosphere in this whole area, and we didn't find the market traders at all pushy. There are loads of lovely handmade items for sale and the quality of items was just generally really nice, with so many things we wanted to buy, but so little space to carry them around with us!

We met some lovely people at the Elephant Nature Park trip, who travelled in a minivan there and back with us. We met up with them that evening and returned to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, to go and see the famous Ladyboy Cabaret Show which starts every night at 9pm. This was a very fun and flamboyant show, with ladyboys miming and dancing to lots of camp songs and generally putting on a fun and exciting performance. During the show one of the ladyboys came and sat on my lap during her performance and it was rather embarrassing. I didn't mind it half as much as our new friend Mario from Switzerland, who got straddled and looked like he was going to die with embarrassment! We then went out for more drinks and dancing at a great bar called Zoe in Yellow. 

New friends. Left to right: Myself, Mario [Switzerland], Sara [Bath, UK], 
Jabe and Tom [San Francisco, USA], Shaun [Liverpool, UK] and Emily

We saw lots of tourists riding hired mopeds, so we thought we would give it a go to drive to a waterfall, 60km away. We thought this sounded easy enough, but after a short ride around the block, we realised it was much harder than it looks! During the rest of our Thailand trip, we met and/or saw many people who had been involved in motorcycle accidents. Lots of people try it, who haven't had any lessons, and lack of experience, mixed with poor quality Thai roads, often leads to tourists getting very hurt. The Police are also known to penalise tourists for not wearing helmets, even if Thais don't bother wearing them. Personally I think it's daft not to wear a helmet, whether the Police get involved or not! We also heard about lots of people getting charged exorbitant amounts of money for damage to hire vehicles, where the damage was already there before they hired it. All in all, I would not hire a moped again and would advise anyone doing so to be all round very careful.

The moped owner giving Emily a very brief lesson in how to use a moped! 

After a less than successful experience with mopeds, we rented bicycles for a small fee - there are loads of places to hire from. It was really lovely to have a leisurely cycle around the Old City and we cycled around small side streets which we probably wouldn't have walked around if we had taken the time to walk. 

During our bicycle trip and on other days spent walking around the Old City, we visited many wats [temples], all of which have a uniqueness about them. There is a wat on practically every street in the Old City, and I've been told that there are over 200 wats in Chiang Mai in total. 

Reclining Buddha in one of the many wats

Part of one of the many beautiful wats in Chiang Mai

We found so many great places to eat in Chiang Mai, including some vegetarian only restaurants which I was really pleased about. Some of the cafes and restaurants we found in the Lonely Planet guide book. Others we just walked around seeing what we fancied and most places have menus displayed outside, so you can get an idea of price and what is on offer. Our favourite place to eat in Chiang Mai, where we ate no less than four times, is Dada Kafe. They have a brilliant range of Thai and Farang [foreigner] food and loads of particularly nice fruit shakes, including ones which supposedly have 'healing powers'. 

Cookery course

One of the highlights of our time in Chiang Mai was a half day cookery course. We booked with Thai Kitchen Cookery Centre, who were friendly and well priced. There are many great cookery schools to choose from, with practically everyone we spoke to having booked a different cookery school! We learnt to cook a soup dish, a curry dish, a curry paste and a stir fry dish. I'm a vegetarian and all courses were easily adapted to be meat-free. 

After being picked up from our guest house and then taken to the cookery school to meet the other recruits, we headed to a local market. A young Thai girl who spoke perfect English showed us around the market and told us a bit about lots of exotic fruits and vegetables and other ingredients that went into the food we'd be cooking. We then headed back to the cookery school and were split up into different small groups for each course, based on what we had chosen to cook. The instructions were well explained and we cooked some absolutely delicious food. We sat down and ate it after each course and met some lovely people during the day, who we met up with afterwards for drinks and market shopping. We were also given a lovely printed recipe book, to help us recreate the delicious food in the future. Since we've been back in the UK, we've already cooked some yummy Thai food for some friends.

Lovely Joy and Maite from Holland, who we met at the Thai Cookery Course

Chiang Mai has two famous night markets: The Saturday Walking Street Market and the Sunday Walking Street Market. Both are in separate locations. The Saturday market is a little more touristy, but with lots of lovely things to buy, many of which are handmade locally. The Sunday market has many of the same stalls as the Saturday market, but is even lovelier than the previous days market and just has a lovely feel about it. Both markets are very busy and also have lots of tasty food stalls. The Sunday market food was particularly nice and the many food area is in the grounds of one of the wats, which was a very pleasant place to sit and eat our dinner. 

Buddhit monks tie sacred ribbons around old trees, to stop them being illegally logged

Chiang Mai was a beautiful and friendly place to visit. We visited for seven days initially, before heading to Chiang Rai and returning to Chiang Mai for two more days. We also visited a third time after a week in Pai. We'd definitely return again and I'd highly recommend you put Chiang Mai on the top of your list of places to visit in Thailand.

You can read my previous post about Bangkok here.


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