Chiang Mai, tucked in the hills of northern Thailand, offers a small-town ease that is a welcome respite from the craziness of Bangkok.
We started our stay there strolling down the streets, watching monks passing by, taking in a Buddhist temple every once in a while, and indulging in delicious meals at cosy street-side eateries. One night, we walked down to the river, and after giving up on the overpacked Lonely Planet-recommended eatery, chanced upon The Gallery — an art house and restaurant. We had a lovely relaxed time there, seated amidst the twinkling lights, watching the Chinese lanterns being released over the river, and eating what S said was the most delicious fish of his life. Service was slow, but who was in a hurry? Other nights we chose to eat at the bustling night market in the heart of Chiang Mai. The only trouble was choosing what to eat in the ocean of deliciousness!
The cooking class we took on a whim the next day was possibly the best thing we did in Thailand. (Such classes are very popular in Chiang Mai, as well as across the border in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, so you can take your pick.) Who knew cooking could be such fun?! Our teacher (and the business owner) was an enterprising young woman with a great sense of humor, and we spent the day engaged in “cook, eat, cook, eat, cook, eat”. The ingredients were fresh, flavors delicious, and methods surprisingly easy. I hasten to add here that I do not classify myself a “foodie”, but really, it is impossible to travel through Thailand without dwelling on the food.
The following day, we left the city behind to visit an elephant camp in the hills. We had good company for this trip, and the topics of conversation ranged from Thai politics and the true meaning of Buddhism, to gender roles in different countries around the world. We fed the elephants, and then rode them bareback through the jungle. But the highlight was undoubtedly when we got into the river with the elephants to bathe them. The baby amongst the bunch loved playing in the water and getting scrubbed by us. He lay down on his side, and kept submerging himself in the water, only to emerge with a naughty smile, spraying us with a trunkful of river water! Baby elephants are soooo cute!!
On the way back to Chiang Mai, we stopped by a national park for a chilly but refreshing dip in a waterfall. One reminder to outsiders of the current Thai situation [**see note and end of post] is the military presence at national parks and roadside checkpoints. They appear friendly (for military) though, evidently not wanting to scare away tourism dollars.
There was one final touch to complete the perfection of our stay in Chiang Mai. Being at the East Gate of Chiang Mai for New Year’s Eve is a little like being in Times Square, except warmer and wilder. The streets were packed, the sky was thick with Chinese lanterns and fireworks, and we were close enough to the action to get embers in our eyes. A good way to ring in the New Year!
** Thai political briefing (as of January 2015, as gathered from our local friends): Until the 1800s, Chiang Mai was the capital of a separate kingdoms northern Thailand. Even today, there are major political and cultural differences between the two regions: the Yellow Shirts based in Bangkok support the king, and the Red Shirts based in Chiang Mai do not. The Yellow and Red shirts have been engaged in de facto warfare in Thailand for some time. The last ruling party were the Red Shirts, and apparently corruption was a huge problem, until they were removed from power in the military coup last summer. Thailand is now more or less at peace under military rule, and is scheduled to have elections in 2017, but who knows? Further complicating affairs is the fact that the present Thai king is 89 years old, and not in the best of health. He seems to be a popular monarch, who has done some good, including things to help the up-country people. But his son and presumptive heir is a sort of playboy, whom no one wants taking over.**