Chiang Mai, “New City” in Thai, was founded in 1296 as the new capital of Lan Na (a state that existed in Northern Thailand from the 13thto 18thcentury) after the former capital was flooded. It is sometimes referred to as the “City of Temples”, or as one guide joked, the “City of 7-Elevens” since they are everywhere. I stayed in the city center, a very walkable square 1.5 km surrounded by defensive walls and a moat that may have once contained crocodiles. I enjoyed a very relaxing four days here visiting Wats (temples), cooking, cycling, and wandering about.
5 December, 2019 (2652 BE, Buddha Era)
I used Grab App to get to the Bangkok airport, with surprising little traffic heading away from downtown. I met another Siriporn in the VietJet line; she was heading back to her home town for a funeral. We spent the next couple hours having a lovely conversation; she treated me to breakfast. My plane arrived before noon and it was a short taxi ride to my hotel close to Wat Phra Singh, the Gold Temple. After settling in, I headed out to explore and immediately got hooked by a tuk tuk driver who wanted to take me shopping. I agreed and negotiated a price based on the condition that I get to see how things are made and get dropped back near a temple. He took me to see silver making, silk making, and painting. Each place of course tried to sell me something but I resisted except for a small painting of an elephant, my weakness. Back in old town, I wandered around until almost sunset, finding a temple on almost every block, and bought handmade paper for use in art projects. I wrapped up my day with a Thai massage.
6 December – sunrise at Doi Suthep
I was picked up at 5:00 a.m. for an awesome tour of Doi Suthep, a large, beautiful temple near Chiang Mai, on top of the 5500’ (1700 meters) mountain of the same name. Before a road was built in 1935, it took a steep ten-kilometer hike through the rainforest to get here. Legend has it that a king put a Buddha relic on the back of a white elephant who led him to this location for a temple. Our small group, guided by a former monk, was one of the first to arrive, getting there before sunrise while the monks were still chanting. The glowing gold stupa felt magical in the peaceful morning stillness. After lighting candles and offering flowers, I circled it three times, clockwise, while focusing on happiness, prosperity, and well-being for all. I was blessed by a monk and am wearing a string around my left wrist containing his blessings. We exited the temple just as the tour buses were starting to arrive, and had a bowl of khao soi, a Northern Thai dish with yellow curry, for breakfast.
About halfway down the mountain, we stopped at another temple, Wat Palad, where our guide had lived for about decade. He referred to it as the Hidden Temple, though as more tourists discover it, it is no longer hidden. The forest path to the top comes through this tranquil spot. Continuing down the mountain, we stopped at Wat Umong to walk through a short section of the tunnels previously used by monks for meditation. The walls used to be plastered and covered with murals.
After lunch, I negotiated a tuk tuk ride to Warorot Market, a huge three-story building filled with hundreds of shops. I bought fabric and dried mangos; I wish they were this soft and delicious at home. I walked back to old town and got yet another Thai massage, this time focused on back, neck, and head. It was wonderful. As I was leaving the spa, I got a call from Jami, the tour leader for my upcoming elephant adventure. We had dinner together, sharing two of my favorite Thai dishes, green curry and morning glory (a vegetable I encountered for the first time on this trip), and a bottle of Chang, the Thai beer with an elephant on the label.
7 December – yummy cooking class
I was picked up at 8:30 for a full day cooking class. There were eight students, six Americans and two Hollanders, mostly men. Our first stop with our fun teacher, Gift, was to a market to learn about different types of rice and spices. We then went out to an organic farm with a great setup for classes. After touring the farm, where many of the ingredients are grown, I learned how to make Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, Green Curry, stir fry, and bananas in coconut milk. We were able to determine how spicy we wanted to make them. I choose medium, which for Thais is very mild, and reduced the sugar in all dishes. We consumed each dish after preparation, and I was pleasantly surprised to find them all delicious. Hopefully I can replicate this success at home with the cook book provided.
Two more of my fellow travelers, Sharmon and Suzette, have arrived. I met them for dinner, or rather they ate dinner and I drank a beer, too full to eat another bite.
8 December – cycling through countryside
Sharmon and I took a half-day bicycle tour. It’s much cooler in Chiang Mai than the other places I’ve visited on this trip. I wore shoes for the first time last night and this morning I was glad to have packed my thin puffy jacket. I wore it for the first couple hours of my bike ride and would have added a hat and gloves if I had them. Except for the first few and last minutes along a busy road, we were primarily on back roads. Our first visit was to an island in the Ping River that was formerly the McKean Leper Asylum, founded by an American missionary in the early 1900’s. This quiet area, filled with small cottages, is now used for rehabilitation and retirement. We continued through farmland, hearing roosters along the way, stopped at a local market, and visited a couple temples along the way. We saw how sticky rice is cooked in bamboo and sampled this tasty treat, sold at many roadside stands, Our tour ended after lunch, a bowl of kao soi.
I took a break afterwards, then headed out to find an ATM and visit the Sunday Market. Many streets were closed and filled with vendors selling clothing, food, and a variety of trinkets. As afternoon became evening, it became more crowded and harder to navigate. Just as I was negotiating to buy an elephant figurine, music started playing on loudspeakers and everyone, vendors and shoppers, stopped and stood still, it was the Thai national anthem. I made my way out of the crowd and found my way to Dash, where I met the rest of my travel group for dinner. The food was delicious, especially the sea bass, and women welcoming.