Chiang Mai is a fun city. Where Bangkok was immense and overwhelming and a traffic nightmare. Chiang Mai is walkable and livable, and..okay, also a traffic nightmare.
Upon arrival, I immediately noticed the most important aspect of how I judge a livable city – coffee shops everywhere. Serving strong, locally grown mountain coffee. No more of the 3-in-1 instant coffees that pour out of little envelopes and include powdered cream and sugar. Real baristas crafting an espresso to rival Venice or Reykjavik or Portland. I immediately felt at home.
It’s also a city full of temples. I hate ticking off a list of sightseeing chores, preferring to let my feet and heart and senses guide my path through the Old City. You don’t have to walk far before you stumble across a temple, gloriously layered in glittering glass mosaics. I wake early to beat the tourists and take in temple grounds in their morning meditations, the young monks late to mediation running in flip flops and slinking in the back as the senior monks recites lessons and words of wisdom into a microphone. (Or so I imagine.)
My favorite temples are the ones unlike the others, the odd ducks of Chiang Mai. One is an old, old teak house, the timber boards a deep, deep brown, as if the sun has reversed the weathering process to deep shadows. The lintels above the temple doors are etched with intricate patterns and dragons and peacocks. In the cool of morning, when the world holds unlimited promise and monks pray in splashes of orange that mimic the dawn, there is no place I would rather let my feet lead.
Another temple is home to an old, crumbling chedi of the Lanna period, sometime in the 14th century. The modern temple has sprung up around its stagnant little moat, but the multi-headed dragons still flanking the steep ramps up to the top still inspire a twinge of momentary terror. These dragons are modern reconstructions at three of these ramps, but the fourth has been allowed its dignity, to gracefully fade away with time. This is my favorite angle of the chedi.
Street food is never far when the nibbles beckon. Markets crowd tiny soi and spill across streets as legions of motorbikes form a parking lot threatening to dam up the roads. I sample mango sticky rice, crispy sweet banana chips, some of the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten, the complex waves of hot, hot spice flooding my mouth. For 30 baht, I can eat hearty. That’s about $1!
I do despise the traffic. Dodging the lanes of traffic to cross a road has become an acquired skill, quickly picked up by following the locals. I dodge flying caravans of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, songthaews, and cars, even the occasional pedi-cab. On the flip side, I love the rush of flying on the back of a motorbike as my friend weaves through traffic. It still baffles me how the Thais manage to squeeze so many people and things onto their motorbikes. I’ve seen five people on one bike.
More updates and back stories to come as I can…..