Time seduces me and suddenly a week has past and no updates from me! I have been travelling the back roads and towns of northern Thailand, away from my fellow farangs, and I’ve fallen in love with a small city called Phrae.
A beautiful four-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai into the mountains and jungles, this laid back city (or town? it’s awfully small) seduced me in just two nights. I could live here. A small old city core full of 19th century teak houses and shophouses, little forgotten temples, a slow rhythm to the everyday pulse of local life, the friendliest Thais I’ve ever met (that is truly saying something), and not a farang in sight.
If you’re looking for a tightly schedules, fast-paced traditional sightseeing experience, Phrae is not the town for you. There are no “must-see” sights. This is a place for letting life seep into your soul. I walked the narrow old streets in the chilly mornings, calling out “Sawutdee ka” to half the town as they opened their shops and went off to school, and lounged away the hot afternoons away from the intense sun in the shade of an assortment of little cafes.
One surprise was the abundance of excellent coffee. Outside the major cities and tourist areas, I don’t expect a strongly-brewed cup of espresso or cappuchino. I settle for a sweet iced Thai coffee, full of milk, or the instant packets. By serendipity, I spotted a little shophouse converted into a very simple cafe, a couple of big wood chairs, a long wood bar, and a smattering of bar stools. Here with a simple old-fashioned hand-grinder, a plug-in hot plate burner, and a glass carafe, a young barista named Jadai brewed me a stunningly smooth, strong cup of coffee, using the classic, if slow, pour-over method of brewing, one cup at a time. It was a cup of coffee to rival my hometown, Portland, Oregon. By the end of my stay, I was a regular, chatting with the steady clientale of locals practicing their bits and pieces of English.
As a farang outside the tourist zone, I attracted a lot of stares and smiles. School girls in their crisp uniforms temporarily adopted me at one of the temples, showing me around and posing for a slew of photos – I felt like a minor celebrity. Shopkeepers in 19th century ramshackle wooden shophouses smiled and called out greetings. Police officers shared their favorite lunch spots for 30 baht bowls of spicy noodle soups. At a casual “milk bar” in the front yard of someone’s old stilted house, a university student home to visit struck up a conversation to practice her English and soon she was inviting me to join her friends for the evening. I know I was a novelty, but the genuine warmth of everyone I met lent the worn wood and brick of Phrae a coat of varnish.
I am now back in the city of Chiang Mai, preparing myself for the pomp and circumstance and chaos of Chinese New Year. With a sizable Chinese-Thai population residing in the city, Chinatown has been awash in red lanterns, walking streets, dancing dragon troupes, smoky incense, and classical Chinese music. Happy New Year everyone!