Chiang Mai is a very beautiful city in the north of Thailand. There used to be a restaurant in Haymarket (Edinburgh) called Chiang Mai and until I met 26 other young people who were going away with Project Trust to Thailand I didn’t realise that it was a place, let a lone where it was exactly. I now know that it takes 6 hours from Sukothai (but longer from Phitsanulok or Sak Lek- stations closer to my place). It was less than a pound an hour for the journey.
During the bus ride the landscape changed gradually from fairly flat plains and rice paddies to mountainous regions covered in tropical jungles. I particularly remember a steep climb that the bus struggled with as we approached Chiang Mai. I am very pleased to note that since coming to Thailand I have started to read again. Nick leant me a couple of novels and on the bus I devoured ‘The End of the Affair’ by Graham Greene. It was very satisfying.
On arrival to Chiang Mai Lek had various conversations with various bus/taxi/tuk tuk drivers as Nick and I stood aside wondering what she was negotiating. We ended up jumping into a red vehicle (apparently they are to Chiang Mai what black cabs are to London) that took us into the centre. We were dropped off at one of the city walls where many tourists stopped to take pictures of each other. By this point hunger had got the better of us so we split up in different directions; Nick and Lek to 7/11 for noodles and I managed to acquire some sticky rice, mango and ice cream from a little stall nearby before joining them on a bench which was in the shade.
Not much planning had gone into our trip and it very quickly became a temple tour. Unfortunately I do not know the names of any of them. In my mind, before going to Chiang Mai, I had told myself: no temples. I now realise that this was very closed-minded and by visiting a number of different temples throughout the city I came to appreciate their beauty and peace. I also learnt that the king of Thailand had been a monk when he was younger and it is a rite of passage that many young men undertake here. Lek prayed to Buddha at all the temples, and this time inside the holy buildings (which also seemed to be tourist attractions for Thais and farang alike) provided an opportunity for reflection and even spirituality. I definitely felt connected to something bigger by sitting in these sacred places surrounded by believers.
Before stopping at our last temple we checked into a hostel that backed onto a car park. It was not the most aesthetically pleasing (which doesn’t matter as we were there to sleep) and it cost us each £2. Amazing. There was even air conditioning.
The last temple stop we took was probably the most impressive, but also the busiest. As it is the weekend of Kaw Pan Sa many Buddhists go to the temple to pray and offer candles to the monks. As we were about to leave the pregnant clouds gave birth. We had to move our shoes inside and wait it out. This is what people tend to do, just wait until the rain passes, as it is almost impossible to do anything with it around. It was like a tap we couldn’t turn off but I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and being able to sit and gaze out of the window without being able to see more than 2 metres away because of the thick and heavy drops. The novelty of the tropical rain wore off slightly when hunger called. Lek, Nick and I were very much in the mood for food… immediately.
We took another of these red vehicles (this time joined by two surprisingly sombre Americans) to the food market, which would have been quite a walk. Falling upon a vegetarian stall we ordered various dishes to meet all of our needs and three large, heavily iced orange juices from a charming lady boy. The portions were enormous and I had to take a ‘doggy bag’ away with me.
Night markets are commonplace in big cities (at least) throughout Thailand and Chiang Mai boasted a large and impressive one. Lek bought each of us a little key ring and a phone charm as a reminder of our trip, how sweet of her (and also practical). At one point there was an impressive overload of electricity when there was a ‘Mexican wave’ of bulbs cutting out with explosive noises resounding through the bazaar; quite exciting really.
Food is central to life; it comes up in almost every conversation and almost my entire basic Thai vocabulary during the first week consisted of words for food and relating to its consumption. Rotis were next on the list and were delicious (aroy mak maak in Thai). We sat by the edge of an inky pool in the dark eating them as rats and cockroaches brushed past us. A nearby shrine was inhabited by a rat who sat inside like a deity inhabiting his own temple.
En route back to the ‘temple district’ as I like to call it we stopped by a café and had some icy fruit shakes to cool down. Night does not mean cool here, it is just hot as opposed to very hot. Between us we had mango, banana and dragon fruit. We discussed different festivals that we have between Thailand, Scotland, England, and also Canada, where Nick spent his year abroad last year.
By this point after a long day of bus journeys, reading and temple touring it was time to retire for the night, reflecting on what perhaps the next trip to Chiang Mai might entail. Perhaps visiting some elephants, or the surrounding jungle areas… Only time will tell.