Would you like to visit Thailand but are worried about the language barrier, not liking the food or just worried about finding things too unfamiliar and scary? Don’t worry! There exists a place just for you: Chiang Mai!
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and is located a 14 hour train ride (or 80 minute flight) north of Bangkok. We’d spent a LOT of time in Bangkok and while we like the city, we were ready to see other parts of Thailand and to get out of Bangkok’s constant chaos. We love traveling by train (I do anyway, Kat’s learning to like it, particularly since she conquered the squat toilet on the train) and it’s much cheaper anyway. We booked 2nd class sleeper berths and we departed at about 6 pm.
The train was quite comfortable and we both got a decent night of sleep. We had the top two beds while the bottom two beds in our berth were filled by two gregarious mid-40’s thai women who were quite nice until they decided to have their morning gossip session at around 6 am. The first thing we noticed about Chiang Mai was how much less humid it is than Bangkok. The weather was delightful – about 70 degrees at night and mid 80’s during the day.
I know my introductory paragraph made it sound like we didn’t’ like Chiang Mai, but we did. You just have to accept it for what it is. It’s FULL of “farangs” (westerners) and the entire town seems to exist solely for tourism. Every storefront is either a travel agent, tour operator, western restaurant, or girly beer bar for the (sadly) thriving sex tourism industry. Every sign is in English. It’s Thailand but it doesn’t feel particularly Thai.
There are more authentic parts of the city. One of Thailand’s most prestigious university’s is in Chiang Mai and Kat and I went out there one day. It was like any other college campus – hip young Thai’s walking around, chic coffee shops and bars and restaurants. Chiang Mai’s old town is surrounded by a giant moat that runs around the entirety of the center of the city. Inside those walls it’s like a different world. If you want hamburgers and burritos washed down with Heineken while you watch soccer or rugby, you can have that all day and all night and never hear a word of Thai. Honestly, after 4 weeks of Thailand, the idea of a burrito sounded pretty good to us, so a day or two of “not-Thailand” was pretty ok, but I wouldn’t want to stay there long term.
We originally thought we’d want to stay in Chiang Mai for about a month – rent an apartment and take a breather from traveling. We decided against this for several reasons: First, we realized we didn’t want to stay in Chiang Mai that long. Secondly, as it was high season, literally EVERY PLACE we called/emailed/faxed/smoke-signaled was booked to capacity. We thought we were really screwed and were talking about leaving Chiang Mai after only 2 days because we couldn’t find anywhere to stay. Luckily, one of the places that had told us he was booked, wrote back to tell us that he had a studio apartment available for 6 nights outside the old city. Sounded GREAT to us.
We loved our little apartment. It had a balcony and a small kitchen and for 6 days we felt like we had a HOME. We spent a lot of time in Chiang Mai just luxuriating in living like normal people. We found a grocery store nearby and stocked our fridge and for the first time in two months were able to cook our own meals. We enjoyed living outside of the touristy old city. Not to say even our neighborhood was authentically thai (in fact, there seemed to be more Israelis than Thais) but it seemed more like a place for ex-pat locals than backpackers passing through.
The one thing we DID find that was authentically Thai in Chiang Mai was our Khao Soi restaurant. Bear with me here. I know, it’s another thousand words extolling the virtues of a soup. WHY ARE YOU TWO IDIOTS SO EXCITED ABOUT SOUP ALL THE DAMN TIME? Believe me, I’m as surprised as the rest of you. Khao Soi, Wikipedia will tell you, is “a soup-like dish made with a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk.” It’s a specialty of Chiang Mai and we were looking for the best place to get it. This is a hotly debated topic on the internet and there doesn’t appear to be ONE place that is recognized as best.
After a month in Thailand, I have a list of hallmarks that I know indicate a good restaurant. Is it a hole in the wall that looks something like a rundown auto garage? Does it serve no more than 2-3 different dishes? Is there an angry granny preparing the food up front? Is it full of Thai people (preferably police officers or moto-taxi drivers) eating at all hours of the day? If you hit at least 3 of these, you’re nearly guaranteed a good meal. The Khao Soi place we discovered by accident on our way to the supermarket hit all four. The angry granny ONLY makes Khao Soi. That’s it. When we sat down, they didn’t even take our order. We just sat down and 2 minutes later two bowls of soup appeared in front of us with no prompting from us at all. I’ll spare you from writing out in full all the inappropriate noises and comments that we made upon tasting this soup. Just know that we ate at this restaurant three times. We’ve ordered Khao Soi in Bangkok and it just isn’t the same. This restaurant with no name will forever be a happy place in our memories.
Many people come to Chiang Mai as a base for trekking out into the mountains of northern Thailand – particularly to see “Hill tribes.” To me, this is the absolute worst of tourism. You’re taken to see these indigenous people out in their homes in the mountains. Let’s call it what it is: a people zoo. Would you like it if people tromped through your living room and gawked at you doing “traditional” activities? This is a hotly debated topic and I don’t want to get into it too much here, but it’s the sort of thing that isn’t for us and I’ll leave it at that. Bangkok is a big, big city and it exists for itself. Tourists are there in droves, but tourists don’t control Bangkok. Ultimately, it felt a bit too much like Chiang Mai exists solely to provide tourists the sort of touristy crap that we really hate. There’s a real heart and soul to Chiang Mai but you’ve got to try really hard to find it.
One thing that was on Kat’s bucket list for this trip was to hold a baby animal. So, we haven’t done that yet. But something we DID get to do in Chiang Mai was play with elephants. Yes. I have pet, fed, bathed and loved all over several elephants. But we’ll get to that in our next post. TEASER.