Four days in Chiang Mai

Dawn light illuminates the stupa,reflected in a lotus pot, at Chiang Mai's oldest wat, Chiang Man.

As the sun disappeared behind the omnipresent haze around Bangkok, the birdsongs slowly changed their tune, and the air began to cool to more acceptable levels, I boarded a bus on its way north to Chiang Mai. It would be ten uncomfortable hours before I arrived in my destination. My discomfort was exacerbated by the diminutive Thai woman who sat next to me, and decided that I make a wonderful backrest. Luckily, she disembarked halfway through the trip, and I was allowed more room to sleep, and a much-needed blanket under the freezing air conditioning.

I arrived in Chiang Mai before sunrise, and was greeted by a brisk morning breeze. Near the bus terminal, I drank instant coffee, seemingly ubiquitous in SEA, to chase the chill from my bones before beginning my trek to the city center.

At this early hour, the streets were nearly silent, interrupted only by the occasional motorbike or red truck rumbling slowly by, the latter tooting their horns to offer a lift. Barefoot buddhist monks in billowing saffron robes walked slowly through the streets, carrying silver bowls, trading quick, quiet prayers in exchange for alms. Small birds, waking to the dawn, sang their sweet morning songs, as distant roosters crowed mightily into the still air.

As the sun crested the horizon, I made my way into the old city, a four square kilometer section of Chiang Mai still ringed by a moat and ancient, if oft-repaired, red brick walls. This particular section of the city is dominated by wats, tourists, hostels, massage parlors, bars, tattoo shops, and restaurants offering almost any kind of food you could ever want. Even vegan fare is easy to come by.

In short, it’s a tourist trap. A beautiful place, but a trap none-the-less. Prices for some things are higher here, but it’s worth the trip. As you walk the narrow streets, stupas and wats are omnipresent, offering a wealth of sightseeing within a short walk of any hostel you choose inside the city walls.

While the sun was low in the sky, and the heat of day had not yet made its slow trek from the east, I explored some of the temples. The nicest thing about being up and about early in a town like Chiang Mai is that you beat the masses of tourists. By midday, the streets are crowded with foreigners all struggling through the tropical heat for a chance to take in the sights. If you get up early, the streets are nearly empty as the average traveler nurses a hangover.

Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan, the largest of the wats in Chiang Mai's central district, is constructed from the same red clay bricks as the exterior walls.

The temples in Chiang Mai are phenomenal, but as the day warmed, I left their confines, and contacted my friend about meeting up for an early lunch. Jake, a Canadian friend I met while working in South Korea, was staying just around the corner from me near the North Gate. We met up, and he suggested a small cafe about a kilometer south of us. This cafe ended up being one of the greatest hidden treasures in Chiang Mai.

Ginny Place/Ginny Cafe is a restaurant/guesthouse/travel agency located in the southeast quadrant of the old city. Seating only about 18, it’s cozy inside, but the food is fantastic, especially if you’re in search of a western breakfast at an affordable price. My favorite was the veggie breakfast (two eggs, toast, potato, tomato, beans, mushrooms, fresh juice, and coffee or tea for 105 THB). She also has amazing Thai food, but one thing I’ve learned during my time abroad is that the occasional western breakfast is indispensable. I may write a blog post about Ginny Cafe later on, but just know that this was a staple of my time in Chiang Mai.

Temple of the Four Buddha Footprints as seen from afar.

During breakfast, Jake mentioned a few temples outside the city that had been brought to his attention by a fellow traveler he met in Cambodia. These temples, he was told, are rarely visited, and, while a bit of a hike from the city, worth the trip. After some Google-foo, we decided to head to the Temple of the Four Buddha Footprints (Wat Phra-Phuttha-baat Sii Roi วัดพระพุทธบาทสี่รอย).

Taking our leave of Ginny Cafe, we stopped at a nearby scooter rental shop, and bargained our way down to 150THB for the day for each motorbike. The owner warned me that the throttle was a bit twitchy, and I nodded that I understood. But I didn’t. A block down the road, I managed to hold the front brake while simultaneously twisting the throttle. The rear wheel immediately broke traction, and the bike dropped. Luckily, I managed to catch it, and avoid any injury to myself or the bike, but Jake looked back at me and asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” “Sure! I’m good!” I replied, and we made our way out of the city toward our destination.

After leaving the main road out of Chiang Mai, we found ourselves on a beautifully paved piece of road that snaked its way into the countryside. Jake, being more proficient on a motorbike than I, often left me far behind as he enjoyed the freedom of the open road. Before long, our path took us onto a rough, though freshly paved path barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other. This road was recently a dirt track leading up the mountain to the wat, but it has been paved to allow a greater volume of traffic during the rainy season.

After about 50km, we arrived at the entrance to the wat. Here we saw why the road had truly been paved. The Temple of the Four Buddha Footprints is being made into a tourist attraction. A new, massive entrance gate is currently under construction, as well as a parking area large enough to handle hundreds of tourists. For now, though, the temple remains a relatively undiscovered gem. The parking lot was empty but for a couple vans, and there are very few visitors beyond pilgrims hoping to see the holy site enshrined in the main structure.

Legend has it that all four Buddhas who have been on Earth have set foot in this very place. At the top of a small hill, their footprints can be seen, overlapping, and graven in stone. The largest, and oldest, is six meters in length. The others are smaller, and nestle into the larger, one on top of the other. For luck, one can toss coins into the footprints like a shallow, dry wishing well.

Being neither Buddhist, nor superstitious, Jake and I marveled for a few minutes, took some quick pictures, then headed off to the other attractions. Down the lane, we found a large group of locals uproariously cheering for a footsal tournament on a dirt field as cheerleaders performed half-heartedly in the afternoon heat. The locals greeted the two strange foreigners with offers of food and Thai whiskey, though, having already eaten and relying on motorbikes for transport, we graciously declined both, took a few pictures, and moved on.

Exterior of the cross-shaped temple.

...and the interior.

Up another hill, we found the central wat in the complex - a majestic golden building detailed to the nth degree. After Bangkok and a morning in Chiang Mai, I thought I was beyond being impressed by wats for the day, if not the week, but this structure took my breath away. The towering structure is the only wat with a floor plan shaped like a cross. The interior is just as breathtaking as the exterior, with incredible murals, glittering chandeliers, and the obligatory golden Buddha. Despite the heat, we spent about an hour at this wat before moving on to explore the rest of the complex.

Dragons outside the temple.

I couldn't get enough of this temple!

Up another steep hill, we found more of the complex was being built up in expectation of the rise in tourism over the coming years. This area was massed with an array of tiny structures, more for show than actual use, as well as a few new Buddha statues situated in and around an as-yet-incomplete rebar-and-cement cliff structure. The view from here was spectacular, aside from the ever-present haze. The heat soon got to us, though, and we made our way back to our motorbikes, and headed back to the city.

After an extremely enjoyable ride (I began to get more comfortable on my motorbike by this point), we arrived in the city only to meet a massive traffic jam caused by the Sunday Night Market. We found a restaurant, enjoyed an overpriced, sub-par meal, and retired to our hostels to freshen up, and then headed out to find a bar with a pool table where we finished our night.

The next day we spent mostly relaxing by the pool in Jake’s guesthouse. I attempted to get some work done, but the keyboard and trackpad on my Mac were slowly dying. I tried to get my computer fixed, while Jake continually reminded me to calm down. After a few hours in a chat room with tech support, they finally told me to take the computer in to be repaired at a local Apple-authorized repair shop.

Sometime after sunset, we met up with one of Jake’s friends from Korea who was aching to go to a “lady bar.” This is basically a strip club where you can take the ladies home for the night. Jake and I were not as keen on the idea, so we convinced him to go to a bar where we could shoot pool. He finally acquiesced, and we made our way to the bar from the previous night, and shot some rounds of pool. Before long, though, the refrain came up again, and Jake’s friend eventually convinced us to head to the “lady bar” as he offered to pay for our drinks.

Within twenty minutes of arriving at the strip club, Jake’s friend had chosen a woman, and abandoned us as he headed back to his guesthouse with her under his arm. Jake and I decided to make our leave of the bar, and walked out into the street where we met an American woman who immediately struck up a conversation with us.

To say this woman was outgoing would be horrendous understatement. Within a minute of striking up a conversation with us, she pulled out a bottle of Thai whiskey, and passed it around. As I was taking a swig, I hear her excuse herself, and before we knew what was happening, she dropped trou and pissed into the moat.

Before I had time to question what reality I had walked into, we heard an ear-shattering bang followed by the squeal of tires, and a woman’s scream. Like anyone would, we started running in the direction of the distress to find an obliterated motorbike laying on its side on top of a now equally unusable street sign. A distraught woman stood over the bike, trying to explain that a car hit the bike, then took off. Knowing we couldn’t help, we struck up another conversation with a group of foreigners who had had the same reaction as us. Throughout the conversation, we somehow ended up taking group photos, our new friend passed around more Thai whiskey, and ended up pissing in the moat a couple more times. The memories get hazy around this point...

Thai whiskey is a harsh mistress. I woke late in the day with a splitting headache in desperate need of a coffee and a good breakfast, so Jake and I headed south to Ginny Cafe again where we nursed our aching heads, and never removed our sunglasses. We decided that our best course of action would be to watch Muay Thai that night, and asked Ginny if she would be able to get us tickets. To our great satisfaction, she not only said she could, but that she would also offer us a discount. That night, we returned to her place where she wrote our payment on a sheet of paper along with something written in Thai.

Upon arrival, we handed over our sheet of paper, and were quickly ushered through a long line of bars populated with ladyboys and pulsing music, and into the stadium proper. Arrayed around the ring were a large number of plastic lawn chairs filled with half-interested guests. We were led past this crowd, and into the back corner where a curved couch - the type where people get bottle service and high-priced hookers - was situated in front of an empty bar with a pool table.

Best seats in the house.

We were seated at this couch, and within 30 seconds, a woman sat next to me, began nudging me, and when I looked over, she subtly pantomimed a blowjob. I gracefully declined, and ordered a beer as she left.

As it turned out, the bar behind us was our bar. They served only the people sitting at that couch. Only we were able to use the restroom. Only we were able to shoot on the pool table. It was amazing.

After the first fight, a couple from Singapore joined us, and we began betting beers on the fights. I lost one, and opted out of the other bets as Jake and our new friends wagered on the following fights. A while into the show, we began shooting pool as well, and got progressively more drunk as the beer flowed freely.

Most of the fights were spectacular, but the last fight was very obviously rigged. Luckily, we were all drunk enough by then to not care, and we cheered our hearts out. By the end, we were the crazy, loud westerners in the corner that no one is particularly fond of. But we couldn’t give less of a shit. We had the time of our lives.

Muay Thai was a ton of fun.

The next day was Jake’s birthday, so he went off to play golf with his friends. I attempted to get my computer fixed at the shop, only to be informed that it would be a one to two week wait to get the part from Singapore. Disheartened, I went off to photograph more temples.

That night we met up with another friend from Korea, and made our way to the Night Bazaar to the east of the old city, and ate at a wonderful place filled with dozens of food stands and a selection of haybales for seating. After the band stopped playing, most of us were ready to head to the next destination only to be surprised by another band coming on stage.

One of the best voices I've ever heard live.

As we began to pack up, the guitarist strummed the first measures of a song, and a voice like none I’ve ever heard live rocked our eardrums. We froze, half-standing, half-seated, and stared at each other as we wordlessly settled back onto our haybales. In rapt attention, and near silence, I sat as the singer’s voice brought tears to my eyes. We stayed until the band finished, jaws on the floor the entire time.

As the final chords echoed through the food court, we finally made our way to the next stop, only to spend the rest of the night telling people about the amazing vocalist we’d just heard.

The next day, Jake had to fly back to work in Korea, and I felt that my time in Chiang Mai had come to an end. We ate at Ginny Cafe again, then parted ways as I made my way to the bus station, and my next destination: Chiang Rai.

Next time, on Misadventures!