Day 29-30: Chiang Mai, Thailand

by - May 29, 2011

Day One: Chiang Mai Old Town

Last night I committed another major travel area (I hope that you are jotting these down and learning from them), by going out drinking the night before and forgetting to buy a bottle of water on the way home.  Given the choice of dying of thirst, or dying from water poisoning, I chose a wise middle ground of a mouthful of warm tap water.  Luckily I suffered no adverse effects, but it was a close shave.  I slept in and had a late breakfast, before heading down to the very impressive ‘Empress Hotel’ where Grant and Maria were staying - the grand entrance hall to the hotel couldn’t have been more of a contrast to the fact that I mine through the owner’s living room.  They were happy for me to arrange a rough tour through the city and I was happy to take it easy and do a bit of vague wandering.

Chedis at Wat Suan Dok
We started by getting a tuk-tuk to the furthest temple that I wanted to visit - Wat Suan Dok, which was about 1km to the west of the city walls.  This was a not so commonly visited temple which had the main attraction of having a large 'chedi’ in the grounds which has the mountains around Chiang Mai as its background.  A chedi is the Thai name for a Buddhist 'stupa’, which is a mound containing Buddhist relics and the ones in Chiang Mai that I saw tended to be white.  The temple itself was quite attractive, but (and I know it sounds fairly uncultured) after a month of seeing temples they have lost their 'wow’ factor a bit.  After a bit of a wander around the grounds we started our amble back towards the city centre, stopping along the way for a fruitshake and ice coffee - the two liquids that have become my travelling fuel.

Wat Prah Singh Temple
Chiang Mai old town is a square, walled city which is surrounded on all four sides by a moat and is therefore fairly easy to navigate.  My plan for the afternoon was to see another three temples and also look through some of the famous bookshops and cafes that Chiang Mai is well known for.  The first temple on the list was Wat Prah Singh, the most famous of the temples in the city and also one of the oldest, completed around 1400 AD.  Frankly, the inside of the temple was a slightly grander version of what I had seen before, but there was the interesting addition of a small ornate building housing scriptures and scrolls in the grounds, that was unfortunately not open to the public.  On our way through the town we passed by the 'Three Kings Monument’, a statue dedicated to three of the ancient Thai kings.  These kind of monuments normally get a quick photo and are never thought about again, but there was something about the dignity of the three characters depicted that has made them stick in my memory and I am hoping to find a print of them or something as a souvenir.  By now it had gone past lunchtime, so the three of us dived into a cafe where Grant and I demolished four burgers between us - as uncultured as it may seem, Thai food doesn’t quite hit the spot when you need something quick and filling.

Three Kings Monument, Chiang Mai
Ruins at Wat Chedi Luang
The last two temples - Wat Pan Thao and Wat Chedi Luang were actually something refreshingly different.  The former was made of a dark wood that was very atmospheric and a contrast to the gold designs that had been inlaid into it.  The latter seemed to be nothing remarkable, but it turned out that three separate temples were in the grounds and that one of these was a crumbling, but spectacular, older temple that had been damaged by an earthquake.  Apparently there is repair and restoration work going on at it, but it still has that feel of a ruin - which is a strangely satisfying contrast to the highly maintained temples that are dotted around the rest of Chiang Mai.  Feeling like we had had a bit of a temple overdose, the three of us split up to do our own thing (for me, this was to go back to an internet cafe and write the blog), before going out to dinner on the top floor of the amusingly named 'Pornping Tower’.  Having had to walk past the numerous brothels (technically named 'bars’, but they aren’t kidding anybody) in the city I didn’t know what to expect, but it was actually very classy and we had a pleasant meal with a great view. 

Day Two: Doi Suthep, farewells and a hellish journey

The road up to Doi Suthep
Grant and Maria had arrived in Chiang Mai a few days before me (flying from Hanoi around when I flew to Luang Prabang) and had therefore seen a few parts of the city already.  We decided on an evening meet and I headed off by myself for the day to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a temple on one of the mountains overlooking the city that is the quintessential image of perhaps all of the north of Thailand.  The trip involved the amusing task of playing tout for the morning, as I was catching a minibus that got cheaper the more people that got in.  This was pretty fruitless as nobody got in (I can now empathize with all of the Thai touts who I previously just saw as annoying), so I had to pay for the entire bus (it was only 8 pounds, but still) and set out up the winding roads to the temple.  For those of you who are wondering why I didn’t use a tuk-tuk, it turns out that their puny go-kart engines can’t manage to get up the steep sections of the road.

The golden chedi
There are several stories about why the temple was built at the top of Doi Suthep mountain.  My favourite of these is that a white elephant carrying an important Buddhist relic happened to die at the top of the mountain, which was seen as a sign by the king who decreed that a temple should be built there.  The dead elephant certainly couldn’t have chosen a more scenic spot for its demise, as the site has a panoramic view over the entire city and a lot of surrounding countryside.  After being dropped off by my private minibus, I climbed the large, steep staircase from the road to the temple itself.  Lifts were provided, but I didn’t think that was really in the spirit of things.  The temple is one of the most sacred in Thailand and contains a huge golden chedi that can actually be seen from most places in Chiang Mai on a clear day - at night it is lit up.

The temple was busy, but was pleasant enough and vast enough for there to be places to sit and admire the view, so I thought I would make the most of my minibus fare and sat for a while reading my book and taking photos.  One of the most interesting aspects of the view as that Chiang Mai airport is located in the valley below and it was possible to watch big planes taking off from above - an experience that I don’t think I have ever had before.  My minibus driver stopped at a few places on the drive back down to let me take some more photos - perhaps he felt sorry for me paying the whole fare, and we arrived back in town around mid afternoon.

Panorama of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep
I felt I had pretty much covered Chiang Mai, so after stopping at a bookshop to trade in some old books for a new copy of Plato’s Republic (my old copy of which I left in Penang), I headed back to the hostel to collect my bag.  I was going to meet Grant and Maria for an evening meal, but ended up late as I rejected the fare of the first tuk-tuk driver I met, only for it to start raining and all the tuk-tuk drivers to disappear.  In hindsight, the fare wasn’t even that bad.  We had our meal at the Riverside restaurant, which had come well recommended by locals.  It was in a good location and had one of the most comprehensive menus I have ever seen, with over 590 dishes (they were numbered - I didn’t count them).  After the meal Grant and Maria came to the station to wave me off - it had been lovely to spend some time with them and we vowed to meet up in England or Australia one day.  I then spent 10 hours on a very uncomfortable seat in the overnight (not sleeper) train from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya in the south.  Thankfully I had nobody sitting next to me and was able to get myself into a position from which I was able to get a tiny bit of sleep.

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