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April 6th 2012
Published: April 6th 2012
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GETTING TO CHIANG MAI INVOLVED a bit more than the usual prescribed hassles. We flew out of Hanoi at 8am and arrived in Bangkok a couple hours later, still tired from another early morning. Not wanting to waste an extra day sitting around Bangkok we went straight to the train station hoping to catch the noon train for Chiang Mai. Upon arriving at the station we learned that the train was fully booked and the next one didn’t leave until late that evening. Worse yet, there were only sitting seats left, not recliners, which was important since it was a twelve hour overnight ride. While I sat on the bench and sulked (I was having a – ‘I’m sick of traveling’ - moment) Travis arranged alternate transportation on a double decker V.I.P. bus for that evening. It wasn’t a sleeper bus like in Vietnam, but at least it reclined. Several hours later, after multiple cups of coffee, and a sudden and startling salute to the King at six o’clock (which the entire bus station participated in), we were settled comfortably in plush, purple seats. Just as I closed my eyes to take a nap an impossibly loud video came on the television screen positioned directly in front of our seat. It was a Thai game show where an Asian guy dressed up as Michael Jackson was pretending to kill all of the contestants with a fake machete, who were then responding with exaggerated shrieks and cries. I was staring up at this in disbelief when my thoughts were interrupted by a gargantuan lady boy in a black mini skirt, our ‘host’ apparently. She wanted to know if I would like a mung bean filled bun. I gaped up at all six feet of her and politely shook my head no. No, I would not like a mung bean filled bun. “Only in Thailand”, I thought to myself, “….only in Thailand”.

We emerged from the sweaty bowels of the bus around 6am and tumbled out into the smoke filled streets of Chiang Mai. Exhausted from another restless night of trying to sleep in a moving vehicle, we crashed for the remainder of the morning and emerged around 2pm to explore the city. I was not initially wowed by what I saw. It reminded me a lot of Bangkok – a busy city with congested, smoke filled streets, tourist restaurants serving overpriced de-spiced dishes, travel agencies on every corner, and Thai women sitting outside storefronts purring “mas-saaage” in long breathy voices that sounded half seductive/half bored. As we walked further into Old Town, however, the streets became less congested and the massage parlors were gradually replaced by golden crumbling wats. Tall brooding mountains peered down on the town from the North. That evening we wandered through the endless stalls of the Chiang Mai night market, admiring the hill tribe crafts, touching the ethnic clothing, trying on silk scarves, and pondering the fake MAC make up sold on every corner.

Our second day in Chiang Mai happened to be the beginning of the annual flower festival which takes place every year during the first weekend of February. We walked over to its epicenter, at the entrance to Suan Buak Haad City Park, where hundreds of food and flower vendors were set up. The flower and tree exhibitions were incredible. There were windswept bonsais, cheerful yellow chrysanthemums, orchids of every color, and dozens of Damask roses, a flower found only in Chiang Mai. The food stalls were just as impressive as the flowers, stretching out for miles. There was fresh sushi, black ‘grass jelly’, minced meat skewers, squid on sticks, and a million other foreign concoctions that I don’t know the name of. We spent most of the afternoon lying by a pond at the park, taking in the scenes of the festival and watching fat pigeons peck seeds from the grass. As we were leaving we stopped to watch some performances at a stage that had been set up in the street. There was a line of beautiful little Thai girls waiting to perform who were dressed in traditional clothing with bright flowers in their hair, and dark eye liner sweeping upwards from the corner of their eyes. They looked like Thai princesses.

The following day we decided to rent a motorbike as the mountains were beckoning to us. As soon as we started to ascend the world around us transformed into a lush paradise of thick palms and exotic fruit trees. We drove up and down the narrow twisting roads past hidden Hmong villages and trees heavy with fruit, stopping several times to gaze at the city far below. At length we came upon a mountaintop temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, and decided to stop and take a look. As with many other religious sites we have visited, we had to climb a set of steep stairs to reach the complex. Once there, we were rewarded with the stunning view of the valley down below. The entire complex was incredibly beautiful. There were ornate buildings dotted around the complex, all with golden spires rising from the edges of the roof, like golden phoenixes about to take flight. Playing footsy with the temples were bright pink magnolia trees, white orchids, tailored gardens and water features. A couple of children dressed in traditional Hmong garb played on the steps, their mothers sitting nearby, eagerly accepting tips from tourists with cameras. The kids giggled and played with one another, oblivious to the fact that they were working. The entire space had a very serene, peaceful feel to it. It reminded of an outing I took with my family prior to leaving for Asia. My mom, my sisters, and I had visited a Buddhist temple nearby our home, and it had provided me with the same sense of quiet contentment. It was a thankful reminder that I don’t necessarily need to travel to Thailand to find peace; it exists just as readily at home.

For our final day in Chiang Mai we booked an all day tour that included a number of activities. I was a little annoyed with organized tours since we had done several in Vietnam, but it was the cheapest and most efficient way to experience a lot of things in a short amount of time. Our first stop was at an elephant plantation. One side of the plantation looked out over a breathtaking landscape of watery rice fields, lush vegetation, and green mountains. An elephant stood in the foreground scratching his back with a stick. It was the quintessential Thai landscape, just like a postcard, but hotter. T and I were ushered into a chair strapped on top of one of the elephants, while his mahout (trainer) scrambled down onto its head and tucked his legs underneath its ears. I reached down to touch the elephant’s back. It was tough and thick, but you could feel its powerful leg muscles moving underneath the surface as it walked. Every few seconds a slimy trunk would be thrust into our faces in search of a banana. The next hour went something like this: Walk five paces. Stop. Feed banana. Walk five paces. Stop. Feed banana. It was a leisurely, albeit slightly bumpy, ride through a beautiful tropical landscape, with an occasional dose of elephant slime.

After playing with the elephants for a bit we went on a trek through the countryside. We started out walking on a ridge alongside the rice fields. Farmers in wide brimmed hats were working in the fields below cutting tall rice plants and carrying the neon green bundles on their back. Soon the fields disappeared and we found ourselves on a small dirt trail surrounded by thick, wild vegetation. As we walked our guide pointed out coconut palms, banana trees, orange trees, jackfruit trees, and lychee trees growing along the path. The sun was bright and hot even underneath my dark sunglasses. My shirt clung to my body from sweat. Up ahead we heard the familiar trickle of flowing water and before long we arrived at a thundering waterfall. I climbed precariously over the moss covered rocks and jumped in the water to cool off. Refreshed, we resumed our hike and soon encountered a Hmong village, comprised only of a cluster of small huts. An old Hmong woman with a mouth full of betel nut juice smiled up at us as she worked on a tribal scarf. After exchanging smiles with the villagers we continued on and found our van waiting for us at the top of the hill ready to take us to lunch. The meal was mediocre but it was nice to talk to the other people in our group, three guys from Hawaii who were in Thailand for dental tourism, a couple from China, and a couple from Sweden. Now towards the end of our trip we felt like experts on the area instead of novices. It was time for other people to be impressed with how long we had been traveling, rather than the other way around. After our meal we drove to a river with some decent white water rapids and climbed aboard makeshift bamboo rafts. Travis and I tried to stay standing as we went over the rapids but as expected, we failed. We did manage to stay on the raft the entire time though, even when multiple groups of Thai people that we passed by showered us with torrents of water.

On our final night we went to the Sunday night market, where vendors were selling their homemade wares. There was so much to see we never made it to the end. By the end of our stay Chiang Mai had grown on me considerably, however, I still felt like it was missing something. The entire town was build around tourism. I wondered if in their attempts to attract tourists, it had lost some of its authenticity. But who am I to judge? Maybe the massage parlors, the old white men, the Western bars – are just as “Thai” now as the rice fields and elephants. Asia is evolving quickly and Thailand is ahead of the pack.

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