Chimes of the mind in Chiang Mai

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Asia » Thailand » North-West Thailand » Chiang Mai
January 17th 2020
Published: June 3rd 2020
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The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now… ~ Thai Proverb

Today we were travelling north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Having spent the morning exploring Bangkok’s khlongs (canals) in a long wooden boat and ambling through the serene but crowded Wat Pho temple complex, we returned to Siam Champs-Elyseesi Unique Hotel to prepare for our overnight train to Chiang Mai. We settled on thick wooden chairs in a comfy hotel alcove and worked on our travel notes, only venturing into the searing afternoon heat to pick up some snacks from a nearby 7-Eleven store. It was a great place to reflect on our time in Bangkok, and to prepare for our northward journey.

In the late afternoon (around 4pm) we jumped into a minibus and headed to Hua Lamphong railway station in the heart of Chinatown. As we walked in, we immediately recognised the place. We’d been here nine years earlier, and nothing seemed to have changed. Groups of people were sitting on the floor in the spacious old-world waiting area; the same food stores lined the first floor and mezzanine walls; the same mini-mart was operating just inside the entrance. We had picked up a few bao (Chinese steamed buns) from this mini-mart back in 2011, and suddenly we found ourselves at the counter. Nostalgia is an emotion we rarely feel, but we couldn’t help ourselves. Mirroring our actions from all those years ago, we picked up a pork, bbq pork and custard bao for the trip.

A noticeable difference this time around was the ban on alcohol, which couldn’t be consumed or carried on the train. The only other real difference was the newness of the train itself. We were so looking forward to the trip. We settled in our comfy seats and prepared for the journey. We knew an attendant would come around at some stage and convert our seats into the bottom bunk, which was to be my bed. Ren was taking the top bunk.

We left Bangkok at 6:10pm sharp, which is exactly the time we were expecting to leave. Unlike other major cities, there didn’t seem to be any evident poverty bordering the rail tracks on the outskirts of Bangkok. We slowly crawled out of the city and made our way north to Chiang Mai, munching on our nostalgic bao as the sun set on the horizon.

An affable young attendant soon appeared in our carriage, taking our dinner orders on a tattered old notepad that had seen better days. We decided to share a meal (which Ren regretted deciding to share when it was placed in front of us). The meal had a number of different components, including spicy soup, fried chicken with cashews, roast duck red curry, jasmine rice, banana cake and fruit. It was to be served at 7pm, and we didn’t doubt it. This train seemed to run like clockwork, so we expected the meal to arrive at 7pm – sharp!

It actually arrived 10 minutes early. Talk about efficient! It was served in a large plastic tray with a separate compartment for each food component. The roast duck red curry was superb – very spicy and tasty. The fried chicken with cashews was quite good for train food. The spicy soup (mushroom) was refreshing and clean, but the ‘spicy’ title was misleading, because it had no spice to talk of. The only disappointment was the saccharine-rich orange cordial. Fresh pineapple rounded off the meal, and we stored the banana cake as a future snack. This was a different dining experience, and one we really enjoyed.

After dinner our seats were converted into bunk beds by a friendly and efficient train attendant, and we crawled into them at 8pm. I slept reasonably well, although the temperature inside the carriage increased considerably during the night. This was in stark contrast to earlier in the evening, when we had to put on as many layers of clothing as we could access, because the air-conditioning system had been working overtime, pumping freezing cold air into the carriage.

We woke at 6am to the slow swaying and lurching of the train. It was still pitch black outside, but it was good to feel refreshed. Sleeping in a bed with a tiny curtain between you and the aisle can be daunting, but luckily there was little movement inside the carriage during the night.

We’d ordered hot tea to be served in the morning, and I was desperately looking forward to it. The young attendant who took our meal orders the night before soon arrived with our hot beverages, and while it was green tea with powdered milk, it was still good to have a hot drink first thing in the morning.

The sky on the horizon started to turn red at 6:30am, and we arrived in Chiang Mai just after 7pm. I love the mesmerising movement of trains, and this 13-hour journey had been fantastic. We climbed out of the carriage with our packs, made our way along the platform and clambered into the back of a songthaew (a small pickup truck/ute) just outside the station. We then bumped through the streets of Chiang Mai to People Place Hotel Two, our accommodation for the next two nights. It was next door to People Place Hotel One, the very place we’d stayed during on our previous visit to Chiang Mai.

Despite arriving so early, our comfortable room was actually ready, so we dropped our packs and headed to a nearby (and very familiar) 7-Eleven store to pick up some iced coffees and Thai milk tea for breakfast. We also picked up another banana muffin to supplement the one we’d saved from the train. We were meant to be having breakfast at a nearby French bakery, but unfortunately it was closed. Still, the 7-Eleven snacks were quite sufficient, and it was fantastic to return to a familiar place.

It would have been great to shower after our overnight train journey, but time was against us. However, it didn’t really matter, because we felt reasonably fresh. After our small but satisfying breakfast, we quickly changed, jumped into a minibus and headed straight to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple complex located on the outskirts of the city. As we wound our way up Doi Suthep mountain, Chiang Mai became smaller and smaller below us. There were very few straight stretches of road. Each corner wound into another, and our minibus was struggling at a very slow pace.

It had been quite cool when we arrived at the train station, but we could feel the heat increasing as the morning sun climbed higher into the sky. We climbed the 300 steps to the temple complex, and the ascent was just as we remembered – crowded and steep. However, it didn’t take long to climb. On arrival at the summit, we wandered side-by-side with tourists and pilgrims who were arriving by the minute. It was a heady atmosphere at the mountain top, and we tried to capture the ambiance in photographs.

The view from Doi Suthep is usually magnificent, but the haze didn’t allow us to see much of Chiang Mai from the summit. We could make out the city’s boundaries, but we couldn’t make out any details.

We left Wat Phra That Doi Suthep just before midday. We descended the 300 stairs in no time at all, jumped into our minibus and headed back to the hotel, where we finally had time to shower. We then headed to lunch at J-UAN, a small bustling restaurant close to the hotel. We settled at a table and ordered Thai milk teas on ice. I opted for a pad thai (fried noodles with egg, dried shrimps, peanuts and vegetables), while Ren ordered a khao rad nam phad kai (steamed rice with stir-fried sour pork and egg in paprika, onion and green onion). My pad thai was okay, but Ren’s meal was a little dry.

After lunch I headed back to the hotel to work on a work-related quotation that I really needed to finalise, while Ren headed for a Thai massage at a parlour just around the corner from our hotel.

We walked to the nearby Anusarn Night Market at 6pm. The market was only just coming to life, so we wandered through the various food stalls for quite some time before eventually making a decision on what to eat. I opted for a pad thai (once again), while Ren couldn’t go past the mango with sticky rice. Ren also ordered a Maitai from the cocktail bar in the middle of the market.

We explored the market’s souvenir and clothing stalls for a while, but the day was slowly catching up with us, so we returned to the hotel (with a few wrong turns along the way). We settled in our room and caught up on our travel notes for a while, before eventually crashing at 10pm.

After three days and two nights in Bangkok, it was time to head north to Chiang Mai in the old ‘Land of a million rice fields’ Lanna Kingdom.

In the late afternoon, we caught a minibus to the Hua Lamphong train station. We were catching an overnight train and needed to stock up on more snacks. We did the rounds of the food stalls and Andrew reminded me that the last time we were here, one of the cooks in the food hall was vomiting into a sink. Nine years on, the memory of that sight still churned my stomach! Despite this, we got a bit nostalgic that the minimart we had bought some bao (Chinese steamed buns) from was still there and still sold bao! So we bought bbq pork, braised pork and custard bao… any excuse to indulge in bao! 😄

We boarded the new and shiny overnight train to Chiang Mai at 5:30pm. Well, newer and shinier than when we last caught the same train anyway. The other big changes were that back then alcohol had been encouraged and the train food was a big no-no. Now, alcohol was strictly banned and the food on board was highly recommended – so we thought we’d try it.

We were given a set menu with four choices (all at 220Bhat). It seemed like a lot of food for one person (especially as we’d recently scoffed some bao!), so we opted to share one set. We picked the one with jasmine rice, a soup, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts, roast duck in red curry, fruit, banana muffin, water and a drink. We ordered our meal for 7pm, which the very efficient carriage attended said he’d deliver to our seats. Andrew and a few others got very excited when they saw beer on the menu… only to be gently reminded of the alcohol ban and that the beer was non-alcoholic.

The train departed as scheduled at 6:10pm on the dot. Within a few minutes of leaving the station, we all noticed that it started getting very cold. We were glad for easy access to our big packs (which were shoved under our seats) to get scarfs and additional layers. We had toilets on either end of our carriage, which were very clean and easily the best we’ve had on any overnight trains anywhere in the world! This fact made the train experience so much better for me. 😊

As promised, dinner arrived just before 7pm, and it was much better than expected. The only suspect thing on the tray was the drink – it was a small bottle of the fluoro-orange cordial we had for breakfast at our hotel in Bangkok! The chicken and mushroom soup and the duck red curry were particularly good. I briefly regretted only ordering one meal, but that was pure greed talking, and one set was more than adequate.

We chatted to Philipp and Christina who were sitting across the aisle from us. This was their first trip together and their first time in Asia. It was so lovely getting their travel impressions and fresh perspectives on Asia. They were both avid animal lovers, so we bonded over our pets back home and the photographs of random street cats we’d been petting so far.

Soon after we’d finished dinner, we had our seats converted to bunks by an attendant. The small table between our two seats was folded down, and the seats slid together to form part of the bottom bunk. The top bunk was pulled out from a wall cavity, which also held the crisp clean sheets and blankets which were used to make up our beds. Our attendant was very efficient and it only took her a few minutes to convert each set of bunks. After not enjoying my rare bottom bunk experience on the overnight train in Morocco, I had ‘bagsed’ the top bunk with Andrew as soon as we booked this trip! 😊

When I crawled into my upper bunk, I had every intention of doing some writing… but I was quickly rocked to sleep as our train chugged through the night, bound for Chiang Mai. Annoyingly, I slept fitfully for the first few hours – I had rugged up in preparation for a cold night, but the arctic conditions started easing and I kept waking up to take layers off. Plus one of our group hadn’t realised she needed to use her inside voice, and then proceeded to rustle through plastic bags for a while. If we were further into the trip, I would have felt comfortable pulling a cheeky ‘oi, can you keep it down?’, but it was only Day 2, and we were still getting to know each other. Thankfully I fell into a relaxed sleep after that. I vaguely felt the train stop a few times, but it didn’t really wake me up. I really do enjoy sleeping on trains. 😊

I was naturally awake at 5am, and when I hung my head over the bunk railing I was surprised to see Andrew awake too. Having just returned from the toilets, he was happy to inform me that they were still super clean, which was good news indeed! I was going to write for a while, but decided to nap for another hour. I can’t believe I’m already starting to slip behind in my travel writing!

Our bunks were converted back into seats just in time for the 6am cup of tea we’d ordered the night before. We were quite impressed with the excellent staff on the train and their superb customer service. We tipped them very generously for taking such good care of us.

The growing morning light revealed vague impressions of tiny villages interspersed with a lot of scrub and bamboo forests. I say ‘vague’ because the external glass on the train window was so grimy that I erroneously thought there was a heavy mist! As we neared Chiang Mai’s urban sprawl we watched people heading to work on motorbikes, kids in uniform waiting at bus stops, and older citizens sitting on stools outside their houses observing the world go by.

We arrived in Chiang Mai just after 7am and caught a couple of songthaews to our hotel. Songthaews are small pickup trucks/utes with a row of seats on either side of the covered tray. It’s an essential form of transport in Thailand. We were staying in People Place Hotel 2, and we were welcomed with a glass of that fluoro-orange cordial drink. I don’t know if it was because I was thirsty or that I was getting used to it – but it didn’t taste so ‘fluoro’ this time!

We’d stayed at the People Place Hotel the last time in Chiang Mai, and wondered if this was a renovated Version 2 of that hotel. The body of the hotel (stairs, hallways and rooms) looked identical but the reception and restaurant areas were very different. The mystery was solved when we stepped outside and realised the old hotel we’d stayed at was right next door. We were surprised to see that all the shops in the nearby streets were still exactly the same too – a 7-Eleven, a laundry, a massage parlour with very reasonable prices and a corner restaurant that I’d had an outstanding mango and sticky rice dish at. What more could you ask for? 😊

Our room was ready by 8am. However, a few people hadn’t been allocated rooms, so we decided to have a quick breakfast and head out to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep that morning instead of in the afternoon. But first things first – we needed breakfast. Naa (our group leader) took us for a walk around the block to L’Opera Bakery, but it was closed, so most people walked back to the hotel for the breakfast buffet. Andrew and I opted for a quick and easy breakfast of cans of Nescafe iced coffees (espresso for Andrew and latte for me) and two banana muffins. I was soooo happy to see those iced coffees still stocked in the 7-Eleven, as they are such a great option for early starts and road trips.

A minibus picked us up at 9:15am for the 45 minute drive up to Doi Suthep. It was lovely driving through the streets of early morning Chiang Mai. The traffic wasn’t bad yet, and the drive through the Chiang Mai University was interesting. The thought of a public road through a university campus felt a bit wrong, but then again, my idea of a university being a secluded and private place of learning was a direct reflection of my experiences at Melbourne Uni... and was probably a bit selective and old fashioned.

I enjoyed the winding drive up the jungled hill, and was hopeful that the lack of big tourist buses on the road meant that we may have had the temple to ourselves. Well, I think I tempted fate with those thoughts. As we approached the entrance, all we could see was clusters of buses in every direction. It looked even more packed than the last time we visited! The base of the famous naga (mythical serpents) staircase was now full of stalls selling tourist crap. It was slightly disappointing to see this at one of northern Thailand’s most sacred pilgrimage temples… but such is the power of the mass tourism machine I suppose.

I loved the two impressive green naga that guard the 306 steps to the temple. The climb to the top wasn’t as difficult as I remembered it, and the temple gateway still had two giant sticks holding yaksha (mythical giant guardians) who protect the entering pilgrims from evil spirits. The reason we have to climb many steps to get to a temple is apparently because the process is meant to help pilgrims get into a meditative state of mind before entering the temple. Sadly, in my case, it usually means I’m a hot and sweaty mess by the time I reach the top – which is quite the opposite of being in a meditative state!

Once inside, I remembered that I’d quite liked the perimeter of the temple with its open spaces, gardens, statues, decorative golden pillars, row upon row of large metal bells, and oversized gongs. However, many outbuildings and many more statues in various (often clashing) styles had been randomly added to the space since we were here last, and it gave the impression of being haphazard and a bit lack lustre.

Very happily though, on taking our shoes off and entering the sacred square cloister, my love for this temple came flooding back. At the very top of the complex sat the holiest of the holy – a golden chedi (stupa) that houses a bone relic of Buddha, which is surrounded by small shrines with all manner of Buddha statues. The pilgrims walk three times around the chedi to pay their respects with offerings of lotus flowers, incense or candles. There was also a viharn (prayer hall) where monks sprinkle holy water and tie sacred wrist cords on the pilgrims who want an extra blessing. I sat at the back of the prayer hall and observed for a while, and I realised these blessings had to be paid for. Having grown up in the Catholic Church which isn’t shy about asking it’s congregation for money, I’m not sure why I was so shocked by this… but I was. 😞

There were sweeping views to be had of Chiang Mai and its winding Ping River, but similar to our last visit, the views were hazy. Our last visit had been in the evening, and I thought the morning light would have given us a great panorama, but it wasn’t to be. While it was nice to see the temple at a different time, we missed out on listening to the monk’s evening prayers with their hypnotic chants. Regardless, I still enjoyed visiting the temple and couldn’t stop taking photographs of everything!

The reason I had previously connected so genuinely with Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was in large part due to our then group leader (Golf) telling us stories that brought the temple to life. My understanding of many aspects of Thai Buddhism began at this temple, as did my fondness of my Saturday birth day Buddha (Golf carried a date chart in which he looked up everyone’s day of birth and then explained the significance of our personal Buddha).

On this trip we were sat down at a table in classroom style and talked at. Sigh. There was absolutely no concept of interpretive tourism. Sadly, our current group leader wasn’t proving to be very good. She wasn’t very organised or efficient, and her communication bordered on erratic. As a result, there had already been a couple of miscommunications with the people in the group who hadn’t travelled with Intrepid before. And it’s also starting to look like she’s one of those guides who panders to some at the cost of the rest of the group. But it’s still early days, and I really really hope I’m wrong in my initial assessment.

As an aside, there were a couple of funny lost-in-translation moments at the temple. When we were looking at the view of Chiang Mai, Naa pointed out a new airport which was apparently very popular. She then proceeded to talk about the temple and told us that the lovely new pavilion we were standing in had been built to honour the airport. Huh? That was very random, but I didn’t even question the logic of that statement. It took me a few minutes of further listening to figure out that Naa had said ABBOT. They built the pavilion to honour the ABBOT. I felt like such an idiot. But misery loves company so I was delighted to hear that Christina had queried why Naa had advised us that women weren’t allowed to touch monkeys but men could do so… Naa had said women weren’t allowed to touch the MONKS! 😄

On finally returning to our hotel, we had much needed showers, and took three kilos of laundry to the lovely laundry lady near the 7-Eleven. Considering we’d spent the night on an overnight train, we were both feeling quite lively. We settled into lunch at the corner J-UAN Restaurant, but I was very sad to see that they weren’t offering their phenomenal khao niao mamuang (mango with sweetened coconut sticky rice) outside of the March-May mango season. But I’ll keep looking…

Andrew ordered his favourite pad thai (rice noodles stir-fried in a sweet and sour sauce with meat, shrimps, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, peanuts and lime) and I had a khao rad nam phad kai (stir-fried sour pork and egg, with paprika and green onions). Both dishes were okay, but not rave worthy. However, the very refreshing cold cha yen (Thai iced teas) absolutely hit the spot. I was very tempted to try their many traditional desserts, but a full stomach is definitely not recommended for the hour-long Thai massage I wanted to have straight afterwards!

After lunch, Andrew returned to the room to do some work and I settled in to have my Thai massage. Thai massage is quite different from most other forms of therapeutic massage and tends to be more invigorating than relaxing. It incorporates yoga style postures to relieve stressed muscles and improve blood circulation. I hadn’t had a good Thai massage for a long time, and it was as fabulous as I remembered it being. But I’m clearly not as flexible as I used to be… my body used to be far more easily contorted and stretched out in the past. 😖

Suitably relaxed after my massage, I happily napped for two hours. We gathered in the early evening and headed out to check the Anusarn Night Market which was just around the corner from our hotel. The market itself had the usual trinkets and cheap mass produced hippie clothes that don’t interest us in the slightest. However, the food stalls had some interesting offerings.

Andrew had another pad thai, as he had been craving hot wok cooked noodles. I was still full from lunch, so I just had a mango with sweetened coconut sticky rice dessert… and a Maitai cocktail to wash it down. The cocktail was passable, but the dessert I had been really looking forward to turned out to be quite disappointing. There was probably a good reason for not trying to have it outside of the mango season.

We walked around the rest of the market for a bit but saw nothing that interested us. However, we did stumble upon the strip of restaurants we’d been taken to on our last visit – which had awesome food. My memory could be deceiving me, but I remembered this night market being a lot more vibrant, and the food being much better. We returned to the hotel for an early night and to catch up on writing our notes. As much as I enjoyed our previous night on the overnight train, it was so nice to snuggle into a comfortable bed and have an unbroken night’s sleep.

We had the whole of the next day to ourselves, so Andrew and I decided to undertake the walking tour in the Lonely Planet guide. We had sort of done this the last time we were here, but had abandoned it after we visited the three main temples, as it had got way too hot to walk. But that was in March, and we hoped that the walk would be easier in January.

We are really looking forward to experiencing the charms of Chiang Mai’s Old City again.


3rd June 2020

Thank you
Hi Thank you so much for sharing your great post.
3rd June 2020

Re: Thank you
Hi, and thanks for your comment. However, as a Commercial member of Travelblog, could you please avoid advertising in comments? Thanks :)
3rd June 2020

The train
I couldn’t wait for w/end reading! 🙂 The train memories on this one are so strong for me, some good (my friends and my first time on the overnight trains), some bad (the bathroom), and some horrible (the loud drunk Americans who just would not shut up all night). I wish I’d written better journal notes than only train times and the detail that I didn’t go to the bathroom for 10 hours. LOL!
3rd June 2020

Re: The train
Hi Josie. Your train memories are very similar to ours from 2001... but the slightly drunk tourists were probably us (although we were very well behaved) :D Hope your experience didn't stop you from catching overnight trains again. Thanks for following and commenting :)
6th June 2020

Nostalgia and an overnight train adventure
A journey with lots of nostalgic moments... Amazing that the minimart in Hua Lamphong Station was still there, and a bit saddening to see how tourism turns places into bazaars where all kinds of cheap and usually ugly souvenirs are being sold. Anyway, how cool that you rode an overnight train, I've always wanted to do that but never managed to. Beautiful pictures, especially the ones with the golden roofs against the blue sky!
6th June 2020

Re: Nostalgia and an overnight train adventure
We aren’t the nostalgic types, but were pretty impressed that the minimart was exactly as it was nine years ago :) If you enjoy train travel, I think you’d love an overnight train experience... but as expected some (like this one) are much better than others. Thanks for following and commenting Katha :)
6th June 2020

Return to Chiang Mai
We stayed ten days the last time we were there and the time went quickly. We loved the two hour massages and the wide selection of restaurants - local and a wide variety of ethnic. We met several ex-patriates and learned of their life in Thailand. We made friends with several locals and spent several evenings sharing stories. Never enough pad Thai.
7th June 2020

Re: Return to Chiang Mai
Wow Merry, ten days! I think we may have spent close to that amount of time in Chiang Mai over a few trips, but ten days in one stay is a fabulous luxury. Never enough pad thai or Thai food :)
7th June 2020

Mango and sticky rice desert
Mango and sticky rice is the awesomest thing in the world, and I never thought there was a possibility of getting a dodgy serve of it. Commiserations on your bad luck. Isn't it grand how Intrepid do these overnight trains in Asia? I would never have been brave enough to do it, but have caught 8 now. Go me! Hahaaaa.
7th June 2020

Re: Mango and sticky rice desert
I was so very disappointed with the dodgy tasteless mango and sweet sticky rice... but I think I may have had extremely high expectations too :( You've now made my try and count the number of overnight trains I've caught and I think it's around the 8-10 mark too. They are one of my favourite ways to cover a vast distance quickly - as long as the toilets stay clean :)
17th June 2020
anusarn night market

Great Review!
Your overnight train journey sounded like such an interesting experience and something I'd love to try in a country such as Thailand. I thought your bunks looked quite comfortable too. Your photos of Thai food almost made me drool it looked so good. I'd definitely like to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep but that climb of 300 steps sounds daunting but what you see at the top looks like it's so worth the climb! Great photos!
18th June 2020
anusarn night market

Re: Great Review!
Thanks Sylvia. I highly recommend the Bangkok-Chiang Mai overnight sleeper! We were in second class and it was probably the best service, cleanest train and best toilets of all the overnight sleeper trains we've caught in Asia and Africa. And yes the hot and sweaty 300 step climb is absolutely worth it at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep :) Thanks for your lovely comment!

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