Chiang Mai, the Rose of the North

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March 31st 2009
Published: March 31st 2009
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Three King MonumentThree King MonumentThree King Monument

Old city, Chiang Mai
The Journey to Chiang Mai Monday 30th March 2009

The train took the strain. The journey to Chiang Mai by train was considerably more comfortable than the long-haul bus trip of a few days ago. Despite the fact that the train arrived 30 minutes late from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and it was sweltering (and inescapable) heat at Ayutthaya station, we knew as soon as the train arrived and a smartly dressed cabin stewardess alighted to welcome us aboard, that this was to be a better journey. We only had second-class allocated seats but there was plenty of leg-room, reclining seats, luggage storage space, clean loo, air con and best of all drinks, snacks and a midday meal of rice and chicken, served by the stewardess just like on a plane. Later on came tea, coffee and cake. Good stuff! We where unaware that food was included. Not bad for only about ten pounds sterling each, for an eleven hour ride to the north of Thailand.

The countryside through central Thailand is very flat, acres and acres of lush paddy fields and arable crops with distant limestone hills appearing through the heat haze every now and again. March and April are the hottest summer months in the central and northern regions. It is possible for brave train passengers to stand outside between the carriages on the rattling footplates to have a smoke if they so wish but not advisable. We tried it and it was like stepping in to a blast furnace! This is narrow-gauge track so it is a sedate journey with plenty of time to view the scenery.

The central part of the journey took us through a few large towns but mostly small villages with very neat and tidy little stations adorned with pots of orchids and tubs of bougainvillea; there is a general air of rural affluence throughout most of the central region, along the railway route. By the time we got the coffee and cakes, however, we were passing through northern wooden hills, tall canopy trees, and tropical fern and banana palm forest, cut across by fast-flowing rivers. The further north we went, the more spectacular the scenery became.

The eleven hours passed surprisingly quickly (although it certainly wasn’t a fast train) because there was much to please the eye as we trundled along the tracks. A good day’s travelling! Much better than a crowded overnight bus!

Due to the lateness of our arrival, we booked ahead online for two nights in a small cheap guesthouse in the old city. It is OK but we were a tad suspicious that it might be a bit of a working girl’s (or boy’s) pad, especially since a notice in the guest book says…“Dear Guest, we respect all individual lifestyles. If you bring in a guest for the night we will charge you no extra cost”. Most hotels say “strictly no guests”. It goes on to warn about theft by such “guests” and that guests have to be over 18 to comply with Thai law. Once we spied the call girl cards lined up on the Reception desk (alongside car rental, bike rental and tour guide leaflets) our suspicions were confirmed. There were even “Buy one “date” and get one free’ cards! Having said all this, the Oldest Profession has obviously also been hit by the recession, because there are only one or two people here (and maybe a few “guests”). Furthermore, although it is within the walls of the old city, and very centrally located, this ‘guesthouse” is in a rather dark and dingy area. Whilst out sightseeing tomorrow we’ll check out other places. We want somewhere nice and a bit more convivial, because we are planning to stay here four or five days before going on to Chiang Rai further north.

Rose of the North Tuesday 31st march 2009

Chiang Mai is called “The Rose of the North” and it is blooming lovely (and there are flowers blooming everywhere)! The old walled city is a colourful low-rise jungle of temples, street stalls, shops and winding lanes full of small hotels, hostels and restaurants. It is a wonderful but crazy place, where tuk-tuks and motor scooters whiz down the centre of the streets and the wrong way along one way systems, where one can look and buy from the stalls without hassle (I got myself some comfy baggy Thai trousers) and people smile. Despite the chaotic noise it is also very chilled and peaceful, especially in the afternoon when it is too hot for anyone to bother about anything; thirty-nine degrees in the shade today, but less humid than in the south.

We got up and set out early to walk around the old city then along to the new and the river. Our first stop was to the beautiful Buddhist temple called Wat Chedi Luang, which dominates the old city centre and then on to see the Three King Monument. Passing out through Tha Phae Gate, we took the Tha Phae Road along to the Ping River. The Ping is lined with large up-market hotels, crossed by fine bridges and smart landscaped gardens. All of Chiang Mai is well-landscaped with fountains, flowers and grass verges and gardens that look like they have been cut with nail scissors; a very smart city indeed. Chang Khlan Road runs parallel to the river on the west side and is the main shopping area. We are going back there tonight to spend time in the famous night bazaar, a tourist “must”.

We have found ourselves a really nice hostel in the old city, in a lively area. It is an unusual budget option because it has a swimming pool, hence popular with budget travellers. We pooped in there on our morning walk, envied those drinking their coffee around the pool, inspected the rooms, which are spacious and airy and booked up to move there tomorrow morning. It is only about a twenty minute walk from our current location, so we’ll leave early to avoid carrying the rucksacks in too much heat. So, one more night in the brothel and we’ll be on our way!

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