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Published: November 6th 2009
One of the many Wats we explored while in Chiang Mai.
Halloween is very popular in SE Asia - who knew. We've seen signs, candy and costumes galore in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and now Chiang Mai. We even saw some halloween candy and decorations in Cambodia.
The spookiest part of this spooky day was the train this morning. A close runner up was the guy who runs the guesthouse that we're staying at (Secret Garden Guesthouse). Due to a miscommunication in emails, he had thought we were arriving yesterday morning and was pretty irate that we didn't show up. So instead of a hello, we got a big lecture on how he had stood at the train station for two hours yesterday morning waiting for us and we're SO lucky that he didn't give our room away. So our initial impression of Chiang Mai was not very good.
Our impression definitely changed a bit once we had a chance to explore the city. Chiang Mai is the main town in the north of Thailand with about 600,000 people in the immediate area and about 1.5 million in the Chiang Mai province. Mountains surround the town and it has a tropical, laid-back hippie kind of feel. It's a university town and
Setting up decorations for Loi Krathong.
there are numerous artists and craftsmen.
The downtown area is very touristy but the vendors and tuk-tuk drivers are not nearly as aggressive as they are in Bangkok. It's a fun place to explore.
Our guesthouse, taking the owner out of the equation for a moment, has several pros and cons. The best part about it is that the grounds and the rooms are lovely. There are about 15 little villas tucked away in a beautiful jungly garden setting. Tropicals flowers, palm trees and little statues cover the grounds. There is a central area, covered by a thatched roof, that houses the breakfast tables, a snooker table, and a computer with internet access. The pool is nearby. The rooms are large and comfortable.
The downside, and it is a big one, is the location. The gues house is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Chiang Mai. There are two transit options to and from town:
1. Ask one of the owners to drive you the ~3 miles to the bus stop. Wait for the bus (a covered pick up truck with two boards running down either side for seats - or you can hang on
to metal handles off the back if it's too crowded). Take the bus in to the edge of town and then walk from there. We still haven't figured out where exactly the bus picks you up. The location changes based on the time of day and they bus stops running completely around 9pm.
2. Take a tuk-tuk (motorized open-air taxi) to/from town. This is an adventure as the tuk-tuk drivers invariably have not heard of the Secret Garden. The guesthouse even supplies a map, in Thai, for them but at least once on a ride back from Chiang Mai they'll have to pull over and call for additional directions. It's also about 10x more expensive than the bus.
So we will probably limit our trips back and forth into town, which is a shame because there is a lot to see (and it is too hot to spend the entire day walking around).
Today we settled in a bit and then did the drive/bus/walk into Chiang Mai. The heart of town is the Old City, which was formerly surrounded by a high brick wall (some pieces of which still exist today) and a moat. Inside are many
Monks cleaning up their Wat in preparation for Loi Krathong.
wats (temples), shops, etc. Unfortunately, cars are allowed inside too so you still have to watch your step and occasionally make a run for it - but we seem to be getting better (or just more confident) in walking out into traffic. We're not sure that that is necessarily a good thing. But the cars seem to generally adjust for our speed and swerve around us.
We spent the afternoon mostly walking around and getting a sense of the city. There's a big market area near the river (just outside the old city). We checked out the hundreds of stalls there, selling the usual assortment of textiles, souvenirs, fruit, noodles and dead fish.
Adrian's considering trying out some mountain biking in the pretty green hills near town. There are several wats and also a few hill tribe villages tucked away in the same area and it could be a fun adventure. We found a mountain biking place owned by an American and picked up a brochure. Next door there was a nice cafe. We'd been walking around in the sun for a few hours and needed a break so we checked it out. They sat us down, brought us cold towels and took our orders for iced lattes, which ended up being very a tasty combination of very strong coffee and very sweet milk over ice.
Chiang Mai is a very touristy town with a substantial backpacker crowd. This means its cheaper than Bangkok with some delicious, inexpensive dining options. It also means that there are tons of travel agencies lining the main streets around the Old City - and a fair number of used book stores. We stopped by one and Adrian picked up an Agatha Christie novel.
After wandering for a few more hours we retraced our steps to the river and got a table at the popular Riverside Cafe. It's a huge restaurant overlooking the Ping River and is popular with both Thais and foreigners. It has a casual Jimmy Buffet vibe and live music nightly. The staff were all wearing pointy witch hats and ghoulish face makeup. Happy Halloween!
The tuk-tuk ride back to our hotel did not disappoint. The driver swerved in and out of traffic and across two, sometimes three, lanes while his girlfriend tried to figure out the map that we had given them. We eventually made it but are not looking forward to future tuk-tuk trips!
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