Friday, 11 April 2014

Chiang Mai - Capital of Northern Thailand

So far, Angela and I are really digging Chiang Mai. While we had a fun time in Bangkok, we're starting to understand why some visitors to Thailand aren't so fond of that city. Chiang Mai has all the things that make the capital great, but in a much more relaxed, prettier, cleaner environment, without the congestion and overcrowdedness. There's a small-town, rustic vibe here that we really love, and it helps that our hostel is also a lot more sociable and backpacker-friendly than the one we stayed at in Bangkok.

We're also both really starting to enjoy this backpacking lifestyle in a way that we hadn't in the last two weeks. We weren't really feeling Japan, and then in Bangkok we started to get a lot more into travelling mode. But Chiang Mai has raised us up to a whole other level. I can't explain why exactly, but I think the chilled out atmosphere here just allows us to breathe and feel way more comfortable and optimistic than we could in Tokyo or Bangkok. Or maybe it's just taken us time to get into the groove.

Another thing we love about Chiang Mai is the fact that it's located in the mountains, so the weather feels noticeably cooler here. Still hot, mind, but a lot more bearable than in Bangkok, where we had to hide in our hostel during most afternoons. Here we can actually walk around all day without the need for a siesta.

Oh, and the people here seem even friendlier than in Bangkok, which is really saying something since they were already super-friendly there. There are so many helpful, smiling people we've met in the street, helping us find places or giving us advice. Yes, there are some scammers, but most here seem to genuinely want to help and welcome us.

We're really looking forward to spending Songkran (Thai New Year) here. Even though it doesn't technically start until Sunday, there are already some kids out on the street with their water-guns, getting us soaked as we walk past. Can't wait for the full festival to start.

Here are some photo from our first day.

Our route north from Bangkok.
Our train left at 8.30 in the morning.
It doesn't look so far on the map, but it was a 12-hour train ride, probably the longest I've ever taken. It actually passed by quickly though. The landscapes for the first half of the journey were very flat, dominated by prairies and farmland.
The further north we travelled, the more hillier the countryside became.
Then, as we came close to Chiang Mai, it turned into jungle.

For most of the train ride I did some writing, occasionally stopping to read The Count of Monte Cristo, which is fast becoming my favourite novel. Angela mostly just slept.
We arrived at Chiang Mai quite late, and went straight to bed once settled in our hostel. The next day we went for a walk around the old city, which is shaped like a large square and surrounded by a wall and moat.
For a city centre, there's really not that much traffic, which is a huge relief after Bangkok.
Eating Khao Soi, a Burmese-influenced dish made from egg noodles and chicken in red curry sauce and coconut milk.

At Tha Phae Gate, the eastern entrance to the old city of Chiang Mai.

There are lots of temples within the city walls, including Wat Phan Tao, which looks almost Scandinavian in design.

One of the largest and most impressive temples is Wat Chedi Luang, meaning "Temple of the Great Stupa."
The interior is especially breathtaking with its many golden statues and pillars.

The temple's chedi or stupa is partially destroyed, but still very impressive.

There were lots of Buddhist monks hanging out around the temple.
We even got to chat with one of them. There's a free "Monk Chat" program that gives visitors an opportunity to have a conversation with a monk. For about half an hour, this one (I'm sorry to say I forgot his name!) told us about his lifestyle, beliefs, philosophy and other subjects. We also asked him about his hobbies and favourite things (his favourite TV show, interestingly enough, was Prison Break).
After leaving the temple we did some more wandering around the old city, which seemed especially quiet.

At a food market.
Walking along the moat surrounding the city.

We experienced some early evening rain on the way home...
...then a pretty sunset view from our hostel.

Hanging out in our hostel lounge, playing with the pets.
In the evening we explored the night market.
Local ladyboys.

Angela got some pretty earrings.

Incense burners.
I bought some dried fruits.
Just a short walk from the market, we watched some Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing.
There were several matches during the course of the evening. The first was between some lightweights who looked about fourteen years old.
Then there were some older, heavier competitors.
At one point, as a sort of comical intermission, three boxers entered the ring, each blindfolded. It was quite funny to watch them stumbling around and throwing stray punches at one another.
There were also some female competitors.

After that we headed home for some rest. The next day, we ventured into the jungles near the city. More on that in the next post...

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