The flight on Wednesday from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was quick and painless. I had sprung for a “Royal Silk” (i.e., first class) seat for an extra ten dollars, and was rewarded with a hot towel, a little meal and a drink, even on a fifty-minute trip. Upon landing at the small airport in Thailand’s second city, I was met by a driver from my hotel, which turned out to be about fifteen minutes away. After unpacking and settling in for a six-night stay, I headed back out immediately for a look around town.
Chiang Mai is much older than Bangkok. As I would later learn at the Chiang Mai City Arts and Culture Centre, the area was first settled in the thirteenth century, and has been an important trade and cultural center in northern Thailand for hundreds of years. The “old town” is guarded on all four sides by a moat, and the gates every few hundred meters are the remnants of what were fortified town walls, hundreds of years ago. My hotel was north of the old town by a kilometer or so, just off of Chang Phuak Kew Road, north of the gate of the same name. I walked down to the gate and around the moat (which is paralleled by a busy road) clockwise to the eastern side, where I had a look around the bustling, student-heavy neighborhood before settling in at Aroon Rai, a nondescript corner restaurant with old metal tables, rickety plastic chairs, laminated menus, Kleenex boxes on the table instead of napkins…and some of the best food in a city known for its cuisine. I read up on things to do in Chaing Mai, and booked a couple of them, as I ate.
Thursday was sightseeing day. I had breakfast at the hotel — about the only food I would have in Chiang Mai that wasn’t great — and then set off with a map and a Lonely Planet walking tour of the old town. Although much older, the Wat (temples) in Chiang Mai don’t rival their counterparts in Bangkok for over-the-top decoration. Instead, these simpler places, like Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phan Tao (newer and make of teak), feel more “local” and a part of the community, rather than just tourist attractions. After a morning and early afternoon of temples, I had a spicy green papaya salad (and a mango lassi) for lunch at Plus Salad, before finishing the day’s work at the small but interesting city museum mentioned earlier. As I think I mentioned in one of the Bangkok posts, December 5 was the 86th birthday of Thailand’s revered King Rama IX, who has reigned since 1946 — he’s a year younger than Queen Elizabeth II, but has been head of state for six more years. I was surprised at the low-key nature of the public celebrations (though there may well have been more in Bangkok — after all, the birthday was the impetus for the tenuous truce called by the anti-Shinawatra protesters), but there were a few, and because it was a public holiday, traffic around town that evening was light. I had dinner at the Chiang Mai Writers Club, run by ex-foreign correspondent Bob Tilley and his wife Tong. She told me that because of the holiday, they were unable to serve wine; Bob overheard and questioned this, made some calls, and discovered that while some restaurants chose not to serve (and others chose to close), there was not an actual law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on the king’s birthday — so I had wine, as did a few other tables of relieved diners. Wine or not, it’s a fun place.
I didn’t have too much wine, though, because I had an early appointment on Friday — an all-day cooking course with Asia Scenic. This was even better than the half-day school I had done in Bangkok a week earlier. A driver picked me up at my hotel and took me to the school’s city campus, from which we walked to and through the local market. Here our focus was more on learning about the various herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables that go into all Thai cooking, rather than on picking up ingredients for our cooking to come. With a little free time, I picked up some dried Thai ginger (galangal) and Keffir lime powder that I might have trouble finding in the states. I’m not sure I can bring either or both back through customs, but if I can’t, I’m out 30 baht (about ninety cents) for both. A risk worth taking. We returned to the school and re-boarded the minibus for the school’s organic farm, a little less than an hour northeast of the city. The nine of us in the course were given a tour of the farm by our teacher, Proud (it means something different in Thai) before assembling in the open-air demonstration kitchen for our day’s work. I made six dishes: green papaya salad, pad see ew, coconut milk soup, red curry paste, red curry chicken using that red curry paste, and sticky rice with mango. Not everyone made the same thing; I got to watch as my classmates made massaman curry, glass noodle salad, spring rolls, deep-fried bananas, and all sorts of other dishes. By the time we finished, around 5:00, I was stuffed full and had all sorts of recipe ideas to bring home, along with the school’s cookbook and ingredient guide. Back in town, I wandered the markets for a while before a light (really!) dinner of green curry at an anonymous little food stall. It cost me $1.20.
I spent Saturday morning firming up plans for the winter/spring part of my travels, before heading downstairs to wait for the driver to pick me up for the Flight of the Gibbon zip-lining and eco-trek tour. I’m afraid this one was a bit of a disappointment. The driver was supposed to arrive at noon; after I called to ask, he showed up at 12:45. We picked up two more guests after a half-hour drive through Chiang Mai, then took another hour to reach the mountain village where the company is based. The scenery was very nice; the drive was very rough. I’m not sure the driver had a lot of experience with a manual shift. After a sales pitch for local handicrafts, our “ranger” led us to the zip course, which took about two hours to complete. It was fun. Nothing quite as exhilarating as the huge drop that caps the Queenstown course, but there were a couple of fun long lines, and a “super hero” jump, for which I had a rope hooked into the back of my harness and jumped off of a platform down to a rope net/ladder a couple of hundred meters away. I had to climb the ladder to get to the safety of the platform. The rest of the lines, though, were short and kind of dull, and the “eco-trek” part of the excursion, which I’d been looking forward to, was entirely perfunctory. We returned to the village, wasted fifteen minutes on another sales pitch — this time for photographs — before heading back to Chiang Mai. Because of the late start, I guess, we skipped the promised stop at the Mae Kampong waterfalls, with no explanation and certainly no refund. Oh well.
I finished up the major trip-planning on Saturday night. I’ll fill in more details later, but the basic outline is this: after a couple of weeks in Fort Worth, I’ll fly to Hawai’i on January 6 and spend almost three weeks there. I’ve never been, and am looking forward to the relaxation and the culture. From there, I’ll fly (on an astoundingly cheap ticket — thanks, United Air Lines) to Tokyo. I’ve never been to Japan, either, but several close friends have either done long-term travel there or (in one case) lived and worked there, so I’ve got lots of people to bug for advice on how best to spend the nearly three weeks I’ll have on the ground there. I’ll then head back to Texas for a few days before heading to Berlin. I’ve been to Europe several times, but there’s lots I still want to see, and lots more I want to see again. Rather than tramp around with a backpack and a railpass for three months, though, I’m going to rent a furnished apartment in Berlin to use as a base. I’ll spend most of my time there, hopefully doing some writing and language-learning in addition to figuring out what I’m going to do with myself once I stop traveling, and I’ll also have the chance to do short two-night trips throughout the continent. I’m very excited!