Chiang Mai is the gateway to Northern Thailand. It is the second largest city in the country and one full of history. The main part of the city itself is surrounded by ancient crumbling walls and a mote. At night, the city comes alive in more ways than one with night bazaars, Lady Boy Cabarets, and a lot of energy devoted to dodging motor bikes, cockroaches, and rats as you make your way through the city. Our time in Chiang Mai can be described in a few words: markets, massages, meals, mosquitos, and many temples.
Chiang Mai is a city of markets. Whether it’s the food market locals frequent from 5:30 to 8am, the daily night bazaar from 6 to midnight, or the special “walking street” markets on designated days of the week. We were in town on a Saturday and visited the Saturday Night Market, which seemed to be popular with both locals and tourists. It was a great way to spend the night people watching.
Our last night in town we went to the Night Bazaar. Rows after rows and several streets of booths was a bit overwhelming, and after about 40 minutes of wandering, we had had our fill.
One of the unique things we noticed about Chiang Mai is that a good portion of the massage parlors in the city are dedicated to training, offering skill development, and employing former female inmates. I didn’t ask if there was a women’s prison nearby, but based on the availability of these massage places, it’s a good guess. For 200 baht, or about $6, you could have an hour foot massage. An extra dollar or two gave you a 90 min foot, hand, and head massage. We tried both as well as several different locations. The women were all friendly and not what you would think of when you think of criminals. They didn’t speak great English, and I didn’t know if it was appropriate to ask, but I found myself wanting to know the story of each one we came across. Our last visit, Carly’s lady was obsessed with her hair, telling her how beautiful it was. At the end of the massage, she insisted that she braid Carly’s hair since the head rubbing had messed it up a bit. She quickly whipped out a beautiful braid. She then proceeded to braid mine out of what I am pretty sure was obligation since I was friends with the girl with beautiful blonde hair. Either way, she did a great job. Needless to say, apart from one day, we treated ourselves to a foot massage to soothe our tired feet from every day of walking. And I was more than happy to support something that gave women a chance to economically support themselves and a fresh start.
We had a couple cool food experiences while in Chiang Mai. The coolest one being a trip to SP Chicken. Carly had a friend who had recommended we try this local chicken joint, insisting it was some of the best chicken in Thailand and known for the rotisserie chicken. It was down a small street in the old city and fairly nondescript. As soon as we walked in, I noticed a framed print of the cover of the Pok Pok cook book and one of the inserts from it. The owner of the restaurant we were in, Mr. Lit, was Andy Ricker’s “chicken mentor” and the one who had shared with him the secrets of Thai street food. It was his guidance that allowed Andy to bring Thai street food (and Thai chicken wings) back to Portland and open up Pok Pok (anyone from Portland will understand the significance). It was one of those moments where you realize just how small the world is. It was also probably my best meal in Thailand yet.
Our third night in Chiang Mai we decided to take a cooking class. We were picked up from our hostel and joined two English-speaking Canadians from Montreal on their honeymoon, two French-speaking Canadians from Montreal and a guy from New Zealand. Our first stop was a local market to learn about all of the ingredients that are used in Thai cooking. From there we drove to a little house where we would actually be preparing the food. We each got to choose which soup, noodle dish, curry, and dessert we wanted to make. I went with chicken coconut soup, pad thai, khoa soy curry (the curry local to the region), and mango sticky rice. We each had our own cooking station and wok. We prepared our ingredients for the soup and noodles first and then started cooking. Everything is prepared using such high heat here that the cooking time is super quick. We ate the soup and noodle dish first before heading back to the work station to learn how to make our own curry paste. It’s a very laborious process. The various ingredients all start out whole and need to be pound into a smooth paste. I have a far greater appreciation for curry now. My favorite course from the night was hands down the mango sticky rice…it was also the only dish I ate entirely.
Because temples are such a tourist attraction here in Thailand, we decided to spend a little extra money and book a private sunrise tour of one of the main temples here in Chiang Mai as well as a few hidden gems in the area. It was well worth the money. I had been to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep when I was here last and it was swarming with people. Despite that, I still found it to be a super peaceful place. This time around, we were picked up at 5:05am and arrived to the temple on top of the mountain around 5:40. Other than a few locals dedicated enough to get up that early and a couple other tourists that we saw sporadically, we were the only ones there. We watched the sunrise over Chiange Mai, roamed the whole temple with no other souls in sight, observed the monks in their morning prayer and even gave alms to them once they had finished. It was the exact opposite of my first experience with the temple, and I only grew to love it even more. There were a lot of novices – boys over the age of 7 who are entered into the temple to eventually become a monk. They often turn to that because their families cannot afford to keep them and they know they will be taken care of in the temple. They only have 10 commandments of things they cannot do, while an ordained monk has over 200. Women monks are a more recent thing to hit Thailand and are held to over 300 commandments and must have their arms and legs completely covered. Another note about temples in Thailand – a lot of stray dogs find themselves a home at them because monks have so much respect for life and are given more than enough food (they can’t eat anything after noon) that they end up taking care of the dogs.
The second temple we visited, Wat Suthep, is just down the mountain from the first, but it is often overlooked by tourists and locals alike. Our guide called it Forest Temple 1 because it is surrounded by forest and nothing else. At this temple, we really were the only other people besides the monks who reside there. Our guide explained that this temple is a little more excluded from the people and is more dedicated to learning. The monks here are focused on delving even deeper into the teachings of Buddha. The best part was seeing a lone man meditating at the top of this dried out riverbed surrounded by a bunch of dogs. That might be my idea of heaven on earth.
The third temple, Wat Umong, was more of a series of tunnels with a pagoda on top than a temple. We didn’t stay very long here and found the most interesting part to be the garden of broken Buddhas. In Thailand, a broken Buddha statue is bad luck, so to get rid of that bad luck, you must bring it to a temple. For some reason, this temple seems to be known for that purpose.
To round out our time in Chiang Mai, we had to go to the famous Lady Boy Cabaret. I had heard about the Lady Boy culture being a huge thing in Thailand and that this is where the sex change surgery was pioneered. Even walking through the streets you can sometimes tell by the size of hands, feet, and the broadness of shoulders that a female might have a more complicated story behind her. The Lady Boys in Thailand are known to be some of the most beautiful people here, and there is definitely some truth behind it. We didn’t know quite what to expect when we walked into Miracle Cabaret, but we were not disappointed. In one word, I would say it was AMAZING. You really can’t believe that all of these beautiful women performing in front of you could have possibly been men at one point. If you are ever in Thailand, definitely check it out.