After Bangkok, going to Chiang Mai was a bit like being at summer camp. Hot and dry, the ‘Rose of the North’ was full of backpackers, some grimier than others, drinking the cheapest beers they could get their hands on (very cheap) and walking around in elephant pants. Catering to these tourists were a spectacular collection of tour-booking agencies, seemingly in any corner of the city with even an inch of space to spare, with activities ranging from cooking classes to bungee jumping.
Miraculously, the city’s 300 temples were spared of these businesses, leaving them more peaceful and decidedly more low-key than the gold-covered structures back in Bangkok – with one notable exception. Apparently there are over 15,000 monks in the city, and although I never quite managed to wake up early enough to see the alms, the temples that I saw were lovely – and played host to a collection of food stalls during the weekend night markets.
Other than local tours and temples, Chiang Mai is also known as something of a spa city … so what’s a girl to do? Get beaten up by a tiny Thai woman for an hour for $6, also known as a Thai massage, the only type to leave you more sore than when you started. The city is also apparently a hip foodie town, making it the perfect place to take a Thai cooking class – which included eating five medium-sized courses before 2 PM. All including chili. I slept most of that afternoon.
And while I don’t usually refer to specific locations when I write about place, I have to make an exception for the North Gate Jazz Co-op, which was the single best jazz club I have ever gone to on vacation. The beer was cheap (nothing exceptional, just normal Thai cheap), the venue was simple and outdoors, and the music was excellent. That bar was the single reason that I slept less than four hours on my final night – with a 4:15 AM wake up to get t the airport on the final morning.
Overall, I really enjoyed Chiang Mai – it’s an excellent combination of touristy stuff and more normal daily life. But I’ll take a minute here to point out that a lot of the tours are of the animal variety, and many are less than savory. If you’re going to Thailand (or anywhere), EDUCATE YO’SELF. There is nothing better than a happy baby elephant, and nothing worse than one that is miserable and has been tortured and trained to give rides and perform tricks. Have a look into Elephant Nature Park, which rescues elephants that were previously in the entertainment and trekking industries. They’re pretty much the only organization in the area universally recognized for their amazing work, and I highly recommend a visit.
Let’s keep the elephants happy campers.