Chiang Mai – A Crossroads for Travellers
I am caught up in a maelstrom of noise, human bodies, traffic, and air pollution. Fighting against the tide in search of pockets of peace leaves me emotionally exhausted. My lungs feel as if I’ve been smoking a packet of cigarettes a day, and the nagging headache that has become a constant companion, refuses to flee even in the presence of pharmaceuticals. The cold that saturates the dark hours often lingers till late morning, and my body naturally searches for a sunny spot to shake its grip on my bones.
Chiang Mai is not quite what I expected it to be. It is certainly no longer a charming little village of wooden houses and rural lanes. As the second biggest city in Thailand it is struggling to preserve the traditional way of life amidst the inevitable progress in the form of industrialisation and increasing tourism. As the springboard for travel to the north, it is a place with an excellent selection of guesthouses and restaurants that are still incredibly cheap. The locals are warm, friendly, and eager to please, while the tourists passing through all have interesting travel tales to share.
Part of Chiang Mai’s charm is that it is a shopper’s paradise with colourful merchandise enticing one to do more than just browse while soaking up the atmosphere of its night markets. These walking streets are only navigable late afternoon or early evening, as the sheer amount of people that pour into them later at night, makes it nearly impossible to move. The best place at both the Saturday (Wualai Road) and Sunday (Ratchadamhoen) Night Market is one of the comfortable chairs that line up like little soldiers where foot, head, neck and back massages are given for the price of a fruit shake.
It is said that about 300 temples nestle in Chiang Mai’s embrace, and it is here, despite the inevitable throng of tourists, that it is possible to find a quiet corner where birdsong drown out the traffic noise. Monks with bright orange or saffron robes, bare feet and begging bowls are an integral part of the ritual of daily life, and is one of the many rewards of rising early. Watching the city slowly stir to life, and a steaming cup of coffee, made from locally grown coffee, in one of the many quirky coffee shops are two more delights of waking with the sun.
The surrounding countryside, where the air feels fresh and the greenery of the landscape caresses the eyes, stand in stark contrast with the grime and grit of Chiang Mai. People here go about their daily business at a slower pace, and heart-warming smiles speak a universal language of kinship and curiosity, especially when these encounters happen slightly off the well-trodden tourist paths.
Chiang Mai is a place which, despite its pollution and over-crowded spaces, will, if you stay long enough, reveal many hidden treasures that will charm and entice you to stay far longer than you ever planned to linger.
Highlights from my stay in Chiang Mai:
Sati Yoga Studio can be found in a traditional Thai wooden house located on a small street just outside the old city, and is a quiet pool of peace and tranquillity. The yoga is gentle and deep and can be followed by a contemplative tea ceremony.
There are many places to have great food in Chiang Mai, but the Cat House is where I chose to have many happy meals. Only a few steps away from my guest house, it was my restaurant of choice during my stay, especially as they serve an array of vegetarian food made from the freshest produce imaginable.
If, like me, you like archaeology, a visit to Wiang Kum Kam Archaeological Site is a must. Located in a quiet neighbourhood of Chiang Mai with leafy lanes, it is a great place to escape the frenetic pace of the old city, while getting a glimpse of daily life seemingly unaffected by tourism.