A temporary home in Chiang Mai, Thailand
June 7, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
An incredible hub for expats and travelers, it was very easy for us to get “stuck” in Chiang Mai. We intended to just stay for a few days, but the great food, plentiful yoga classes, welcoming community, family time, and pleasure of being there kept us there far longer. We ended up spending about two weeks in Chiang Mai, then leaving for two weeks to go to the Lahu Village Thai massage course, then coming back for one more week studying with Ajahn Pichest. The “Old City” of Chiang Mai is effectively a square that used to have a moat around it (now kind of a moat, but mostly a large road), with a “gate” on each side, which makes it quite easy to get around and understand. We spent most of our time in the Old City, but there is also a ton to do and explore outside. The Old City is super walkable (maybe a half hour across in any direction), but there are also tuk tuks that you can barter prices with, red trucks where you can ask if they are going toward your destination that should charge 20 baht but usually try to rip off farangs (foreigners), and yellow trucks which run like suburban buses on fixed routes.
Getting there and away
We took the night trains to Chiang Mai to and from Bangkok. It is a really easy, albeit long, ride – about 15 hours, but quite pleasant in the 2nd class air-conditioned sleeper train. In addition to our berths, we also spent a few hours in the dining car (it’s $5 US for a full meal with multiple dishes), where the party included disco lights, loud music, railway staff drinking themselves to the point of passing out, and drunk flamboyantly gay older French men (who didn’t quite understand that we didn’t understand French).
Accommodations (& our favorite place in SE Asia)
We ended up staying at three different guesthouses while in Chiang Mai. Especially now in the off-season, there are TONS of open rooms in the city, with a huge number of guesthouses on Soi 6 in the northeast corner of the old city. We spent our first two nights at Thapae Garden, which is outside of the Old City by the Thapae Gate (the east side). It’s $16/night nice, clean, hotel-like quality, has a pool, and is easy walkable from the Old City. But, the towels smelled really bad, we weren’t super fond of the staff there, and we decided we would prefer to move inside the moat. So we moved to the Jonadda Guesthouse, which is super centrally located in terms of traveler action in the northeast section of the city. It was marginally cheaper ($14/night), and meant that we could chill out at any of the million cafes nearby while we caught up on all the internetting we needed to do. The best thing about it was that, from our room on the 4th floor, we had two huge windows with great natural light. We were joined by a ton of tiny ants in our room, but the guesthouse was very helpful and sprayed for them as soon as we mentioned it. But, we were still searching for something that felt a bit more like “home.” We were beyond lucky and stumbled upon Banjai Garden, which has been our favorite place to stay since we were in Sucre, Bolivia, several months ago. Run by a French-Thai couple, it has a little garden and open seating area, and is beautiful, homey, well decorated, and has gorgeous details. Because it’s low season and we were staying a long time (we ended up spending 2 weeks with them), they gave us a discount so we could have a really gorgeous room for a reasonable price. We had a huge ground floor window with tons of foliage outside, a super comfy bed, couch, table, beautiful private bathroom (you can use the shower and toilet simultaneously!), towels and linens that smelled delicious, and super lovely details, including beautiful lighting and décor. It really felt like home.
The owners are super helpful. If you have any questions or needs, the answer is always “No problem!” They are lovely and chatty, and we spent a lot of time chatting with them about Thai Massage, as they are opening up a little school for teaching massage on their property. On our last day, they insisted we take a shower before leaving (we had checked out of our room at 11am, but were hanging out in their common area until 4:30pm). And, because a rainstorm was imminent, they insisted on calling us a tuk tuk, which arrived rocking music and lights. We got sent off with hugs and promises to come again. Plus, they have an adorable cat named Caddy, who is beyond sweet with his little Charlie Chaplin mustache and has a personality kind of like our little Neko at home. Sometimes Caddy comes over for a greeting in the mornings and evenings, and once he gave us a meow and laid down outside our doorway waiting for a little belly pet.
Food, Friends, Family
Part of our love for Chiang Mai comes from the amazing people here. Mitch’s Uncle Howard and his friend Lance live here, so we were very lucky to spend quite a lot of time together over meals, day trips, and exploring the city. And there is a huge community of expats and long term travelers (one girl, Val, came here after the Thai Massage Circus and didn’t leave until after we got to see her here). The community here is particularly oriented to people studying Thai massage and excited about yoga and other healing practices. So it self-selects for awesome people, and since none of them are “from” Chiang Mai, they are also really warm and welcoming to newcomers. Plus, after we came back from the Lahu Village course, we had a ton of new friends that we were excited to spend time with. Lucky us! Super highlights were two home-cooked meals with Howard and Lance – pasta feasts with homemade sauce (so good!), enormous salads, and homemade granita for a refreshing dessert. Good home-cooked meals made us a little homesick. Since they have backgrounds throwing parties, it was also sweet to see how they create lovely little details to add to meals and ambiance. And one night, Howard and Lance arranged for a dinner with a few others. They sometimes hire a Thai cook, who made a veritable banquet – shrimp with sugar peas and mushrooms, corn fritters, pumpkin/egg curry, fried pork, a green mango coconut salad to die for, fried fish, all just exquisite. True to their party planning background, they set up a gorgeous table in their outside garden area, which was just lovely.
We had two meals at Baan Gup Doi with Uncle Howard, which is his favorite Thai restaurant and a bit outside of central Chiang Mai. Their food is phenomenal (there are no farangs, or foreigners, there!), plus they have a country western theme with some really good rock and country cover singers.
And among restaurants in the Old City, there are just too many highlights to name…. In the northeast area of town, there are a ton of places on Soi 6 to spend an afternoon. In that area, Tea Tree Café has a chill vibe and great seedy homemade flatbreads and huge salads. Blue Diamond makes their own bread for sandwiches and has a lovely setting with lots of plants and a tiny waterfall. In the southeast area, a lot of people recommend Dada Cafe, which was fine but a bit overpriced and nothing special. We also had recommendations for Bird’s Nest Café, a hippie coffee and sandwich shop which we were really happy to be introduced to… Melted pesto veggie mozzarella bagel sandwiches, Thai-style quesadillas, ginger shakes, oh my! We loved Café Taa Peng Cat near Wat Phrasing (the big wat), where they have a very limited menu of panini, spring rolls, and salads, but it’s all super tasty and set in this beautiful little garden. The couple that owns it is super sweet, and they have possibly the best brownies we have encountered in months. Unfortunately we didn’t discover Baan Bakery, outside the Chiang Mai (south) Gate until our last day – they have tons of great little pastries and sandwiches, including fantastic almond pastries. And we ate several times at New Delhi Indian restaurant, where the owner goes to New Delhi every few months and brings back all of his spices. They make their own paneer, have super delicious dishes (everything), but their naan and masala chai were staples for every meal. At the Sunday walking street market, food vendors set themselves up by several of the wats (temples). In addition to all the good eats, I also finally replaced my wallet, since the one I had with me was falling apart by the time I left NYC!
Once we moved to the Banjai Garden, we ended up eating breakfast most mornings at the 29 Café, a block away from our hotel. They actually season their eggs, their banana pancakes are ridiculous, and the staff is super sweet. We first found them because they are open late-ish (until 9pm) and we were looking for dinner when it started pouring rain, so we ran into the first open place we found, and we were super lucky! But my flip flops were so slippery on their ceramic floor tiles with the pouring rain that as I ran (literally) into the restaurant, I had an epic slip and fall. I only wish Mitch had turned around in time to see me in the air. We had a few fancy meals – there are just so many great places here to treat yourself to! There is a French restaurant called Chez Marco just outside (5 minute walk) the Old City, where the food was stellar and the atmosphere felt like the West Village, but more spacious. Da Stefano’s pizzaria, outside the Thapae (east) gate, was a great treat for a group dinner after our last day at the Lahu Village – pizza, cannoli, ravioli oh my! At The Rim Hotel’s Canal Restaurant, the food was super lovely, with beautiful presentation and some real treats. Just walking into the hotel was beautiful; they have gorgeous chandeliers and cloth lanterns, and orchids attached to a large tree in their courtyard. We also ate a couple of times at Dash, once just the two of us, and once as a group dinner with some of the folks from the Lahu Village course. Dash is quite lovely and in the category of “marginally more money for a much nicer experience.” For the two of us, it was $16 for both of us, including $6 in drinks, a salad and two main courses, a healthy tip, so on par with other places but much better service and dining experience. It’s owned by this guy Dash, who is from here but has lived in UK, US, Spain, China, so his English is perfect and he trained his staff exceptionally well. The banana salad (which they asked if we wanted served first, how fancy is that!) was fabulous. We are really going to miss the food in Thailand! A generic meal at any little café or restaurant is just really good, and the biggest surprise is that Thai food here tastes just like Thai food at home. But most missed will probably be khao soi, a curry soup with noodles and fried noodles that is just super delicious. Here it’s as common as pad thai, and we have no idea why it’s not on Thai menus in NYC! Our other favorite, of course, is mango sticky rice… which is possibly the best dessert ever.
Exploring Chiang Mai’s Wats
There are several beautiful wats (temples) here in town. It is a real treat to walk around and see them all in passing, and one day we decided to just explore several of the wats, which was a super worthwhile way to spend some time. Some of them have monk chats, which we sadly never went to. The style is gorgeous with many incredible details, and it’s fun how they blend classy and chintzy things so seamlessly.
One evening, we stumbled into a huge white-clad pilgrimage processional to temples because it was Big Buddha Birthday, which seemed to last a couple of days. The sky opened up and started to pour, but during the following day, we heard it would be worthwhile to go check out some wats at night. So after dinner, we went to Wat Phantao, where there was this spectacularly staged, utterly gorgeous, monk meditation amidst a pool of floating candles. I cannot imagine anything more moving. Some of the young monks were fidgety, but some of them had beautiful serene expressions. We found ourselves observing that if they had done this ceremony at a tourist resort area, it would have seemed overstaged and fake, but it was so special because it was so genuine. We also went to Wat Chedi Luang. Behind the wat, there is a huge ruined stuppa, and there were tons of people with flowers and candles circling it – it was a really special view of a special ritual on a special day.
One afternoon, we got a tuk tuk to take us out to Wat U Mong, known for its tunnels. It is maybe 20 minutes outside of the Old City and super peaceful and serene. The tunnels, made to look like cave temples, were neat, and the stuppa above was beautiful. The surrounding forest noises made for a lovely experience. We were en route to the fish pond when the sky opened up and it started pouring, so we waited out the rain in these little tents where we could see and hear the monks chanting. Then we found our driver and his daughter, an adorable 3 or 4 year old girl who was happy to have us as her playmates and pretend she was a tour guide (pointing out things like trees, street lights, and buildings), and headed back into town.
Yoga, Yoga, and more Yoga
One of the big perks of hanging out in Chiang Mai is the wide abundance of yoga classes. Wild Rose is a super lovely studio near the south gate (Chiang Mai gate), where the owner, Rose, somehow remembers everyone who has ever walked in her door and every detail from your last conversation with her. We took a few classes there with just two teachers. We were really impressed with Laurence, a Belgian woman with a lovely demeanor and well thought-out classes. She also has an incredible voice and led her first kirtan while we were in town, which was a really nice treat – we need more kirtan in our lives! At Yoga Tree, kind of in the southwest corner of the Old City, we took a few restorative yoga classes on Thursday nights with Stef, who has a wonderful vibe and attitude. She also did really creative mellow flows in her restorative class, such as a supported vira 2 on a chair, which neither of us had done before but was really fantastic. We brought Uncle Howard for his first-ever yoga class, and it was really fun to witness him saying that he felt different after! The Tea Tree Café, not far from the Tapae Gate on the east side, has a space upstairs where they have classes and workshops. Jewels taught a Hoop Vinyasa workshop there, which had a small attendance but was fun nonetheless. Unfortunately being here in the rainy season means that there are occasional downpours that deter anyone from going anywhere. Our friends Lorrie and Brian were visiting from the U.S. and taught a few acro workshops there, which were super fun and made us realize how much we miss acro playtime! We tried to take a yoga class at the Tea Tree based on their schedule, only to get there and have 2 pipsqueak Thai boys tell us that it’s not happening. But since all of the yoga classes at different studios here are at the same time, we couldn’t go to a different class instead. We went to a couple of classes at Namo, which is right near the Tapae (east side) Gate. We went to a Hatha class with Laurence (who also teaches at Wild Rose), which had a psoas focus and was really great. We have been impressed with her as a teacher. We also went to an Iyengar class with Rogelio. He bashed vinyasa, which I found offensive (he thinks no one should begin with vinyasa, but clearly has never taken a good foundations class) and asked a girl with low back pain to demo what she was doing so he could show us how to fix her alignment, but then miscorrected her. Aside from that, I really enjoyed his teaching, alignment, and informative and gentle adjustments. While we aren’t Iyengar fans, Iyengar classes can be really helpful on occasion!
Chiang Mai is known for being at the heart of the Thai Massage community. Of our five weeks “based” in Chiang Mai, we spent two weeks studying with the Sunshine Network at the Lahu Village (there are also classes at the Sunshine school here in Chiang Mai), and one week studying with Ajahn Pichest, who is a “master” here. But for receiving treatment, we only went to two of the well-known massage therapists, and we only went for a couple of cheap massages. I went to Ohm at Omsala to have a Chi Net Tsang massage, which is an abdominal massage that is more medical treatment than relaxation. It was slightly traumatic how deep and invasive it felt, and while it was not a “pleasant” experience, it definitely had a strong impact. It was expensive ($40 USD for the hour) but a worthwhile thing to experience. We each got a massage from Jack Chaiya, who had joined us as a guest teacher at the Thai Massage Circus. His massage was great and a stellar experience; I tried to pay attention to his technique but it was hard not to zone out with his touch and precision. Lots of nerve touch (the flicking) as well, which I enjoy. It was interesting that we both got his standard Jack Chaiya massage – it was awesome, but not at all tailored to the individual. The really annoying thing was that Jack’s website said a 90 minute massage with him is 600 baht, and we specified that’s what we wanted when we booked it via email. But then when we went to pay, he charged us 800 baht each, which is both frustrating and I think unprofessional and rude. It was a bummer to have that detract from the experience.
Other Things Around Town
There is a cute park in the southwest corner of the Old City which is a nice place to hang out. Apparently people on the Acroyoga Chiang Mai Facebook group sometimes organize meet-ups there, although we never made it for one of those. Mitch also got a super hipster haircut at this super hipster place called the Cutler. It seems like we walked out of Chiang Mai and into Williamsburg, and they are super nice with fun décor and music. The only problem is that they seem to do one, and only one, hair style. So Mitch has this new, super short, semi Adolf/mushroom little boy hipster cut. But it’s cute.
A few times, we went to the Wororot Market, which is this huge area which an indoor market but then many sprawling streets of market, including a flower market. There is a Chinese styled temple in the middle of it too. We also stopped by this super fancy hotel called 137 Pillars. It is gorgeous architecturally and apparently is the house that Anna (from the King & I) had. There are 4 or 5 huge shopping malls around town, which is also critical to the Thai cultural experience, although apparently we have just as much dislike for shopping malls here as we do at home. They have a wide array of shops, including many of the same brands that you see in shopping malls in the States. On one such trip, in the middle atrium of the mall, they were auditioning bands for some Thailand’s Got Talent type of show. Funny side note: when parking garages are full, it’s common practice to leave the car in neutral and park it along the rows of cars. If someone needs to get out, they can just push your car out of the way — I was actually moving the car in this photo!
We made an obligatory stop by the Thai immigration office, which is a little building right next to the airport (which is very conveniently located in town). We paid $60 US each for our visas to be extended a week, which was super annoying since Americans get a free 30 day visa on entry, and had we forethought our timing in Myanmar, we could have applied for a 2-month visa for $40 US each. We had expected to make a border run if we needed – you get a bus to the border, cross over into Myanmar on their 24-hour visa-on-arrival, then cross back into Thailand to get a new (free 30 day for Americans) visa. It costs about $30 US per person all told but takes a full day. However, while we were there, Thailand announced that they were going to be stopping allowing visa runs effective August 2014, but some of the papers were saying it was “effective immediately” and we heard panicked reports from some travellers that they were randomly deciding who to let through and who to turn away until August. In other fun news, it turns out that there was a military coup d’etat in Thailand during the two weeks while we were at the Lahu Village. When we got back to Chiang Mai, everything seemed business as usual, although there were a couple of spots around town where military guys were hanging out, but no other changes.
Daytrip Outside the Old City
Getting out of the city here is just beautiful; Chiang Mai is surrounded by super lush forested mountains. Uncle Howard had said that he wanted to take us on a daytrip outside of the city, which we were excited to experience. We met at his house outside of the Old City near Maya shopping mall, where the bottom floor is the store (Cosmos) that they run, filled with some beautiful and super artsy pieces.
Then we headed out and made several stops. We went along beautiful country drives surrounded by glorious red and yellow flowering trees towards Mae Rim. Howard and Lance’s first house in Thailand was here, and there are tons of Thai royalty that live in the area, so there is a lot of over the top homes, but also a lot of working class homes. It’s interesting how intermixed wealth and classes are here. We were driving by this private park owned by the Thai princess and the gate was open so we drove in. It’s always kept manicured, even though she apparently only goes there one day per year. They had people sweeping the paths and roads in the park (with a broom)… here, labor is cheaper than a leaf blower. We stopped by the Four Seasons Hotel, which was really spectacular and decadent to the max. We had juices by their pools and looked at their carefully manicured everything – floating flower arrangements they replace daily, a rice field that is perfectly kept, etc.
We made a stop by a temple up on a mountain, where you can see beautiful views of the whole valley. Apparently there is one solitary monk who lives up at the temple and takes care of it. Afterwards, we went up this mountain for lunch to this great restaurant with a beautiful view of a valley and a little waterfall. The highlight was this sweet coconut peanut dish with star-shaped green beans. Delish. After lunch, we walked down to the base of the waterfall, which was very pretty.
The two top animal experiences in Chiang Mai are the elephant parks and Tiger Kingdom. A lot of people rave about the tigers; they have baby tigers as well as drugged adult tigers that you can go into cages and snuggle with. A lot of people we know have enjoyed going and being with such powerful animals, but we really couldn’t stomach supporting a place where they drug the animals. There are dozens of elephant parks here in Chiang Mai. Some of them have really bad reputations for how they treat their animals, so we did a bit of research on which ones seemed to be better. In retrospect, we probably would have gone to the elephant reserve where you don’t actually ride them, but you just get to be with them; it seems like that’s the only way to have zero concerns about their treatment. We went with this place called Baan Chang (“home of the elephant”) for their 1-day experience, which costs about $150 for the two of us (2,400 baht each). It was really a half day – pick up 8:30am, arrive there 10:30am, do stuff, lunch and rest 12 – 1, do more stuff, then onto the bus around 2:30 and arrive in Chiang Mai around 4pm.
Their elephants seem to be treated well, for the most part, considering safety concerns, and they were all (they say) rescued as working elephants. The elephants range from 4-60 years old (elephants live to over 100 and the one we rode is approx. 30), and are full-grown around age 20. In the morning, you feed the elephants bananas and sugar cane. They each have a single leg chained and are in a hot field, but they don’t look super uncomfortable, and I can understand why you wouldn’t want them wandering around. This is apparently just a “snack” for them, but they are super excited about it. It was an amazing experience – their prehensile trunks, their size, intelligence, sneakiness, aggressiveness, naughtiness. It was almost the way that Neko (our cat at home) acts when he wants food! Just bigger.
Then we took turns getting on and off and riding in a little circle after we tried to learn some commands totally unsuccessfully. They tried to give tourists a pretense at control, but they actually have the trainers walking right next to the elephant, so the elephant does whatever the trainer wants (and doesn’t care whether or not we try to use commands). It’s crazy to be on top of them, they are huge, their skin is so thick, and they have huge stiff bristly hair shafts all over, and enormous heads.
After lunch, we went on a ride (bareback, but we shared an elephant) for a couple of big loops around the property. We had heard that the elephant rides where you’re on a platform are really brutal for them and that it’s better to go with the places that have you ride bareback. The trainers walked alongside their elephants the whole time. Each trainer works 1-on-1 with an elephant and develop a relationship over years or months. The elephants sometimes tried to stray and get some leaves to eat, blow some water/snot on us in an attempt to cool themselves down, or get a trunkful of water when we passed a stream for a full spray. Then, we walked them down to the bathing hole, where they laid down in the water, and we scrubbed them. I’m not sure if they enjoyed it – I couldn’t tell if it was forced relaxation, but their eyes were closed and they looked happy. And, despite being in a watering hole with elephant shit and pee, it was a highlight of the experience. By the way, elephant farts are quite loud and their butts look adorable and flappy like oversized pants on someone with a flat butt.
The Indian Visa Debacle
One of our goals in our time in Chiang Mai was to get me a new Indian visa (to replace the one the USPS lost with my passport). Unfortunately, no one told us in advance that the Indian consulate in Chiang Mai does not make it easy to get a long visa, and it is much better to apply from Bangkok. To note, it is a terrible idea to even mention the word “yoga” since tourist visas and student visas are different and they are very sensitive that people on tourist visas do not so much as take a yoga class. The short story is that we filled out the application online and went to the consulate for the appointment, where they proceeded to tell me that they cannot cancel a lost visa and that I need to go back to my home country to do so before applying for a new one. After a rush of tears (what to do when all else fails) and an emergency trip to the internet café to print several documents, they ended up telling me that they would definitely not give me the 6 month visa I had requested on my application, but they would see what they could do about giving me a 3 month visa. I went back a week later, when they told me it wasn’t ready, then went back later that day, and was awarded with my 3-month visa. Whohoo! We’re allowed to go into India! The annoying problem is that the clock on Indian visas start ticking the day they stamp your passport with the visa, not when you enter the country. So our plan is to go to India for a short trip, use my single-entry 3-month visa, then leave and go to Kathmandu (where it’s apparently more straightforward), and apply for another one. That will make a whopping three Indian visas that I am applying for, for this trip.
Just for fun…
Here is the haircut Mitch really should have requested:
Per usual, here is the full set of photos from Chiang Mai: