After arriving into Chiang Mai’s old town from a sleeper train we’d boarded in Bangkok, we weren’t short of things to do while waiting for our room to be ready; wat-hopping, monk-chatting, fresh-juicing, scooter-hiring, foot-massaging or market-shopping. This is just what’s on offer inside the moated walls of the old town. Every other hostel, bar, or restaurant doubled up as a tour agency offering cooking classes, day trips to elephant sanctuaries and waterfalls, or buses further north to Pai and Chiang Rai.
We started out with some wat-hopping around the old town. For it’s size, Chiang Mai has the perfect balance of wats; enough to make up a morning’s walking tour, but each with something unique about them so they don’t merge into one gold, Buddha-shaped blur.
There are different styles of exterior and different styles of Buddha inside. Wat Chedi Luang has a reclining Buddha (signifying the moment the Buddha gained enlightenment), as well as a giant standing Buddha (palm facing outwards signifying peace to the world). Wat Inthakhin Saduemuang is a tiny gilded teak temple, Wat Chiang Mun has a gold-topped stupa, and back at the large Chedi Luang complex there’s a crumbling 15th century temple. Other temples offered monk chat.
Obviously, as soon as we saw a sign saying ‘Monk Chat’, we needed to know more. At picnic tables in the shade of trees outside a temple, Buddhist monks who want to practice their English come to chat with people about Buddhist beliefs, a monk’s life, Thai culture, or anything else. We chatted with a monk who’d recently graduated from Novice to Monk status. He considered himself somewhere between a forest monk and a city monk; he studied a temple in Chiang Mai, but his ‘home’ temple was in a nearby village. Every morning, along with the other monks in his temple, he wakes up at 5am for prayers, then joins the morning alms procession. As Buddhist monks cannot have their own money or possessions, they rely on offerings from citizens for their two daily meals. At dawn, local people line the streets near the temples to receive blessings in exchange for their offerings. Apparently rural monks are usually given sticky rice but people in cities don’t always have time to prepare food so instead offer the monks money to buy breakfast. This explained the queue of monks we saw at a 7-Eleven one morning!
After all the walking around admiring wats we needed a pick-me-up. Timian had a coffee, Rebecca had a foot massage from a jail inmate. Each to their own. Not quite as extreme as it sounds, it proved a good way to choose between the hundreds and hundreds of massage places in Chiang Mai. The Women’s Correctional Institution runs courses for inmates due for release in the next 6 months, and teaches them skills, like Thai massage and cooking, to help them get jobs once they are released. The foot massage was an interesting mix of relaxation and pain; just as you’re about to drift off to sleep, the knuckle grinding on your shins begins. After an hour of (mostly) relaxing massage, it ends with a good solid punch to the sole of the foot. The next day we were back for round two; a traditional Thai upper body massage and all of the arm wrenching and neck contorting that goes with it. Again, surprisingly relaxing.
Thailand is still home to many wild elephants, and Mahout Training courses are big business in Chiang Mai. We thought long and hard about visiting an elephant reserve – apparently too long, as once we’d found a few that seemed ethical and humane, they were either fully booked or far too expensive. Lots were still available but, having wised up to tourists avoiding camps with inhumane conditions, simply had ‘No Riding!’ or ‘Sustainability Tour!’ proudly stamped on the front of their brochures without much to back it up. Often, a bit more reading showed that they were still just money-spinners for tourists, having removed the elephants from their natural habitat, or, worse, still involving an elephant ‘show’.
We opted instead for a cookery class at a nearby farm. It started with a morning visit to a market where we learnt about the different varieties of rice and other products we’d later be using. And some we really hoped we wouldn’t; juicy looking bugs and some pretty sizeable crickets.
After arriving at the farm we were taken on a tour around the gardens, picking some herbs for the recipes, and to see the fruit and vegetables grown there. So far, delivering exactly what was promised. What hadn’t been promised, but delivered anyway, was our instructor’s high-pitched innuendo-filled running commentary, which made the whole thing just as hilarious as it was interesting. If you’re wondering which Thai herbs might be “good for your maaaaaan“, the answer is, almost all of them.
We cooked inside a converted barn next to the vegetable and herb gardens, each at an individual cooking station. We made six dishes and ate together outside after each dish. Our teacher’s hilarious brand of instruction will definitely make some things easy to remember. Should you stir the bananas when they’re caramelising? No; “Shake your bananaaaaaaas!” Was Rebecca’s first spring roll attempt the right size? No; “Toooooooo loonnnnngggg!” After tom yam soup, red curry, yellow curry, pad thai, chicken and basil, spring rolls, chicken and cashew nuts, coconut bananas, papaya salad and mango sticky rice all made in quick succession, we’ll definitely need the recipe book we were given at the end to avoid ending up with a Thai version of the Friends episode when Rachel attempts trifle.
The other day trip on our list was the Bua Tong ‘sticky’ waterfalls. For just £4 we had a scooter for 24 hours and sped off up the highway that heads north straight to the falls. Much like wat-fatigue after one too many shiny temples, backpackers in Southeast Asia also risk waterfall-fatigue if they visit every single one. Bua Tong, however, has something different and is worth the trip from Chiang Mai. The cartoon-like rocks have a natural coating that means, even though water is rushing down over them, they are strangely grippy and you can just walk straight up to the top through the water!
We scooted back to Chiang Mai via tiny roadside cafes, a giant golden Buddha, farmers tending to their crops and a few spirit houses. When a new house is built the owner must build a small house for the spirits they’ve displaced from the land. It can be anywhere on the property as long as it doesn’t fall in the shadow of the new house, and must be kept in good supply of offerings like food, flowers and candles. Though with no houses around, we’re not sure what these spirit houses were doing out in the middle of nowhere.
Back in Chaing Mai we parked up outside the hostel. Then 5 minutes later re-parked on the opposite side of the road. On odd numbered days parking’s allowed on one side of the road, and on even numbered days it’s only allowed on the other side. Apparently to give businesses on both sides of the road the chance to have the pavement in front clear for customers rather than for scooter parking. We later swapped our scooter for a tuk tuk to take us the ten minute drive to the airport for our flight to Laos.