Chiang Mai did not resemble the picture I had painted in my head. As the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, I had imagined a distinguished walled city with ancient buildings, elegant and regal in nature, but buoyed by an undercurrent of that renowned South-East Asian energy. I suppose I expected a Thai version of Hoi An, Vietnam, which is why I felt visually disappointed when I first arrived. Have you ever had the experience of a city not living up to your aesthetic expectations?
Over the course of the 6 days I was in Chiang Mai, I gradually began to understand the pull of this Northern Thai city. For me, Chiang Mai’s charm wasn’t immediate, it didn’t have me in awe or madly grabbing for my camera to capture a moment; perhaps its idyllic southern counterparts win in these stakes. However, Chiang Mai slowly wins you over through the peaceful pockets of green amid the bustle, the crumbling facades of walls and gates that hint at its culturally significant past, the golden stupas that pierce the skyline, the ubiquitous red song thaews lined up along the road and the lingering aroma of street food.
Considering I had just under a week in Chiang Mai, I had a pretty relaxed time—a first for a serial planner like me who tends to cram as much into a trip as possible. Arriving in a new city with no grand plans was somewhat refreshing (okay, I lie, I did have a rough itinerary, but nothing concrete). Most of my time was spent walking around the old city which is surprisingly sprawling, visiting temples and eating ALL OF THE street food. The local dish khao soi lived up to all of my expectations (HOT TIP: head to Khao Soi Mae Sai for a bowl).
Work had been quiet the week beforehand, but as soon as I landed in Chiang Mai I received a couple of jobs, so there was one night spent staying up until the wee hours of the morning to submit a project in on time. This was a task in learning how to juggle work and sightseeing, and, known for being a digital nomad hub, Chiang Mai was definitely the place to do it. The city has so many great cafes to work out of during the day and millennials tapping away on their Macbooks are a common sight; the coffee is also on point (all coffee connoisseurs should head to Ponganes Coffee Roasters).
Although I didn’t have concrete plans, there were 2 things that I wanted to do while in Chiang Mai.
First, I wanted to visit the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary that rescues elephants from the tourism and logging industries. I took part in the Care for Elephants day program, which was the highlight of my trip—seeing these majestic animals up close was an experience like no other. They are so playful, incredibly nuturing and love to eat! They pretty much hoovered through the basket of watermelons and rockmelon we had.
Second, I wanted to hike the monk trail up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which overlooks Chiang Mai on top of Doi Suthep mountain. I had planned to do this on Sunday, early in the morning before the South-East Asian heat would be at its most potent. I didn’t end up doing the hike and instead caught a song thaew to the temple, because I had met a lovely American girl at the Elephant Nature Park the day before and we ended up heading out that night with some others travellers she had met during her travels around Thailand. A suprisingly hilarious ladyboy show and a couple of bars later, I knew I would most likely not be getting up in the morning to do the hike. However, I had a fun night and it goes to show that as much as you can try to plan an experience, sometimes the best experiences are the ones that are unexpected. We befriended a couple of Thai girls who took us out to a local club and coincidentally one of the girls has a boyfriend in Perth! It is these random connections that make a trip memorable.
Speaking of which, I instantly hit it off with the American girl I had met on the elephant program. You know when you just click with someone? We were both solo travelling with our partners back home, a similar age and she was also reading The Beach. She had me at Oh, I’ve read Haruki Murakami.
She also told me the most incredible travel story I have ever heard. She revealed, with a twinkle in her eye, that she had gotten a tattoo the day before—her first. The story behind the tattoo? It turns out that there is a party that is going to happen in Iceland at a certain place and time in 2040—the tattoo is the invitation and is of the coordinates of the location and the date. If you meet a traveller that you want to connect with again, then you tell them about the tattoo as a way of staying in touch. Often, the connections that you make while travelling are intense but fleeting, and this was a way of making it permanent (it’s literally burned into your skin).
So guys…no, I didn’t get a tattoo, although I’m well aware that this would make the story even more awesome. I am an absolute wuss when it comes to needles, so there was just no way. But when she told me this story, I exclaimed, ‘This is your beach moment. You’ve been given an invitation to paradise!’
Chiang Mai, perhaps, didn’t live up to the preconceived notion (which is always dangerous) of what I thought it would be like; however, the experiences I had while there were truly unforgettable.
Sometimes it’s not so much about the sights you see or the pictures you take, as the people you meet and the stories you take away with you.
Seeing as this is a post on Thailand, I can’t NOT throw in a quote from The Beach.
Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is the generation that travels the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite & never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience—and if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.