Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and from the moment we touched down after a day in Bangkok, it felt somehow more authentic. The people are much more friendly and, unlike in the islands and in Bangkok where you feel the locals are somehow touristed-out, Thailand’s catchphrase “land of smiles” becomes much more self evident. We checked into “Julie’s Guesthouse,” a beautiful, social – and uber cheap – hostel in the middle of the walled city centre. Everything is cheaper in Northern Thailand too. 15Baht (about 50cents)/hour for internet, 90B (about $3) for a room and 150B (about $5) for a one-hour Thai massage! Can’t get much better than that.
Now that we are on the last leg of our journey we can finally justify shopping! Walking markets are ubiquitous in Chiang Mai. Saturday markets, Sunday markets, the famous Night Bazaar – we hit them all! We have become master hagglers too, and for handicrafts and textiles, Chiang Mai is noticeably cheaper than Bangkok (or at least the Kao San road as we haven’t made it to the huge weekend market in Bangkok yet).
I think you could find anything you want for cheap-cheap in these markets. I’ve seen Prada fakes, real Mac make-up, pashminas, bags, Tiffany brand jewelry, I-pod Touch, every CD and DVD ever made and photocopied Lonely Planets. Sarah and I met up with Sarah’s friend from home, Charlotte and her travel partner Jenn. We went into a store which was wall-to-wall jewelry – literally every surface was covered in some kind of necklace or bracelet or semi-precious stone. I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to tear the girls away from there! But even I had to admit, it was pretty fabulous.
We met up with a couple from our hostel in order to share the price of a song thaew (a red, open-air taxi) up the mountain to Doi Suthep and the Winter Palace: two of Chiang Mai’s most famous attractions. The Winter Palace was first and we spent a while exploring the grounds. Unfortunately, the weather was abysmal. The whole place was shrouded in cloud and so the normal splendor of the gardens and fountains was a bit lost on us. We hoped it would be better at Doi Suthep.
In fact, the weather didn’t improve but it did lend an air of mystery to the temple that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. We couldn’t see the (apparently) fabulous views of Chiang Mai but we did have fun exploring the temple and walking the steps.
The last thing we did in Chiang Mai was visit some of the villages in the surrounding area. It was a very mixed bag kind of tour, which we thought was going to be exclusively about the villages but ended up also including a tour of an elephant dung paper factory, an orchid and butterfly farm and the caves at Chiang Dao. Quite random.
The villages, however, were eye-opening. Or rather, the village was. All the tribes we thought we were going to see were in fact located in one, highly touristy village. In the one complex were members of the long neck Karen tribe, the big ear hill tribe, the lisu tribe, amongst others. Most of the tribe members are refugees from Myanmar. We were allowed to take our photos with them and to buy their goods but most of them didn’t speak much English – or were reluctant too – and we were soon ushered back into the car to the next stop. We did in fact go and visit some other villages, but again it was to be bombarded by children selling friendship bracelets. Cries of “10Baht… 10Baht” became a kind of mantra to the group. I swear I hear it in my dreams now!