We had heard that Chiang Mai had a similar vibe to Ubud, and it some ways, we found that it does. We loved the food in Chiang Mai, and looked forward to every meal. There were several health-conscious restaurants in the Old Town within walking distance of our hotel. Great markets, musical and dance performances, and fun activities left plenty to do there. But like Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok, it lacked greenery (except for a lovely park in the southwest corner), and the air was very polluted from all the vehicles on the road. Outside of town are excellent roads leading to suburban neighborhoods and gated communities.
While there are many tourist attractions around Chiang Mai, most of them seemed manufactured for tourists or the same activities we’d done in other parts of the world, so we spent a lot of time resting and working, shopping at markets and malls, and just walking around to explore the city. We visited with friends and ate meals together. We got several thai massages. Jen and Emily also got their hair cut short and look great in their new do’s.
We visited many of the dozens of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.
We chatted with monks.
We enjoyed an afternoon at the park, playing at the playground and feeding the pigeons.
I even got my iPhone Home button fixed. I watched this guy completely disassemble, reassemble, and thoroughly clean my phone in under 30 minutes! (And it only cost me $20.)
At the beginning of the trip, we gave our oldest girls 1,000 baht each (around $30) as spending money and to practice their money math. Normally bored at markets, the girls had a lot of fun buying little toys and learning to watch their spending. It also felt good to not say “no” to every request to buy something because it seemed like a frivolous purchase to us grown-ups. The kids spent as they pleased and learned from their choices. Emily also finished Harry Potter books 2 and 3 while we were there, which she got at a used book store.
One day, I went to a meditation retreat in the mountains to sit at the feet of a Buddhist monk and learn about meditation. The setting was beautiful, the food was amazing, and the staff was helpful. We meditated for over two hours that day, focusing on the center of our bodies and releasing thoughts of all else. It was an enjoyable day (besides a slightly sore back) and I had a good chat and hike during lunch with the other participant. However, I felt a bit proselytized to by the monk, who was sweet and over 70 years old, but loved to talk about how his organization (a particular sect of Buddhism, I presume) has quickly grown from 0 to over 10 million members in just 40 years, and how they use really high quality Bose speaker systems and LG televisions in their conference centers, and bus people to them from all over the world, etc. He showed us videos on his iPad of the youth groups that get together to talk about peace, etc. It looked great, but felt so much like an organized religion, where you earn “merits” for a better next life by doing honorable acts like feeding the monks, donating your money to the organization, and meditating. Not exactly the philosophy lesson I was expecting, but a bit eye opening at how similar religions can be. I never thought of Buddhism that way.
We also spent three days in Chiang Rai, which is about 3.5 hours away from Chiang Mai by car. While it’s smaller than Chiang Mai, it’s no less polluted, and we found ourselves wheezing and having a hard time getting away from the fumes. But the drive there is lovely. Near Chiang Rai, we visited an interesting geyser (which they call a hot spring), where we supposedly hard boiled an egg in 5 minutes (personally, I think it was already hard boiled.)
We also toured a fascinating and grotesque white temple (Wot Rong Khun) with ghoulish hands reaching up from below, disembodied heads hanging from trees, and a beautifully intricate shiny white and silver exterior. The design of a brilliant (or deranged?) artist, there was something interesting to see at every step.
The royal flower gardens in the mountains north of Chiang Rai were especially beautiful, much cooler than the hot city, and literally a breath of fresh air. Next to the gardens was a “house of inspiration” showcasing in video and art how kind and charitable the King of Thailand has been to his people. I was especially interested in the sustainable forests that were created to provide work and food for the more destitute hill tribes. We learned a lot about the hill tribes in a museum in Chiang Rai, and how many are refugees from Burma and other countries who are in a sense trapped here without citizenship or a way to earn money outside of slave-like conditions. Fortunately, there are several organizations trying to help.
Marie is our little socializer, and is anything but shy! At restaurants, she likes to leave the table and chat with the other diners, regardless of their age, nationality, gender, or appearance. They’re usually pretty entertained by her, and we’ve even made some friends that way, including some we met with again since.
Marie is constantly getting her photo taken as well (usually without asking her first), and one day, while waiting at immigration to extend our visa, she decided to start capitalizing on that. She went around to everyone and asked for 10 baht (about 32 cents) to take her picture. She did the same thing at the mall afterward. She made 70 baht that day!
One of our favorite things we did in Chiang Mai was taking a cooking class at the Taste From Heaven vegetarian restaurant. The staff were great with the kids, and let them chop vegetables and stir ingredients, which they loved doing. They also gave us a cook book at the end with all nine dishes we prepared. We especially love the penang curry and the pineapple fried rice.
We decided to skip the Thai beaches this trip because we wanted to enjoy Chiang Mai at a slower pace, rather than than spend more time in planes and trains. And after hearing about an amazing floating lantern festival in Chiang Mai later in the month, which several of our friends would be flying in to attend, we decided to extend our visa and change our return flight so we could enjoy it with them. I’ll be writing about this amazing festival and other activities in my next post.