HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thai Tales 1/3 - Chiang Mai: The Great Outdoors

(Note: 30 baht = 1 USD)

Before discussing Chiang Mai, I'd like to mention the ridiculous pronunciations and spellings of the Thai language. For example, in Chiang Mai's Old City, Ratchawithi Rd., Ratchamankha Rd., and Ratchadamnoen Rd. all run parallel to each other. To the untrained eye those names look deceptively similar, unless you use one of their other spellings, of which every place in Thailand seems to have at least two.

And don't ask me how to say anything, because Bangkok's massive, uber-modern international airport, spelled Suvarnabhumi, is actually pronounced something like su-wah-na-poom. Right.

Anyway, on to Chiang Mai. Located 450 miles away from Bangkok in Thailand's rugged northwest, this city of 200,000 provides a stark contrast to the steamy megacity that this country is most well-known for. Mountains, which form the easternmost edge of the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, surround the city. Chiang Mai's history is complex and I won't go into much detail, but it was once ruled by the Burmese, as well as the ancient Lanna Empire. It didn't come under full Thai control until the 18th century.

Today, the city has two distinct sections - the Old City, enclosed by a moat and the remains of the defensive brick wall built in 1800, and modern Chiang Mai. The Old City consists of dozens of temples (wats) and atmospheric sois (alleys) full of restaurants and guesthouses, while the new section is totally nondescript; home to the airport, highways, billboards and concrete high-rises. Needless to say, deciding which area to stay in wasn't difficult.
a typical soi

Doi Suthep and part of the defensive wall
We stayed at A Little Bird Guesthouse, a dirt cheap, but clean, backpacker mecca, full of mind-numbingly existential conversations and international travelers who seemed to be in competition to see who could look like they showered the least. These issues were easy to deal with though, thanks to the guesthouse's great location.

I'm not going to do a day-by-day account of my time in Chiang Mai, instead I'll offer a few snapshots. One morning Allison and I rented motorbikes so we could explore Doi Suthep, the broad mountain that looms over the city. Andee hopped on the back of Allison's bike, and we headed out into the traffic. Given the fact that there were more cars than motos, driving was a breeze for us Saigon vets - although it took a minute to get used to the flow of traffic, which runs in the British direction. (Still not sure why, as Thailand was never colonized.)

We were soon on the road that leads to the summit, and what a joy it was! There were tight switchbacks, steep climbs, and quick drops, as well as sections where you could open the gas. The smooth pavement meant road conditions weren't an issue, and the light traffic was easily dispatched with.

We stopped at Wat Doi Suthep, a glistening, gilded temple that provides commanding views over Chiang Mai and the Ping River valley. After lunch on the mountain we returned to our bikes for the equally awesome ride back down the mountain. That day left a big smile on my face, and provided a hard-to-beat experience.
Wat Doi Suthep




Chiang Mai
Another highly entertaining moment came on the horribly touristy full-day "trekking experience" that we dropped 600 baht on. I was riding an elephant (OK, that was pretty cool) when the mahout, who was insane, asked for my camera and hopped off, while I took the position of driver. He took a few shots of me commanding the beast, as well as one of its enormous penis. (Don't worry, I won't disturb you with the pic.) Eventually he climbed up to the passenger's seat and began to whistle, then hum, and finally sing "Jingle Bells". What a character.
The final, and most memorable, snapshot comes from the arduous mountain biking trip down Doi Suthep I went on. Part of the reason I loved this so much was the scenery - foliage colors that reminded me of Pittsburgh in October, meadows full of brilliantly colorful flowers, and huge views of the surrounding areas below and the peaks above. The main reason I'll always cherish the ride, though, was my Thai guide, whose name I can't remember for the life of me. He was unflappable: Everytime we stopped after a bone-rattling descent that we had just blitzed down, he looked like he had just woken up. He was hilarious: At one point he asked me if, in the U.S., Porsches come with "Pussy Wagon" written on them. He also told me - while still on the mountain - about the gruesome injuries he's seen on similar rides: a German with a bone sticking out of his arm, a Canadian that broke his femur, etc.

As we rolled onto the flat trail that signalled the end of the mountain, I was amazed by two things: first, the fact that my nuts were still intact after careening down the roughest trail I've ever ridden, second, the view: a serene lake, with the mountain we had just conquered looming in the background.

As we ate a late lunch on the water I remembered why I love mountain biking so much. We began the day at 5,400 feet and finished it at 1,200. Few things provide the adrenaline rush of blasting down a mountain, bouncing off rocks, every brain cell and muscle working hard to keep you alive as you ride the knife-edge between maintaining control and flying off the bike. I did lose control twice, but escaped with just a few scratches. I have my great guide to thank for an amazing day. You'll probably never read this, but thanks man.
Gearing up


The trail.


I really liked Chiang Mai. The food was great (I know, good food in Southeast Asia - shocking!) and the Old City was fascinating. The people were amazingly friendly - as I was walking around one temple, two students approached me and asked if they could ask me some questions about tourism for a project. One of the girls pulled out a recorder and started asking me questions about tourist sites in the U.S. I probably sounded like an idiot rambling on about the Empire State Building and the Grand Canyon, but I hope they get a good grade. Also, the surrounding mountains provided an array of outdoor adventure options that Saigon simply can't offer. It's a great place to escape the teeming megacities of this region, and I hope to return someday.
Just a couple extra pics: Wat U Mong
Panang Curry at We's Restaurant, one of the best meals of the trip

A street food I fell in love with: Rotee pancake, full of bananas and topped with chocolate and cream.

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