Chiang Mai, the best of Thailand

As I drove a friend to the airport a few days ago, I realized that one indicator that you live in a good place is the length of time it takes to drive to the airport. And I write that with all seriousness and anyone who lives in a big city will understand why. Hours of your life can be lost to airport drives. I live in Chiang Mai, a village-like city in Northern Thailand. Its population is close to one million but it feels smaller and more contained than any other big Asian city I’ve visited. The drive to the airport takes 15 minutes from the centre of the city. The kicker is that I never want to leave so I have no reason to go to the airport unless I am picking someone up or dropping someone off.

Chiang Mai is one of the easiest cities to navigate by foot or motorbike. The traffic is just like any other Asian city though, so courage, alertness and helmets are necessary. A moat, a few crumbling ruins, and the ring road surround the Old City, which is about a perfect 1km x 1km square. The only pain in the ass thing if you’re on a motorbike or in a car is that the main road inside the moat is one way going counter-clockwise whilst the road outside the moat is the opposite so if you miss your stop you have do a somewhat irritating drive away from your stop to get to the spot where you can u-turn. And the red lights are lifetimes long. I waited six minutes once, which, though unrelated, is also the average length of time it takes a man to achieve orgasm. Funny how six minutes can feel like a lifetime in one context and mere seconds in another.

Another indicator of a great place is the climate. For two years in Surabaya, Indonesia I dripped sweat standing in the shade waiting for an uber to anywhere else. The temperature rarely fell below 30 degrees Celsius when factoring in the always-present humidity. I was dangerously close to developing gills. Last night when I went to bed the temperature in Chiang Mai was 15 degrees! I haven’t used air conditioning or even a fan in weeks and I can burrow into my duvet every night. But I can stroll outside during the day in 30 degree heat or plant myself in the shade of a tree in Suan Buak Hat park nestled in the city’s southwest corner. There I can read my book or watch hipsters juggle and the yogis do acro-yoga and the local families feed the damn pigeons in front of the giant sign that reads “don’t feed the birds”.

The weather here is actually perfect, at least at this time of year. Snow and block heaters are distant memories. Everyday here feels like an early summer day in Canada: fresh, crisp-ish mornings, bright sun and blue sky, the occasional fluffy white cloud. The only differences are that the sun sets around 6:30 in the the evening and there’s no dew point to surprise your warm dry ass in the mornings you step outside and plunk yourself down on your cushioned garden furniture to enjoy your first coffee. The sun sets next to the local mountain Doi Suthep, casting hues of pink, purple and orange, streaked across the sky, hovering above the distant mountain range. And the window in my $200 a month apartment lends an awesome view of it and the golden spires atop the cities some 300 wats (Buddhist temples). A much better view than the skyscrapers, smog and high tension towers of my recent past.

Chiang Mai is the best of Thailand without the sweat and the gobs of seedy or irritating tourism. Many people who visit are interested in Thai culture rather than the beaches and cheap beer, ping pong shows and full moon parties. It’s a bustling city with lots of Western comforts but still richly Thailand and a darling hub of the local northern Lanna culture. Lanna literally means “a million rice fields” – a reference to the area’s rich agriculture. The city stinks in a familiar and comforting way that reminds me that although I feel at home I am still in the Far East. The stench of the Ping River arises every so often just seconds after you’ve inhaled the sweet, birthday cake-like scent of the pandan plant or noodles fried in fermented fish sauce. Massive markets spring up on empty streets like pop-up greeting cards. From the backs of motorbikes come mangoes, persimmons, boy choy, lotus flowers, gas stoves, woks, copious amounts of dried fish, socks and winter hats, ancient artefacts, blenders for making fruit shakes. A few hours later, those streets are ghostly silent again, the only traces of market are in the stains left on the street pavement and a few stray dogs sniffing the rubbish bins.

Tuk tuks bomb down tiny sois (small side streets) on three wheels, some of them pimped out with subwoofers and flashing neon lights. I can understand why owning a tuk tuk would be a real source of pride. Although invented in Italy (insert perplexed face) the tuk tuk is the pinnacle of urban Thai transportation. They’re great for booting around the city but are even more awesome when they join the big kids on the highway–but hang on for dear life. Almost as cool is the songthaew, the red truck that stops wherever you flag it down and takes you wherever you want to go for a nominal fee. You simply climb into the covered bed which has benches on either side and join the other ten people also going to different places all over the city. But wear a mask to prevent breathing in the thick, black exhaust it chokes out.

Another indicator is the diversity of people, nationalities, and languages housed in one place. Unlike many travellers, I like meeting other travellers or ex-pats and it is one of the reasons I love Thailand. People from all over the world come here to visit and end up staying. They find creative work or develop work for themselves. You can hang out here, busy doing something because the city motivates you. You don’t ever feel lazy even when you are because there is such a good buzzing vibe here. Chiang Mai is the land of the digital nomad–those drifters who manage to make a living online and so can work from anywhere in the world. How do they do it? Through avenues such as Drop Shipping and Amazon FBA. Some are writers, others photographers. There are many misfits here too. People who’ve turned up not knowing where else to go and so stay here a while to figure life out. A walk down Loi Kroh, which is Chiang Mai’s seedy sex street, its mild red light district, offers a view of the grand collection of washed-up old Western men, trying to make a comeback with the ladies, or perhaps looking for a little companionship in the form of a beautiful Thai woman young enough to be a grand daughter. Or wait, maybe she’s a ladyboy?

Oh but the food. I could kindly not give a fuck about never eating western food again for the food markets here. If nothing else makes you want to stay in Chiang Mai the food will. Khao Soi might be the most delicious dish outside of a the classic Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwich. This is not a comparison, only a reference to goodness. Khao Soi, or Chiang Mai noodle, is a rich curry made with cooked and crispy egg noodles, shallots, lime, and the classic Thai flavour blend of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. It needs no further explanation, just try it. And it’s not just that the food is so good here, it’s cheap and so accessible. I can survive happily with an end-of-day food baby for less than $5 a day and I can make that baby anywhere. I can turn left or right out of my apartment and within 100 metres I have freshly cooked pad Thai, fruit, sushi, fresh salad, sweet chocolate roti, hot ginger tea. And that’s without going to a restaurant. My fridge stands empty other than to hold a couple of yogurts for my breakfast.

Hiking the mountain, bombing around the city by motorbike, sitting at the river’s edge with a cold Chang listening to good, live music, eating at my favourite restaurant Dash, strolling through the markets and bargaining for local strawberries, grabbing an ancient Tok Sen massage in the afternoon, receiving a monk’s blessing at the temple down the road, photographing the elderly lady, hunched over in her thick sweater and tall rubber boots as she moves patiently through the motions of setting up her flower stall at a local market. Chiang Mai is a run-on sentence. The only reason to leave is to enjoy the anticipation of returning one day.

Originally published in

6 thoughts on “Chiang Mai, the best of Thailand

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  1. Hi Colleen,

    I love Khao Soy too! I miss it so much! I should be going to Chiang Mai in March. Hope to see you there if you are still around.


  2. Hi Colleen, I’ve just stumbled across your blog…. nice travels, and you are brave!

    I laughed when I read about the “ping pong show(s)” which, I am fairly certain, is something that you wouldn’t catch a man participating in. Am I correct? 🙂
    If it’s what I think it is, the last one I caught was around the time you were born – the early eighties.

    Happy Travels!


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