Chiang Mai

Memory is a strange thing.

I first visited Thailand ten years ago, and instantly fell in love. A number of factors – the exotic and exhilarating nature of Southeast Asia, having close friends living in Thailand to introduce us to the ‘real’ side of the country, my love of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel ‘The Beach’, and general youthful recklessness and abandon – all combined together in a rich cocktail that resulted in the perfect demeanour for maximizing Thailand’s alluring effect.

4293_199383640462_5037280_n‘Artsty’ photograph of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai – 2009

However, when we revisited Thailand twice during our time in Singapore (to Phuket and Krabi), I was less than enamoured. What had seemed exotic and exhilarating now struck me as seedy and gaudy. Overt debauchery and prostitution, bland food and crowded beaches, the hustle to make a buck. Had the country changed, or had I?

With our first weeklong holiday in Thailand set for Chiang Mai, I wondered, which side of Thailand would I see – the beautiful and adventurous one preserved in my decade old memories, or the newer version, version B – a bit less glossy, scratched on the surface, lacking in the finer details?

It didn’t take long to get my answer.

As soon as we stepped out of the doors of the airport into that unmistakably blistering Southeast Asian humidity, I had my guard up – anticipating inflated prices, pushy people, potential scams. Instead, what we were greeted with was the total opposite – fair prices, a laid back atmosphere and some of the nicest, most genuine people I have met traveling. The land of 1000 smiles.

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During this trip we decided to take it easy and stay at a villa called Viangdara, just on the outskirts of the old city. Over time we have derived a few simple travel rules for maximizing enjoyment on a weeklong holiday.

  1. If consistently warmer than 25 degrees, stay somewhere with a pool.
  2. Ensure that breakfast is included.
  3. Don’t spread yourself too thin.

The first two are no brainers, particularly if the bulk of your domestic disagreement derives from being hot and ‘hangry’. Number 3 took a lot of experience to fine tune, though. We spent the first few days mired in a joyful combination of eating, drinking, chilling, going to the spa, rinse and repeat. Life is good.

Another factor that has changed over time is the influence that food has on my travels. The Thai food in Chiang Mai is anything but bland. A mouthwatering medley of spicy chilis, rich, aromatic spices like lemongrass, cilantro and basil, the savoury combinations of fish and soya sauce,  the sourness of kaffir lime, fresh ginger and shallots, sweetness from palm sugar, northern Thai cuisine offers an incredibly diverse array of delicious options for food lovers. One of the regional specialties is Khao Soi – a spicy, coconut based soup with egg noodles and topped with crunchy noodles, cilantro and shallots – it is truly one of my favourite dishes not only from Thailand, but anywhere. We ate it six times (from various restaurants) and also learned how to cook it during a private Thai cooking class – along with pad thai, pad see ew, papaya salad, Thai spring rolls, tom yum soup, Thai pork noodle soup, panang curry, khao soi (along with both pastes), and mango sticky rice. Oh, heaven is a place on earth.

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Situated near to the crossroads of Laos, Myanmar, and southern China, Northern Thailand is set amongst a gorgeous backdrop of mountains and cloud forests. Meeting up with friends, we left at 4AM for a day at Doi Inthanon National Park – a mountainous park featuring the highest peak in Thailand. At 2565m, Doi Inthanon is no Mount Everest, but despite this the temperature still drops about 15 degrees from Chiang Mai at the summit – cool for Thailand. We had an amazing day filled with waterfalls, rice paddies, sunrises, temples, and other beautiful natural settings that fulfilled the wanderer and photographer within me. It was certainly one of the highlights of the trip, and one I would recommend to anyone traveling in the region. It’s the kind of place that will leave even the most jaded of travelers awe-struck.

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Chiang Mai  is a very spiritual place, and the old city contains a multitude of Buddhist temples and practicing monks, their distinct orange robes a welcoming return to the city I remember so fondly. We spent one of our mornings wandering around temples (we had the wonderful opportunity to revisit Wat Chedi Luang, the temple in the first image from 2009, albeit this time with a better camera) and soaking up the spiritual side of the town. Even if you’re not a spiritual person, it would be hard not to be impressed by the beautifully intricate architecture of the temples and the calming, peaceful atmosphere.

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During our first trip to Thailand, I was introduced to the concept of Sak Yant, the traditional bamboo tap tattoos. Said to bestow magical and good luck (along with some pain, but nothing comes without a price), I decided to get one from an Ajarn at a ritual ceremony in the old town. The entire process was an unforgettable experience, although whether my spiritual aim of kindness, compassion and fortune shall be bestowed remains to be seen.

Thailand truly offers something for everyone. It’s one of the first places that I recommend to people who are traveling to Asia for the first time, as I want them to experience what I did my first time here. Thailand is beautiful, safe, warm, easy to travel, and filled with wonderful people. I’m grateful that this trip to Chiang Mai reaffirmed my initial impressions of Thailand, and that the fondness in my memory has been restored.

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