OK - I spent around 3 months in total in Chiang Mai - and let’s get something straight.
1) I do not (Mr Tuk Tuk driver) want to visit some zoo on the outskirts of town and lie my weary traveller’s body against the flank of a Tiger and get it’s whiskers all up in my grill
2) Ok I’m still on point 1 - but really? People want to do this? Sensible, intelligent friends I met did this. Am I the only one that thinks this is crazy? Not just distressing for the animal - but logically speaking - the tigers have either been drugged which is why they are docile enough to have hordes of idiot back packers having their photos taken with them. Or they have not been drugged - which means they could - if they so desired - snap (their jaws) at any minute. Either way - I’d rather see majestic wild animals in the wild - not in captivity.
3) It’s not a Butterfly and Orchid farm without butterflies in it. It’s just an orchid farm.
4) When a 60 year old man tells you he loves Thailand because the barriers don’t exist between ages and he enjoys partying with his 21 year old Thai twins who are just “friends” it’s time to move to another venue.
So where do you go and what do you do in Chiang Mai - if, as a slightly more discerning traveller you don’t want to rest your head against the chops of a tiger; traipse up the top of Doi Suthep with 900 other people; cram yourself onto the streets of its night market to look at hawkers selling rip off tat or chug back the cheap cocktails at backpacker haven Zoe’s in the centre of town with the rest of the 21 year olds, Thai teenagers and sexpats?
I based myself in the less touristy part of town - at a place called Life in Town (a clean a/c room with smart ensuite and cable tv - plus secure gated access) by Suan Pung Gate (south gate) for around 150 quid for the month - and spent the next couple of months discovering places off a little more off the beaten track.
Wats Up? The Silver Temple.
If you have been travelling around Thailand for any amount of time you may well reach a point where you feel “all Watted Out.” It’s not that these beautiful temples or Wats with their peaceful courtyards, intricate and bejwelled exteriors, and glowing golden rooves aren’t fascinating but even the sight of a monk with a bright orange strimmer the same colour as his robes - trimming his hedge - wasn’t enough to tempt me inside after the 100th on the journey so far. Until I discovered Thailand’s only silver temple - practically on my doorstep. The temple was built in the 16th century and is situated down Wualai road -the traditional silver making district of Chiang Mai. It really is a view to behold. On the day I’m there it sits shimmering like a steel pan behind the deep blue of the October sky.
The entire temple and roof is clad in silver panels and the grounds are also home to a silver making school as well as a Monk Chat programme where you can pop along and chat with a monk about Buddhism, meditation or anything else that takes your fancy!
The main ordination hall is called the Usobot and women are not allowed to enter unfortunately due to ancient Lanna tradition. Ah well. It’s also very close to the Saturday (Wualai) walking street which offers a slightly less hectic version of the Night market - filled with colourful little stalls and street food.
An Art Lesson with Nonnie.
I have been vowing to take up drawing again since I hit the road. I’ve met a couple of painters on my travels and thought it would be lovely to keep not just a written and photographic record of my journey around the world - but a painted one as well. Oh the best laid plans etc - it never came to anything. But I did manage to go to one art class! Nonnie runs a studio of the main touristy road - MoonMuang. She’s a slightly intimidating and non smiling - self taught artist who works out of a studio rammed with half finished oils, charcoals and other offerings from her students. Rin - my friend and I are first given a box of postcards - to find a picture we wnat to copy, and then we are set up at an easel. Nonnie brings us a ginger tea and clucks at her demented pussy cat that’s making a strange howling noise (i didn’t think my artistic skills were that bad.)When it looks like I’m perilously close to cocking the whole thing up, she deftly takes my paintbrush off me and with a few sharp and confident strokes sorts the whole thing out. I’m not a terrible artist - it was always one of my favourite subjects at school no thanks to the villainous Ms Sage who - unfamiliar with the concept of positive praise - hissed every vitriolic comment out of her mouth through an aggressively snarled lip. However I’m sorely out of practise. It’s a little bit painting by numbers - for the very artistic this class doesn’t offer much creativity and I expect those far more talented than me may resent someone else stepping in and taking over with their masterpiece every once in a while. But I’m grateful for all the help I can get. It’s a calming and satisfying way to while away a morning with the brusque but kindly Nonnie, her ginger tea and her unhappy pussy.
A Haven of Tranquility
For a small city, Chiang Mai can feel suprisingly hot, polluted and crowded at times. For some sweet sanctuary away from the madding crowd - why not try a class in one of the healing arts or wellness centres that the town is known for. Tucked away down a little side street around the back of Chiang Mai Gate Market is Wild Rose Yoga - a beautiful little oasis in the city with brightly coloured wooden parasols in the garden area and an intimate little yoga room. I tried the Vinyasa flow class there in one of Thailand’s hottest months (kind of like getting a bit Bikram thrown in for free. ) http://www.wildroseyoga.org/
The Yoga Tree studio on the west side of the moat also offers free meditation classes and yoga as well as Bio Danza (a joyful and liberating type of dance class where the emphasis is on non verbal communication and reaching a state of Vivencia - pure joy!) I took part in a 2 day dance festival earlier this year - and found myself dancing along to Flashdance with 40 other women (and one slightly scared looking man) at 11 o clock n the morning - which was, quite frankly, a brilliant way to start the day. The studios are set far away from the main road in lush green gardens.
An’ All that Jazz*
If you want to avoid the tourist trail and coffee shop mecca of Thapae Gate, and can give the central backpacker night club Zoe’s then hie thee to a couple more out the way establishments for a classier evening. The Gossip Gallery and Bar is situated on Wichayanon Road just outside the the north east side of the old town. It’s a very small and cosy venue with some large leather comfy seating and lamps. It features live jazz from local musicians thursday through to sunday and there’s an art gallery upstairs with regular exhibitions. For a more scenic view - cross the Ping River and make your way to The Good View for a meal and live music overlooking the water. I visited Windy’s - another intimate live music venue - filled with trendy young Thai’s drinking whiskey and a Thai hipster duo on acoustic guitar. It was a bit like being in Shoreditch - except of course the G&Ts were 70p instead of 7 quid ;)
Any secret places you’ve found in Chiang Mai that you want to share? Let me know in the comments below :)
*Please note that I was in Chiang Mai between April and October 2013- and that many bars and restaurants seem to change owners, close and reinvent on a regular basis in this city!