I first visited Chiang Mai when it was one of the must-see places along the hippie trail through Asia back in the 1970s. It was a long trip there by bus from Bangkok but probably those of us who made the detour had few regrets. My then husband and I didn’t know much about the place before we arrived and mostly hung around enjoying the friendly atmosphere before renting a motorbike and venturing a little too close to the Laos border where we ran into soldiers and guns. So it was a place for adventure back then as it is now.
It took a good many years for me to return and I knew, of course, that Chiang Mai had changed but I thought it would still be that cultural diamond, although probably more vibrant and confident. Instead it seems to have lost its way a little, nothing too serious but a disappointment still.
Chiang Mai is situated among rolling hills with the Ping River running through it. It is famous for its pleasant weather, the walls and moat that run around the old city, its many beautiful temples, and a measured pace of life. There are interesting shops and markets and just down the road you can watch alligators, snakes and elephants perform if you’re so inclined.
What made me uneasy about the place is that the experience has become too packaged and with it has gone some of the authenticity that made it so special. There is this short list of activities that seems to be everywhere, with the clear message that ‘This is Chiang Mai”: traditional massage, cooking schools, cultural visit to hill tribe, being an elephant trainer for a day, and going to the Night Market (extended to Sunday and Saturday markets and all generally offering the same tourist kitsch). There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and these activities are being replicated throughout Southeast Asia. It’s just that they are overdone.
When you walk the streets of the old city you pass one establishment after another selling traditional massage treatments, most with bored employees out front waiting for the elusive tourist to show up. Same with the cooking schools—they are everywhere.
I stayed for 10 days, walked many miles, caught rides in tuk-tuks and songthaews (a local bus of sorts), got out into the countryside, enjoyed a couple of fabulous meals in restaurants made for foreign tourists, browsed through English secondhand book stores, and watched retired westerners enjoy what was probably a far richer lifestyle here than they would have had back home. Yet I found it difficult to escape the marketing version of Chiang Mai and it bothered me.
I did eventually find the magic in several places. The first time was when I came upon a temple representing the birth sign of the Dog and learned about the animals of the zodiac and their significance. There are 12 temples in Thailand linked with a these animals (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig) and they are important pilgrimage sites since most Thai people make a special effort to visit their birth-year temple at least once in their lifetime since their soul will remain there. A particularly special time would be on a 12-year cycle birthday (age 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, or 88 years) since it will mean extra merit and good luck.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is another place where the real Chiang Mai can always be found. It is one of the country’s most sacred temples, situated in the peaks overlooking the city. The setting is stunning and the drive there and beyond most rewarding. This temple is associated with the zodiac sign of Goat. There are 301 steps up to the monastery but many people take the tram up so don’t let that put you off. There is nothing packaged about this place!
Biking along the back roads, exploring local markets, floating down the Ping River, hiking in the north, spending the day at one of the elephant rehabilitation camps, enjoying a cold beer with newfound friends—that is Chiang Mai at its best. It just takes a little effort to push the other stuff aside and uncover it.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012