Chiang Mai, Thailand. Monday 4th November, 2019
A nice ride on country roads got me to Chiang Mai. I’d pinpointed a hotel on Google maps, which seemed to be in the heart of things, so I headed there. Then I found a cup of coffee and searched around for a hotel to actually stay at. One of the most important things for me is secure parking for the bike, especially in busy tourist areas. I found a place, with everything I required, at a reasonable price. It was usefully located on one of the busy roads that led to the night market in one direction and the old town in the other.
That evening, while walking around looking for something to eat, I realised several things. Beer in this town was much more expensive than in Chiang Rai, by anything up to 50 baht for a big bottle; food was a bit dearer, but not too bad; tourism here was big, with far more westerners than I’d seen before. Fortunately I came across a bright and airy indoor night food market, which was stuffed full of stalls selling a large variety of dishes. I went for a seafood omelette, which was surprisingly big and not very expensive. Some American evangelicals were eating there too, but fortunately seemed to be off duty. I also found a decent bar, with beer at a sensible price. This place had a huge cooler room, full of beers from around the world. It also had a row of about fourteen beer pumps, likewise from around the world, but mostly European lager. A connoisseur could get seriously pie eyed here, and seriously poor too. I got chatting to a couple of ex-military guys, on a tour round the region. We chatted about borders and so on, with them mining my by now extensive knowledge of how, when and where. I also chatted to a German guy who was on a tour round the contents of the beer cooler. A pleasant first night in Chiang Mai then, with hopes for an enjoyable few days to follow.
“Chiang” means Town in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai was established by King Mangrai in 1292 and replaced Chiang Rai as the capital of the Lanna people. It had a much better location than Chiang Rai, being close to several rivers, which provided trade routes. It soon had a moat and a defensive wall around it, mainly to keep out the Mongol hordes. Over the centuries it was occupied, abandoned, re-occupied and deserted due to foreign raiders. It is now the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand and is second in importance only to Bangkok. Testament to its importance over the centuries, it has a dozen Buddhist temples as well as those of the various other religions. Phew! Me and my camera were going to be busy.
I spent some time trying to plan a temple itinerary to cover the next few days. But the first thing I needed to do was to replace my phone battery. In the mall known as Central Plaza was supposed to be a Nokia phone shop, theoretically an ideal place for a Nokia battery. It didn’t exist. I wandered around the various phone stalls, more in hope than expectation. But when I asked at a small, one man stall, I got a result. An hour later I had a phone that now had a flush fitting screen with a battery that no longer got hot when it was charged. I was very happy.
Temples, temples and yet more temples. I selected those I wanted to visit and made plans. Some were outside the city, most were inside it. Do you want to read, in great detail, about each and every one of them? I suspect not. So I’ll focus on the highlights.
I’d seen a very decorative Chinese style temple near the food market. It looked great in the sunlight, with very colourful columns and statues in the grounds. The interior was very red, as they often are. It seems to be a significant colour to the Chinese.
A ride out of town took me to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the area’s most renowned temple. It was halfway up a mountain road, which was a fun ride because the road was nice and wide. It is an extremely decorative place. The three hundred step climb up to the compound was hard work but I made it with only two rest breaks. Was it coincidence or irony that caused the first aid room to be placed right at the top of the steps?
One thing I’ve noticed with Buddhist temple complexes is that there seems to be no organisation, or particular pattern, to the layout of the buildings. There’s always a big, main temple of course, invariably beautifully decorated and invariably the first to be built. But the rest is just a mish-mash of buildings in a random order. It’s the case that buildings are often sponsored by rich adherents so I suppose that accounts for some of the disorder. That being so, this temple certainly had some rich donors. Everything was coloured gold, often gold leaf, and there was a lot of very fine filigree work on some of the objects. It was almost stupefyingly ornate. The buildings were magnificent in their ostentatiousness. It was also stuffed full of tourists, but I was still able to get a good look at, and some nice photos of, everything. There were still plenty of people worshipping too. The view out over Chiang Mai was worth the climb. It’s a very impressive place and I rather liked it.
Further up the same hill, but now on a twisty, narrow road, was the Bhubing Palace, one of the king’s summer residences. Only the gardens were accessible, with much of those closed off anyway. Pretty much a waste of time, I thought. I went to the nearby Hmong village, hoping to see women with their neck rings. Although many of the stallholders were in ethnic dress, there wasn’t a brass ring to be seen. Back to the city then, with thoughts of sustenance.
That came in the form of another visit to the night food market for more tasty, but cheap food. Once fed, I wandered across the road to a different part of the market and as I walked around I heard music coming from an upstairs bar. A band was playing blues so I sat down to enjoy the music and sup a beer. The second band was even better, playing some great tunes really well. I finished the night off at the bar with multi beer taps and enjoyed a very tasty Bavarian lager.
A city day was the next plan. It wasn’t far from my hotel to the city walls, a lot of which has been well preserved and refurbished. I found the Lanna museum and spent an educational few hours in there, learning the history of the city. The King started building on a particularly auspicious day, as determined by the learned ones. He had chosen a good site, it being slightly up above the plain, but close to some swampland, which acted as a very effective water store. His kingdom stretched as far east as Luang Prabang, in Lao, north up into Hill Tribe territory, and a fair way south too. Income came from trading up and down the rivers. They had a decent set of laws, controlling all aspects of trade, family and society in general. Centred on Buddhist teaching, life was well organised, as it usually was in this part of the world. The section on religion stated that there had been twenty eight Buddhas before the current one. Current one? As far as I knew there had only ever been one and he died about 2,500 years ago. Very confusing, but symptomatic of just how many versions of a religion there can be. The Burmese invaded during the 15th century and then hung around for over two hundred years until they were driven out. The city became almost derelict towards the end of that period, but was re-occupied once they’d gone. The museum had everything written in English and was well worth the time spent there.
That evening I walked down towards the night market again but this time turned a different way and found another food area. On the edge of it was a restaurant which had pizza on the menu. I fancied a taste of home so I sat down and ordered. The waitress said there’d be a band coming on in a while. This band played classic rock and heavy metal and were very good at it too. AC/DC, Alice Cooper, and some Pink Floyd for good measure. Fabulous.
Another city day, focused on temples. The most important one is Wat Chedi Luang, built by the king once the city was completed. It’s buildings, stupas and statues are magnificent. All very highly decorated. An older, brick built temple in there reminded me of those I’d seen at Siem Reap. I very much liked the way it had elephants coming out of the walls, looking as if they’d just walked through them. Elephants are a common theme in Buddhism but I don’t think I’d seen them portrayed in this way before now. Nest door was a much more homely temple, built mostly from teak and with a stupa made from wickerwork. A nice counterpoint to all the gold next door, and very much like a parish church next to a cathedral.
I walked around the city walls, just observing city life. At one point I stopped to watch a police check, where they pulled in all the scooters to check their insurance and registration. Strategically placed so there was no escape. A couple more temples were visited on the way back to the hotel. I do rather like the way that all temples are different to each other. Often the style of the main building is similar, but the theme inside tends to vary, as do the stories on the painted panels. That’s what makes them worth a visit. They’re never boring. They’re invariably free to enter and you can take as many photos as you like.
That evening I walked down to a restaurant I’d used a few times but noticed that the place next door had goulash soup on its menu. That’s a very strange dish to find in Thailand so I felt the need to try it. It was both delicious and filling, and I’m glad I chose it. It took me back to my time in Russia. I needed to walk it off so I headed back to the city gate, past all the girlie bars, where I had to fight them off as they tried to pull me – and my wallet – inside. By the gate was a square, filled with the lanterns I’d seen them installing during the day. Now illuminated, it looked fabulous. Plenty of people enjoying the show. This weekend was the Festival of Lanterns, or Loi Krathong, and it was proving very popular. It takes place on the first full moon of November, when people release gondola style lanterns into the night sky. They symbolically carry away all the cares of the previous year and bring good luck. A quick beer on the way back to the hotel, then an early night, demanded by my developing cold.
Chiang Mai had been a fascinating place to visit. It was very busy, not especially cheap, but had a good vibe about it. Plenty to see, good places to eat and drink too. A couple of bars sold imported English beer but my pocket baulked at the prices they charged for it. I passed. I was used to the lager by now so wasn’t fussed. It was great to hear some music, well played too. This is a place very much aimed at the western tourist, of whom there were many. But that gave the city centre a very vibrant feel and a great atmosphere.
While I’d been in Chiang Mai the issue of crossing Myanmar had never been far from my mind. I’d been in regular contact with Steve and Amelia and they had made good progress in arranging a crossing. They were in a small town called Pai, up in the hills to the north. I’d decided to join them so we could talk more easily about final arrangements. The ride up there was good, although on the last stretch, along a twisty and narrow road, I got stuck behind several slow moving cars, unable to overtake. It was, as the saying goes, doing my head in, so I pulled in for some respite. My cold was affecting me so stopping seemed best. Eventually I moved on and reached Pai, where I found the Misty View guesthouse. Steve and Amelia weren’t around so I settled in for a snooze. They came back eventually, we had a chat, then I went back to bed and slept for thirteen hours.I certainly felt better after that. A nearby organic café supplied breakfast then Steve and I discussed arrangements for Myanmar. There were still a few more wrinkles to iron out but he was confident all would be well. He told me a bit about the town and suggested some places to eat for later on. Then I went back to bed for another three hours.
The guesthouse was a little bit out of town and I went for a walk up alongside a small river. I saw signs for the Karen village, another local tribe where the women wear neck rings. They wanted 100 baht to go in but I declined. It really did seem like I’d be visiting a human zoo.
I found a good café on the way back, where I could enjoy coffee and cake, sitting overlooking the rice paddies. It was nice and peaceful and the menu included a tasty looking breakfast. So that was bookmarked for the next morning.
That evening I walked into town to find the street with all the food and bars that Steve had mentioned. I crossed over a river and saw people enjoying the Festival of Lanterns, Pai style, on the bank. They had paper lanterns, which had a little gondola underneath where they would light some kind of fuel. Before long the upward draught was strong enough to lift it into the air whereupon it flew away. There were lots of them and they looked very nice. Much better than the Naga Fireballs, that’s for sure.
Across the bridge I turned into the foodie street and walked along, enjoying a piece of this and a bit of that. I found a bar that had a band playing and enjoyed a beer. It’s a lively scene, very hippy orientated, with lots of vegan and organic eateries. Many of the buildings are made from wood and it all looks very laid back and easy on the eye. Loads of young westerners, and more dreadlocks and man buns than you could shake a joss stick at. But a good vibe in a very peaceful place.
We departed next day, separately. They run a business even though they’re on the road. Therefore they often have to ‘meet’ people over Skype at certain times, which removes some of their flexibility. I left ahead of them and rode to a small town where Amelia had pinned down a nice looking guesthouse. The elderly woman who ran it was really pleasant. She made me fruit tea and fed me bananas. Steve and Amelia had chosen to ride a back country route, barely showing on the map, which had included about 50kms of tough dirt road. Once I’d heard their story my elbow and I were quite pleased to have travelled the easy route. I’d spotted an organic restaurant on the way in so we walked down there, only to find it shut. So we dined on everybody’s Asian fallback of noodle soup.
Today’s plan was to find a guesthouse not far from Mai Sai, the border town. Once again, I left first, after we’d been to the organic restaurant for one of the best cooked English breakfasts I’d had in a long time. As I rode across country I could see the look of the people changing, in the same way they had in Pai. The temples changed too, looking far more Chinese in style. I’d told Steve and Amelia about the Tham Luang cave, and how close it was to our route, so they planned to visit on the way. We’d meet at wherever I found to stay the night.
As I neared the destination I stopped to check the map and the bike stalled. It wouldn’t start, no battery power. I have one of those jump starter packs so I used that, got the bike running and crossed the dual carriageway. I rode a bit further down and the bike stopped again. Dead battery. Did I have charging problems or was it the battery? A local guy on a bike stopped to help and took me to a nearby shop where I was able to buy a new one. He took me back again too. How kind. The new battery worked, of course, but I still didn’t know what was wrong – and, in a strange way, didn’t really want to. We were due to cross the border the next day so I assumed it was a faulty battery and made my way to the guesthouse. The others arrived soon after. They’d been to the cave but it was closed. They hadn’t spotted the visitor centre so we planned to go back there in the morning. I was keen to see the actual cave entrance, which had been closed off last time.
After breakfast we rode up to the cave. We were able to go up to the entrance this time, and just inside the mouth of the cave, but that was all. It was well lit up but it still created an eerie feeling as the stairs went down to where we could see the narrow passageway disappearing into the gloom. I could see how the sense of the cave closing in on you would be easily brought on as you wound your way deeper inside. We went up to the visitor centre where Steve and Amelia were fascinated by the whole thing. I was glad I went back for a second look. I’ve found myself to be gripped my the whole event, both emotionally and technically. It’s a truly amazing story.
We soon arrived at the Mai Sai border and parked up the bikes while we attended to some business. I needed some money to pay for the trip, Steve and Amelia needed to get some printing done and get money as well. It wasn’t long before our guide Soe turned up,along with his brother and a Myanmar tourist policemen. After we’d said hello I did the political thing by giving them some money to go and get coffee. We were soon ready and I remembered that although I’d crossed plenty of borders recently, it had been well over a year since I’d crossed an unfamiliar one. We girded up our administrative loins and headed out to do battle.