*This post was originally published on October 25th, 2011 on amywarcup.com
After two days of being in Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, I am experiencing a true taste of the authentic culture and history of this lovely country. Chiang Mai means “New City,” and it is located in the foothills of northern Thailand. The feeling of this city is a drastic contrast to Thailand’s most populous Bangkok. Chiang Mai’s current population lingers around 174,000 people (unlike the near 12 million in Bangkok). Of course, this number does not take into account the estimated two million tourists that meander around the city each year. Even the tourists seem different here, though, giving off a much more “earthy” and laid-back vibe. Overall, my observation during my two days here is that Chiang Mai is a slower-paced city in general. People take their time walking, eating, bringing the bill to the table at the end of a meal, etc. This was definitely not my experience in Bangkok, although I’ve developed a certain fondness for the raw brazenness and energy of Bangkok.
If Bangkok is the most exciting place I’ve visited on this journey so far, and Koh Samui the most scenically beautiful, then Chiang Mai wins for being the most culturally enriching. There is a tremendously broad array of activities one can partake in while visiting this relatively small city. For a spiritual journey, one can spend days visiting Buddhist Wats (temples.) There are 300 temples in Chiang Mai. For the food lover, there are literally dozens of cooking schools one may attend, ranging from one-day courses to week long intensives and more. Elephant and Tiger sanctuaries exist both within the city limits and in the surrounding areas, and luxurious spas, wellness centers and Thai massage abound here. Markets are scattered in every corner for shopping, and the textiles and artwork here is the best I’ve seen since my arrival. Experienced Thailand tourists that I’ve met in Bangkok and Samui cautioned me to wait until visiting Chiang Mai before buying too many gifts, and I’m glad I listened. Hillside tribe handicrafts, bead work, soap carvings, and celadon ceramics are everywhere, and I’ve only begun to explore the city.
My stay in Chiang Mai will span a month. My primary goal is to attend the Shivagakormapaj School of Traditional Thai Massage, known as the “Old Medicine Hospital.” I will start classes this Saturday, and will continue with classes daily for the following two and a half weeks. Thai Foot Massage will be my first course, followed by classes in traditional Thai massage techniques. I will also be meeting with administrators at the school to organize the student Thai massage travel course, which is being planned for next summer.
I must admit that it was challenging to pull away from the breathtakingly magnificent beaches and inspiring conversations at Samahita Yoga Thailand in south Samui. People from around the globe seek refuge in this glorious gem. One of my favorite aspects, as I’ve mentioned previously, was talking to the people there. We had an opportunity to break away from the retreat center grounds on our final night to converse informally.
I am making good use of my time this week in Chiang Mai. Choosing the right guesthouse for the student trip next summer is a priority to me, and I’ve spent the past few days visiting a total of 16 guesthouses to date. I am currently staying in the simple but quaint Mountain View Guesthouse, which is located in the north end of “old town.” Though it is lovely here, it is far away from the Old Medicine Hospital, so I am exploring options. Far is relative, however. It only takes about a half hour to reach the south end of town on foot, and tuk-tuks and taxis are everywhere. The task of looking at guest houses has been more difficult than expected, though. Finding that perfect balance between economical and comfortable is a challenge. Four and five star hotels here can be just as expensive as fancy hotels in the states cost, and offer more amenities than necessary. One could easily stay in Chiang Mai on 10 dollars a night, too, but this will likely mean staying in a next-to-bare un-air-conditioned room without hot water, that may not lock well and possibly even have dirty sheets, as I’ve seen in some. As the cliché states, sometimes you do get what you pay for. The search will likely continue for the duration of my stay.
Tomorrow, however, I shall break from my search to attend an all-day cooking course at the Thai Farm Cooking School. This school is located on a farm in Chiang Mai’s countryside, and includes a tour of their garden to pick the herbal ingredients for the dishes. So, food shall be the topic of my next post. I recommend ordering take-out from your favorite local Thai restaurant to enjoy while reading. Otherwise, expect to be ravenous afterward.