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Changing Attitudes in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Jan. 18 – Jan. 25, 2013

masked policeman controls traffic during a typical afternoon in Chaing Mai

After a mellow and spiritually uplifting couple of days in the nearly 800-year-old city of old Sukhothai, arriving in Chiang Mai was a bit of a shock. While we were certainly aware things had changed since our memorable first visit in 1989, when we had traveled here from Bangkok (a slow, hot, long train ride) with Chris’s mom Ange, merely travelling the short distance from the train station to our hotel revealed how incredibly busy the city had become. No longer a peaceful haven from loud, busy, polluted Bangkok, it seemed that “progress” and tourism had turned this northern hill tribe centre into a smaller version of the capital.

close call on our train from Sukhathai

Our spirits sank, especially as the nearly 10-hour train ride here from Sukhathai had exactly been a picnic: cramped, slow, dirty, cock roach invested, and it even caught on fire about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai! Fortunately, no one was hurt and there was no structural damage as the fire started underneath the carriage of one of the cars. No bus or other alternative transport was provided; we were all loaded back on and the train carried on.

After surviving this daylong ordeal, the rather dark, musty room we had booked in the Rainforest Hotel did not impress us. Luckily a much more inviting and larger room, right by the pool was available even though we had arrived at 11:30 at night. We decided the extra cost (only $65 a night including a breakfast buffet – just $20 more than the first room) was definitely worth it. We had worked far too hard to get here, both literally and figuratively (2012 had been a whirlwind of writing, publishing and selling our latest book) to settle for a second rate room, especially as we planned to stay a week.

$65 / night including breakfast!

Rainforest Boutique Hotel – a mini oasis from hustle, bustle and crowds of Chaing Mai

The hotel was down a skinny, sparsely populated road well off a busy, noisy street so we anticipated that it would be a bit of an oasis. While there was no rainforest, (perhaps there had been once upon a time), there were still some nice tall palm trees and exotic flowering shrubs on the grounds and plenty of birds singing at dawn.

The pounding of the pile drivers started at 9 a.m. It seemed a large cleared parcel of land behind the hotel was being prepared for some type of structure. The hotel shook every few seconds as the pile driver made contact. This went on all day until 5pm and then started up again, the next morning despite it being Sunday!

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We evacuated for several hours on both days to explore the old city and to get away from this assault on our frayed nerves. While bursting with great restaurants and cheap and delicious street food, and there is plenty of great shopping to be had, as well as gorgeous golden temples on almost every other block, Chiang Mai was jammed with cars, trucks, motorcycles, tuk tuks, taxis and songthaews (like a taxi pick up truck).

Golden Thai temple against a clear blue sky in the old city of Chaing Mai

The noise and fumes were ridiculous. Trying to cross some of the streets- lined with ugly concrete buildings that could all use a fresh coat of paint – was slow, dangerous and headache inducing. To return to the echoes of pile driver pounding at our hotel was such a let down! Even swimming in the pool couldn’t calm our jangled nerves what with that cacophony going on 200 meters away. (If we were drinkers, copious amounts of alcohol might have done the trick but we weren’t going there.)

Fearing the construction would continue the rest of our time there Chris and I debated moving to a quieter hotel, but as we had pre-paid we assumed it would be difficult to get reimbursed, (things ARE different here in Thailand) so we decided to stick it out.

Waking up on Monday was another world entirely. As 9 am came and went with just the sounds of birdcalls, tinkling silverware in the outdoor restaurant and splashing pool water as it cascade into a lower level, the difference was palpable. We could feel ourselves visibly relax as every hour of peace and quiet went by. But was this respite merely the eye of the hurricane?

Fortunately, it was not. To add to what had mercifully become our little slice of paradise we met a very interesting family also staying at the hotel. Ben and Carla were traveling from London, England for seven months with their 8-year-old daughter, Evie. Ben’s mom Jane had joined them in Bangkok and was accompanying them on their journey through Thailand. We enjoyed many meals and conversations with the foursome as well as several jaunts into the old city to bargain hunt in the incredible night market – a virtual shoppers’ paradise that springs up along several blocks every afternoon and continues until after midnight. The throngs of tourists were a bit daunting however and it was a bit of a challenge navigating the narrow sidewalk between the stalls. Shopping at night was like a contact sport!

night market crowds

It seemed the gods were now smiling on us in Chiang Mai despite the rocky start. Or maybe Ange, who could no longer accompany us on our journeys as she had passed away last summer, had played some part in ensuring our time here would be nearly as memorable as before. While we weren’t interested in taking any excursions to see silk being made or tigers being petted (!) that was just fine with us.

On lengthy trips travel is a continuous process of coming and going, of vanishing and reappearing. During our global backpacking journey from 1986-87, Chris and I also learned that travel is more than the destination, it’s the people you meet along the way. Having to say goodbye to them would feel so final. Today, while it’s always sad to leave new friends, thanks to the Internet and Facebook, they never really get left behind.

last supper with new friends Jane, Ben, Clara and Evie

Our next appearance: Koh Maak in eastern Thailand, near the border of Cambodia.

 

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