Saturday, April 25, 2009

chiang mai

Though our excuse for visiting was the riotous Songkran festival (see below), which of all Thailand reaches its peak in this city, I would have been delighted to choose Chiang Mai as a Thai holiday destination at any time of the year. The small, leafy, walled city nestled into an accommodating mountain plateau is much more my style than the sprawl and bustle of Bangkok. Where Bangkok boasts of food and traffic and nightlife, Chiang Mai’s claims to fame are scores of temple/monastery compounds (‘wats’); pervasive 13-19th C Lanna-style architecture and artifacts, which I would inexpertly describe as ‘Thai Gothic’; the cultural presences of hill tribe traditions such as Hmung embroidery and Karen weaving; its beautiful cooling mountain setting; and various treks and sports adventures thereof, from hiking to elephant riding.

This is only a very new reputation, though. From the 1100s on, Chiang Mai was best known as a key crossroad along the China to Indian Ocean land trade route, then later as a regional producer of valuable crafts and opium to contribute to that trade. As the city coalesced, it became notable for its defensible city walls and moat, as well as for being a hotbed of Theravadan Buddhist theological discourse and devotion. All of these factors are still quite present in the city today. Though opium is theoretically not grown in Thailand any more thanks to an aggressive crop-replacement campaign led by the Thai government, monarchy, and the CIA, combined with the threat of execution for non-compliance, most people in the city seemed to hint that this laudable official story and the realities of transitional and supplementary agricultural incomes don’t entirely correspond. There certainly did seem to be more affluent farmers and more highly-mellowed revelers than could easily be explained otherwise.

The Chiang Mai region showed itself in its best light when we got out of the city, which we did for a majority of our days there. On our second day, I took off mountain biking with one of Petra’s Australian colleagues, Katie. We were driven to the top of the predominant mountain range that forms Chiang Mai’s horizon, and were led by a local guy on a hair-raising but gorgeous and exhilarating vertical romp on dirt paths down through the jungle and occasional isolated rice and coffee fields of the mountain villages. It was hands down the most difficult biking I’ve ever done, but successfully completing the route with only one deep bruise and in time for dinner made me inordinately proud.

On another day, we foraged out with some Canadians we’d met in town and with them rode elephants through a valley, hiked up through a lightly-inhabited jungle to a waterfall, at pad thai off banana leaves, and rafted down a river that was much more placid than its “white-water’ marketing had suggested. As it was still Songkran, all of the valley’s inhabitants were picnicking along the riverbanks, with hundreds of kids and teenagers bobbing around in inner tubes or just floating along with the current. This made navigating our raft much more difficult than usual: we had water in our eyes nearly constantly from the Songkran-splashing gauntlet, and had to avoid running over people, and had to fend off boarders. At one point, so many kids were hanging off our bow line that we stopped dead in the middle of the river.

On a more sedate note, we hired a funny little pickup truck (‘songtaw’) another day to drive us to some of the out-of-the-way temples and ruins that surround Chiang Mai, and later to a crafts show where local artisans hand-make enamelware, weavings, and the like. I especially liked seeing how they took bamboo strips and tree sap and a bit of gold leaf and turned it into a truly lovely bowl.

All in all, an exhausting but lovely visit to northern Thailand.

Note: more photos, from the cameras of our fellow travellers, hopefully coming soon.

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