Turning on her quiet charm: Chiang Mai

Nestled in the northern mountains of Thailand is the provincial city of Chiang Mai. From an infamous history involving battles and total abandonment (I read this here), the city has today become a favourite for many tourists, including me! It was during a ten-day trip to Thailand, as part of my international Social Work exposure, that I visited Chiang Mai. Although I spent only 3 days there, I fell deeply in love with the city the moment I set foot in her beautiful railway station. So, let me start from there.

We (my classmates and I) reached Chiang Mai in a purple and silver train from Bangkok city, stepped out to see pigeons hopping around on the tracks, and life-size statues of baby elephants flanking the boards that announced our arrival at the destination. Moving out, we found ourselves “awwing” at the tiny fountains, sculptures and gardens that decorated the front of the station. The time we spent waiting for our pick-ups were well-spent; my classmates ran to different cute corners and posed for pictures, while I just stood there and soaked up the view, taking pictures in my mind’s eye and saving them somewhere in the bottom of my soul. You can’t blame us Indians for enjoying a clean, well-maintained railway station without the smells we usually associate with it, can you?

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This picture was clicked just before our journey back to Bangkok

While the capital city of Bangkok offers a humid, tropical feel and a thumping, bustling ambiance, her northern counterpart, Chiang Mai offers us a cooler, quieter experience of Thailand. Our stay was arranged at the Payap University for the duration of our visit, and the view from my hostel room was just spectacular – replete with fluorescent green lawns, ornamental trees, and a stream (visual reference: the featured image!). We thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful campus, with trips in the “Sky Blues”, which are battery-operated carts that can easily seat over 10 people. At Payap, we also had the opportunity to interact with students, travel with them to their service learning project at a day-care for senior citizens, and watch a grand theatrical performance of ‘Likhay’, the traditional form of dance-drama of the Thais. If you are looking for a learning experience abroad, I recommend that you consider Payap’s International University. For more information on the University, check out their website.

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That’s me riding a ‘Sky Blue’ at Payap University

Chiang Mai is hottest in April with an average temperature of 30 degree Celsius, and coolest in December with a pleasant average of 22 degree Celsius. Since we were there in the first week of December, we were lucky enough to enjoy the best weather conditions that Chiang Mai had to offer! Between midnight and early morning, the temperature would dip to about 17-18 degrees, and it had us Chennai people pull out our comforters and shrugs! The most enjoyable part of the weather was definitely in the early hours of the day, when the air was crisp and refreshing.

As we were on a tight schedule, our days began early, so we picked up breakfast on-the way from a conveniently-located 7-Eleven. Then again, aren’t all 7-Elevens conveniently-located? A lot of us survived the trip only because of these helpful departmental stores which supplied us with sandwiches and other packaged meals when our tongues and stomachs were too overwhelmed by the flavours of Thai cuisine. Moreover, we just loved our take away cold-coffees which we sipped at for hours (thanks to all the slow-melting ice cubes), making us feel very Hollywood – we just don’t do on-the-go coffees so much in India. We had lunch and dinner outside, mostly sponsored by the hospitable people we met.

As students of Social Work, our primary visits were to non-profit organisations while in Chiang Mai. However, our evenings were dedicated to sightseeing and shopping! Yippie! When in Thailand, remember to wait till the late evenings to start your shopping. I won’t blame you from staring starry-eyed at the hi-tech malls and their dazzling displays (this happens mostly in Bangkok), but don’t give in to the temptation! The best places to shop, anywhere in Thailand, are the Night Markets when seemingly ordinary streets and sidewalks transform into hot shopping destinations. Everything from food to souvenirs to gadgets are available in these markets.

We visited many of these markets while in Bangkok, but in Chiang Mai, we chose to visit the Sunday Market at the Walking Street (Ratchadamnoen Road). As the name suggests, this street is closed to vehicular traffic (on Sundays), so you can enjoy the kilometre-long stretch of goodies! You have enough time to browse through everything in the market because this market is open from 4pm to about midnight.The only problem, though, is that this extremely famous market is crammed – with locals and tourists alike. However, if you are determined enough, you can make it through the entire stretch and pick up something exquisite, hand-crafted by the local artisans of Northern Thailand. Here are a few other Walking Street experiences you can try while in Chiang Mai.

No trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to a Buddhist Temple so we chose to visit one while in Chiang Mai. The Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, about 15kms outside the city, is located on the Doi Suthep hill. It is a stunning monument, gleaming in gold, and elevated on a hillock. You need to scale 309 steps to reach the top of this hillock and into the chambers of the temple. There is an alternate route, though – the tourist sites I read (prior to the trip) called it a cable car, which mislead some of us to pay extra for a ride up. Unfortunately, it was just a normal elevator and we were disappointed!

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Picture taken with my phone’s camera – no filters or editing

The temple visit was, to me, a glimpse into the traditions of the Buddhists. Although several of these temples have now turned into tourist destinations more than places of worship, they still maintain an aura of reverence. At the Wat we visited, soft Buddhist chants could be heard inside the otherwise quiet chambers. This is where you can find more on this temple.

Another highlight of the Doi Suthep hills is the tribal village of Doi Pui Hmong. The journey to this place is a wonderful experience in itself, if you can handle a few hours on the road in a Songthaew (a cousin of the Phillipino jeepney, with the functionality of a Chennai share auto). We were a group of 22, so we hired two Songthaews and spent the drive time either singing or being awestruck by the most spectacular uphill journey. One of my friends from Meghalaya in India was exclaiming how very much the place resembled her hometown!

The village of Doi Pui has the cutest children, all dressed in black and pink traditional attire with silver embellishments. So cute that I wanted to stay back just to have a baby there! The women folk are also traditionally dressed, and they sell several of their hand-crafted products in this village; very beautiful to look at, touch and admire – too expensive to buy! Still, I managed to buy a chic silver necklace and an exquisite silver bracelet while I was there. No regrets! There is also a small museum in the village, where we learnt about the history, traditions and lifestyle of the Hmong tribals. Beyond the museum is a beautiful field of flowers. Opium poppy is also rumoured to be growing in this garden. More on the Hmong tribe and the Doi Pui village which relies on tourism for its livelihood can be found here.

My trip to Chiang Mai also took me to the best place I’ve ever been to in all my life: the Buathong waterfall! It only seemed right to save the best for the last part of this post because, after all, I don’t want many people to know about it. The fact that this place is not teeming with tourists makes it more than just a beautiful experience, but also a quiet and peaceful one. The serenity of the place is only the bonus,though! The real deal is that the waterfall is trekkable! Yes, you read that right – you can take a flight of wooden stairs down to the bottom of the waterfall and then trek back along the gushing white water, all without any climbing or trekking gear! It seems like magic, but it is really just limestone, which assures a very comfortable, no-slip experience. That is why the Buathong waterfall is also famously known as the “sticky waterfall”. For directions on how to get there (and more), please check this page.

Being the sightseeing committee convener, I also managed to wander around a little in the area, accompanied by a friend, in search of a rumoured natural colour-changing fountain. I didn’t find the fountain, but I did find a wooden pathway leading to a perfectly-secluded picnic spot, right in the lap of Mother Nature.

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Offbeat pathway in the vicinity of Buathong waterfall

That’s all we had time for during our 3-day trip to charming Chiang Mai, but I am determined to go back one day for a longer trip. I am sure Chiang Mai has many such unexplored/less-explored wonders which cannot be found in any tourist guidebook/site waiting to be found by those who dare to wander! 😉

**more photos coming soon**

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