As I clambered out of the sleeper train onto the busy platform in Chiang Mai station I had my fingers metaphorically crossed that the city would be all that Bangkok was not; pretty, friendly, authentic and welcoming. But most of all I hoped the hotel, and its pristine toilet with reams of luxury toilet paper, was not too far away, and that they would let us check in despite it being only 8 a.m. The sleeper trains conveniences were exactly what you conjure in your mind’s eye when you visualise a moving loo, servicing hundreds of travellers over a 12 hour period. Even those with the best aim or ability to perform a perfect hovering pee couldn’t help but contribute to the slick on the cubicle floor whilst being rattled along on the route north. It took all my will power and pelvic floor control to wait until we arrived at our destination before tending to my morning ablutions. That said, the rest of the sleeper train experience was pleasant enough; lots of room to stretch out and rest, if not actually sleep.
Arriving in Chiang Mai city I immediately knew it would be a good stay. The staff at the hotel let us dump our bags and help ourselves to hot tea and bananas. We then wandered around the city until our room was ready (8 a.m. was a little too early after all). The old town is surrounded neatly by a square moat, around which a steady stream of traffic pootles and over which there are several bridges, allowing you to access the smaller roads and narrow soi’s (lanes) that are lined with homestays, hostels, hotels, cafés and restaurants. There are also a good spattering of laundries, art shops and book shops. I was glad we were booked here for 5 nights. I knew there would be lots of exploring to be done.
Over the next 5 days we discovered that you can wander around this city and find something new round every corner; a temple, a river, a market selling beautiful looking fruits and bugs and BBQ’d meats on small sticks all for the tasting. After several nights attending different bars in the what we thought was the hub of the nightlife in Chiang Mai we accidentally stumbled across a whole area full of bars and clubs just around the corner from a quiet little café where we’d eaten dinner. Had we not ambled in that direction to walk off our meal we would never have found it; a quadrant of venues blasting out electronic dance music and a vast assembly of Thai locals, lady boys, travellers and holiday makers. Whilst we were partaking in a gin and tonic or two, a couple of young Thai ladies, excited to see us, came bounding over. “Remember us from the hotel ? It’s our night off, let’s party!” And so it was, the lovely, polite, respectful girls from the hotel reception were letting their hair down, so we joined them. They shared their tips on how to get rid of unwanted attention, ” Just say you’re a lady boy” and how to flirt with the barman to get a larger drink. At 12 midnight the shutters come down, the lights go on and everyone is asked to leave. The town has a midnight curfew which is being strictly enforced at the moment, much to my delight (a self confessed Cinderella) and much to the disgust of my night owl fella. Despite his best efforts to find a late night bar, we have yet to stay out beyond 1 a.m. Everyone piles out of the club and tuk tuk drivers and taxi men heckle for your business. At the fellas behest one tuk tuk driver dutifully took us to the only place he knew that was still open; an establishment that had beautiful scantily clad ladies come and meet you off your ride and escort you, literally, into the glowing red door of their workplace. We immediately clocked it for what it was and clambered back onto the motorbike taxi, admitted defeat and headed home, with perhaps a wistful over the shoulder glance from the fella. He could’ve got a beer in there.
The people in Chiang Mai have been very friendly, super respectful (in some restaurants literally kneeling at your feet to take your order) and keen to tell you about their life in the city. Apparently some 1 million people live in and around the city, although it certainly doesn’t feel anywhere near this number when you’re mooching around the town and its lanes. There are a lot of markets in Chiang Mai; night markets, walking markets, flea markets, clothes markets, veg and flower markets. Despite this I saw not one rat. After my time in Vietnam I now have a well trained eye for the little critters and not one have I seen as yet. I have always felt safe walking round the city, even at night and the affable “Oh!” shouted by the red truck taxi drivers followed by a friendly poop poop of their horn has always made me feel I can quickly and easily get home should I not feel like wandering down a particular street.
Outside the moat of the old town is a sprawling city with big stores, garages, businesses, workshops and industry. We drove though this on our way south west of the city to enjoy trekking with elephants, bamboo rafting and hiking, with the promise of a swim in a waterfall plunge pool at the end of the day. I was disappointed with the lack of information about the elephants, how they were cared for and trained and what, if any, of the money we paid for the trip went towards their keep and conservation. Having spent a guilty half hour on the back of one of these beautiful beasts I pledged I would never ride on one again, and also to do more research for any future day trips. The bamboo rafting and hiking were a fun way to spend an afternoon, and I felt truly honoured to have been able to spend time with the elephants, and walk through the village of the local people living in this region of north Thailand. The rafting left me soaked to the skin as we were literally sitting in the water on these low floating vessels. Not knowing that this would be the case, I had not bought spare clothes with me for the return journey. I fashioned a very fetching skirt out of a purple travel towel to ride home in the minibus comfortably, unaware that we would be going into a small roadside restaurant for a meal before we arrived back in Chiang Mai; another bonkers tourist for the locals to laugh at.
So today has seen us planning our onward travels and I’m pleased to say, the only direct flight to Luang Prabang in Laos is not for another 2 days. After a few hours researching buses, taxis and trains into Vientiane and surrounding areas we have extended our stay in Chiang Mai to wait for the direct flight. We will have been in this relaxed town for a whole week by the time we leave and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it charming company. I will spend the next 48 hours finding a laundry to ensure I arrive in Laos with a fresh stash of clothes (there’s only so many times you can wash your smalls in the sink), and wandering around its lanes and markets wondering what is round the next corner with a grin upon my face; my my Chiang Mai, what a lovely surprise.