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Chiang Mai


"Every country needs to have a hippie hangout.  Chiang Mai, with its hills, hill tribes, and opium just over the border in Myanmar, has sought to fill that niche."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


Chiang Mai as a place to get away from it all dates back at least until the 1970's, as far as I know.  All the classic ingredients were present: mountains, sunsets, a laid back life style.  Just bring the drugs and out-of-tune guitar!

I first visited Thailand in 1994 on a larger trip through Southeast Asia.   I came in July and then returned in October.  I happened to meet a Japanese man in Indonesia, journeyed to Singapore with him, and we decided to meet up again at a pre-arranged place in Bangkok on an appointed date.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  We had to pre-arrange any meeting and could not easily alter those arrangements in that era pre-dating widespread e-mail and cell phones.

Chiang Mai

Primitively protecting myself from the the squirt guns and water buckets during Songkran in Chiang Mai

This Japanese man had a Japanese friend working in Chiang Mai, and we journeyed up there in early November 1994 to stay at his friend's house. The Japanese friend had a live-in Thai lover he later impregnated. 

The friend's house was about a fifteen minute ride from central Chiang Mai, the inner city surrounded on four sides by walls.  There were no fancy shopping malls or heavily trafficked streets at that time. 

Skip ahead almost 14 years to June 2008 when I returned to Chiang Mai with my father.  Chiang Mai had modernized and expanded far beyond the inner city, and there was bumper to bumper traffic.  What the hell had happened?

In a nutshell, exactly what had happened to Vietnam since 1994.  In 1995, The Four Seasons opened up north of Chiang Mai.  Other five star luxury accommodation followed.   With luxury accommodation possibilities abundant, Grandpa and Grandma from Europe could now show up.   Strait-laced daddy, mommy, and the three kids could show up.  Package tourists could show up. 

Previously, with USD 5 per night guesthouses growing like weeds, Chiang Mai had been the domain of the backpacker.    They came to live a slice of the hippie lifestyle in the north and sign up for an obligatory jungle trek.    With the likes of the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi and Shangri-La around to provide a bed for the night, jungle treks aren't limited to the penny-pinching backpacker anymore. 

   
Why Show Up?

Time waits for no man.   It hasn't waited for Chiang Mai.   It has undergone, though on a much smaller scale, what I call the stripmallization that has made one American state and city look much like any other.  Many of the quaint local businesses have given way to Starbucks and Boots franchises. 

But this is Thailand, where consolidation and standardization aren't as efficient as they would be in America.  Chiang Mai as a town still look very unique.  Old Lanna architectural buildings and plentiful temples remain.   (Wat Phrathat) Doi Suthep is probably the best known and can be seen from Chiang Mai 15 km away.

Doi Suthep Huay Tong Panviman
Getting around Chiang Mai:  smiling like a hotshot at one of Chiang Mai's best known temples, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (left);  asking instructions on a disastrous bike trip in the small village of Huay Tong outside Chiang Mai (middle); meditating at the Panviman in the mountains north of Chiang Mai (right)

Backpackers loved it, initially, because it was cheap.   There's been price creep all around Thai lately, but overall, for a city of this size and as well touristed as this one, with an estimated 5m visitors a year, prices remain low.  USD 4-5 guesthouses exist.   Cheap cafes can be found everywhere.   A plethora of vegetarian restaurants cater to hippies, New Age-ists, and everyone in between.  For many, the charms of Chiang Mai are that it's a biggish city with biggish city delights, but it ain't Bangkok.    

One thing it has in common nowadays with Bangkok is air pollution, unfortunately.  More vehicles on the roads and more congestion haven't helped.  It's doubtful many of these vehicles would meet California-state emission standards.  Burning off weeds and other undergrowth in the mountains, however, is the main contributor.  With Chiang Mai being located at the bottom of a bowl, with the sides being the mountains, the pollution sets in and brings with it eventual respiratory problems.  For the moment, Chiang Mai can still bask in its hippie image of clean, fresh air alongside the mountains, although it's far from true.

Outside Chiang Mai are plentiful opportunities for motorbike or bike trips.   Bring a medical ventilator machine for your lungs to deal with the pollution.     
Lahu dance  Elephant Nature Park  Muang On  Panviman Chiang Mai 
Doug whips out the film camera in Chiang Mai and its environs:   (left) a bogus Lahu dance that's as authentic as William Shatner's toupee; (middle left) Doug getting intimate with protected elephants at a nature park; (middle right) Muang On Cave, where Buddha lost or perhaps donated the last of his scalp hair; (right) Doug offering a tour of his northern Thailand digs.    

JUNGLE TREKKING
Jungle trekking goes on unabated, and I read somewhere that these two, three, and four days treks, with hilltribe homestays, were the #1 draw for the backpacker.   Tourists prove themselves just as naive post 2010 as they did in 1994.   I must've heard from over a dozen trekkers in both time periods how their guide was special and took them to jungle villages rarely seen by other trekkers.  These are the same trekkers who'll be falling for Thailand's notorious gem scams.

Keren villageIn some sense of the word, the hilltribe villages which see the onslaught of tourist backpacker traffic are little more than low-rent theme parks surviving on the money dished out to them from the agencies for the homestays plus the tacky souvenirs they sell to the gawking backpacker.  With widespread deforestation in the hilltribe villages, the trekking tours have become the hilltribe meal ticket.   There are literally hilltribe parks set up.  One I visited with my father had a sort of Epcot Center-theme going with the Keren in one section, the Akha in another, the Lahu doing dances they thought we tourists expected to see in still another, and the Lisu and Hmong in still others.  In reality, these different hilltribes wouldn't be living 'down the street' from each other. 

Should you not do a hilltribe trek or tour because your presence is degrading their way of life?  In answer to that, I'd say that most tourists probably couldn't care less about their environmental and cultural impact, either in Thailand or in their homelands.  And the other consideration is that if you take a stand and don't go on a tour for what you could call ethical reasons, plenty of other backpackers will, and the damage will still be done.   Fifty percent of hilltribe villagers lack Thai citizenship.  Those that do but who haven't fully integrated themselves into Thai society are second class citizens.  I'd say you might as well go on that low cost trek.  Treat it as a way to get in shape and see some beautiful scenery vs getting a genuine slice of culture in Thailand.

Massage Courses
You can do massage courses in Bangkok as well, but it seems when I run into foreign masseurs/masseuses who've undertaken some massage education in Thailand, it's always in Chiang Mai.  The Thai Massage School claims to have taught 10,000 foreigners; less than a quarter of their total graduates are Thai.  The International Training Massage School attracts a lot of Japanese.  A five-day 30 hour course currently runs 5,000-6,000 baht.  That's not bad.  An opulent three-hour spa treatment could cost almost that much.

I suspect that Chiang Mai has become a massage mecca in Thailand because the cost of living can be significantly lower than Bangkok and it's easier to get around.   Students can book longer term accommodation near the school easier here than they could if they did a course in Bangkok. 

Cooking Courses
cooking course
Chiang Mai has no exclusive right to Thai cooking schools either.   You can go do a Thai cooking course anywhere in Thailand today.   I don't know if Chiang Mai is where the first Thai cooking course was ever conducted, but Chiang Mai is where they started to become popular in the late 1990's.  I first heard about them when a cousin of mine came back from Thailand on his honeymoon in 1999.  They did a Thai cooking course . . . in Chiang Mai.   Thereafter, everyone was doing them . . . in Chiang Mai. 

The reason they may have thrived in Chiang Mai is the same reasons massage courses do.   The cost of living in Chiang Mai is cheap, so foreign tourists hang out for long periods of time and want activities to fill the void. 

All the basic level Thai cooking courses are the same.   You pay for a half day or full day and cook 6-8 common Thai dishes.  The day starts out with you and the other tour participants going to the market to source the produce.  This is fun the first or second time.  By your third cooking course, you already know what galangal, lemongrass, and Thai eggplants look like.

Would I recommend you do a cooking course?  Why are you listening to me!   A cooking course is an experience.  Why not?  To most though, it's just another tourist attraction to mark off the checklist.  I only know of two people, besides myself, who continued to cook Thai food at home after completing a course.  Try to think of it more as a foray into Thai cuisine.  

I've done a few cooking courses in Thailand, one in Vietnam, and one in Cambodia.   I've always enjoyed cooking this type of food.  Ironically, now that I live in this part of the world, I don't typically cook this cuisine when I can go out on the streets and pick it up cheap.  Instead, I cook harder to find or more expensive foods, like pasta or couscous.  I intended at one point to do a one month intensive cooking course in Chiang Mai.  Then I went to Hua Hin and my entire life course was altered. 

Here's my one simple recommendation for choosing where to do your cooking course, whether you do it in Chiang Mai or elsewhere: make sure the establishment offering the course has a restaurant and try the food first!   If the restaurant's food isn't good, why would you want to take a course from them?  This is how I chose my cooking schools in Thailand.  In Vietnam and Cambodia at the time, there was only one place I found offering cooking courses, so my eat before you enroll approach broke down.     

The north is a different place entirely, and I think no trip to Thailand is really complete unless you get your ass up here and sample it. 


 

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Innovative Internet Secrets

  Chiang Mai in Thailand offers a cooking course, a massage course, and the jungle trek thing. Want to see a hilltribe or two? See Lanna architecture.