"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."
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
Thai Massage School claims to have taught 10,000
foreigners; less than a quarter of their total graduates are
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 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.