Chiang Mai: Adventures in Northern Thailand’s Culture Capital

Well I left this blog post to the last minute because I’ve been too busy doing romantic things with Jeyn for our one year anniversary.

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And now it’s nearly one in the morning, and I’m a bit tipsy, we need to get up early in the morning and tonight is the last chance I’ll get to write about this before I get properly stuck into enjoying our new city, Hua Hin. But I can’t let our Chiang Mai experience breeze by without scribbling down some of the highlights, for posterity. So please excuse the roughness of this post. The very short version is, I love Chiang Mai, and like Ayutthaya I think I could happily live there.

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I’d probably prefer a slightly less-pink house though.

I really dropped the ball in Chiang Mai when it came to taking photos. I don’t know if this was straight laziness or if it was because we spent more of the daylight hours in our hotel room resting and then escaped for late nights out on the town in the dark neon lit streets – dark streets that pushed the limits of my cameras low light capabilities. It was probably mostly laziness. Also while Chiang Mai had many beautiful temples, more than 300 hundred actually, there is a point in travelling through Thailand that the temples become less exciting, and I suppose it happened about three weeks in for us. When you’ve seen so many stunning gold covered spires and intricately illustrated walls it becomes more everyday, no less spectacular, but just something normal. That response in our brain fades, the reaction that prompts us to grab the camera when we see an ancient Buddha statue in a city park juxtaposed a few meteres away with a 7/11. Thailand is always stunning but I think in Chiang Mai I forgot to take as many photos because I slipped more into a mode of just living in the city rather than feeling so much like a tourist. (Don’t get me wrong, I know we’re very much tourists.)

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Unrelated picture: delicious green curry I ate first morning in the city

Chiang Mai for me was all about cats, Elvis themed Mexican cocktail bars, vegan restaurants, new friends, reggae music and sak yant tattoos (see our previous blog post about getting blessed by a monk).

sak-yant

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The cats, like in Bangkok and everywhere else we’ve been in Thailand, were prolific. But unlike the Bangkok kitties which were often dirty and half mangled and malnourished, the cats in Chiang Mai more frequently wore collars, and even the ones that didn’t appeared more domesticated, better looked after. Jeyn touched a lot of them. Despite my warnings about rabies. “I’ve had my third shot now, I’m basically immune” was her frequent refrain.

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Our favourite spot to start the night was at Loco Elvis, an American themed Mexican restaurant and bar right in the middle of the Old City. They sold mug-aritas which are basically what they sound like. Frozen mugs of margarita. For only 80 baht / $3 AUD / $2.20 USD. They came in twelve delicious flavours including black cherry. We weren’t sure about how legitimate the alcohol used in the mix was. It didn’t taste quite like anything we were used too. We promised ourselves before arriving in Thailand that we wouldn’t drink suspect drinks, we’d just stick to pre-bottled stuff like beer. But we took a calculated risk with the mug-aritas (calculated in that Loco Elvis was a really popular bar and we saw lots of other people drinking them and we felt like the bar staff there were responsible). We did fine with it, there were no incidents. It was probably made with moonshine though. Our friend Jason didn’t fare so well. He drank a couple of mugs with us and spent the whole next day sick in bed. So maybe we were just lucky.

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Oh how I’ll miss you mug-arita

We found a vegan restaurant on our first night there that was so delicious that we went back to it about four times. They made a heavenly fried rice served in a pineapple, crunchy vegie spring rolls, thick pita bread straight from the oven with rich hummus and the most decadent vegan brownies you could imagine.

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We tried going to a rooftop bar but the floor was very squeaky and made of a flimsy bamboo material and Jeyn was terrified of the whole thing collapsing so we only stayed for one drink at that place.

A much more successful night-spot was the reggae bar that had live reggae and ska music every night and cheap beer. One of our favourites bands that played there regularly was called croissant, for some unknown reason. They did great Bob Marley covers. One night they were especially packed and some obnoxious American backpackers kept grabbing Jeyn’s hoop without asking and trying to use it on the dancefloor. Jeyn stepped out, grabbed her hoop back and spun out a firey little routine that had the plasticky blonde tourist girls staring dumstruck with their mouths open. Everyone in the bar watched and people cheered and clapped. It was a magical moment. Unfortunately I didn’t get any photos or video of it. The American girls didn’t grab her hoop again after that.

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I did get some footage of Jeyn partying with her hoop at a club just down the alley from the reggae bar though. Babylon Bar, right near the infamous Zoe in Yellow. It was a small EDM hangout where we met some German clubbers and Jeyn made friends with a girl who was much nicer than the rude Americans from the other place, and asked nicely to try her hoop. Jeyn spent the night teaching her new friend hoop tricks and the girl picked them up impressively fast. We had read some other blog posts warning about bad experiences around these clubs, but after spending a few nights there I really think you’d have to be a jerk to get in a fist fight in that neighbourhood. Most people were very friendly. You need to keep your wits about you, but as long as you’re polite and not an idiot I don’t see Zoe in Yellow and Babylon Bar etc. being particularly dangerous.

On an unrelated note, the cafe around the corner (Fat Elvis – another Elvis themed place!) had a three gender toilet for men, women and … aliens?

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Our friend Jason who I mentioned before was one half of an amazing couple friendship we made, with our him and his lovely girlfriend Leonie. They’re an awesome international couple from Germany and England and getting to hang out with them more, including on Christmas day was definitely a highlight.

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Our Christmas dinner was a bit of a disaster though. We met at an upmarket Italian restaurant near the Night Bazaar called Street Pizza and Wine House which me and Jeyn had gone to the night before and been impressed with. We were already running a bit late after meeting for an 8pm dinner. When we were finally ready to order the waitress told us there was only one pizza base left. That was disappointing but not a huge deal. “Okay, we’ll just have pasta then” we said. “I’m very sorry sir but we have no pasta too, today was very busy”. So we ended up just leaving. It wasn’t really a huge deal, just odd that they didn’t mention the complete lack of food in the restaurant before we sat down. The situation reminded me a lot of Monty Python’s cheese shop skit.

The hotel room at Chana Place was fantastic for the price. We got it at 50% off for around $20 AUD / $14 USD a night, and it ended up being a really nice room with heaps of space and a giant bed.

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We found a turtle (or a tortoise?) wandering around on the sidewalk, just near a park. We put him on the grass in the park. He didn’t seem happy about it.

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We ate an embarrassing number of delivered pizza and pasta meals from Giorgio’s Pizza. The Italian food in Thailand is generally – surprisingly – excellent. This might be an unpopular opinion, but the pizza is better here than in Australia.

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We spent a lot of time trawling through gorgeous, sprawling late night markets, including one where we got an excellent foot massage.

And we enjoyed a lovely Christmas lunch together at a cafe called Mamory Delicious for Good Memories. Weird name. Fantastic food. Great memories.

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We also visited the hospital to get another of Jeyn’s rabies shots and it turned out to be the best hospital either of us has been in, we ate some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted and I continued my love affair with 7/11 stores and street crepe vendors. Chiang Mai was an interesting town. It’s definitely big enough to feel like a proper city, but it doesn’t have the same overwhelming presence of Bangkok. It’s small enough to feel manageable. Things are generally cheaper than the southern capital and we found the people very friendly. If you’re a fan of bootleg cocktails, great live music, second hand book shops, a thriving street culture, endless markets, night bazaars and late night street food then you’ll love Chiang Mai.

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