Sunday, January 27, 2019

Feeling Amazing in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Travel date: 13 December 2018 - 9 January 2019

Chiang Mai is the largest city in mountainous northern Thailand. It is located 700km north of Bangkok and is surrounded by the highest mountains in the country. Founded in 1296, it replaced Chiang Rai as the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna. (Note: Chiang Mai means "New City".)

The city is surrounded by a moat and thick walls, which served as defenses against the threatful Taungoo Dynasty and the invading Mongol Empire. It is home to over 300 elaborate Buddhist temples, including Wat Phra That Doi Suthep atop Doi Suthep mountain and Wat Phra Singh within the city walls.

Historically, Chiang Mai has significant cultural, trading and economic importance, second only to Bangkok. Presently, it is considered as among the best cities for digital nomads, with its speedy internet, low cost of living, and abundance of things to do.


I came to Chiang Mai from Taiwan as it was the cheapest flight route I found from Taipei. I didn't research much and wasn't expecting anything. Fortunately, Chiang Mai became a very pleasant surprise. I enjoyed its small alleyways, its surrounding waterways, its cold evenings and its vegetarian-friendly eateries. It made me see the Thailand that most other travellers see -- "Amazing Thailand".

I spent most of my time cycling around and exploring small alleys inside and outside of the old city walls. Very confusing at first, I eventually learned to navigate with minimal help from Google Maps to find garden restaurants, small coffee shops, and discreet yoga studios. Every street was interesting and seemed to hide something just waiting to be uncovered.

Crossing the big road towards my guesthouse, the setting sun caught my attention and tempted me to explore further instead of going straight home.

Sometimes, my two wheels bring me to one of the many local markets around the city. I hunt for snacks wrapped in banana leaves, browse through the displays of local vegetables and fruits, and even consider purchasing new handmade clothing and native bags.

The local markets are most alive on mornings with various stalls selling fresh produce, cooked meals, packaged pastries and hot beverages.

With the many vegetarian/vegan eateries around the city, I was never bothered to cook for myself. I felt so spoiled with having a lot of affordable, accessible and delicious options -- even non-vegetarian restaurants offer vegetarian options. I didn't really have to think and plan my meals, a very welcome change to the Philippine scene where I always have to "negotiate". 

Cat House was the first vegan/vegetarian restaurant that I ate at in Chiang Mai. Although a bit pricey, they had a good selection of mains, smoothies and cakes. 

During my stay, I found the opportunity to see and listen to local jazz bands at North Gate Jazz Co-op and at Thapae East. I got the tip from a friendly random over dinner at a small restaurant that wasn't actually my target destination. I'm not really a music person and I can't name a favorite song or genre but jazz is definitely one of those I listen to -- not that I understand what jazz music really is.

At North Gate Jazz Co-op, the crowd definitely enjoyed the high-energy, head-banging but not-ear-ringing music of this band. The passionate expression of their drummer is just a bonus. 

Probably the most touristy thing that I did in Chiang Mai, I signed up with Elephant Nature Park, a group that truly cares for the elephants, to experience a day with a trio of elephants. I spent Christmas Day endlessly feeding them with bananas and walking them up a hill and then back down to the river along with their actual caretakers-slash-brothers and other visitors from the US, Taiwan and Latvia.

The mother elephant greedily takes as much bananas as is offered to her, not minding her two daughters right beside her. Although they protect each other, elephants don't share food. 

On some mornings, I cycled through the early morning chill to join the local group of yoga practitioners for a free session at the park. The group composed of international yoga teachers who are living in or just passing by Chiang Mai and who are volunteering to lead public yoga sessions at most twice daily for free. It was a different experience practicing yoga at a public open space instead of in a private studio.

Unlike in the controlled environment of a yoga studio, peace and quiet is a game of chance at the park. In one session, motorized grass-cutters provided our ambient music.

My last couple of days in Chiang Mai luckily coincided with Monk Chat's weekly overnight meditation retreat. Held on Tuesdays till Wednesdays, their Buddhist meditation retreat is perfect for newbies who might not be up to the challenge of 10-day and 21-day silent retreats. Although I can go days without talking to anyone, I still found it difficult and awkward and I couldn't meditate anymore by the morning.

Guided by Phra KK, we practised seating, walking, standing and lying down meditation. It was my second exposure to meditation during which I had moments of feeling "high".

Towards the end of my stay in Chiang Mai, I realized how happy I have been for the past couple of months. I met some really inspiring people, I ate so much good food, I slept very well, and I was living in one of the nicest and most pleasant cities. I can only be thankful. :)