Chiang Mai is the biggest city in Thailand’s north and almost impossible to avoid when travelling in this part of the country. We ended up spending an entire week there due to our travel plans and some fixed dates.
After spending over two and a half hours in the back of a songthaew as part of our journey from Chiang Rai, we were quite stiff and enjoyed stretching our legs while finding a place to sleep. The ride itself was fairly smooth thanks to the good roads, but if you have to share the inside of a songthaew with 17 other people and half a scooter, then there is no space left to move your legs. Our driver had strapped the scooter to the platform at the back so it was half in half out with enough space for five people to stand next to it on the platform! Plus two in front with the driver that’s 24 people in or on a pick up!
After a few fails (places were fully booked or had backpacker unfriendly prices, we ended up in Heuan Pak Dee, a mix of art gallery and hostel. A favourable bed occupation resulted in us having our private dorm which was great. After some refreshments we followed the restaurant recommendation of the receptionist to a place next door called Tang Nueng. It was small and nicely decorated but the highlight was the amazing local food. It was the first time Thai cuisine impressed us and lived up to its reputation.
The next day we wandered around the city center for a bit and enjoyed some of the beautifully carved and decorated temples. In the afternoon we went to try Muay Thai. Our hostel was conveniently located 500m away from a well-rated gym. Zoë had done Muay Thai for years during uni but for Matthias it was a debut in Asian martial arts. We were only four people in the class and after the warm-up we got an introduction to the basic movements. Once our coach was satisfied we joined the other two guys in the ring for some rounds of pad-kicking and punching. It was quite warm, but we got plenty of water breaks so it was not too bad. The next section of the class consisted of practising with punch bags. For the last half an hour we went back into the ring for some light sparring before stretching. Matthias enjoyed the kicking and punching quite a bit even though he managed to hit the edge of the pad and kick it with the front part of his foot instead of the shin. The teachers and other students were nice and after some chatting we returned home. During the chilling-out and dinner time Matthias’s foot had became more and more painful until he was limping back from dinner to the hostel. Ice helped check the swelling, but we agreed to go to the hospital to make sure nothing was broken. A&E in the state-owned university hospital was busy but well-staffed even after 8pm. After telling them about the foot and walking problems, Matthias was ushered onto a bed and wheeled in. Within less than five minutes we were seen by what a young doctor and a group of students. He prodded the foot, bent and pushed and pulled on the toes and announced that the foot was only bruised but nothing broken. We still had some ibuprofen in our first aid kit so we did not need the offered painkillers. Once the paperwork was completed all we had to do was paying 90 Baht (£2.07) and get a taxi back home. Overall the trip took us roughly one hour and left us well impressed with the Thai health service. Needless to say Matthias was banned from martial arts by Dr. Zoë.
After such an eventful day, it was good that we had something less dangerous booked for the next day. We had signed up for a one day oil massage course with Sabai Dee Ka massage school. In the first two hours our teacher demonstrated all the steps and movements while we took turns in modelling and taking notes in the provided books. After lunch it was our turn. With the help of the books, our notes and our funny and friendly teacher, both of us went through the entire massage process.
Masseuse Zoë in action
The oil massage covered everything from neck to toe both front and back. We only shortened it a little by only massaging one arm and leg instead of two. We really appreciated that, despite overrunning the supposed end time by half an hour there was never any rush or hurry. The most important discovery of the day was ‘no belly, no clap’ as our teacher called it. Meaning that a stomach massage on a flat stomach didn’t make any clapping noise, whereas a flabby tummy produced a satisfying clap. After we both successfully completed the massage we got our well-earned certificates and returned home for a shower to wash the oil off.
It was a Sunday and the a big area in the center was blocked off for the weekly night market. As variety is the spice of life, we went for a stroll around to market and sampled some street food for dinner. It was mostly typical thai street food but it was good. We also had some tasty giant spring rolls and lime and honey lemonade.
Monday was a bit of a ‘homework’ day and dedicated to planning our future travel adventures. Even though we want and like to be flexible and spontaneous, visa limitations dictated having at least a rough plan for the next few countries. Especially since some flights are required. The only other activity was that Zoë went back to the Chiang Mai Muay Thai Gym for another lesson. This time she was the only student and had a good one-on-one training with a pro-fighter.
Tuesday was our museum day. We started the Art and Cultural Center right next to the three kings statue in the heart of the city. The museum was big and air conditioned. After watching a film about life in the city we followed the route (through time) from the early settlements through to modern times. It is well-laid out with very good English explanations. We were impressed by the museum and certainly learned a lot. Before leaving the cool building we relaxed with some tasty coffee at the museum café.
Next door is the town’s Historical Centre. The exhibition there overlaps with the bigger one next door, but provides more historical explanations. It is equally well set up though. In the basement visitors can see the remnants of two old walls which used to divide the centre into quarters. Our third and last museum of the day was the Lanna Folklife Museum on the other side of the three kings square.
It is a nicely restored two-storey building wherein every room showcases a different aspect of Lanna life, tradition and handicraft. The exhibition was more about looking at the items than reading big signs but we did not miss them. The items on display were impressive and came from a long time period as well as different areas. Entrance to each of the three museums is 90 baht, but if you intend to visit all three you can get a combi tickets for 180 baht, essentially giving you one museum for free. Also, the pass is valid for one week so you don’t have to visit all three in one day. We spent another afternoon working before heading to our favourite restaurant for dinner.
Wednesday was the highlight of our week as our dream of learning to cook Thai food came true. After looking around a bit we booked the course with Benny’s home cooking school. Benny picked us up on time from our hostel and together with a Canadian family of three we headed to a local market. On the way each of us got a list on which to choose the dishes we wanted to cook so Benny could buy the ingredients required. She also phoned ahead to get her partner and kitchen fairy to pick the herbs from their organic garden. In the market Benny gave us a short tour and explained some of the fruit and vegetables and their use. We also got to try the famous Chiang Mai sausage from a stall that produces, barbeques and sells 200 kg of per day! It was super yummy and flavoursome with its lemongrass and ginger infused stuffing.
During our last few days we had come to absolutely love Pad Thai and Khao Soi so they were easy picks. As for starters we opted for fresh spring rolls. Pad Thai is a noodle dish and Khao Soi a soupy curry with both cooked and deep fried crispy noodles. In order to try more dishes we split them between us and chose a different curry and noodle dish respectively. For dessert, we just had to make the mango sticky rice and Matthias made a banana coconut cake.
Benny’s kitchen fairy welcomed us with a ‘Sexy Benny’: a tea dyed blue with butterfly pea flowers that turned purple when we squeezed in a lime wedge. The cooking area was located in a big hut in the garden and we had a cooking station each while Benny stood behind a ‘teacher desk’ at the front. She would always show us the steps for each dish before returned to our stations to try it ourselves. The lesson was very relaxed and our teacher(s) were always there to help. When we were up front watching Benny our fairy would sneak around to put ingredients down and in the right place, put oil in the wok or make sure everything was correct. All we had to do was cook, eat and place the dirty equipment into trays. We had plenty of time and there was no rush. We had great fun mashing up the curry paste in stone mortars and seeing all the flavours come together in the pans. Our fairy provided us with rice and (mainly for the dessert) presented it beautifully on plates. At the end we all got cooking books with detailed step-by-step information so we can invoke the spirit of Thai food back at home. The whole atmosphere was very personal and we totally recommend this cooking course!
During our visit to the museum, we got inspired to walk along the moat and see the remnant of the old city walls. The biggest remaining structures are the four corner bastions with smaller sections in places where the gates used to be. In the south west corner we found a lovely small park with ponds, fountains, a running track, gym and some cafés. People were exercising by means of Tai Chi and yoga. Most of the time we just walked between the moat and a big busy road which did not really make it the most relaxed walk ever. From the east gate we took a detour through little chinatown to the big and well known Warorot market. The area was bristling with sewing, fabrics and tailor shops which offered and endless supply of fabric related products. The ground floor of the market is mainly covered with food stalls, while the two upper floors are stuffed with clothes.
After the third bastion we got bored of the moat walk and decided to go and see some temples instead. We still had the most famous left: Wat Phra Singh. It was impressive and lavishly painted and decorated so the 20 baht ticket fee was worth it.
On that day Matthias had yet another medical issue. One of his back teeth had started to ache and become sensitive and with some luck he managed to get a dentist appointment the same day not far from our hostel at the Lanna Dental Clinic. When the dentist examined his teeth, she found not only one but four holes. Since he did not want them to increase in size and become a big problem during the travel he decided to get them fixed right there and then. The procedure went smoothly (as smooth as tooth drilling and grinding can be) and the dentist was good and professional. Due to their size and the work required he had to pay slightly more than the base rate with 1000B/tooth but he judged the result satisfactory. Zoë had stayed behind in the hostel and was very relieved to see her husband return over one hour later than expected.
On our last day, we wanted to see Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. This temple sits on top of a hill to the west of Chiang Mai. Outside Wat Phra Singh was a songthaew station so we headed there. If there are eight or more people sharing, the ride up the hill costs only 50 baht per person. If you want one to yourself expect to pay 600. After 45 minutes of waiting we had found only one other couple so we agreed to pay the premium and just go. After 15 windy kilometers we arrived at the bottom of the temple. The last bit is only accessible by foot so visitors have to walk up two flights of stairs. Entrance for Thais was free, but foreigners had to pay 30 baht to get in. The impressive golden stupa in the inner sanctum was awe inspiring. Round the outer wall stood many buddha statues made from different stones and metals for pilgrim’s donation. The surrounding outer yard led to some smaller temples, a meditation centre and two viewing platforms. Sadly the entire valley was covered in haze and smog so the views were only average. We had agreed one and a half hour as visiting time with our taxi driver which was plenty for us. We even treated ourselves to two iced mochas before descending the stairs.
The afternoon went quickly with some blogging. For the evening we wanted to go and see some real Muay Thai fights and thus headed to the Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium. Fights are on from 9pm almost every night. We paid 600 Baht for a grandstand ticket and then went to find dinner. There were lots of barbeque buffet places around the stadium but we were not hungry enough. Instead we ended up at a small noodle soup stall at the main street.
The show started on time with some young teenagers fighting first. A normal fight consists of five rounds but this one ended with a knockout in round two. We were quite disappointed to learn that none of the hundreds of Thai people in the surrounding restaurants came to see the fighting. Ninety percent of the spectators were a Chinese group (in the VIP area) and Westerners in the grand stall. The result was a distinct lack of atmosphere. Over the course of the next two hours we got to see six fights. The fighters got older with every fight but very surprisingly the last fight was two children less than six years old. They showed the most fighting spirit and the least amount of tactical play and just went for it. Their fight was shortened to only three rounds but we were still impressed. Overall we saw two knockouts, one draw and two point victories while one fight ended with one fighter rolling on the floor in agony after receiving an accidental kick between his legs. It was not until his coach removed the groin guard and poured ice onto his shorts that the poor fighter could stand up and leave the ring. Overall we had a good evening but we will try to see some more exciting fighting in Bangkok.
We loved every bit of our one week in Chiang Mai; despite the medical issues. It is a lovely place to be but it probably helped that we stayed there at the end of the tourist season. There are so many massage parlours (for tourists), that one would have a hard time to choose. The choice of accommodation is huge and there are many trendy cafés and restaurants offering vegetarian, vegan and other cuisines. Chiang Mai is also very popular with expats or travellers who want to settle down temporarily. We can totally understand why. It was definitely a lovely place to relax before some more fast paced travelling.