A lazy weekend in Chiang Mai

Long neck tribeI haven’t come to this space in a long while. It is definitely not because I have not been traveling (thank God). In fact, in the time I have been away or have been slow in updating, I have been to a few places, amongst them my beloved Bhutan, and also a part of India which I hadn’t seen before – Meghalaya. Hopefully I will get down to write about them sooner or later, but for now let me pen down a few thoughts on my latest visit to Thailand.

It was one of those long weekend getaways, which you take less for travel, more for getting away from the rut of life. I just had three days, and I decided to see Chiang Mai – a place in the northern part of Thailand which is apparently quite popular with travelers, despite being away from the beach.

At three hours, the flight wasn’t so short from Singapore, and the connections are not good. When we landed at 2 in the afternoon, the roads were blazing with heat. We appreciated that the town is short and the ride from the airport to our hotel was only 15 minutes.

Both inside and outside the hotel, the town seemed like a sleepy little siesta town – and the summer made the lazy drawl more pronounced. The net reviews had warned me that summer is the least exciting time to visit the place, but I have seldom kept to the rhythms of season when traveling. It is difficult to respect them when you are living in a monotone climate.

Anyway, the summer seemed almost pleasant as we lunched at the breezy riverside restaurant. Later in the evening, after an invigorating foot massage, we stepped out to the markets where shops were just beginning to setup for the night markets.

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I love the idea of night markets. They are so much more festive and energising, in contrast to the functional nature of day markets. There is almost always music, there is light and entertainment, and more importantly, people are happy to have put the day of work behind them. In these night markets you embark upon many oddities – vintage match boxes, lines of dream catchers, molding clay. It is like entering a world of old, to the village fairs.

Next day was our day of exploration. For years we have stayed away from doing tours of places we visit. We usually just find 2-3 things of interest and drive/walk around those. Not so in Chiang Mai. I didn’t want to return from here without seeing its forests and the hill tribes, and having come without much research, this meant being at the mercy of our driver.

DSC04361So she drove us to Mae Taeng Elephant park, which was rather touristy. But surprisingly, I loved the time I spent here. The elephants were moving around freely, often muddying themselves leisurely in the river. The ease of relationship between them and the mahouts were almost enviable – there was much ease and camaraderie. The elephant knew when to bow down to let the mahout slip down, or swing away from a low branch to keep him from getting hurt.

We took an elephant safari to go inside the forest, and meet a few women of the northern hill tribes who wear long neck rings to keep their necks long. It was surreal seeing them, not to mention a bit embarrassing to intrude upon them as visitors. Some of their necks appeared abnormally long, as if the the head was simply hanging up there on a spring (see cover photo). Most women wore similar rings on their hands and legs – perhaps in an effort to lengthen these too. The tribes are a sort of subculture of a bigger tribe called Karen. All in all, it was a sad experience to go to this village, as the tribeswomen sat down to be looked upon as oddities by the people who visited them. For all my curiosity, I don’t think I could bring myself to go through a similar experience again. There was one woman who spoke a little bit English and made me feel at home – letting me weave and putting on a neck ring on me. I was grateful to her, but was still a bit relieved to be out of the village.

One experience not to be missed in the parks is the bamboo raft – it is so pleasant to gently sail through the green waters.

One of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai is Wat phra Doi Suthep, which is on top of a hill (Doi Suthep). As we made our way towards this temple, we saw throes of people walking up to the mountain. It was the eve of Buddha day (or Vesak day), and almost the entire people of the city and surrounding villages planned to be at the temple during midnight. As people walked up, many impromptu water and snack shops opened up along the route. Our driver told us that soon the entry of vehicles would be stopped, and the only way one could reach up was would be by walking.

DSC04398 DSC04400The energy at the temple was incredible. There were many people there already. The temple, which should have been otherwise quiet, was buzzing with a lot of mantras on the microphone. And the temple in all its gold was dazzling on this bright summer day.

We came back to the hotel, and soon went out for massages and more markets. The Sunday night market was even more astounding and extensive than the other markets.

And just like that, the weekend was over – we came back, richer with all we had seen and bought. And like a lot of other places, I vowed to return to Chiang Mai.

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