Chiang Mai (meaning ‘the new city’), is a 900 years old city with a character. It is probably the most important city in Northern Thailand in terms of trade & commerce, history, culture, religion as well as tourism. Chiang Mai has traditionally served as a link between Thailand and neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Laos and China. This is also a transportation hub for places situated in higher northern reaches. Chiang Mai international airport has connectivity with Bangkok as well as neighbouring airports across the border.
The original Chiang Mai is a walled city surrounded by moats (parts of the wall and moat still remain). The city has now grown far beyond; but the walled portion is quintessential Chiang Mai with its temples (Wat) and a modernistic retro feel. Chiang Mai is also an important handicraft centre of Thailand.
Thais are immensely proud of Chiang Mai – when visiting Thailand, you are expected to visit Chiang Mai, and thereafter be ready to answer the question from a friendly Thai, ‘Did (how) you like Chiang Mai’?
Kampaeng Phet to Chiang Mai
Drive from Kampaeng Phet to Chiang Mai, covering some 300 kms is pretty enjoyable…no getting lost on the way, thanks to well marked/ laid highways and elaborate advice by Mr Charin, our previous host. During the drive across a verdant landscape and comfortable weather – there is a hint of humidity in the air, similar to what we have in Cal during these March days, we continue with our routine of making frequent stops, spying intrusively on things around, gratifying our taste buds with things on offer.
By afternoon, we arrive at Lampang, from where we have to leave NH 1 and turn left onto NH 11. While on a ‘seeking the unknown’ break at Lampang, we come across rows of stalls selling exotic ceramic ware. Sharmi is unusually quick in wresting control of the situation to place her across these stalls. Actually, Lampang is famous for ceramic wares. We pick up some typical ceramic pieces.
We are at our Chiang Mai home by sunset. Our stay has been booked at Mr Pong’s house. This 100 years old bungalow is located right on the bank of river Ping, which flows past this city. We drive up to the bungalow almost unaided, thanks to a detailed map mailed to us by the host. The bungalow has 4 guest rooms and the hosts occupy a separate wing in the same compound. He tells us that a large French group was here till morning. Now though, we are going to be the only guests. This is both good (we have the entire bungalow to ourselves) and not so good (we will miss out on interaction with other guests).
On the first day, we plan to visit the walled city followed by places outside it. Mr Pong sits with us through the breakfast and diligently explains local routes, tourist spots, shopping areas and also answers our quirky queries. Keeping in mind cramped driving/ parking condition within the walled area, we hire a Tuk-tuk to take us there, which is organised by Mr Pong. He also gives us a detailed map with address of the bungalow (in Thai language) which should be shown to the Tuk-tuk driver while coming back. This is a universal precaution taken by tourists in a place where speaking/understanding the local language is problem. Mr Pong has also given us his mobile number with instructions that if we get in any trouble (like losing the way, any issue with locals, haggling with shopkeeper or any other matter for that matter), we should not hesitate to call him up. Hospitality is for real here – we are overwhelmed!
Chiang Mai, like many other Thai cities, boasts of a large number of temples (or Wat, as a Budhdhist temple is called in Thailand). Temples in Thailand reflect the culture very closely – visiting them is somewhat like visiting museums in western countries. Each wat has its own history depicted through the statues, inscriptions, murals, architectural elements, etc. Interiors of many wats are decorated with identifiable scenes from tales of Ramayana, Jataka etc.
The walled portion itself comprises of some 150 temples, apart from other attractions. One of the most sacred temples, Doi Suthep, however, is located about 16 kms west of Chiang Mai. It is obviously not possible to cover all in a day. We have shortlisted a few of them within the walled area in accordance with advise of Mr Pong. Finally we end up seeing even a lesser number of wats than intended.
While entering the wats, one should follow standard norms/ decorum, viz. removing footwear outside, sober dressing/ behaviour, avoidance of signs of disrespect to the Deity etc.
We also spend some time in a fantastic session called ‘Chat with Monks’. This particular wat, which is also a training facility for the young monks, offers tourists an opportunity to interact informally with the monks. There is a common area where the tourist group is met by one of the waiting monks. You can sit with him and discuss anything related to Monks/ Buddhism/ Thailand or any other topic of interest. Well, to answer the ‘why’ of it – such interactions enable the monks to practice spoken English as also widening their knowledge base and the tourists, of course gather valuable insight.
A good & handy source of drinking water is the vending machines placed at common areas. Though bottled water is available across Thailand costing B15 – B30 or more depending on when and where you buy them; these vending machines (working on coin system) offer you potable water @ B1 (one bhat) for a liter.
By the time we are through with the walled city, day is almost out and we are tired. Unwillingly giving up on our ambitious agenda of visiting the night market and the night safari, we settle for rather homely alternative – walking & eating trip to the neighbourhood market which has a mandi-like setting consisting of shops/departmental stores/eateries/roadside outlets, etc. catering exclusively to the locals.
Next day, the plan is to drive to areas around Chiang Mai. We have in mind BanTawai village, known for woodcraft outlets and BoSang village (umbrella village), famous for umbrellas. The drive to Ban Tawai, located some 30 kms southwards takes us through country landscapes. We frequently deviate from the intended route, driving over unknown roads and byroads observing the land and its people (and interacting with them through tuti-futi languages). Though we fully realise these impromptu detours will cost us the time meant for visiting better known places/sights, our faith in the belief that such detours offer richer experience keeps us going the wrong way rightfully……….
It is already lunchtime when we reach Ban Tawai. The Ban Tawai creative village comprises of clusters of shop-cum-workshop outlets for wooden handicrafts. Photography is prohibited within the clusters. The place is worth a visit for those interested in handicrafts. We do pick up a number of decoration pieces. That is the flipside of self-drive; you tend to accumulate lot of stuff in the boot space without being conscious of volume/weight being added to the luggage till you finally hand over the car. We make our departure by evening, accompanied by boxes of varying shapes and sizes.
Umbrella village does not look viable now, so we take a lazy drive passing through the zoo and surrounding areas.
Tourism industry is well organised in Thailand. In addition to good infrastructures aimed at tourists, they have created tourism avenues by ingenious employment of local resources. Elephants and tigers are important elements of nature tourism. Apart from the elephant ride and ‘touch & feel the elephant’ ploys, they have trips which include ‘bathing the elephant’, ‘feeding the elephant’ etc. They even have ‘bathing the buffalos in river stream’ option!!! Similarly, in addition to tigers being part of all the zoos, they have the famous ‘Temple Tiger’ (Kanchanburi, near Bangkok) like set-ups where visitors can touch, feel and get photographed with un-caged tigers/cubs. Chiang Mai too has its own ‘Tiger Kingdom’ on the lines of Temple tiger. Though handling of tigers in this manner has raised controversies (including claims about intoxicating the tigers into submission as well as animal right concerns), my contention here is to highlight the overall tourism orientation of this country.
I mean, tigers and elephants and many more exotic animals are similarly found in India but I do not think we have been able to exploit this potential optimally. At least on two occasions, my attempts to get elephant rides at Rajaji national park came to naughts. Another related aspect is about fee for entrance to tourist destinations. There is usually a dual pricing system for locals and foreigners and charges for the foreigners are exorbitantly high (a sight where entrance is B 200 for a local could be as high as B 800 for foreigners).
Some tourist spots (out of many others) in and around Chiang Mai are –
– Wats within walled city (Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, etc).
– Wat at Doi Suthep
– Sunday walking street
– Night Market
– Tribal Museum
– Night Safari
– Tiger Kingdom
– River cruise
Another attraction worth a mention is the Golden Triangle. No, this has nothing to do with drugs. This is a tri-junction some 2.5 hrs drive from Chiang Mai, where the international borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. This presents a nice drive opportunity which, sadly, we could not avail due to time constraints.
Chiang Mai to Bangkok
We plan to leave Chiang Mai by 7 AM to reach Bangkok in about 10 hours and finally take off within an hour of the desired departure time. Morning drive offers desolate roads outside the car and dispassionate passengers inside the car. Since no one seems to be in a mood to talk (I wonder if the silence is linked to our departure from Chaing Mai), I turn to the car’s FM. We have got used to enjoying Thai talks and numbers the past few days. While surfing, I am suddenly struck by this particular number. I revert and get back to the radio station and Lo! It is an all time favourite Kishore Da :-
‘Neele neele ambar pe
Chand jab aaye
It has been seven days now into this country and this heady song instantly transports us back to our own Bharatvarsh. Three of us get into an impromptu chorus almost simultaneously…….OK, an unknown Thai station in Chiang Mai is obviously not playing the original stuff…..we are audience to the Thai version of ‘Neele neele….’ But we are enjoying it, here and now, probably more than anyone anywhere else.
One point I must bring out here is this sleepiness issue. Yes, it feels sleepy while driving on the highways here. This is the third time I get the torpid sense i.e. after Bang Saen – Kampaeng Phet and Kampaeng Phet – Chiang Mai legs.
Again, western drivers having observed and commented otherwise, my limited experience on Indian roads makes me feel this – the need for a keen anticipation…a perpetual guard against oncoming surprises keeps us on our toes while driving in India. We are acutely aware that surprises could spring from any direction (meaning all the four cardinal ones, N, S, E, W and everything in between) and animate and inanimate objects have equal talent in performing such ‘you-couldn’t-have-guessed-it-ha-ha-ha’ acts!
Last year we traversed NH-24 to Ghaziabad quite often. One day, we saw a massive electric pole which was planted on the divider, slanting precariously over the road. I mean, its fall was waiting-to-happen. Though on the face of it people were nonchalantly driving past the pole, I guess everyone gave that extra little push on the pedal upon approaching it. We found similar scene while going past it that evening. Next week, sure enough, the pole was lying on ground – part of it on the divider and some protruding on the road. Now, though I do not know whether its fall (if unaided) was anticipated by the driver passing at the very instant of its fall; my guess would be a ‘Yes’ – we are adept at employing all our senses most efficiently while driving on our roads.
Now, imagine a scene where you don’t need to anticipate. You just need to keep a constant pressure on the pedal for hours together……no camel carts obstructing your view and speed, no walker who suddenly discovers the need to cross the highway ahead of your speeding car (making you respectfully conscious of Shri HG Wells – was the walker invisible till the last moment or is it that my car has lost its appeal to the walker’s retina?) , no spluttering monster imprinted with ‘Jagah milne par side di jayegi speed limit 40 kilometer horn please’, not even the poignant honks to keep your auditory perceptions intact………………. actually, nothing at all to challenge your survival instincts. Even the much maligned bikers and lorries here keep to the outer lanes and do pay some heed to the traffic rules. Well, such setting obviously induces a becalming effect followed by this inevitable bout of sleepiness. It also gives me an idea about what the highway drives would feel like in such countries where population density is about or less than six persons per sq km.
We hit the northern periphery of Bangkok by 5 pm (9 hours for 700 kms with lunch and chai breaks is just about ordinary on these roads). In Bangkok, we are ready for the worst since we arrive here at peak hours of evening traffic. Soon things start to go wrong. Blithely following the Airport sign, we land up in the area of Don Muang which is actually the old airport, located some 50 kms west of Suvarnabhumi. To cut the story short, we manage to park the car at Avis office, Suvarnabhumi by 11 PM and in the interim we have gathered a large number of stories/memories/anecdotes.
The car was handed over to us in full-tank condition and we are expected to return it in same condition. We get the tank filled up at a petrol station next to the Avis office – this is an important point, to know beforehand if they have a petrol station in the vicinity.
No surprises for us here at Avis. We hand over the car, not without a sense parting. The Toyota Vios has accompanied us for the last seven days without any problems and we are thankful for the nice experience.
Avis guys give us a drop to the nearest taxi stand where we take a taxi for our hotel. Despite all the tiredness from today’s drive, my daughter is very excited about heading to the hotel. The hotel, called Baiyoke Sky towers, is the tallest building in Thailand and we have got a room on 70th floor. The excitement gets contiguous as we enter our room and part the curtains to view Bangkok from the top.
We utter with utter exhilaration – WOW Bangkok!
Next part covers Bangkok.