Chiang Mai: Love at First Sight

We boarded our bus from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai, which was essentially a glorified school bus.  The seats barely reclined and they were extremely close to those in front of us.  We had taken long bus rides before, but never overnight on a bus without a sleeper seat, or at least a recliner.  As we took off into the night, we realized the windy roads would have made it impossible to stay in a bed without falling out.  We spent the night swaying back and forth in our seats, feeling lucky to get in an hour of sleep at a time.  We hoped our driver was alert and could do nothing but blindly trust that he had experience with the mountain roads.

At around 7am, the curvy road seemed to even out as we approached the Thailand/Laos border.  The border wouldn’t open until 8am, so it was another waiting game.  Once all the bus passengers got stamped out of Laos, we all congregated to wait for our bus to take us to get a Thailand visa.  An hour and a half went by and we were all still pacing in the heat, waiting to continue on.  I still don’t know what the hold up was, but we were really ready to get on with our journey.

The entry into Thailand was painless and we had about six more hours until we would be in Chiang Mai.  During these six hours, we befriended an American on the bus named Alex (seemed like this name was a trend) who had lived in Chiang Mai for some time and was currently living in Pai.  He gave us the low down on the area: where to eat, what to do, what to see, when the best markets happened, etc..  He was our preemptive guide to the area.  We all were really hungry after being on a bus for 16 hours, so we salivated as we spoke of massaman curry and Thai iced teas.  We made a plan to check into our guesthouse and meet Alex at a restaurant called Secret Learning.

We had booked a guesthouse for two nights before arriving, mostly because we knew we would be exhausted after our 22 hour bus ride.  The place was nice, but nothing special.  We showered up and headed out to meet Alex.  On the way to dinner, we found a cheap, delicious looking drink stand that made Thai iced tea.  We grabbed two of them and smiled all the way to Secret Learning!  Secret Learning was an awesome little joint run by a Thai woman named Pui and her husband Simone, from Italy.  Their menu consisted of authentic Thai dishes as well as fabulous italian favorites.  We gobbled down some massaman curry, which was quite unique because it was made with pineapple and cinnamon sticks.  It was everything we could have hoped for and more!  How sweet it was to be back in the land of delicious, inexpensive food.  As we finished our meals, we started chatting with Simone, who literally knows everything about Chiang Mai.  He absolutely loves the city and enthusiastically told us everything we should see and do and even offered to book some tours for us at a reasonable rate if we wanted.  We soon realized the name of his restaurant was very appropriate because it was a gold mine for information!  After a long time chatting, we ventured back to our guesthouse and got a much needed good night sleep.

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The next morning we rented a scooter, packed up our stuff, and headed to a new hotel (where Alex was staying) which was right across the street from Secret Learning.  After we emptied our belongings into the room, we headed for the hills to see a famous temple in the area called Doi Suthep.  The ride was through windy mountain roads and the views were beautiful.  We immediately fell in love with Chiang Mai and knew we would need to spend the rest of our time (about 6 days) before heading to India in this great city.  The temple was really nice, but rather touristy.  It definitely had a good view of the city from the top.  The best part was the fresh coconut ice cream we purchased on the way down the stairs to our bike.  I can still taste it now!

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After breezing through that tourist attraction, we hit the road again and set off for the next tourist attraction: a palace and some gardens a few kilometers away.  We stopped to get some information and the man at the ticket office told us we couldn’t visit the palace because it was under construction.  We could only stroll through the gardens.  He pretty much discouraged us from paying the entry fee to only see the gardens and we weren’t too set on going in anyway, so we grabbed another coconut ice cream from a roadside vendor and kept riding until we saw an adorable coffee and tea shop on the side of the mountain with gorgeous views into the valley.

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We stopped and had a coffee and a delicious pot of local tea.  It was only about $1 for both of these treats and we enjoyed them on the deck while we took in the view.  The tea was some of the best I have ever had (and I have had a LOT of tea!) and we sat there enjoying it until they closed.  We hopped back on the bikes and rode further to a small village where we took a walk around, admired the homes, small market, and locals and then walked past a lady grilling sausages and chicken.  The locals were buying up the food as fast as she could cook them, so we, of course, had to taste one of each and an order of her sticky rice for good measure.  We took them to go and rode until we got to a good view point and chowed down.  The sausage was made with fresh lemongrass and chilies and the chicken was perfect.  We liked it so much that we rode back to the village to get some more sausages and sticky rice before cruising back down the the city.  It was a fabulous end to a great motorbiking day.

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As we turned into the old city of Chiang Mai, we saw a mass of people gathering on a street near our guesthouse.  The night food market!  Finally, a night market in Thailand that wasn’t overpriced, served local Thai food, and was full of locals!  The islands of Southern Thailand were far too touristy to meet those expectations, so we were very happy.  We walked around pondering what we would have for dinner when we ran into a man cooking some awesome meats on a grill.  We got some skewers of pork and then settled down at a road side stand with a badass looking Thai lady cooking up noodle dishes in a wok.  We had a spicy pad Thai and another local noodle dish all for about $2.  Both were some of the best food we had in all of Thailand and Southeast Asia for that matter.  Our first day in Chiang Mai was quite a treat.  We got to motorbike in the countryside and enjoy some good local food.  What more could we ask for?

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We decided to rent a motorbike the next day as well to drive to a river that Simone recommended.  On the way, we spotted a nice little Tea Garden and decided to stop for a snack.  The food and drink were a bit pricey, but it was a nice break from the sun and the grounds were beautiful. After our tea break, we continued our search for the river and we passed some elephants hanging out at an elephant park along the road.  It was cool to see them, but they had big, heavy, seats on their backs for people to ride them, which made us a little sad.  Nonetheless, the road was really fun to drive on and we made our way along the river to a village where we had an overpriced garlic chicken dish and pad see yew.  The prices weren’t on the menu, so we think they ripped us off since we are tourists.  Oh well, it was only like $4, just far too much for what we got and where we were.  On the way back from the village, we stopped at the poo paper place, a factory that makes paper out of elephant poo.  We could have taken a tour but we opted out of it and just looked around at all the souvenirs in the shop made of poo.  It was a pretty cool thing to see and quite resourceful!

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The Tiger Kingdom was next to the poo paper place, so we stopped there next.  If you’ve ever seen pictures of people hugging massive tigers, this was the place to do it!  You could choose from extra small to extra large and go into a cage with a wild tiger for about 15 minutes.  We thought the idea was pretty cool but we heard a lot of controversy over the ethical nature of the park, so we wanted to check it out before we decided to partake.  To our surprise, we could actually view the extra large tigers from the waiting room of the building.  They were literally only about 10 feet from us, so we watched them for about 45 minutes.  They were very active and the visitors were having trouble getting close to them.  The lady at the front desk said it was getting late and the tigers get antsy and it is dangerous to get close to them this time of day.  Apparently they are sleeping all morning and people can literally lay all over them.  Most people think they must be drugged in order to keep from attacking the humans.  We will never know for sure, but we likely had more fun watching the tigers roam and play as we would have if we entered a cage to see a sleeping tiger.  And our money doesn’t go toward any animal drugging, just in case they do that.

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We returned to Chiang Mai after another lovely day sightseeing and headed to a massage parlor Alex had recommended. Oddly enough, this massage parlor was tucked in a little buddhist temple down in the old city of Chiang Mai. He had claimed that the hot bamboo massage (for a whopping nine dollars) was the best he ever had.  So, we slipped into some funny massage clothes and were getting rubbed down with oily bamboo sticks in no time.  Personally, I agreed with Alex on this one: it was one of the best massages I ever had! John, on the other hand, was quite displeased.  He claimed the lady was so distracted by talking to my masseuse that she could barely focus on the task at hand (i.e. giving John a good rub down).

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After our mixed experiences at the temple, we headed to Secret Learning to meet up with Alex, Simone, and Pui.  Alex was performing at Secret Learning’s first ever open-mic with two talented friends of his, Emma and Adam. We enjoyed a glass of wine or two while listening to them play into the night.  After a few hours we headed to bed to get ready for our early morning Thai cooking class the next day!

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*Sadly, since we wrote this blog, we discovered that our friend, Alex, passed away unexpectedly in Laos a few months later.  He was a wonderful, thoughtful man who lived life to the fullest.  We know he is in a better place now and want to say Khawp Jai Lai Lai for your compassion and friendship.  You are missed.

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