Saturday, March 1, 2008

Discovering Chiangmai - And My Friend Irene

A beautiful park at the southwest corner of the moat.

Chiangmai is a 1-hour-and-10 minute flight from Bangkok, and about 6 hours by bus. It is also Thailand's most important city after Bangkok. Situated in North Thailand, the city is more laidback. Chiangmai tourists tend to interact better than in chaotic Bangkok. It has about the same number of temples as Bangkok (300+).

Five minutes on the bus from the airport, I met Irene, a Malaysian Chinese who’s now based in London. Irene has very specific goals in Chiangmai. She flew in from KL (visiting relatives) straight to Chiangmai, with a notebook-load of addresses of spas, yoga classes and culinary schools. She scoured the net for accommodations near these classes.

I didn’t have any reservations for Chiangmai although I also have a list of places to check out. As our bus reached Moon Muang (Street), we requested the bus driver’s assistant to inform us once were in the vicinity of Soi 6 (for Irene’s guesthouse is) and Soi 11 (for my preferred hotel). I might as well check out Irene’s choice - The
Blue House, which is run by a friendly American named Steve. I liked the homey atmosphere of place. I was fortunate they had vacancy. I paid for my “whole stay” (it’s a habit). We were given complementary maps. The Thai lady at the counter told us to ask anything we needed to know. We placed our bags in our respective rooms then decided to have our lunch along Moon Muang. I just went along with Irene. She was checking out the market produce. (Soi 6 is a side street from the day market.)

I was hungry and was keeping my fingers crossed Irene would make up her mind - soon! Finally, we passed by a carinderia with an old Chinese guy smiling in front. Irene and the old man started conversing in Mandarin. That sealed the deal where we were to have our lunch.We shared food. It looked like Pata Tim.

After the meal, I made a deal with Irene. We visit a temple then I'll accompany her to find her classes. I wanted to see
Wat Doi Suthep up the mountain (Doi means Mountain). This wat is a thing of beauty, with huge golden stupa seen from any point down the city. After negotiating with a tuktuk driver, we were brought to the main road where we were supposed to wait for another tuktuk that would take us to Doi Suthep. We got at the back of a sangtheaw along with 3 German guys. It was a scenic route. After 30 minutes, we reached the summit and paid 60 baht each. We were to hike up some 300 steps that would take to the temple. Around us were stalls and souvenir shops. Along the way, I saw Hill Tribe children. I handed them 20 baht then had my photo taken with them. Easy. Cute kids too. Further along the stairs, there were bald ladies coming down the stairs. They were dark skinned and had grins from ear to ear. I bravely took their photos. They should be used to such attention by now.

Upon reaching the top, I realized why the ruckus on this temple. It was beautiful. The whole compound had intricately designed Lanna-style fortifications. We paid the entrance fee(which included an area map) then took a walk around the complex. At the back is a lookout point where you see the sprawling view of Chiangmai. Orchids are everywhere. A small museum stands at the back. What caught everyone’s attention was the Golden Stupa that stood tall and glittered. I was mesmerized.

By the time we were done, I wanted to see one more temple in central Chiangmai. We took a sangthaew with a Russian couple. Irene's plan was to spot-check the location of her yoga and cooking classes. Little did I know that this was going to take too much from me; test the limits of my endurance.

We visited another imposing temple,
Wat Phra Singh (the city's most visited temple). As the clock strikes 4:30, monks from all over the place started to gather inside the temple. Not long after, we could hear their chants. I wish I had my recorder with me.

After Wat Phra Singh, I did my end of the bargain. I was all for walking, checking out these cooking and yogas classes that Irene will be partaking in the next 6 days or so. I got to learn a little more about my new friend. Irene has been a UK resident for the last 15 years. Probably in her mid-50’s, she has 3 sons, one of whom recently graduated at a London university. She says she is in the “
beauty business”. I didn’t ask further. It was obvious she is into cooking. Her class will be teaching her 7 dishes for 7 hours. Whatever she cooks, she can bring them back with her. We would then have an appetizing Lao meal! Oh yeah!

Wat Dokkhan. One of the virtually anonymous wats in Chiangmai which my friend Irene and I "discovered".

Wat Dokkhan

A moat along Moon Muang.

The 300+ steps at Wat Doi Suthep (Suthep Mountain).

Hill Tribe children poose for me.

Smiling nuns. They're probably Sri Lankans.

Wat Doi Suthep (Wat Mount Suthep)

The Lookout Point, Wat Doi Suthep

Chiangmai View from the Lookout Point

The spectacular stupa that can be seen from downtown Chiangmai.

A monk "blessing" some worshippers.

We started to walk towards each of the addresses in Irene's list. She wanted to check out these places before her actual classes start, which seemed like a waste of time since she was gonna go there anyway. But I didn’t really mind much. The idea of "walking" appealed to me. I didn’t count on the enormity of such plan. Check out the map. I marked all the streets we covered for the next 5 hours. She was also looking for cheap accommodations (really cheap ones in the vicinity of 300 baht - but she didn’t want shared bathrooms either; an ambitious goal). Anna Lisa, the American we met earlier, stays in a grubby 150 baht room but she was realistic enough to know that such a room would have no private bath. Irene is your typical type A personality.

My 300-baht room was a spacious - with a private bath 1/3 the size of my room. It doesn’t have an air conditioning, but Chiangmai has a cool weather. I realized from Hanoi that I may not necessarily require air conditioning. Besides, it was the only available room when I checked in. My room (room 205), located on the 2nd floor – had a good view, It had 2 separate beds. My only complaint was that it was dimly lit. I couldn't read my Lonely Planet. What I’d do was read from my toilet seat. LOL

Now, back to the over- extended hike. We were looking for one address after the next and by the time she had checked item # 8 (out of 10), I was plain pooped! It was embarrassing. I was already cranky, a nasty tantrum creeping through me. But Irene was driving me mad! If we were looking for, say, house # 83, and we could see house #s 34, 35, 36, Irene would stop, look for somebody and ask,
“Do you know where house # 83 is?” Some blocks away, we would see house # 55. She would ask again, “Do you know where house #83 is?” Jeez! I'm sure we were going to find it if we just walked further ahead. It was easy to follow the house numbers, you know. She would do this 2 dozen times, which drove me crazy. One guy got peeved with her persistence, he actually snapped at Irene, ” I am sorry but I'm busy now. Ask elsewhere.” I can’t say I blame him. I stopped talking altogether. I was reduced to nodding or pointing fingers and sign language, maybe even a grunt! Haha. My feet were hurting.

It was 8 PM when I reminded her we should eat. She relented. I recommended the Tom Yang Goon. She didn’t even have any idea what it was, and SHE IS INTO COOKING! Damn! As I cooled down, I realized that she wanted to walk further to look for an accommodation where she will be transferring in 2 day's time. I just told her, I’m wanted to go back to our hotel. I had to get up early for my trip to Sukhothai. We agreed to meet tomorrow upon my return; dinner from her own class cookings, then visit the night market east of the city. It was a minor miracle to see he follow me. Probably it’s because it was starting to drizzle. I dozed off the minute my back touched my bed. I was just so tired.

Now consider this Chiangmai map. I HAVE unknowingly circumnavigated all the marked streets. The asterisk marks where Moon Muang and my guesthouse are located, from where we started our hike.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

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