My immediate impression of Chiang Mai during the drive from the airport to the hotel is that I am going to LOVE his place! It must be obvious to all my readers that I have fallen in love with Thailand. This is my third visit and I am sure there will be many more in the future, but this is my first ever trip to the north of Thailand.
Chiang Mai is both a city and a province and is second only to Bangkok in terms of size, the entire province having a population of over one million with an estimated 300,000 people living in the city itself. Chiang Mai is situated alongside the Mae Ping River and shadowed by the magnificent Doi Suthep mountain. As Thailand’s second city and capital of the northern provinces it boasts a culture unique to northern Thailand and a rich history dating back more than 700 years to the Lanna period. Various hill tribes who all still lead traditional lives and follow ancient customs inhabit the mountains that tower above the city.
The town and its surrounding area are renowned for arts and crafts, spas, massage and herbal health products, trekking opportunities galore, and day trips to the Karen and Hmong hill tribe villages. Almost 70 percent of the province is covered by lush forests and mountains, which accounts for its reputation as a treasure-trove of natural beauty. There is so much to see here that the choices made our heads spin, so we decided to start with the Old City in the center of town.
The Old City is one of the most popular attractions in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Built over 700 years ago, it was once an entirely walled square surrounded by a moat. Some of the original city walls still remain – particularly the great brick bastions at the four corners – as does the moat which, rather than repelling raiders, is now an inviting green swath with illuminated spraying fountains. In the middle of each of the four sides of the Old City are the original gates to the city. The main gate, Thapae on the eastern side and facing the river Ping, has been rebuilt complete with a stretch of wall to give people an idea of what the walls were once like.
The entrance to Thapae gate, located only a block from our hotel, was our starting point. We blessed our good fortune at having arrived on a Sunday, since this is the day each week when artisans arrive from all over the province to display their wares at the craft market that takes over the entire length of Rajdamnern Road from 3 PM to 11 PM. Rajdamnern Road, which runs directly through the center of the Old City for more than a mile, is turned into a pedestrian mall on the evening of the market.
Stalls lined the sides of the main street for as far as we could see. At every intersection, more booths stretched to the right and left, again, as far as we could see. Musicians sat, cross-legged, in the center of the brick laid streets, strumming on common guitars as well as traditional instruments such as the one-string sitar, their cases open before them in hopes of catching the occasional donation.
Dancers performed in the middle of the street as well – one young girl in traditional costume stepped barefooted over the bricks as she performed a series of intricate steps while balancing two lit candles in her palms. When we started our walking tour around 4 PM the crowds were already big; by 9 PM the crowd was a living, pulsing, wave that flowed along the street, parting like the Red Sea for Moses whenever it encountered a street performer.
After walking a couple of miles we decided to treat ourselves to a foot massage. We hopped into two of the leather recliners lining the sidewalk behind the vendor stalls and sighed with pleasure as masseuses worked out the kinks in our tired legs and feet while we watched the throng seethe by in front of us. An hour later, refreshed and renewed, we were on a mission to satisfy our next need – food.
Joan had earlier found a delicious frozen coconut Popsicle and I had indulged in sticky rice with mango, but now we needed something more substantial. We checked out various food booths along the way, including this little number where we could have snacked on fried crickets and worms (Uggh! – no thanks) and finally wandered into a courtyard filled with food vendors, where I had the most delicious seafood fritata with sweet and sour chili sauce.
By 10 PM we were thoroughly exhausted from fighting our way through the crowds, so we returned to the hotel and fell into bed. I can’t even imagine what awaits us tomorrow.