Monday, December 1, 2008

Oh the crisp air of Chiang Mai

It's amazing what a difference climate makes.

I arrived in Chiang Mai around noon, off the overnight train from Bangkok. I was already elated, having actually made my train despite some serious difficulties, but stepping off the train into the crisp Northern air felt oh-so-good that I was grinning like a mad woman at all the vendors on the platform.

My ten-day jaunt to Chiang Mai happened back in mid-November. The trip kicked off the month-long countdown to my departure from Cambodia for California, and the cool dry weather was so similar to Orange County in autumn that it was impossible not to feel at home.

Upon my arrival, I took a winding route from the train station, across the entire town, through the bustling Wararot Market, where I picked up some coconut cream puffs -- soft crepe-like dough wrapped around neon green coco-cream filling, past a million wats, past a used bookstore where I happily overpaid for two paperbacks, past about 300 7-11s, and eventually all the way up Huay Keuw road to the hostel. The hostel was nestled in a small residential neighborhood aptly named Natawan Village. The houses were medium-sized brown and white cottage-y affairs that looked faintly pastoral with their thatched roofs and jaunty windows. The hostel drew your typical mix of young travelers, many single women on long-term trips, a few large groups of Irish and Scottish lads who had met up on their way, a Canadian couple, your requisite Germans, and me the only American for awhile. It was extremely clean and friendly, but definitely had a college vibe -- with photos plastered on the wall of nights out on the town and group trips to mountain lakes.

My first order of business was to hit up the local mall to pick up some toiletries and a scope out shoe stores to see about tevas for my trek near the end of the week. As I headed back into the village from my shopping expedition, the roti man had just set up his stall at the entrance to the neighborhood and he was making a first order for two teenage residents. I got to talking with them and they kindly ordered for me in Thai and then paid for my banana roti -- fried with an egg, and slathered in condensed milk and chocolate, with sugar on top.

Mm.. banana roti in the evening light

This perfect welcome boded well for the rest of my trip. That night, I went to a traditional khantoke dinner-dance show. The food was amazing -- and I was entertained not only by the dancers, but also by the very friendly couple behind me from New Jersey who only ate the fried chicken and white rice, so that they had to ask for refills five or six times during the show. The next day, I biked around town, checking out the major temples, taking photos and chatting with monks, and then spent 3.5 hours being scrubbed and rubbed and steamed until my skin glowed.

One of the hilltribe dances at the khantoke dinner.

Temple goodness

I spent one afternoon hopping from one trendy coffeeshop to the next on trendy Nimmanhaemin road. I swam 100 laps at a rooftop pool. I took a cooking class at an organic farm where I made friends with the instructor who shares my dream of someday opening her own food-related business.

Mont Blanc -- delicious coffee, yummy cakes and sweet atmosphere

Ingredients for Pad See Ew

Chiang Mai was the land of couples -- couples honeymooning, couples on year-long-round-the-world-jaunts, couples who just met, old couples, young couples, and me. Did it make me miss Jaime? Yes, like the Dickens. Did it curb my enjoyment of this beautiful town? Not a whit. (Well, maybe a whit, but not more than a smidge) This was especially apparent at the cooking course, where I was joined by a young clingy couple from Switzerland, a vibrant Danish pair, and a understate but sweet French duo from Brittany. Being without my other-half, I was paired by default with a huge, overbearing, somewhat racist Australian woman who couldn't stop talking if her life depended on it. In the course of a couple hours, I heard all about the negative qualities of her Laotian in-laws, the amazing abilities of her 3 long-distance swimmer kids, and the time her washing machine broke down and she went out that very day to buy a new one!

Some of my favorite moments on the trip included the twinkling night sky at the gorgeous Loy Krathong festival.

Loy Krathong on the river

Then there was the view from our hut during the overnight trek in Chiang Dao, the luscious green bamboo archways vaulting over our path, the cute little upside down bat in the limestone caverns.

Mist falling over the hills in the morning

There was cheering for the impromptu soccer match -- Lisu v. Lisu. And eating with bamboo chopsticks from bamboo boats carved from fresh green stalks by our guide Pol.

Our bamboo lunchware

Visiting the Sunday night market with all the amazing young artists and designers sitting on the sidewalk with their handpainted sneakers and trendy printed satchels and clever graphic tees.

Favorites from the Sunday Market

And motoing up the hill to see Wat Doi Suthep. The temple itself was overrun with tourists -- next time I'd go at dawn -- but the air on the ride up was crispy and fragrant so that you felt more alive afterwards than before.

For more photos, click here.

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