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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 49: northern thailand

chiang mai

bill: we are finally in thailand! we landed in the north in chiang mai, a city of 1.7 million people. after almost a month in vietnam, chiang mai was a pretty dramatic change. it is much more developed than i was anticipating, more modern, lots of cars and trucks and fewer scooters, normal roads, sidewalks. more like japan than vietnam. there are regular restaurants, not just holes in the wall with stools on the sidewalk. there are shopping malls, convenience stores, and supermarkets. like any city built before the advent of cars who then bought lots of cars, there is a lot of traffic, but it is all very orderly. nobody does the dishes on the street. people obey the traffic laws. it honestly just feels pretty normal, like a western city. just hot.

ping river

Amy: We opted to visit Northern Thailand first, specifically Chiang Mai, to align with the annual lantern festival, Loy Krathong (shoutout to David C for the recommendation!). We booked a room in a villa right on the Ping River, at the heart of all the festivities. The city was already buzzing with preparations when we arrived. We headed straight out to get some local Thai street food from a night market. Unfortunately, the next morning I woke up with horrible food poisoning.

bill: right after landing, as is turning into a tradition, we went directly to the local market for a bowl of noodle soup.  in the north of thailand, this is khao soi: a fragrant, lemongrass, kaffir lime, chicken, and coconut rice noodle soup with quite a bit of kick.  this turned out to be both a great idea (the best food i ate in chiang mai), and also a bad idea (a giant pot of curry sitting out at serving temperature in the market all day).  we both picked up a cold in vietnam and have been fighting it ever since, and right as amy started to get better, she came down with pretty bad food poisoning.  we had intended to explore some of the neighbouring towns (chiang rai, pai) but we ended up spending about a week in chiang mai doing a fair amount of laying low while she convalesced.

the offending khao soi

bill: during the 3 night long loy krathong festival people send off small, beautiful, intricate floating lanterns made of leaves, flowers, incense, and candles down the ping river through the centre of town. they also float rice paper lanterns into the night sky which is very cool. it also involves fireworks.  a lot of fireworks. and not a coordinated fireworks show that last 10 intense and expensive minutes like in canada. this is a 3-day long barrage of near constant fireworks, sold on every street corner and lit off just about anywhere by drunk festival goers roughly every 5 seconds in all directions. there are also these grenades that people throw into the river before the explode. a bad time to be a fish. these impromptu fireworks shows go late into the night and become more and more dangerous the drunker the crowd gets, people fumbling and dropping live fireworks, aiming them the wrong direction, shooting them at things etc. very fun but very chaotic.

fancy krathongs sold streetside next to the river

Amy: Overnight, the public park behind our BnB transformed into a bustling carnival, with bouncy castles, fair games and street food carts. Locals flocked here all weekend to celebrate with their families. We joined the festivities one night and released our own floating krathongs. We were told that releasing them on the river symbolizes letting go of negativity, anger and bad luck.

Amy: It's illegal to release paper lanterns within the city limits of Chiang Mai, so one night we rented a scooter and drove an hour outside of the city to Doi Saket Lakes to watch a mass lantern release. Pinpricks of light rose from the park in a steady stream, guiding us to our destination. Thousands of lanterns illuminated the sky in their own constellations. 10/10 worth it (despite the food poisoning). After observing an old man expertly light lanterns for his whole family, we bought one of our own, mimicked his technique, and released it together. Magic.

bill: the lantern part of the festival is probably the most surreal. hundreds and hundreds of lanterns being released at once, floating miles and miles into the sky. it is beautiful. but the lanterns are also a contentious issue. recently there have been a number of house fires related to lanterns released in the city, which makes sense; the lanterns are a flimsy parachute of rice paper with a massive piece of burning fuel attached, they drift wildly with the wind and come down anywhere they please.  the city of chiang mai has officially banned the lanterns, but that didn’t really seem to stop anybody from releasing them. even launching the lanterns get dangerous, as sometimes they don't go up and instead blow across the crowd, slowly lowering a massive flame onto the hair of unsuspecting patrons.

bill: things also cost a lot more here than i was expecting; a plate of breakfast will run about $8cad, hotels are about $40cad per night, macro-brewed beers are $1.50cad and a bottle of ipa will run you almost $8cad at the grocery store.  cabs are $7-20, and dinner for two people is around $30-40 without drinks.  not nearly as expensive as canada, but about 4x the cost of travelling in vietnam.  the prices are basically what i feel like things in canada should cost, but they don't. i had always thought that there was such a large expat community in thailand because it was cheap, but if that were the case, they would be in vietnam/cambodia/laos.  i think in part there is such a large community of westerners here because it is comfortable.  you can walk on a sidewalk, you don’t have to go to a hectic street market to buy your food, they have imported foods from every culture in the grocery stores, restaurants of every kind, and there are areas of the city that just feel like westboro. that and a lot of the expats here are creepy old white dudes here for more nefarious reasons than the cost of living.

wat chedi luang

tired amy

Amy: I wasn't feeling well for most of our time in Chiang Mai, but I did try to explore most of the old city with Bill. The central part of town is surrounded by an ancient square wall with a giant moat. Within the walls, there are dozens of ancient golden temples. We stopped to see a few, Wat Chedi Luang being the oldest. We also spent one night wandering around the Walking Market. Every Sunday, craft vendors, street performers and food carts are set up on the main streets,

bill: they call chiang mai the city of temples, and for good reason.  it seems like on every block in the old town there is a grandiose golden temple. the first few are very cool, by the 30th, it gets a little boring. but sheer volume is crazy, and overall they are very impressive.

red curry

bill: one of our takeaways from thailand is that we actually have really good thai food in ottawa. this was probably the worst green papaya salad i have ever had, el camino makes a better one and they are a mexican restaurant in canada ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Amy: Despite my dire gastrointestinal state, the main thing I wanted to do in Chiang Mai was visit an elephant sanctuary. I spent HOURS researching ethical organizations and ultimately decided on one that was run by the local Karen people. The Karen tribes are native to the mountainous northern regions of Myanmar and Thailand, and elephants are a revered part of their culture. The owner of the sanctuary we visited was a 7th-generation elephant keeper. He spoke to us about the close relationship he shares with his elephants, and we saw it firsthand. He raised one of the baby elephants in the herd, and it would follow him around all day like a puppy, poking him for sunflower seeds and attention. We spent the entire day feeding, walking, and hanging out with the herd of 7 elephants. They are very smart, very gentle, very strong, and very stubborn! Sometimes, it was clear the elephants did not want to do certain activities. Like swimming in the river. To be fair, I didn't even want to do this...the water was freezing! In these moments, I sat back and felt a little sad. In hindsight, I don't think any sanctuary that involves direct, extended contact with the elephants is super ethical. But I am grateful we met the ones we did, to see for ourselves how magnificent these creatures truly are.



bill: "sanctuary" is a pretty loose term though.  the one we chose came up at the top of all of the "ethical" lists, but i do wonder whether the elephants really want to be surrounded by strangers all day every day, being forced to do tricks for bananas and walk the same path every day and bathe at the same place day in and day out. the trainers seem to be prodding and encouraging them along and the second they get out of the river they douse themselves in dirt again, which makes me think they didn't really want to be "bathed" to begin with.  it does seem better than towing massive logs all day for logging operations or getting shot at for tearing apart farmland in the wild, but you can't help but feel that they are quite bored and tired of it and are being prodded along for the benefit of the trainer's pocketbooks. they don't seem overly stoked about it all, but are about as food-motivated as a labrador retriever since they need to eat about 40kg of food every day, so they go along with it for the most part. overall it seems these elephants live a life probably comparable to the average western horse, which is not perfect but in the grand scale of animal atrocities is not super high on the list.  maybe once we solve factory farming we can circle back to this one. it did leave us with somewhat mixed feelings though.

i got blown in the face with water out of an elephant trunk like in a cartoon

Amy: One of my favourite days was spent outside of town. We heard that the most impressive temple in the area was Wat Phra Doi Suthep, perched high on a mountain above Chiang Mai. We scooted up the winding roads, then hiked up a few hundred steps to reach the gilded gold temple. It was so hot it felt like we were being baked alive inside a giant gold oven. We wandered around to some shady corners of the temple, admired the intricate designs and got a nice view of Chiang Mai from above.

bill: the road to the wat phra doi suthep temple was super fun to drive; more winding mountain switchbacks but this time with proper pavement and two divided lanes. the air is the same temperature as your skin and it just reminds me how much i love riding motorcycles, but also that if i come home in january that it will be 6 months before i am able to do this again. lame. driving around chiang mai is a lot less terrifying than driving around in vietnam.  for one, there are rules of the road.  there are a lot of cars and a lot of traffic, but you get to lane split and zip around all of them on your scooter which is super fun. they do drive on the left side of the road here but it doesn’t take long to get used to.

bill: there is a beautiful temple up at the top of the mountain outside chiang mai, supposedly holding the shoulder blade of the buddha. the more i learn about buddhism, the more i have changed my perception of it. i used to think that it was mostly a philosophy with a few mild religious aspects; purporting that life is inherent suffering which can be ended with mindfulness and meditation, just come to temple every week and we can work on it together. but it turns out buddhism is much more of a religion religion. the buddhist religion involves lots of elements familiar to any abrahamic apostate; completely impossible stories meant to be taken as historical fact about warring gods and immaculate conceptions. heaven and hell. obviously fake relic worship. idol worship and prayer. a prophet who taught an ascetic, simple life being represented in giant statues of pure gold and emerald. grievous misinterpretation of scripture by followers for the purpose of holy war and ideologic proliferation. the more i learn, the less interesting it is. one of the interesting things however is the high amount of syncretism - there is a willingness to just combine buddhism with whatever the local religion is instead of overtaking it - whether taoist, vietnamese folk religion, confucianism, or hinduism, they don't mind if you add a few more gods. much more interesting as a philosophy than a religion, but so are many of the others.

Amy: We then continued along the road deeper into the mountains to Doi Pui Hmong village - the same ethnic group that inhabits the northern reaches of Vietnam. Some of the children here still run around in the familiar colourful clothing. We browsed the local handicrafts and walked around a garden before making our way back down the mountain to one last temple. We hiked the Monk's trail about 20 minutes up to Wat Phra Lat. We watched painters from an art class capture the ancient buildings, greenery and burbling streams on canvas. We ended our day with a nice dinner and explored one last night market.

doi pui hmong village

more khao soi and a fresh coconut, pretty classic northern fare

bill: we spent our last night in chiang mai in the nimman neighbourhood, a trendy, upscale neighbourhood that could easily have been in austin, tx or downtown toronto. lots of cool restaurants, art galleries, and upscale stores. christmas festivities were well underway, with outdoor concerts and night markets. very cool, we wish we found this part of town a little earlier!

the durian store: durian is a very popular fruit here, but the fines for eating it in a hotel room are higher than the fines for smoking, mostly because it smells "like sulfur, sewage, fruit, honey, and roasted and rotting onions", and the scent is impossible to get out of anything. yum.

bill: and that is it for northern thailand, we didn't get to see everything we wanted to see because amy got sick, but that is how things go sometimes. we are now off to cambodia!

no video this week! only 4 posts left (as soon as i can convince amy to finish her parts), so stay tuned!




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