Chilling in Chiang Mai
Updated: Jul 3
We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, then changed planes and headed to Chiang Mai. On our first morning there we had the good fortune to meet Sophie and Chris, who were sitting in the common area at Yindee Guest House we were staying, and she was the day
manager. They were busy constructing krathong floats from banana trees, and graciously invited us (well actually Susie invited us!) to join them.
Sophie would take a large banana leaf and cut it into small pieces with her fingernails, and then showed us how to fold up the piece, very similar to making a paper airplane. The next folded leaf was stapled to the first, and so on, until we each had about a 30” length. They had several slices of banana tree trunk “discs” about 10” or 12” in diameter and maybe 3” thick, and the banana leaf “fence” was tacked around the edge of the disc. Sophie braided some thin leaves around the circumference, and added flowers, 3 sticks of incense and one candle to the inside. Voila – a hand made krathong. How cool is that!
Loi Krathong is a Siamese festival occurring on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. Honoring the Buddha was the original purpose,
but many people now view it as a ceremony to rid oneself of negative thoughts and past transgressions. Some add personal items to the float such as hair or fingernails.
Yi Peng is a separate Buddhist celebration used as a time to make merit, bringing good and agreeable forces to your life. This happens on the full moon of the 2nd month in the Lanna calendar, which happens to coincide with Loi Krathong. It is celebrated with colorful, intricately shaped paper hanging lanterns in homes, shops and temples, and more recently, swarms of sky lanterns. Tens of thousands of people come to celebrate these festivals.
As evening approached the four of us made our way towards the Ping River to find an auspicious place to launch our krathongs, but we quickly noticed that about 100,000 other folks had the same idea! We could see that hundreds of sky lanterns were already floating over the town creating a magical atmosphere.
Sophie had a good idea of where she wanted to go and Chris is about 6’ 4” tall so they forged a path through the crowd as we tried to stay close, finally crossing the Nawarat Bridge to reach the northeast bank. This area under the trees was much less busy and it was a wonderful experience for each of us to light the incense and candles on our krathongs and set them adrift on the slow current of the Ping River.
Now back to the street where we make our way south, stopping at a few food carts to sample various local favorites. Did I mention that lovely Sophie is barely 5’ tall and very petite – but she can eat more than any of us! Roti (similar to banana crepes), tiny meatballs, mango & sticky rice, fried pork skins and grilled skewers of pork, chicken or sausages. Yum!
Our plan is to cross back over the river on the Iron Bridge and look for someone selling sky lanterns, which seems likely as there are thousands of lights rising into the night sky every where you look.
It is still quite busy but the crowds have thinned somewhat and we quickly find a vendor and
purchase 4 lanterns. Made from rice paper covering a thin wire frame, they have a ring of some waxy, combustible substance at the bottom that Sophie picks at a bit to encourage ignition. After lighting the propellant the pilot(s) hold(s) the lantern for several minutes until enough heated air is caught in the lantern to lift it into the heavens. Make a wish or a prayer and watch it ascend. Very auspicious if the flame continues to burn until you cannot see it any longer. It if gets stuck in the bridge or a tree – not so much.
Well, after all that excitement and food we were all a bit thirsty, and Chris mentions there is a bar near here with a good band – and it is probably open mic tonight! We walk past Hard Rock Chiang Mai to the Kalare Night Bazaar, chock full of stalls selling every kind of knick-knack and local foods. Then up some stairs to a packed bar that held maybe 150 folks. Sophie said hello to several of the people running the place and we settled in with a small Bacardi for me and huge beers for the others – even Susie! (it was on ice)
The Boy Blues Band kicked off with a couple of good Chicago blues tunes, setting the mood and ambience just right. Boy Blues then called me up and graciously loaned me his Epiphone Les Paul, which had a really sweet tone in his hands! We did a fun swing through Red House & Kansas City with help from a jammin’ harp player. Great ending to an awesome day.
Chiang Mai is the 2nd largest city in Thailand with close to two million souls in the surrounding area, located in the northwest near Myanmar. Founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lana Kingdom, Chiang Mai rapidly gained importance being on the Ping River and close to overland trade routes. A moat and defensive wall were built to protect the city from warring tribes from Burma and China, as well as other Siamese kingdoms. The UNESCO title of Creative City was awarded Chiang Mai in 2017.
The desirable climate, topography and cultural history have combined to create a sizable increase in tourism every year over the last decade. Chinese make up the largest share of international visitors but Thai tourists from elsewhere in the country are the majority. Thriving expat communities exist all over the province, and we have seen more Americans here than everywhere else combined. The nearby mountains offer a plethora of activities included elephant visits, river rafting, mountain hiking & biking, zip lines and more.
One fairly new face of this business is agritourism, where a farmer brings in groups of tourists for some type of tour to augment his basic income. Tourists learn about local farming techniques and have the opportunity to sample and purchase the products. This is something we did when we visited the goat farm in Penang and on the river trip here a few days ago.
Yindee Guest House is in the old city, near the NE corner. The old city is about 1.5 km square, with a moat and some remains of a wall surrounding it. All the streets and alleys were busy from dawn until midnight with pedestrians, bikes, scooters and cars. Portable hawker stands were plentiful, as were storefronts selling everything from food to books to furniture
to auto parts. Every day was busy, but then almost every place was full for the Yi Peng festivals. And it was clean! Not perfect, but much cleaner than Indonesia and Malaysia. There are over 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai - on almost every block. Large and small – each has its own character and beauty.
We only had 3 nights open when we booked so on Nov 13 we packed up and carried our packs a couple of km SE, through the Tha Phae Gate and across the moat to the Astra – a 16 story hi-rise. Up to the 7th floor for a view across the southern part of Chiang Mai, and then up to the 16th floor for the gym (used many times!) and pool (used once!).
The Astra fronts on busy Changklan Road, and we put in many kilometers walking up and down going to stores, restaurants and the night bazaar. Every afternoon hawkers setup their stalls on the sidewalks so every passerby has to squeeze through their shops, selling t-shirts & sarongs, carvings, shoes and fake watches. There is a large 4 story mall with 2 floors of hi-tech gaming computers and endless shops with cell phone accessories. 7-11, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks & KFC compete with local and independent shops. Massage parlors are literally in every 5th space. I don’t know how they can stay in business!
Tuesday (19/11/19) we took a river tour of Chiang Mai, with the promise of English-speaking guides, a tour of a local farm with light refreshments and a unique perspective of the city. The minivan driver greeted us as we departed the elevator at 8:58 and we motored the short distance to the river, where a dozen of us boarded a covered boat. It was about 10 meters long with little tables and booths for 4 along each side. The 4-cylinder longtail engine looked to be from a Toyota and had a transmission, radiator and muffler, so it was pretty quiet.
The boat pulled away from the dock and headed upstream into the slow, muddy current, passing several bridges and restaurants we were familiar with, and continuing to move farther north. Waterfront properties became a mixture of high-end restaurants, hotels and private residences, with a few small shacks here and there, and a couple of barges doing some dredging. We observer few birds and no fish or animals along the way.
45 minutes later the boat pulled into some docks and everyone walked ashore past a small river side garden into a series of rambling structures. There were a couple of cages with rabbits and chickens. Then we were invited to have a seat at some tables to sample their complimentary refreshments: a small plate of watermelon and papaya and a glass of ginger & lemongrass juice which was actually quite tasty.
The boat driver and another woman from the boat “guided” our group through a couple of the buildings that had piles of junk like auto parts (boat?), propellers, old farm implements and tools. They did have many interesting old photographs of the area from the early 1900s on. And a beat-up elephant skeleton – missing a few key bones. She informed us this structure was used for filming Rambo 4. Huh. I did see a small walking catfish elbow its way out of a small pond, only to slither back in when he saw all the tourists. Back in the boat and back down the river to the dock. A pleasant if not overly stimulating ride.
Overall, we have greatly enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai. It is an interesting mix of big city on one block and a smaller town the next street over. We got our 3rd twinrix vaccinations at a
small clinic and I had my teeth cleaned at a large dental office, both of which were spotless, efficient and very affordable. Prices for lodging and food, especially western food are much higher than Indonesia & Malaysia, partly owing to the strengthening Baht against the dollar.
We are fortunate to have made more friends while in Chiang Mai, and have seen Sophie and Chris several more times. Tomorrow we are checking out and catching a ride up to the mountains for 3 days of quiet at Pa Pae Meditation Retreat.