Charming Chiang Mai

Trip Start Oct 12, 2010
Trip End Mar 24, 2011

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Monday, November 22, 2010

"Head north, young woman!" I heeded that call and hopped a train to ride the rails to Chiang Mai a couple of days ago.  I opted for the train over a flight as I thought it would be interesting to see the countryside from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  I was right - it was amazing to see hours of rice paddies and then the landscape gradually changed to become more verdant and lush - lots of trees and vegetation - a few hours later, we were climbing into the foothills and mountains in the northern part of Thailand.  The train ride itself took about 121/2 hours and now that I have such an epic journey on the railway behind me, I've been there, done that and don't feel the need to sit on a train for that long again :)   I must say that I enjoyed the ambiance of a train more than a plane in terms of the view and the pace - there is something very relaxing about listening to the clickety-clack of the rails and watching the country slowing pass by.  It is easy to stay awake, read and watch out the window.  All that being said, the train was no Emirates airplane!  My train consisted of a grand total of 3 cars and mine was quite shabby - the seats were dirty and broken, the windows had a thick coat of reddish-orange grime and the washrooms were 'tolerable'.  On the bright side, the staff were pleasant and helpful and they served free food and hot/cold drinks on a trolley they brought through every few hours.  The train had air conditioning and reclining seats (on my 'posh' second class ticket) which both were much appreciated.  The crew were cleaning constantly, sweeping, mopping, fixing the fans so that they were working well - I was impressed by that.  There were a group of monks (I wonder what a group of monks are called - a 'gaggle', a 'pod' - hmmmm) in my train car.  They were well looked after - apparently, monks are treated very respectfully in Thailand and are always given the best seats, are given their meals and drinks first etc.  It was nice to see.

The train arrived about 45 minutes late into Chiang Mai but just as we were arriving around 9:15 PM, you could see fireworks and lots of orange lights in the sky floating around.  It turns out I have had the very good luck of arriving smack-dab in the middle of one of their biggest festivals of the year - the Loy Krathong Festival which lasts from Nov. 20-22.  This is the Festival of Light, which Thais celebrate on the evening of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month, which is usually in November.  This festival is held to celebrate the end of the rainy season and to honour the spirits of the water when the fields and canals are overflowing.  It is SUCH a pretty event.  Chiang Mai is one of the places in Thailand that hold the biggest festival and it is decked out in all of its finery.  There are paper lanterns and flowers and lights everywhere and at night, kids set off fireworks and firecrackers and everyone launches small floral wreaths with lit candles and incense in the moats, canals and the river to ask forgiveness of the water goddess for polluting her waters and to cast aside any bad luck accrued over the past year.  Paper lanterns with candles or little pots of flaming oil are also set afloat in the sky to carry away vices and misfortunes and as night falls, you see thousands of orange paper lanterns floating up to the full moon - it is one of the most peaceful and beautiful things I've ever seen. 

Last night I spent the evening near the main square in the city and it was filled with people who were enjoying the decorations, launching their flower boats, releasing paper lanterns into the night and setting off fireworks.  As it was Sunday night, there was a 'Sunday Walking Street' which is a night-time street market that takes over a couple of the main streets downtown and the area is filled with hundreds if not thousands of people strolling, browsing and enjoying the food and sundries for sale.  Believe it or not, in the middle of these throngs of market-goers, there came a HUGE parade with massive exotic floats and marchers with flowers and lanterns.  The parade organizers didn't close off the streets so that the parade could come through, they just came right through the middle of the crowds!  You had to squeeze to the side when the wide floats came by - it was something to see!

Chiang Mai is a smaller city than Bangkok and it feels completely different.  There is an older part of the city surrounded by a moat and old city walls and then a newer part of the city outside the moated area.  The main river that goes through the city is the Ping River.  The traffic isn't nearly as chaotic as Bangkok and the main way of getting around is by tuk-tuk (the modified 3 wheeled vehicle with a bench in the back under an awning) or the songthaews, which are red 1/2 ton trucks that have a covered area in the back with benches running along the side.  These are the most commonly used 'taxis'.  Chiang Mai doesn't have city buses or a subway so everyone is zipping around on their motorbikes or in tuk-tuks and songthaews.  There are LOTS of guesthouses, B&B's, sidewalk restaurants and noodle-houses and a zillion places to get Thai massages.  I'm not kidding, on every street or soi, there are at least 5-10 massage spots.  People are friendly and laid-back and you don't get aggressively hassled at all in the market or shops or along the streets. 

I am staying in an absolutely charming B&B called Baan Hanibah, which is right off one of the main streets along the moat in the old city but it is tucked away on a side street and it is very quiet.  The property is an older teak house and it is so beautifully appointed - teak beds, artwork, hand-made pottery basins for bathroom sinks and all of the mod-cons.  Upstairs there is a reading nook, an internet area and communal lounge with a deck over the garden and street - you can listen to the water burbling in the koi pond below you and watch the gray squirrels hop from tree to tree.  Breakfast is included in the morning and is served in the garden with fresh exotic fruit, cereals, coffee, passionfruit juice, eggs, toast - you name it.  It feels like paradise to sit out in the warm sunshine and take in the peace and tranquility of this beautiful place. Oh, did I mention the cost?  I pay about $25/night!

Now, having extolled the virtues of this paradise I've found, let me also explain the 'paradise lost' component of my little slice of heaven.  One word: roosters.  Yep, you heard me, roosters.  Apparently in this area, it is quite popular to breed and train fighting roosters (cockfighting is big around here).  So be it - BUT - there is a yard full of roosters right under my beautiful bedroom window and I'm going slightly insane.  After my long train ride the other night, I was so excited to crash and have a long lie-in in the morning until just before 5 AM when I heard the weirdest croaky crowing sound that went on for well over an hour.  I justifiably thought I was hallucinating but NO, there are mangy, cocky, strutting ROOSTERS prancing around below me.  I think I hate them.  I lay awake and dream of their horrible demise and how I'd like to do them in.  I think I might off them with some fireworks because those are the other bane of my existence.  I know they are part of the festival and all fun and games, but dear God, you can hear them whistling and exploding about every 5 minutes from 5 PM until about 2 AM.  Between the explosions and the roosters, I feel like I am in Apocolypse Now every night.  Being somewhat sleep deprived, I am starting to have flashbacks to 'Nam!  Help!

The daytime wonders make up for the night terrors and hopefully I can change rooms soon after the festival ends which should help with my rooster dilemma and maybe the fireworks will die down then too - if not, I may end up with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and go postal on someone!  Watch out if I start wearing a bandana and war paint!

More on the absolute wonders of this city in the next couple of days - so much more to tell but night falls and I must stare out my window at the foul fowl below and start plotting my revenge :)
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