Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Weekend in Chiang Mai

At a temple in Chiang Mai
A few weekends ago, some of my friends and I decided to take a break from the routine that we have so easily slipped into in Bangkok to travel to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is one of Thailand's largest cities, second only to Bangkok, and came highly recommended by those who had been there before. We wrapped up work on a Friday evening, and headed over to Hua Lamphong station to board our overnight train to Chiang Mai. 
At least a couple of members of our motley crew were somewhat wary of the train journey, not knowing what to expect. Fortunately for us, the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai ended up being a memorable one. Not long after we boarded the train, we discovered a carriage twinkling with fairy lights, reverberating with dance beats, with a bar and tables and chairs arranged restaurant style. Unsurprisingly, the seats were all occupied, so we watched a day in Bangok's life go by through the windows, shouting at each other to be heard over the din of the train wheels. As other trains - far more crowded and far less inviting than ours - passed by, it became evident that ours was a special train catering to tourists who wouldn't mind paying a little extra for little comforts.
When we returned to our carriage, a member of the staff made our beds for us, which we gratefully climbed into. Every berth came with curtains that could be drawn all the way, so that each of us had a little private enclave to ourselves for the night. Rocked to sleep with the rhythm of the train, I slept even better than I usually do. In the morning, we woke up to see green fields and coconut trees, thatched huts and banana palms pass us by. As we had been warned, our train arrived in Chiang Mai a couple of hours behind schedule. Still, we had had a very comfortable and pleasant journey into Chiang Mai and that was enough. The journey, as they say, is the reward.     
Figurines of monks
 Although we had been told that Chiang Mai tends to be cooler than Bangkok, we were greeted by scorching heat as we left the train station. We spent the afternoon temple hopping. If their temples are anything to go by, the Thai people have a fondness for gold. The temples we visited were exquisitely ornate and golden on the outside, which struck me as ironic given the austerity preached by Buddhism and exemplified by the lives of Buddhist monks. Despite the buzz of tourists outside, the temples each exuded a sense of calm as we walked in. At one, a friend and I received blessings from a Buddhist monk. He chanted softly as he tied a piece of white thread around our wrists. If I had to point to a single instance when the elementary Sanskrit that I struggled with in middle school came in handy, it would be those few moments inside a temple in Chiang Mai. As we walked away, I was happy that I was able to decipher some bits and pieces of the Buddhist chants that we had just heard.
Chiang Mai's food scene is every bit as exciting as Bangkok's. During our time there, we had some delicious (if spicy) Thai food both at sit down restaurants and at the city's night market. Like night markets in Bangkok, Chiang Mai's night market offers a dazzling array of food and shopping. Restrained by the size of my travel case, I chose not to indulge the hidden shopper inside me, and took in the sights and sounds around me instead. Chiang Mai has a much more relaxed and laidback vibe to it than Bangkok does. Despite the heat, we enjoyed walking through its streets, undisturbed by persistent and noisy traffic.    
On our second day in Chiang Mai, some of us decided to try out a half day Thai cooking class. We spent some time in the local market, wandering around wide-eyed, as our guide introduced us to key ingredients in Thai cooking. We also took a brief tour of a little garden behind the cooking school, listening to introductions about the herbs, vegetables and the dreaded chillies that are central to Thai cuisine.
An exciting start to the cooking class

At the local market
Ingredients for a Thai red curry
Finally, we spent a few fruitful hours chopping, grinding, frying and stirring, in the process of putting together an enviable collection of Thai dishes including pad thai, som tum (papaya salad) and Thai red curry. We ate what we cooked, and left just after lunch with lessons in Thai cooking and full stomachs.
We spent our last evening in Chiang Mai at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep ("wat" is Thai for temple), a temple just outside the city. We climbed the hundreds of steps to the temple, arriving in time to watch the monks chant as the sun descended on Chiang Mai. A memorable end to a memorable trip.    
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep


  1. Would you be able to give me more info on the train you took? We're also going to Chiang Mai from Bangkok and it sounds really fun!

    1. Hi Meike, we simply visited the Hua Lamphong railway station and asked for tickets to Chiang Mai. We asked for an AC coach - don't remember the name of the train sorry!