Chiang Mai – “so long and thanks for all the fish”

So…big week this week. US elections.  If you ask the media everyone has a forthright opinion carefully layered over an agenda and the consensus is “no idea who’ll win”. Personally, I suspect it’s a done deal for one candidate and the media just like to keep everyone on tenterhooks just to keep them watching and thus advertising revenue remains high. Not that I am slightly cynical at all. No siree, I enjoy watching this new “reality show” as much as the next farang. I suspect if you now asked Romney what the answer to ‘Life, The Universe and Everything’ was, he’d say “49%” rather than “42” just this once.

I’ve not blogged in two weeks so my apologies to all and sundry. I’ve been gripped by US election fever, watching “Sandy” as it rumbled its destructive path along the US Eastern Seaboard and up into Canada, and a side trip to Chiang Mai. Talking of the latter, Isla and I flew there on Thai Airways. It was an empty 747 for a 50min flight. I kid you not, the little darling fell asleep as we arrowed into the skies and awoke as the Pirellis kissed the tarmac. A perfect 10 as she approaches her first birthday. That said, she’s always been a perfect traveler…if only the diplomat and I can extend that into her nightly sleep…

We got into Chiang Mai International airport which reminded me a trifle of Richmond Int’l airport, VA with its “hop off the plane, stroll across the grass, and through a sleepy hut, blinking into the bright sunshine to see a white picket fence.” OK, perhaps a rose-tinted nostalgia for a trip done 12yrs back, but it’s memories that matter. We hauled into a taxi and rumbled through Chiang Mai (think Guildford if Bangkok is London) towards Hotel Furama to meet the diplomat who had arrived a day earlier due to doing diplomatic stuff on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Chiang Mai immediately piqued my historical curiosity as I spotted the outer wall of the old city fortifications with its ditch (now a lovely straight waterway dotted with fountains).

Indeed the entire city was designed in 1296 when the Sukhothai Kingdom was established to be defensible, nestled in the crook of the Mae Ping river basin, protected by the mountain ranges of Thanon Thong Chai and Daen Lao. As we stopped at the lights on one corner I studied avidly the brick work, the turreted corners, the fortifications that are now crumbled. Ancient history is a weakness of mine. Don’t let me get started on the topic unless you are a baby desperately in need of sleep.

Anyway, we got to the hotel which looked like a re-varnished 70s style abode. Those always make me think of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”. The roof top restaurant/bar/swimming pool was absolutely stunning. We got to witness sunset over Doi Suthep (which is where we went the next day to the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep), got invited to “Halloween (sp)Nihgt”, had possibly the worst Mojito I have ever tasted (I recommend Stella in Ottawa for a perfect Mojito – it’s all about the number of straws you get –, and ordered a Sauvignon Blanc from room service which resulted in two spring rolls. Ho hum.

The next day Isla and I had the run of four Wat. The diplomat was forced to stay inside the hotel on a diplomatic conference so it was only fair we went out to report on the cultural delights of Chiang Mai. I have to say, if you ever visit Thailand, stop off in this city. It’s a breath of fresh air – literally, as the climate is a lot cooler than in the south, and metaphorically because it lacks that “big city bustle”. We decided prudently to hire a taxi for the day. A reasonable 2000THB for a 7-seater SUV who not only drove us, but chattered away about places of interest at the same time. We headed up the mountain which was an amazing 15mph, 30min ride of switchbacks. At best it was a 1:5 gradient, at worst 1:1.5. It seemed a pure joy for anyone ever wanting to race a sports car down it. Perfect for a Bond-esque car chase.  I actually saw four people cycling up it carrying wicker baskets filled what looked suspiciously like fish. Forget all that Lycra-clad nonsense with over-hyped sports drinks, fashionable shades, the yellow jersey, and two hundred gear options – try biking up a 1676m high mountain with a pannier of fish strapped to you for a really laudable effort.  So, we climbed and climbed until we knew we were at our destination because the trees suddenly gave way to pedlar stands. Usual souvenir tat and demanding vendors you have to firmly move through to reach the cable car that took Isla, the pushchair and I up to the Wat. It was breath-taking – historically, culturally, visually. Here’s two photos to show it – check out my fb page for dozens more.  Given it was a Wednesday the place was relatively deserted which made it a lot easier for me to haul the pushchair around.

About two hours later we descended back to our ride and fled down the mountain, going around only the second crash I’ve seen to date in this part of the world (and it was barely a bumper scrape. I have to say, from what I’ve seen so far, the Thai driving skill is excellent), and plunging past Chiang Mai zoo to go and see Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Phra Singh in quick succession. It was the first that was impressive (well, they are all impressive, but this one appealed particularly to me) with its 60ft high “ruined” Chedi and its Sao Inthakin. The Sao Inthakin is the name of Chiang Mai’s city pillar, erected by King Mangrai at the city founding, and brought to this location in 1800. The pillar itself is a replica of a pillar bestowed by the God Indra in order to protect the Lua populace from disaster.

Also there was an amazing reclining Buddha:

The other place of special note was Wat Phra Singh because one of the teaching rooms (sala) to the side of the main vihear was adorned with flowers. Mainly roses. I am not sure if it was to celebrate an event or just a reason to display floristry skills. Either way, as Isla sucked on a baby food pouch comprising Mango, Banana and Sweet Potato, we inhaled the heady scents, gazed at the azure skies, luxuriated in the warmth of the sun, and thought about the diplomat in her all-day conference room. One can take photos, but if only one could capture the sounds and scents…then you could really give the “feel” of a place.

We made our way back to the hotel to get a nap in for Isla, for me to watch “Fast 5” which seems to be the fifth instalment of “The Fast and the Furious” (I’ve seen the first one of the quintet),  before meeting up with the diplomat and taking our first ever tuk-tuk ride to a locally recommended restaurant named “Ginger”, est. 1997, The ride itself was great though you’d not want to be involved in a crash in one. Our driver claimed to know where the restaurant was, clearly didn’t as we had to phone them and pass him said berry to get directions, eventually depositing us at the Thai-fusion restaurant. The dinner was fabulous, the décor fascinating. I got the impression it was built in an old colonial or diplomatic house. Our table was lit with a large lamp with a shade painted with red-jacketed hunting scenes straight out of the English nobility pastimes. The diplomat bought some tiny bowls and spoons, Isla got a stuffed four-tentacle octopus. Not sure where its other two tentacles and two legs went. The diplomat educated me that an octopus has six tentacles and two legs. Dinner comprised a multi-starter of fried runner beans, popcorn shrimp, pork dim sum and chicken satay. Followed by steak and chips just to mix ‘n match. Exquisite.

This time we took another tuk-tuk home – this one was a little more of a boy racer as we rocketed around corners – piled into somnolence and awoke the next morning to catch another 747 back to Bangkok. Isla slept on silent command as usual. We are spoiled. Oh, and I got to understand that a “Vienna” is an open coffee with a lot of whipped cream. The diplomat prudently told me after I had drunk it that she had smartly removed a cinnamon stick upon purchase. Unfortunately, I loathe cinnamon. In fact, an option for Dante’s Inferno for me would be an eternity in a “Cinnabon” outlet.

So…that was Chiang Mai. Fascinating, cultural, cool, great food, fast tuk-tuks, Wats, switch backs, 747s, a roof top. As the late great Douglas Adams would say and as either one of Obama or Romney will have to mutter in a week: “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: Chiang Mai

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2 replies

  1. I was wondering where you were. That is a well travelled child. And super cute in her devil horns. I am so envious of what you get to see. And when Judi comes to visit, she has a standing order from me for buddah bells.



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