When I’m anxious, I don’t sleep. I get antsy. And I’m early. We were at the train station in Ayutthaya about an hour before the train was due to leave, having shared a taxi with a couple of American tourists who also stayed in our Homestay. They were houseless and jobless making the move from CA to NY – he had taken the NY bar exam and was waiting for results. In the meantime, they were travelling. I was bricking it, wondering if our tickets would be fake. For one heart-stopping moment, I thought we were done. Someone was sitting in seat 26. But then I checked our seats and we had 27 and 28. Empty. Whew. We sat and fretted until the ticket inspector had checked our tickets and marked us off on his paper plan of the carriage. I can’t tell you what the relief felt like. We were on our way to Chiang Mai.
The train to Chiang Mai
Shortly after boarding, a lovely uniformed hostess gave us each a bottle of water and a snack. Impressive. Later again, we were served a lunch of rice, mahi-mahi fish curry, and some spicy hard-boiled eggs. I ate the rice. Himself ate everything. We could have soft drinks and tea/coffee at will. The wooden floors, the reclining seats, the air-con – and all in a second-class carriage – added to the feeling of otherworldliness as none of it was posh – all very basic, but clean and worn and well-travelled. Every third or fourth station, we’d stop for longer than usual and a man would sweep the carriage, cleaning up after those getting off in preparation for those getting on. The scenery moved from the flat rice fields to lush jungle. I’d packed an old iPhone loaded with music I’d not listened to in years, plugged myself in, and just sat, mesmerised, watching the world go by. At times it was if we were in Serbia – we could have jogged faster than the train was moving – but we’d get there, eventually some 2.5 hours later than scheduled, but hey – we’d been fed again. And watered. And really looked after. That’s that box ticked.
Staying in Chiang Mai
We headed straight to the guesthouse I’d booked based on rave reviews. The room was tiny. No air-con, with a bucket of water by the toilet to flush it. We’d booked for three nights and had I been 30 years younger, I might have stayed. But no. At 11 pm that night we roamed the streets looking for a better place – and found one at Kristi House. Big room, big bed, air-con, and a flush toilet. All pretty basic but we had room to move around. We were set. The city is packed full of places to stay suiting all sorts of budgets, from basic hostel dorms to plush hotels. The old city, set inside the city walls, is the place to be, if you’re a walker. It’s here you find the restaurants, the temples, the markets. I’d done some research, happening on a great blog by Two Wandering Souls and had a short list of what I wanted to do in the couple of days we’d be there.
Thai massage in Chiang Mai
I’m a great fan of Thai massage. I’d had a couple in Bangkok and really enjoyed them. Do they hurt? Hell, yes! But man, do you feel good afterwards. The Women’s Correctional Facility in Chiang Mai runs a massage programme whereby the inmates get to learn the skill to prepare them for a job in the outside world on release. There’s no booking system. You show up as early as possible in the morning – I was there at 7.40am – and if early enough, you get a spot straight away; if later, you get to come back at an appointed time. Spaces usually fill by 10.30. There are no cubicles – everything is open plan. Uniformed guards wander around with clipboards; the women are very deferential and a little anxious. I’d thought long and hard about why I chose this over all the other places in the city. Was I bordering on voyeurism? Was it the whole prison thing? Or was it some sort of altruism, my tiny contribution to a great cause? While I’d like to think it was the latter, hand on heart there was an element of curiosity in there, too. I bought some things in the prison shop and chatted for a while with the girl in charge there – she told me proudly that everything had been made by the inmates. None of them looked like hardened criminals. They were young and sweet and had obviously gotten caught up in something bad to have landed inside. From what I read, most are there because of offences relating to recreational drugs. But the numbers are staggering:
There were 42,772 women prisoners in 2017, almost double the figure in 2008, which stood at 26,321. Thailand is ranked fourth in the world for having the highest number of women prisoners, after the United States, China, and Russia. However, when considering the incarceration rate per 100,000 of the national population, Thailand has the world’s highest rate of women prisoners.
Women in Thailand, particularly from the hill tribes, bear most of the responsibility for their family – they raise the children, look after ageing parents, and work to pay off their husband’s debts. The pressure is more on them than on the men to provide and support. And that drives them, out of necessity, to do things they mightn’t normally do – perhaps only once to make a quick score. But if they’re caught, they’re caught. There’s a chain of other parlours around the city, staffed by ex-prisoners. The three branches I passed had 5 star TripAdvisor ratings and had we had more time, I’d have tried one.
Thai cooking in Chiang Mai
Like Bangkok and Ayutthaya, the food in Chiang Mai is wonderful. But here there’s a massive focus on cooking schools. We lucked out in that the Asia Scenic school was just across the road from our hotel but all the schools will pick you up and drop you back. We booked ourselves in for a half-day evening course starting at 5 pm, ending at 9 pm. Our instructor, Pop (Poppy) explained the rules. We’d only get a refund if all 8 of us took ill. Once that was clear and introductions over (three young couples, two American and one Swiss, and us) she took us to the garden and gave us a hands-on introduction to the herbs we’d be using. I hadn’t realised that there were three types of Basil or that Thai ginger wasn’t the ginger I normally use. From there we went to the market to check out the spices and the noodles.
We visited the oldest market in the city, a wooden structure that has been standing for more than 100 years. It has all sorts of teas and spices and noodles and fruit and veg as well as the usual run of clothes and such. I wanted to see a Durian – the fruit that every hotel I’ve been in has banned. Large signs everywhere saying NOT to bring the fruit into the hotel. It’s a spiky thing and looks harmless enough. But once the skin is off, it stinks. We had a quick look around and made a note to come back on the morrow. Then it was back to the kitchen to cook.
We each cooked three dishes – my choices were Pad Thai, coconut soup, and the local noodle dish Khao Soi. The instruction was hands-on and the experience was great. But we had to eat what we cooked and it was far too much. With so many flavours, many of the new, there was far too much going on in my mouth for me to really appreciate what I was eating. My Pad Thai wasn’t bad but my Khao Soi wasn’t a patch on the one the little old dear on the corner had cooked up for me the previous day. We got a cookbook to take with us and a promise that they’d answer any questions we had when we got home. Practice, I think, with practice, I’ll be fine.
Temples in Chiang Mai
The city has its fair share of temples. No surprise there. Over 300 in the whole city with 75 in the Old Town. We were looking for a Monk Chat, a programme run by five temples where you can sit with some young monks and chat away, in English. They get to practice the language and learn about other cultures. You get to satisfy your curiosity and ask them anything you want to know. Rather than specifically choose one, we wandered.
We happened into Wat Chedi Luang, with its magnificent Chedi surrounded by stone Singalese elephants. The temple is also home to a small shrine of the City Pillar. Only men can enter as it’s believed that women, because they menstruate, would make the place unclean. It was here that we stumbled on a Monk Chat programme. I wandered over to four young monks sitting around a table and asked if I could talk to them. In their early 20s, they’d all come from Laos. One of them was all chat and took his job seriously. Another was shy. A third was too busy on his phone (which he’d borrowed from his brother) to pay much intention. And the fourth was busy writing notes on something. The chattier pair were fascinating. One had joined up at 18 and was now, at 23, studying humanities at the university. The other, like every boy in his village, had joined at 10. I was shocked. All the boys in your village joined a monastery at 10? Who was left to get married and have babies? They roared laughing. And I tell you, I’ve yet to hear a more engaging sound or see a more beautiful sight than the genuine nature of those laughs. These young men were free, truly free.
By complete accident, we discovered the famous Crystal Buddha, Phra Satang Man, in Wat Chiang Man. This small figure apparently dates back to the eighth century. And there it was, on display, to the public, with not a security guard in sight. Many of these temples have priceless artefacts on show and the level of trust is quite something. In Budapest and Dublin, we chain the tables and chairs left out overnight on the restaurant patio. Makes you think.
In the Viharn Lai Kham at Wat Phra Singh, we saw some beautiful murals from the early 1800s which depicting local life and scenes from the Jataka. The pillars and back walls were a beautiful red and gold which I found out later gave the viharn its name. Lai Kham is red lacquer patterned with gold leaf.
But of all the temples we’ve seen so far, the old and run down Wat Lam Chang was my favourite. It seemed more lived in, more real. There’s some sort of argy-bargy going on between the monks and the city over adjacent land and that maybe makes it even more real. Known as the temple of the tethered elephants, it has plenty by way of elephant statuary. But it has quirky other stuff, too. Stuff that isn’t as obviously religious but still laden with meaning. Check out the photos on Facebook to see more.
One of the temples we visited (I can’t remember which, but quite possibly Wat Chedi Luang) turned the heart crossways in me. I walked into one of the Viharns and saw what looked like an elderly monk sitting, meditating in a glass case. I swear, I could count the hairs on this head. I waited and watched to see if he’d breathe or move or blink an eye. He didn’t. Strange stuff.
Probably the most famous temple is the city is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s a little outside the city with a 300+ step climb, so I wasn’t going there ever. It’s way too early in the trip to do my back in. But himself was all set to hike up the Monk’s Trail and the Pilgrim’s Path. But we had torrential rain that turned the surrounding hillsides into mud slopes.
Leaving Chiang Mai
From Bangkok, I’ll remember the touts and scammers. From Ayutthaya, I’ll remember the packs of wild dogs roaming the streets and the temple grounds. With Chiang Mai, it’ll be monks and soldiers, an odd mix that colours the streets and gives you pause for thought. We caught an open-mic night at North Gate Jazz Co-Op and saw some eight-year-olds making great music with drums. Other than that, it was restaurants and bars and relatively early nights. It’s a grand spot, home to many retired expats who enjoy the hippyish lifestyle and laidback vibes. We amused ourselves over a drink one night by checking out what it would cost to set up shop here for a few months – just for a break. Me? I’m holding out to see Chiang Rai.