Chiang Mai is a hard city to describe. Without the ostentation of Bangkok, it’s down-to-earth and rich in history, with hundreds of Buddhist temples and an ancient city wall to show for it. Past the clusters of power lines and the stench of durian, there’s a fusion of culture, Thai warmth, and good food that makes Chiang Mai – in my humble opinion – the heart of Thailand.
Reason #1: Thai People
So I had another motorbike incident. I see that judgmental look already, but hear me out… *ahem* I was riding on the back of my bike the other night when it sputtered and died. Not even a clunking turnover of the engine, but veritably dead and immobile in the center of Chiang Mai’s insane Night Bazaar. Upon closer inspection, we realized the bike had two flat tires and was out of gas. Awkward. So there I stood, wearing my glorified bike helmet and clutching a mammoth hunk of useless metal, intent on pushing it to the nearest gas station, over a kilometer away. My friends on another motorbike suggested riding Thai style, which would mean holding onto each others’ handlebars and “towing” my bike. As safe as that sounded, I was ridiculously relieved when someone came up with a better idea: putting my bike in the back of a songthaew (a pick-up truck taxi). After some hard bargaining with a songthaew driver, we struck on a deal and about 20 Thai men swarmed to lift my bike into the back of the truck. I didn’t have to ask for help; it was already there. So many times in Chiang Mai, when I’ve gotten into a jam or simply run up against my own cultural ignorance, the Thai people have stepped in with a smile and kind words. I think it’s this unhesitant warmth that has earned Thailand (and Chiang Mai) a special place in travelers’ hearts.
Reason #2: Natural Beauty
This one doesn’t really need elaboration. We have mountains, jungle, and ELEPHANTS. (Photo courtesy of Amber P.)
Reasons #3: International Friends (and Food!)
In honor of the Fourth of July, some people from my office got together for an expat-style barbecue. We had Americans, Kachins, Karens, Thais and a vast food offering to match: grilled chicken, cheddar potatoes, Burmese tea leaf salad, homemade ham, chips & guac, watermelon, fried pork skin, and German chocolate cupcakes. Chiang Mai is heavily influenced by Burma ethnic groups and the Western expat community. Following our Fourth of July feast, my friends from Burma broke out the guitars and bongos, serenading us with American songs. I finally joined in when they played Sweet Home Alabama… I have a weakness for Lynyrd.
Reason #4: Coffee
You knew it was coming. I’m biased towards any city with a modicum of coffee culture (if you haven’t gotten that by now, you were probably reading a different blog). The suburb of Los Angeles where I’m studying is sorely lacking in coffee establishments that aren’t Starbucks, so I appreciate the 300+ independent coffee shops in Chiang Mai. In fact, this blog is a product of cozy cafes and caffeine, so long live Chiang Mai coffee culture! I’m currently at Ristr8to, a world-renowned cafe whose latte rivals those I’ve had in San Francisco and NYC. Ristr8to will even do latte art with your face if you ask nicely. I was a bit scared by the prospects of my sweaty visage in milk foam, but perhaps next time.