Last weekend I went to Chiang Mai with Ben. After trying and failing to get a bus ticket the week before because we waited too long, we bought our bus tickets on Wednesday this past week and prepared to leave for Chiang Mai on Friday night.
Chiang Mai is around 233 miles away (by car) but getting there takes 5-7 hours by bus because of the indirect route and the frequent stops for dropping off passengers and oddly enough, packages. Our bus was leaving Tha Wang Pha at 9:30 PM on Friday night so we got a ride to the bus station from Kru Noi, and waited for the bus to arrive. The bus was actually very timely, arriving right at 9:30 pm. It had very few seats considering how large it looked from the outside, making it more understandable that the tickets sell out every week by Thursday or Friday. The buses have a VIP section (equivalent to first class) with large leather seats and spacious leg room, and a section for the commonwealth which was where we were seated as we didn’t want to spend the extra money. It was somewhat comical as the already limited leg room of our seats was demolished by our large backpacking backpacks that could not fit in the overhead compartment, so we just tried to jam our legs into any available crevices. I was worried that the bus would not have a bathroom but it turned out it did, so I was able to relax even with the lack of leg room. There was also a stewardess who passed out water and snacks (sesame biscuits) at the beginning of the trip, which was nice. I was able to sleep for most of the trip even with the lack of space because I was very tired.
We arrived in Chiang Mai at about 3:30 AM. Some of the Thai teachers had told us that we could sleep at the bus station until sunrise (about 6 AM), their reasoning partly because of the curfew still in effect from the coup and partly because we had no hotel or place to go that night. When we arrived to the bus station, we were nonplussed by the seating that we could supposedly sleep on, which consisted of individual but connected plastic chairs with outside ridges that dug into my back like sharpened cafeteria trays when I tried to lay down. I still managed to sleep a little bit which was fortunate because there was nothing to do at the bus station (everything was closed) and Ben and I were too tired to be able to form complete sentences. I experienced the first difference between city life and rural life as I noticed the bathrooms were controlled by some sort of urination mafia that was charging 3 baht for each use (only a small fee but paying for bathrooms in foreign countries has always seemed like a bad idea/scam to me). Ben used the bathroom first and although he paid 5 baht, the bouncer only gave him 2 satang back (100 satang = 1 baht) instead of 2 baht. I found this somewhat hilarious that they tried to be sly enough to scam him using a similar amount of change but it was still annoying, so I made sure to pay with the exact change when I used the bathroom.
When it was finally light enough for us to leave the bus station (about 7 AM), I tried to call a friend of one of the Thai teachers who had supposedly volunteered (or more likely been forced to volunteer) to give us a ride to our hotel. It was a very awkward phone conversation; I’m sure I woke him up, he seemed to not know who we were or be very excited to give us a ride, and his broken English and my nonexistent Thai didn’t really help. He said something like “let me… let me…” and hung up, so I took that as a no. It wasn’t a problem though, as there were plenty of songtaews (red pickup trucks with benches in the back that serve as taxis within Chiang Mai) waiting for customers in the parking lot. We had been told to negotiate the prices beforehand, but after the driver offered us what sounded like a reasonable price, we were too tired to try and negotiate and just accepted.
Our hotel, the New Mitrapap Hotel (new friendship hotel), had been booked by one of the Thai teachers and turned out to be pretty nice for only 250 baht each (about $7.70, it would have been $4.62 a night but we wanted A/C). Although we got there at about 7:45 AM, we were given our room key immediately so we just went up to our room, cranked the A/C and slept until about 11:30 AM. Since we weren’t going to be in Chiang Mai for very long we figured we wouldn’t stress about seeing everything and rather just take it easy and spend more time at a couple of attractions.
Our hotel was near the central city, so we decided to head in that direction in order to take a songtaew to Doi Suthep (Doi means mountain, this is a mountain west of Chiang Mai with a temple on top). We stopped at a pad thai restaurant along the way where I bought a delicious plate of drunken noodles for 35 baht ($1.08). Walking through Chiang Mai was cool, I saw a lot of interesting graffiti and stores that I normally would take for granted, but now appreciate because of the lack of them in Tha Wang Pha (i.e. bookstores that sell English books – these don’t exist in Tha Wang Pha and I have yet to see one in Nan), as well as more artesian and hipster stores that only exist in larger cities. There was also a lot of very cool graffiti; I love seeing graffiti in different cities, the urban environment can be an interesting canvas for creative street artists. It was also shocking and almost unsettling to see numerous farangs (European and American foreigners like ourselves) throughout the city as we are basically the only farangs in Tha Wang Pha.
In the inner city, we called one of the Thai teachers to ask his advice on a good price for the songtaew ride to Doi Suthep. Our negotiation skills were pretty ineffective anyways, so we just let the thai teacher talk to the driver on our phone, but two random old ladies tried to help us negotiate also, which was very nice. The ride to Doi Suthep and back was 225 baht each ($6.93) which was ridiculously cheap given that it was about a 35 minute drive and our driver waited for us while we explored the temple (for an hour) to give us a ride back.
The drive up the mountain was very windy, but it was neat to see the city of Chiang Mai unfold before us and we climbed higher and higher. There was also a small community at the top of the mountain, probably catered to the hordes of tourists passing through but cool nonetheless.
Rather than take a tram up the mountain, we decided to climb the some three hundred stairs to the temple at the top of the mountain. The temple was pretty; the whole area at the top was paved with marble and the temple was also constructed of marble. The most impressive part to me however, was the view over the city. We could see all of Chiang Mai from our vantage point. We also signed a banner that was to be wrapped around the wat in the future before making our way back down to our waiting songtaew.
After seeing Doi Suthep, we headed back to the inner city to walk around and see whatever wats we encountered on our way. We ended up stopping at Wat Phra Singh first, which was a next complex with several different temples on the grounds. After seeing the wats, we stopped and got smoothies at a nearby place on Rachadamnoen Road. I got a passionfruit smoothie with tapioca pearls; the tapioca pearls that they use in Thailand are much better than in the US, they are softer and slightly smaller.
On our walk back to the hotel we saw several more wats, including my favorite in Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang. Chedi Luang was somewhat reminiscent of a Mayan temple with its steep steps and pyramid like exterior. It was also interesting that it was partly ruined; it was damaged in an earthquake in the 1545. As we were leaving the temple we were approached by several high school students who wanted to interview us for a video they were making about learning English. At the end they asked us to write comments about their English; their English was very good but it makes sense being that they go to school in a big city.
We also saw Wat Bupparam which was pretty with a neat stupa.
As we were leaving the inner city we saw a cool street artist selling awesome paintings. I really wanted to buy one but was worried about transporting it back to Tha Wang Pha so I decided to hold off.
We ended up walking back to our hotel to shower and rest a bit before heading out to the nearby Night Bazaar and night market. The night bazaar was pretty cool although very tourist oriented. After walking about a hundred meters we had basically seen the whole night bazaar, as the vendors just sold the same sorts of things. Still, it was neat to check out and Ben and I got some great pad thai from a nearby street vendor. There were also some veterinary students from Ohio State University eating pad thai at the same place, so it was interesting to chat with them.
After eating dinner, we cruised around the night bazaar a little more before heading to the night market. The night market was very cool, it only sold food and fruit but it was neat to see all of the different foods. I still have yet to try durian, which is one of the more expensive fruits in Thailand (it’s about 100 baht per kilo or $3.09). We finally stopped at a nearby bar and played some pool before calling it a night.
The bus back to Tha Wang Pha took about 7 hours, partly because of various stops to let out and pick up passengers, and partly for mysterious stops to drop off “packages”. I have no idea why a passenger bus would also deliver packages, but whatever.
Overall, the trip to Chiang Mai was a great way to spend the weekend, albeit exhausting.
On a different note, this past Thursday was Wai Kru Day (basically teacher appreciation day). All of the classes made flower arrangements for the teachers, which were judged by the teachers to pick winners for each grade. There was also an assembly in which the students read various poems about teachers before presenting the flower arrangements to the teachers. It was cool to see the flower arrangements; some of them were very intricate and beautiful.
Other than that it has been a relaxing week and weekend. Since we have been travelling the past few weekends, we just decided to stay here and explore the area around Tha Wang Pha. Tomorrow I may go to Pua, a nearby city to the north, which apparently has great food and even an American restaurant.