Saturday, February 25, 2012

I Love Chiang Mai

I love Chiang Mai. It reminded me a lot of my hometown (Athens, Georgia) in that it's a college town, has a good art and music scene, and seems to be full of cool people. The city is well-organized and even has a highway loop (like Athens) to get you around easily by avoiding traffic.

Monica already devoted an entire blog post to the place we stayed in Chiang Mai (Ob-oon Homestay), but I wanted to add a few photos of my own. Ob-oon really felt like home for the four nights we were there. Kap (who used to be a chef) cooked a delicious breakfast for us every morning, and even invited us to join his friends and family on our last night for a home-cooked meal. It was nice talking to everyone about their lives in Chiang Mai, and how things have changed so rapidly over the years.

Communal hang-out spot.
Loft deck in the five-person room.

Our bedroom.

Art done by the 8-year-old son of the owners.
I went out one day with a bicycle from Ob-oon and explored a bit of the neighborhood. I found a restaurant where absolutely no tourists go. It was the first menu I saw in Thailand that hadn't been translated into English and I was prepared for a struggle. None of the waitstaff spoke English, but thankfully there was another customer who came over and helped me out a bit. I ended up with a (spicy!) papaya salad, sticky rice and barbecue pork. Things always seem to work out okay.

My bicycle.
Later that night Monica and I went to explore a bit of downtown Chiang Mai. Kap's brother gave us a ride into town--so nice of him.

Tuk-tuk party.
We checked out some temples...

Monks' wardrobes hanging out to dry.

A very particular shade of orange.

Valentine's Day is pretty big in Thailand. To celebrate, Monica and I treated ourselves to a lot of street food that night.

Then we went out to a bar on the river (The Riverside) and saw some local cover bands. This is where all the cool kids were.

Following another tip from Sara and Jesse, Monica and I rented a motorbike one day and drove up the mountain to a place called Mon Cham, a restaurant and camping spot situated in the Nong Hoi Royal Project. The Royal Project aims to help villagers diversify their crops by teaching them to grow cash-yielding produce such as strawberries and brussel sprouts, often replacing opium crops.

I bought some strawberries from the villagers.

Tiny, but tasty.
Monica, checking out handicrafts.
Back in downtown Chiang Mai...

They really love their king.
The day Monica took the cooking course, I went out on motorbike and visited a few places I'd wanted to check out. My first stop was Wat Phrathat on the mountain Doi Suthep. The road was very curvy and steep in some parts, but extremely beautiful and surprisingly empty.

Selling handmade bracelets on the stairs leading up to the temple.

Hot pants! That guy is pretty cool.
Is that little girl giggling? I think she just got away with smoking a cigarette.

The one negative about Chiang Mai (and much of Southeast Asia) is the air pollution. The combination of exhaust fumes from the plethora of vehicles and motorbikes combined with the slash-and-burn agricultural technique creates white-grey skies and thick air that has really started to bother my throat. Perhaps it was especially bad because of the time of year, but let me put it this way: I got to the top of the mountain and had zero percent visibility. I wonder if Chiang Mai ever gets a clear blue sky...

A huge sign on the wall read, "Do not ring bells." Oh well...
"For Hit Only!" What else are you going to do with this gong?

A couple of cool signs...

In case you are wondering, this is what a nice toilet looks like in Southeast Asia. The hose is their version of a douche (replacing toilet paper) and you flush by pouring water into the toilet using that green bowl over there. If you bring your own toilet paper, you aren't supposed to flush it, rather you put it in the waste basket because the plumbing isn't good enough to handle it and the toilet will clog. Often, there won't be a toilet seat, and even more often there won't even be a toilet bowl ... just a squat toilet. South American toilets are quite similar although they don't have the water hose. If you're in Vietnam (as I learned yesterday), the entire women's bathroom might just be some tiles on the ground with a three-sided, five-foot-tall cement wall blocking you off from view a bit. The floor is covered with used toilet paper and often there are men peering over the walls like Kilroy.

I took the motorbike to a market on the outskirts of town, and was impressed with the freshness, presentation and quality of the products for sale.

I ate at a local spot, pictured below. They specialized in soup, so I got the noodle soup with pork, which was quite good despite the cilantro. If you're a fellow cilantro hater, you're not alone. I was relieved when I read this New York Times article, published in April of 2010.

I ended my day at a coffee shop called Paper Spoon down the street from Ob-oon. It was tranquil there, and beautifully designed. I treated myself to a cappuccino and wrote some postcards and letters to friends and family as the sun went down and filled my table with a soft, bright orange light--a perfect way to conclude my Chiang Mai experience.

We left the following morning, heading to Luang Prabang via bus and boat. More on that later...