Sunday, April 13, 2008

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the unofficial capital of northern Thailand and the second largest city in the country, but it seems to be a world apart from the modern metropolis that is Bangkok. First off, it’s a bit medieval with a moat and stone wall surrounding its perimeter. The city is also more spiritually inclined, with literally hundreds of temples gracing its elegant streets. It’s full of history, but has not been lost to it and today Chiang Mai’s stylish cafes, vibrant nightlife and colorful markets draw just as many tourist as its more ancient elements.

We began our exploration of the city with a tour of some of the most famous temples. The temples in Chiang Mai are mostly from the Lanna period and are heavily influenced by the Burmese, so they are quite different from those in the south. They feature tiered roofs and are often decorated with intricate wood carvings and gilded nagas, lions and umbrellas. A few of the highlights for us included a graceful minimalist temple made entirely of dark teakwood and the ruins of a giant chedi adorned with massive elephant sculptures. During our meanderings, we also observed some young monks dismantling a chedi to make room for a new structure – it certainly seemed a bit incongruous to see these peaceful people wielding sledgehammers and pickaxes! To preempt temple overload, we made a vital pit stop at one of the wats offering Thai massage and reflexology.

In addition to moderating your intake of temples, one has to be careful to avoid overdosing on shopping in this town, as there are opportunities aplenty. Besides the nightly craft market aimed at tourists, there are tons of local markets all around town, including a beautiful flower market. The Sunday market was our favorite, and luckily it was right around the corner from our hotel so we didn’t have to lug our purchases far.

Chiang Mai has some decent restaurants and fun bars down by the river. Since we had long been craving some live music, we were happy to discover that Tuk, a rocking guitar player that had impressed our friends Chuck & Jane many years ago, is still busting out the classic rock favorites every weekend and even seems to have an apprentice or two.

We spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park, a home for injured and mistreated domestic elephants. It’s a very special place and we felt privileged to take part in feeding and bathing these majestic creatures. It was heart breaking to hear about the tragic histories of many of the elephants, but encouraging to learn about the new methods the Park is developing to train baby elephants using positive reinforcement. If successful, it may help to revolutionize the traditional process of “breaking”, which consists of depriving and torturing the animals until they submit.

We also rented a car and spent a day in the mountains around Chiang Mai. Our first stop was the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, one of the most important temples in the country. Legend has it that the site was selected by a divinely inspired elephant, and whether or not this is true, it does provide beautiful views over the city and countryside below. Many Thais come here to provide offerings in the hopes that they will receive good luck and positive karma. Jen’s karma must be a bit off, because she used fortune sticks there and received what must be the worst prediction ever – something along the lines of “You are terribly unlucky. No one can help you. You must watch every move you make or you will suffer.”

We also visited the King’s summer palace, which, like his mother’s palace to the north, has a stunning garden. It also has an Olympic-sized musical fountain, a gift to the Queen for her birthday. Now we all know what to give that person who has it all!

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