Chiang-mai

Chiang-mai has changed a lot in the last couple of years, becoming a true city, with all the facilities, the faculties, the white people driving the economic growth and bringing Starbucks and pizza hut to what used to be a beautiful village. Progress is good.

Don’t think that I have seen Chiang-mai fifty years ago, we are talking six or seven years since my first visit there and the change is more than noticeable. I wouldn’t say it is a bad thing, as the city does flourish now and their university is proudly competing with the major ones in Bangkok, but the small village charm is gone.

My first trip to Chiang-mai was an introduction to the north when I arrived to Thailand, a gateway to the different Lana culture, to the northern part of that jigsaw that makes Thailand a kingdom, and the Thai people a nation.

Chiang-mai is the kind of cities which are small enough to still maintain a quiet routine life without too much excitement but big enough to create such a gravitational force that time does move slower in the city limits. Outside of the city limits it slows down to a halt.  When I visit a place, especially a place so beautiful and quiet as Chiang-mai, I appreciate the fact normal global time does not apply. It is part of the magic.

 

 
 

One of the reasons I have such a soft spot for Chiang-mai is that I am a big wood fan, both in the tree form, and in the construction or furniture form, and Chiang-mai supplies both, and of high quality. The fact the area is so rich in raw wood means great walks in the shade and hikes outside of town, and a big furniture and construction industry based on old time techniques and traditional Lana decoration.

There is something relaxing about stepping into a traditional wood house, especially the Thai style ones, where serenity and a feeling of wellbeing  goes hand in hand with the Thai incense powder and the soft hushed voices, as if any one of these houses is a mini temple, a special little center of vital organic energy. But then again, coming from cement ridden Bangkok, maybe I am just being romantic here.

The fact the Chiang-mai university, on all its faculties, is gaining notability means the city is full to the brim with creative young people and the nightlife is a never-ending cover version in a small beer bar, maybe one of those clustered by the old city wall.

 
 

But what brings the tourists to Chiang-mai are the hundreds of temples around town. There are thirty six temples in the old city alone, and over three hundred around town and the outskirts. As we say, you just throw a monk in any direction, you hit a temple.

In Bangkok I use the temple gardens as points of cool refuge in a middle of a stroll, a quiet hiding place from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis vibrant streets. Here in Chiang-mai? The streets are still relatively calm, the atmosphere is still not as crazy as we are used to, so the streets themselves seem to have the same quality as the temples do. It is hard to explain, but it is almost as if the power of tranquility is seeping out of all these temples and engulfing the city.

Chiang-mai is located in the perfect position for hiking and exploring the north of Thailand, and is the gravitation center of many travel agencies and touring operations offering anything from personalized walks of the city and the main temples, through cheesy trips to fake hill-tribe villages full of souvenirs nobody in his right mind would buy (we got a great Lana style decorated bed cover and some candle holders there…),  and up to three day trips in the area.

 
 
 

Coming in the right time of year is crucial as Chiang mai is amazing when the weather is fine, but due to its geographical position and the fact it is trapped in a saddle between mountains means that three months a year it feels as though you live inside the Holland tunnel. Some days the pollution levels are so high, the residents are asked not to go out of the house unless it is completely necessary. Such a sad contrast to the lively green environment Chiang mai is surrounded by.

As any Asian city that respects itself, the main attraction is the night market, and as temperatures go down, alcohol level goes up, the long lines of stalls offer anything from flea market regalia and items of vintage curiosity, clothes and traditional footwear, lamps and furniture and the most important component in any Asian night market – endless array of strange street food.

Chiang-mai is the perfect place to relax and recharge, an alternative to the beach holidays most people are coming to Thailand for, and being a regional center of culture and art , is sure to keep you busy for a couple of days.

Oh, and the real reason we always come back to Chiang-mai? Try one of their Kao-Soi dishes, the traditional local noodle soup.  Pollution shmollution, I would walk all the way from Bangkok for a good plate of real Chiang-mai Kao-soi.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
                     
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