We spent quite a while in Chiang Mai, but the first few days don’t really count because we were both very sick. I don’t know if we had the flu or a bad cold or what, but we were out of commission for a while. When we did finally emerge from our room, we discovered that Chiang Mai is a really nice place. It’s the second largest city in Thailand, but doesn’t feel too crowded or busy.
The main tourist attractions are the temples and shopping. Seeing the temples is easy. We practically ran into one every five minutes, especially in the Old City, which is the large square area in town that used to have a wall surrounding it (parts of the wall still exist, but now it’s bordered mostly by a moat). The modern Buddhist temples here are very colorful and tend to have a lot of gold and statues. Sometimes they have gaudy flashing strings of lights and music. That’s partly why I like visiting them, though. I love how zany and over-the-top they are.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was the best temple we saw. It’s up on the hills outside of Chiang Mai, so it has great views of the surrounding area. We rode up in a crowded songthaew, a small covered truck with two benches in the back for passengers to sit on. After the winding ride up, we made our way through the crowds of tourists and vendors, up the long staircase and finally arrived at the temple. According to legend, the temple was built in that spot when a white elephant carrying Buddha’s shoulder bone turned around three times, trumpeted and died there. The main feature of the Wat is the gleaming gold-plated chedi. There were also heavy, l0w-pitched bells hanging all over the place that bring good luck to those that ring them.
We also spent a few nights in Pai, which was kind of a stupid, touristy place, really. This seems like a good place for a quick side note about “touristy” places. Touristy places aren’t necessarily bad. Most places have a lot of visitors for a good reason. The Taj Mahal is super touristy these days, but nobody would say it’s not worth visiting. A lot of backpackers make a big deal about distinguishing themselves from tourists and they spend a lot of time making fun of them, but I tend to think there’s no need for such a distinction. Sometimes backpackers do more “local” things, sometimes we do more “touristy” things. To me, going around the world and eating only Western food and only seeing tourist sights seems just as silly as going around the world and refusing to see any tourist sights because you’re trying to keep up some artificial image as ??a “real traveler.” ??It also seems ironic to me when Westerners complain about the??presence??of other tourists, when they themselves are foreigners contributing to the “touristy” factor themselves.
That being said, some places are really just too touristy, and Pai is one of them. You know you’re in trouble when all of the street vendors are selling “I Survived Route 1095″ t-shirts and bumper stickers. (Because Route 1095 is curvy and goes through the mountains, get it?!) Pai is also filled with hippies. Nearly the whole town consists of white, barefoot twenty-somethings with dreadlocks wearing traditional Thai clothes. (Even the Thais don’t wear traditional Thai clothes.) That wouldn’t bother me so much if there was a lot of good art or music in Pai, but again, it’s really just a tourist trap. I just want to tell all the hippies, “You are not oppressed and you are in Pai, Thailand, one of the most fake places ever. Go to San Francisco or somewhere you belong.”
We did rent bikes and saw a few interesting villages outside of Pai. The countryside really is beautiful there. We also enjoyed the cool weather. We were actually cold at night! It was probably only in the 50′s, but we’re used to it being so hot everywhere. We’ll be in for a rude awakening when we head to northern Asia in the springtime!