magical chiang mai.

6 Dec 2011 § 1 Comment

I’m in the midst of editing the 1,000+ photos we took in beautiful Chiang Mai and it’s such a lovely reminiscence of a magical 5D/5N holiday.

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Despite a little blip when we arrived (the hotel forgot about the airport transfer, then we were told that the room we originally wanted was under repair, which resulted in us having to change rooms three times during our stay), everything else was absolutely perfect. November in Chiang Mai brings about cool weather, hovering around 20+ degrees in the early morning, followed by bright sunny skies throughout the day and we took full advantage of it – starting our day with breakfast at 9am, after which we were out and about till nightfall.

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If pressed for a single word to describe Chiang Mai, I would say ‘character’. The city has an old-town, laid-back charm and I fell in love with everything about it…the red tuk-tuks and three-wheeled ‘taxis’, the tiny shops that are tucked away in unexpected corners of the street jostling for space with the intricately designed wats, the too-cool-for-school area that is Nimmanhaemin Rd., the lack of towering malls and hotels. I was particularly entranced by the moat and the gates and walls that neatly separated the ‘older’ and ‘newer’ parts of the city at all four directions – our daily meandering would inevitably take us towards Thapae Gate, the nearest to our tiny boutique hotel.

With exception for the day and night-time markets (and there are plenty of both!), the rest of Chiang Mai seems to float at a very languid pace. Venture into the markets however, and it’s a whole different story altogether! You’ll be assaulted (tho not in a bad way), firstly by a sea of people, weaving and bobbing along, and then by the cornucopia of food, and in the case of the night markets, quirky arts and crafts as well. Many a times I found myself wishing I could speak or read Thai – at least I would not be left wondering if I should have tried this delicious looking snack, or that steaming bowl of noodle soup that everyone seems to be slurping down! A handy tip for walking the mother of all night markets, ie. the Sunday Walking street along Rachadamnoen Road – there seems to be an unspoken rule about the flow of traffic at this market, so start your walk at one end, and just keep to the left all the time and you won’t miss out on any of the little roads that branch out from the main one!

While we gave most of the ‘tourist-y’ attractions a miss, we did make a trip up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep after stumbling across an article stating that this temple was built especially for those born in the year of the Goat, and the Lanna people believed that visiting the ‘Phra That’ of their zodiac birth year at least once in their lifetime would bring them prosperity. The 309 steps that we trekked up was well-worth the journey as we were rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of the entire city, not to mention the magnificent gold-covered temple.

We also spent one day pottering around what Time Magazine refers to as the ‘arty epicenter’ of Chiang Mai: Nimmanhaemin Rd. Walking down this road (and the little sois/streets that branches out from the main road) will bring you past small independent home décor shops, boutique hotels, clothing and dessert cafés. It was here that we spent a good two to three hours at iBerry, thanks to the recommendation from friends who had visited Chiang Mai before. Set in a sprawling garden, iBerry serves up ice-cream, sorbets (try the Rose Apple sorbet), cakes and pastries, and with its proximity to Chiang Mai University, it isn’t surprising to see the place buzzing with students 24/7. With such offbeat décor – imagine an empty picture frame hanging from a tree, watergun-shaped door handles, huge yellow statue of a dog on the front lawn, low lounge furniture – it’s not unusual to find people (yours truly included) walking around with a camera or phone firmly clasped in their hands. This Chiang Mai branch is owned by renowned Thai comedian, Note Udom, and we were lucky enough to see him there for a short while on our second visit the following day.

I think the best food we had in Chiang Mai was not from the two beautifully decorated restaurants we visited (Riverside and Ginger), but from the little ‘coffee shops’ and street hawkers. We indulged in grilled pork balls with fresh cabbage from carts in the street, som tam – papaya/mango salad that was sour, spicy, salty and sweet all at once, bbq-ed sausages, pomelo with their slightly spicy version of ‘assam powder’ and countless bottles of freshly squeezed, ice-cold and refreshing Thai orange juice. However, I will forever associate Chiang Mai’s food with Khao Soi – rightly so, as it’s famously served all over Chiang Mai (and apparently known as Chiang Mai noodles when served overseas). A Burmese-influenced dish, Khao Soi consists of flat, yellow egg noodles in a mildly spicy coconut-milk based curry soup, garnished with lime, pickled cabbage, shallots, chicken or pork and a sprinkling of fried noodles, and I just fell in love with it. I had no problems polishing off a bowl and even entertained thoughts of ordering a second helping each time (but didn’t because I was too shy!)…yes, it’s really that good! After my first bowl, I started researching online to hunt down the best version of it during our trip and dragged the boyfriend all the way across the Ping river to Lamduan Khao Soi to savour a bowl!

As with most places we’ve visited, I get extremely excited when it comes to selecting the hotel, and this time we stayed at a boutique ‘art’ hotel named MO Rooms while we were there. The hotel only consists of 12 rooms, all decorated differently and based on the artist’s interpretation of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. The décor is quirky, to say the least, with little items placed in nooks and crannies at the most unexpected places (I spotted a small disco ball hanging at one corner!). We had the chance to stay in the Pig, Dog and Monkey rooms over the 5 days we were there, and almost all the rooms are open-plan, so rooming with a friend is probably not a great idea if you’re the shy type. Amongst the three rooms, our favorite was most definitely the Monkey room. From the doorway, you wouldn’t be too far off if you mistook it for a cave as it’s dimly lit and almost wholly made out of black stone and poured concrete. Step in and you’ll see the pièce de résistance of the room – a rattan basket bed, generously filled with small throw pillows, that will make you feel like you’re sleeping in a cozy little nest. I won’t deny that I actually looked forward to bedtime that night! The downside to the rooms at the hotel however was that the design was somewhat unpractical at places, eg. limited space for toiletries, air-con blowing straight into our faces as we slept. Nevertheless, it was a one-of-a-kind experience!

Needless to say, we definitely left Chiang Mai with a heavy heart and a silent promise to return one day.

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