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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Chiang Mai | A Laid Back Historical Gem and Cultural Melting Pot This Side of Thailand


It was past midnight and the open-air acoustic place set up at Ploen Ruedee Night Market where I am hanging out with a friend starts to close down – so as the other nearby establishments. The once lively stalls lining up Chang Klan Road leading to Chiang Mai Night Bazaar are almost devoid of pedestrians and shoppers. Earlier in the night, I met up with a friend Valerie, who is also traveling in Chiang Mai. After a couple of rounds of Singha beers we were joined by her friends she met in Myanmar; Feven a beautiful girl with a braided hair from Ethiopia, Colorado native Michael and the pretty Puerto Rican Gisele.


 Doi Inthanon Temple. Photo Credit: "Thailand Tourism Authority"
Chiang Mai after Midnight

I know a place so bad it is so good – it is called Zoe in Yellow let’s go there” Michael told us in a commanding gesture. We huddled the four of us into a tuk-tuk and went our way. While en route I whiled the time humming the last song played at Ploen Ruedee; a beautiful mesh-up of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” sang to the tune of Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama” by a talented local band.


Had a few bottles of Chang beer at Ploen Ruedee with Mish 
The night life in Chiang Mai is on the verge of shutting down immediately after the clock hits 12 midnight. Zoe in Yellow turned out to be the same. One last order of alcohol doesn’t appeared enough to bookend my second night out in this city. With perseverance we found ourselves a still open club called Spicy. We crawled inside the crowded dance floor like a centipede. Swarming with locals and foreigners alike, the place vibrated with pulsating energy that made myself – who is an oblivious person to dance music, strut my body a bit.


Partied at 'Spicy' with Valerie and her friends
I felt a set of hands scratching my back gently – which reminisced the sensation of the Thai massage I had in Bangkok a few days earlier. I turned around to see a beaming lady-boy. “Welcome” she yelled out. I nodded my head at her as she turned her attention to other club newcomers. From the corner of my eye I saw Valerie, Feven and Michael surveying the floor while Gisele looked and smiled at me “This place is wild” she tells me. The place uncorked into another level once the DJ played a Justin Bieber song, with the crowd either loving the song or playing along with the hilarity of it.

A half past 1 am and the place totally shunted into a closing-time vibe. As I bid Valerie and my new friends good night and boarded a tuktuk back to my hotel, I realized among other things that the night life in Chiang Mai is just a tiny bleep in the otherwise more fascinating appeal of this charm-filled city brimming with history, culture, heritage and a laid-back atmosphere.


Receiving a bracelet from a monk
During the nights when I was a part of a revelry hunting party, the rest of the days of our five-day trip to Chiang Mai was filled with discovery, learning and realizing why the city is fast becoming a favorite of travelers and digital nomads alike.

Exploring Chiang Mai’s Art and Cultural Scene

Heritage houses and quirky hole-in-the-walls crowding the side streets of Chiang Mai are made more appealing because of the bursting inventiveness of the arts scene in the city. Exploring this interesting aspect of Chiang Mai made up the most of our itinerary.


The pretty owner of the organic farm in Ban Rai Kong King rubs a Kafir lime on my hand
On our second day we visited the farming neighborhood of Ban Rai Kong King and learned the local tradition of organic farming and the art of preparing and cooking traditional Northern Thailand dish. Our party of nine were divided into three groups and we took turns learning to organize the ingredients and cook the following dishes; Green Curry with Chicken, Kai Pam (roasted omelet grilled inside banana leaves), Khanon Jok (steamed coconut pumpkin dough wrapped in banana leaf pyramid) and Butterfly Pea Drink.

Learning to prepare a traditional Chiang Mai cuisine
The locals also taught us their other cultural practice of making herbal balls and Pandan Leaf Rosette (a leaf-flower bouquet). Capping our chill down afternoon was a soothing Yum Kang fire therapy massage, which is said to be a traditional Lanna massage.


Our guide took first dibs in receiving  the Yum Kang fire therapy massage
We also visited Bor Sang Village where the locals carry on the long standing custom of umbrella making that was started many centuries ago by a visiting Monk from Myanmar. The intricate process involves the elaborate application of hand-painted art over the materials made of silk, oil paper and bamboo. As I walk around and inspected each artist creating sketches on each umbrellas, my attention was quickly drawn to the colorful umbrellas that were laid out on the lawn to dry under the sun. The wonderful mesh of blooming colors instantly created an eye popping visual mirroring the fine art perfected by the craftsmen of Bor Sang Village.


An umbrella maker in Bor Sang Village
More local arts immersion comprised the rest of our day as we dropped by at the silk-producing town of Sankampaeng. Artisans deeply engrossed in the creations of Thai silks, silverware, lacquer-ware, woodcarvings and gems welcomed us to watch the progression of the conceptions of their art.


Baan Kang Wat Artists’ Village 
We concluded our arts and cultural probe of Chiang Mai at the Baan Kang Wat Artists’ Village where modish shop houses fusing traditional and modern Thai architecture are stands charmingly over a well landscaped ground.

Vaulting from one Temple to the Next

No trip to Chiang Mai and probably to most cities in Thailand is complete without going temple hopping. Tucked within the residential and commercial establishments inside the old section of the city are pockets of temples that carries historical significance to the religion of Buddhism.


A silk weaver in Sankampaeng artisan village
We started our Riverside Heritage tour with a slow stride over the Saphan Nawarat Bridge that took us to Charoenrat Road and into the first Christian Church in Chiang Mai as we passed by some beautiful old shop houses leading to Warorot market. An hour later we arrived at Wat Ket Karam, a 500-plus year old temple located in the middle of a small quaint neighborhood. The adjacent old house dishing a traditional Thai architecture arrested my attention and we ended up taking photographs at its picturesque balcony.


Jamie poses in front of an old house near Wat Ket Karam
As Chiang Mai is known to be besieged beautifully by an abundance of temples, we only visited a few more temples within the city that day because of pressing time. My personal favorite was the Wat Sri Suphan, a stunning silver temple situated at the Wualai Silver making District.


The Silver Temple or otherwise known as Wat Sri Suphan
Glistening under the bright torrid rays of the sun, the temple conveys the peculiar artisanship involved in the creation of the temple. Stellar engravings and rich textures are visible among the silverware plastered over the interior walls of the temple. An odd rule banning the entry of women inside this temple is explained by this English sign found outside “Beneath the base of Ubosotha in the monastic boundary, many precious things, incantations, amulets and other holy objects were buried 500 years ago. Entering inside the place may deteriorated the place or otherwise the lady herself. According to this Lanna Belief, ladies are not allowed to enter the Ubosotha”

A day of temple run around Chiang Mai proved not enough as we still missed a string of other interesting temples. “Oh well, chalk this up to the many reasons to go back to Chiang Mai in the near future” I thought to myself.

Thai Food-Tripping and Night Market Finds

Before traveling to Chiang Mai I have talked to some fellow travel writers who have spent extended periods in this city. Most of them swore by the allure of the many cool cafes, sumptuous food places and trendy joints perfect for harvesting creativity especially in writing. “There is this Chiang Mai feel that certainly attracts the interest of digital nomads to stay longer” I read once in a Facebook Travel Group.


The rich color and taste of Thai Food
While a few days of gorging around town and sampling authentic northern Thai cuisines gave me a taste of the food culture of Chiang Mai, I remember coming back home to Manila madly missing that kick of spice, richness of taste and colorful texture of Chiang Mai food. Every meal during the duration of our brief five-day trip around Chiang Mai is certainly something to look forward to. Whether we were dining in a river side joint to a formal dinner aboard a cruise over the River Mae Ping, each bite and mining my fork into a plateful of a variety of local cuisines, proved more than a satisfying gastronomical experience.

My favorite photo subject: Radio DJ and Host Jamie Fournier
After satisfying our taste buds and belly to the hilt during daytime, nighttime – just before party time – was often spent on pursuing for interesting finds at the night markets. Aside from the aforementioned Ploen Ruedee Night Market, Warorot market and Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, pockets of weekend markets are set up near the old city walls.

A Glimpse of Chiang Mai Leaves Me Wanting for More

Even though I left Chiang Mai with a new set of travel experiences and a new group of friends. On our last night our whole group bonded over bottles of wine; myself, Jamie, Tim, Aleah, Liza, Edgar, Melo, Fannie and Len – all thankful for the good karma that have brought us all together in this short trip to Chiang Mai.

Jamie stands in front of one of the many heritage houses lined up in the streets of Chiang Mai
I see myself coming back in the near future. Who knows I might be one of those digital nomads that will sit on a cafĂ© for hours while I try to harvest my writing mojo. Sipping a Thai coffee and amassing all the inspiration that comes with residing in Chiang Mai – a place that abounds with rich history and a fascinating culture dating back to many centuries ago and are now welded ideally with the modern times. 


Last night blues with #JuiceKoThai

Team #JuiceKoThai

This article appeared on the January – February 2016 issue of Travel Now Magazine

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