4 Mar 2011
In Koh Lipe I left my friends (alas, headed back to China were they) and soldiered onwards, heading to the north of Thailand to meet up with another group of PCVs in Chiang Mai. Although I’m glad I got to see Chiang Mai and had a great time there, if I had to do it again I might have picked something more…convenient to do for the last leg of my trip. Due to a combination of last-minute planning, misinformation, and the need to cover a fairly vast distance, it took a full day of travel and a fair amount of money to reach my final destination. Things happen.
The other option, when I was choosing my itinerary for my last week, was to remain on the beach, or on another beach, but by this point in the trip I was fairly beached-out. A valuable lesson learned on this trip: beach is great, but about three or four days is probably the maximum amount of leisure beach time that I can do. I was getting antsy by the end of Koh Lipe, and ready to do something a little more active. Fortunately, Chiang Mai turned out to be exactly that. And I was delighted to reach my friends there and find that they had already mapped out (in actual list form!) a week of back-to-back activities.
Chiang Mai is a pleasant, laid-back city in and of itself, but its other main draw is that it’s a jumping off point for other adventures in Thailand. Streets are crammed with travel agents hawking trips—train elephants for a day, take a three-day trek to primitive hill tribes, pet wild tigers, learn Thai cooking/massage/meditation/boxing, etc.
We stayed at a hostel that one of the girls had booked in advance, but unfortunately the reservation got lost and although space was found for us for the week, it was definitely my least favorite accommodation of the trip (save for KL’s Heaven Guesthouse of Horror). But fortunately, we also kept ourselves busy. Saturday (day 1), we walked around town, shopped, and ate the best burritos I’ve had in months (which may or may not have poisoned two members of our party, leaving them down for the count for the next couple of days). Sunday we rented bikes and cycled to the national park on the far side of town. Monday was an all-day zip lining adventure. Tuesday was a trek—hiking, mild rafting, and a lovely elephant ride (things I learned: don’t wear shorts when sitting on an elephant, and don’t encourage the elephant to eat from bamboo trees in front of you when you’re sitting on his head, or he might bring the whole thing down on top of you). Wednesday was a morning of cooking school, which might have been the highlight—and hey, now I can make pad thai, green curry, and a couple other dishes, as long as I can find the proper ingredients. On Thursday the group I was hanging with headed off for the island part of their trip, and I spent the day biking around town and getting my hair done for the first time since last spring (yeah, I don’t trust Chinese salons, but I’ll go along with it in Thailand).
The gaps were filled in with a lot of shopping (night markets, etc), eating (best burger and fries I’ve had since America, and the only organic salad with avacado I’ll probably eat in Asia), and only a minimal amount of partying thanks to our busy schedule. Further highlights included meeting up with a buddy from my training group, Sky, who happened to be in town at the same time with his mother, and another PCV, Andy, whom we ran into unexpectedly on the street. Never know who you’re going to meet when you travel.
One unpleasant side of Chiang Mai is that there’s sort of a sketchy expat vibe—one night, we turned down a row of bars and noticed that every single one was filled with lithe Thai girls touting their businesses and older white men sitting by. My sitemate talks about this as being the reason he didn’t care much for the city when he was here last year. I didn’t feel that strongly, but it definitely did have a different, darker vibe than the more sunshine-and-lollipops island we visited. The young tourists were different too—more dreadlocks, more harem pants, more couples (as opposed to groups of Swedish college boys), and probably an older average age in general.
I recommend Chiang Mai and was definitely glad to see another side of Thailand, but don’t know that I’d rush back. The end of Winter Vacay 2011 definitely had an air of tragedy around it, although heading back to Chengdu to hang out for the weekend before heading home helped soften the blow. And by the week after the trip, friends were already talking plans for summer 2011 and winter 2012. Nothing ends a vacation better than planning for the next one!