Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chiang Mai: First Impressions

Hello folks!  I'm writing to you from my fabulous hotel suite here in Chiang Mai Thailand.  I've been in this picturesque Northern Thai city for about 48 hours now, and I thought I'd take a moment to share some thoughts and feelings on the place so far...

This first bit I wrote the evening of my arrival on Sunday night.  I was a bit frustrated.  In Myanmar, the April "Water Festival" didn't start until Monday. In Thailand, it started a day early, catching me totally unaware...


Chiang Mai is geographically closer to Yangon than it is to Bangkok. It's only a couple hundred miles, and when I flew here today, I flew in a propeller plane for the first time in my life. I've flown a couple hundred times on a couple hundred different planes, and all of them have been jets.

Air Bagan's weekly YGN-CMX flight
Flying in the prop plane was cool. At the outset I misheard the pilot describing our flight plan when he said we'd be climbing to 70,000 feet... No, that couldn't be it. He must have said 17,000 feet, which is where we went. After we crossed the mountains dividing Myanmar from Thailand, that height made for an awesome spectacle of riding the tops of clouds, and there were lots of clouds. Big, fluffy, white cumulous clouds, and we were one with them.

My first impressions of Chiang Mai weren't good, and you know what they say about first impressions. I got soaked in clothes I wasn't expecting to get soaked in. See, even though I wasn't meeting anyone, even though I was on vacation, there's something in me that says I should wear somewhat respectable clothes when traveling on an international flight. I don't wear shorts and flip flops when I travel overseas.

As my chartered songtauw (semi-covered pick up truck taxi) rolled into the Chiang Mai proper, I realized something that I wasn't fully expecting: Thailand's Water Festival is already in full swing (in Myanmar, it doesn't start until tomorrow). On the outskirts of town, there were water stations of aqua-terrorists set up on the side of the road, ready to attack any target. By my observations, their targets were people carrying water guns and/or people who were already wet. Fair enough; none of the Thais messed with me.

When I arrived in the heart of town, into the tourist district, things changed. Folks accosted me in the back of my pick-up taxi, chucked buckets of ice cold water or hit me with high powered spray guns. JESUS CHRIST, I'm sitting here with two bags of luggage, wearing a collared shirt, dress pants and formal shoes. I am NOT participating in this festival right now, thank you very much. What really pissed me off is that it wasn't the locals who were dousing a new arrival who was not
One nice thing about the tourist part of town: the restaurant I
happened to wander into had amazing gourmet hamburgers.
Behold! The Macaroni and Cheese Burger!
expecting this. It was punk-ass farang tourists! WTF?! You are NOT Thai. You don't get to use Songkran as an excuse to be a complete ass-hole!

I got to the hotel (a complete dump; I'm glad I've only booked for a night), changed into more water-festival appropriate attire and headed out again, just looking to explore this new place, Chiang Mai. I got a feel for it, but once again, it was a dodging game trying to avoid the worst of the foreigners who'd become so troublesome. It is exciting at the moment, I'll give you that, but probably no worse time to come here if one wants to learn what it's really like. I'm here for six weeks. Tonight was the first night. I'll have time to learn.

Some first impressions of Chiang Mai:

  • Transportation. Thailand's second largest city has no buses. Huh? There are the aforementioned Songtaws and the ubiqutous Tuk Tuk's but no motorcycle taxis. No metered taxis. I've heard of Chinag Mai's pedicabs, the samlors, but I didn't see one tonight. Could have used one. A tuk tuk driver managed to charge me 200 baht ($6) to drive me 2 miles, and its not like I didn't put up a fight.
  • Farangs. Foreigners. I thought there were a lot of foreigners in Bangkok, down on Sukhumvit Road. Wow. The Phae Taw, eastern gate, district of Chiang Mai I'm staying in has seemingly a farang majority. Swimming in them here.
  • Climate. Nice. It's the height of the hot season in Thailand, and it was cool here tonight.
  • Food. For dinner, I stopped at a restaurant not too far from the hotel. It was a gourmet burger joint. Seriously. It was gourmet. I can't recall a burger I've had in the States that was better than the one I had tonight. In Yangon, finding a decent hamburger is a real challenge; here, I found an incredible burger delicacy on the corner. I can't wait until I'm hungry again. Chiang Mai has wonderful (western) food.
  • When I went to go do some banking (I maintain a Thai bank account), I found that there's a brothel at the end of the street where I'm staying. Now, that's convenient.
  • These haven't been the best of circumstances, and I recognize that there's variances in any group of people, but on the whole, the northern Thai people I've interacted here (with the exception of one tuk tuk driver) have been nicer, friendlier and more respectful than the average Thai I ran into in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai is often portrayed as a paradise of Southeast Asia. It's the mainland's Bali. So many farang fall in love with this place, and you never know, I might as well. As first impressions go, the Songkran Water Festival might be the funnest time to be here, but it might also be the worst time to get a feel for what it's really like.


So that was the end of night one... Things got better. Here's me at the end of day two at a nice place beside the Ping River.  A lot more serene feeling.

The video of the trip... sans the nastiness of getting unexpectedly drenched. I didn't dare bring out my camera with that going on...


  1. Looks like you will have a nice week. Be careful of your back on that motor cycle. Didn't you say riding had caused you pain in the past?

  2. Actually, I can't be sure. I think what might have hurt my back before was driving over speed bumps too fast. Speed bumps are made to hurt you if you don't slow down. I rode my rented bike today for 20 miles or so and I still feel pretty good (not 100% yet). It was a wonderful journey, and if tomorrow, I'm struck down with pain, which I doubt will happen, the memories will have been worth it.


Discovering Northwest Myannmar 13 - To Burmese Days

In this leg of the journey, I had to turn around. I was saddened by this; no proper motorcycle loop includes parts where you return ...