Post 1 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series so far here.
Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand was the perfect starting point to our South East Asian adventure. Smaller and quieter than the cities we’d go on to visit, it offered a concentrated shot of the wider region’s life and culture. Bustling markets, a wide variety of food and hundreds of temples are packed into this small patch of low-rise urbanity surrounded by lush green mountains. As Western tourists we felt welcomed by a friendly local community that understood English and never harassed us, yet the ramshackle streets filled with motorbikes, Buddhist sculpture and street food hawkers left us in no doubt we were in developing Thailand.
This was especially true of the taxi ride from the airport to our guesthouse, which saw us dodging smog-chugging motorbikes, squeezing between street vendors and awed by the flurry of life filling the dusty streets. Eventually we pulled up into the mud in front of The Gallery 24 guesthouse and checked in with the Irish owner and his Thai wife.
He apologised for our room’s door lock being broken, necessitating the use of a padlock instead, but this was only the first of our room’s surprises. In the tiny bathroom we found an unshielded shower head placed directly over the floor beside the toilet, and a window wedged open with an (empty) soap bottle. Every night we were awoken by the squeals of quarrelling cats and dogs outside, as well as the intermittent illumination of our room by a light going on behind a curtained window above our bed. But it was cheap! And thankfully our lodgings improved as the holiday progressed.
We spent our first afternoon and evening exploring the old city, our only goal being to finish up at the Saturday Night Market. We didn’t have to look for temples – happily, they were impossible to avoid.
In the small area around our guesthouse we found a great array of temples in a variety of styles, from utilitarian wood and stone to extravagant golden metalwork and paintings. We saw intricate carvings, colourful dragons, bells, gongs, and a garden pond surrounded by cartoony figurines.
A large temple called Wat Chedi Luang stopped us in our tracks. Its entrance was swarming with people, and just inside lay thousands of yellow flags flanking rows of stalls selling candles, flower baskets and food. A man outside a small wooden temple near the entrance told me this was all in aid of the Inthakin (City Pillar) Festival, in which people lay flowers and light candles in worship.
Walking further inside the plaza we found ourselves completely immersed in this incredible other culture – the crowds, flowers and Buddhist sculptures creating a riot of colour, as chanted prayers boomed from loudspeakers and the scents of fire, incense and sizzling meat filled the air.
Wat Chedi Luang itself is a domineering, pyramid-like structure of earthy bricks, decorated with elephant statues. People were using a pulley system to lift tubes of water from the ground to a Buddha statue at the peak, over which they released the water. A sign explained that the temple was built in the 15th century and partially ruined by either an earthquake or cannon fire before the 18th century.
In contrast, the interior of Wat Sukmin next door was an explosion of opulence, boasting a high ornate ceiling and tall golden pillars. Its carpeted floor was thronged with people, alternately gathering to pray, queuing to be blessed by monks or adding to the golden scrolls strung up around the room.
Saturday Night Market
Reaching the Saturday Night Market gave us a crash course in navigating South East Asian city roads, on which a green man at the traffic lights doesn’t mean ‘walk across safely’ but rather ‘attempt to cross at your peril’. We never came to understand the traffic system – we just gained confidence that the motorcyclists would swerve to avoid us.
The Saturday Night Market was one very long street lined with colourful stalls, most of them holding clothes and gifts. Various street performers, everything from a tiny young girl doing a traditional dance to a band of blind musicians, sat in the middle of the street at intervals, temporarily separating the crowds. The stalls eventually started repeating, yet I would still happily have walked right to the end if jet lag hadn’t begun to catch up with us.
Pad Thai and beer
Indecision prevented us picking a restaurant on the way back to the guesthouse, so we ended up at the place directly opposite. Thankfully, Roof 69 turned out to be a great choice. The chatty French owner sat us at a table in the pretty garden area, besides the only other guests (a table of male backpackers). We ordered a giant bottle of Thai beer each and a generous plate of spring rolls to share, then Pad Thai for me and honey and lemon chicken for Steve. All the dishes were big, delicious and prettily presented – mine came in a wooden boat!
Given how exhausted we were, it was a relief to only need to cross the road to get to bed. I was excited to continue our explorations tomorrow, when we’d see the city’s biggest and most famous temples, visit its other large market and sample more of the local cuisine.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.