After Christmas, we repeated the now-familiar route back from MSP to BKK. Following a quick stopover in Bangkok (or an airport hotel in Bangkok), we were back on the road (or in the air) to the northern city of Chiang Mai. We had five days to explore the ancient walled city and its environs. We spent our time wandering through Chiang Mai’s elaborate temples, sampling its delicious street food, and puttering down the Mae Ping in an old-fashioned scorpion-tailed boat.
Because of the New Year, the temples were all beautifully decorated; we found multi-colored flags and intricate lanterns alongside the many golden Buddhas. On New Year's Eve, thousands of twinkling candles were added to create an otherworldly and peaceful setting.
Our trip to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a mountain outside the city crowned by a temple, was not quite so peaceful. All the tuk tuks that had previously congregated outside of our hotel had disappeared, so we wandered the streets of the old city to try to bargain a fare with one of the city’s abundant red trucks, or songthaews. One driver quoted us a fare of 1,000 baht each way – significantly more than the 50 – 100 baht promised by our guidebook and various websites. We eventually banded together with another couple and bargained a reduced fare of 100 baht per person each way.
As our truck slowly made its way out of the city and up the mountain, we realized that we hadn’t been ripped off after all. Absolutely everyone in the city (and possibly from all over Thailand) was spending January 2nd visiting Doi Suthep. (The temple is commonly referred to by this shortened name, although this is actually the name of the mountain it is located on.) The hordes of tourists and locals created a massive traffic jam on the narrow and winding road ascending the mountain.
After inhaling a bit more exhaust than we would have cared to, we arrived at the mountaintop. Along with a constant stream of visitors, we climbed the steps to the visit the temple above and take in the view of the city below. Unlike most of the other visitors, we did not arrive with prayers or offerings for the Buddha, but it was certainly a unique experience to visit the mountain as locals carried out their New Year traditions. Small children wearing traditional clothing were perched on the steps and vendors sold everything ranging from sandals and t-shirts to fruit and grilled snacks.
Doi Suthep dates back to 1383 and its founding is the focus of multiple legends. A popular story tells the tale of a monk who, guided by a dream, found one of the Buddha's shoulder bones. He presented it to the king who placed it on the back of a white elephant and then released both into the jungle. The elephant proceeded to climb Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times and died. The king interpreted this as a sign and ordered the construction of the temple.
Although the temples were lovely and a boat trip is always the perfect way to spend an afternoon, we were perhaps the most excited to try some of the city’s famous food (at least, Steph was).
Chiang Mai offers street food galore, as well as its signature dish: khao soi. Having tried khao soi, a Burmese-style (or possibly Chinese) curry with both regular and fried noodles, at one of our favorite LES restaurants back in New York (Pig & Khao), we were eager to try the real thing in Chiang Mai. Much internet research led us to Kao Soi Lam Duan Faham, a favorite of various online commenters plus one of the most famous Thai chefs in the US. After braving a walk down a busy road without any sidewalks, we stumbled upon this unassuming restaurant. There was an open-air kitchen, no English menu, no other western tourists, and really no one that spoke any English. Regardless, a waitress eventually stopped by our table with bowls of the famous khao soi, which we finished immediately and quickly replaced with a second serving the next time she walked by. We continued our city food tour by trying the “best” rotisserie chicken in the city and the “best” traditional northern Thai food, as well as anything sold on the street that happened to look intriguing. We highly recommend this approach to touring Chiang Mai and are wondering why we’ve never found garlic-stuffed rotisserie chicken anywhere else – it’s delicious!
Of course, we didn’t spend all of our time peacefully exploring the city and stuffing our faces. Steph continued her never-ending quest to test Gio’s fear of heights, insisting that we spend a long afternoon zip-lining through the jungle. Despite his initial trepidation, by the end of the day, he was asking why we hadn’t done the longer tour. Next up, skydiving?
We don’t have many photos of our adventures because Giorgio insists that we found the only Asian in the world that is a bad at taking photographs. However, he did cobble what we had into these gifs that he’s pretty excited about!
New Year’s Eve proved to be the highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai. The streets leading to Tha Phae Gate, as well as the surrounding square, turned into a giant block party filled with street food, music, fireworks (professional and otherwise), and lanterns. Wishing lanterns are hot air balloons made of paper, and are traditionally lit throughout Asia during various festivals. In Chiang Mai, the lanterns are released into the night sky accompanied by the wishes inscribed on their sides; the lanterns also symbolize the lighters’ problems and worries floating away.
We practiced lighting a lantern the night before (December 30) so that we would be experts by NYE. Giorgio, who is unwisely not at all afraid of fire, lit as many as possible throughout the two nights.
We joined the tourists and locals celebrating in the streets. We set our own lanterns aloft with our wishes and watched thousands of others do the same.
Of course, some people weren’t so lucky (or are not lantern lighting experts like Giorgio), and their lanterns got tangled in the power lines or crashed into the river. It’s a wonder nothing was set on fire, particularly since a few parties had also procured their own fireworks from the bazaar to help ring in the New Year.
Although the streets were filled with revelers, nothing approached the chaos of Times Square on December 31. Along with the official fireworks and the multitudes of lanterns, the sky was ablaze.
We wish everyone a wonderful 2015!