City of Smiles – Chiang Mai, Thailand (Parte Uno)

This is a continuation of my previous entry about Bangkok.

Chiang Mai, my next destination, is known colloquially as the “City of Flowers.” It could just as well be known as the “City of Smiles,” in a country known as the “Land of Smiles.” I seldom saw many flowers while in Chiang Mai, but I did see many smiles in great abundance. Located in the north of Thailand by the Burmese border, Chiang Mai is a place where the people are warm and the living is easy.

Leaving The “Big Mango”
Bangkok - The
I told Adam, my companion, that I was relieved to be getting out of the urban jungle after a week in Bangkok. I was ready for mountains, and some fresh air. Bangkok is sometimes referred to as the “Big Mango” by expatriates because every evening at Sunset the sky turns bright orange as the sun’s fading rays diffuse through the city’s thick air pollution.

It was interesting and eventful 5 nights in Bangkok, and what a change from the world I’d left behind back in the US. But I was ready for some jungle adventures in the Thai highlands… and I’d most certainly get them.

All in all I spent 3 weeks in Chiang Mai and exposed my sheltered American mind up to all kinds of new things. I did, saw and learned things that were unlike any reality I’d experienced up to that point.

We booked seats on an over night bus from one of the many travel agencies around the Khao San area. The price was only 399 Baht – a little over $13 USD, and less than I’d paid for my bed at the HQ Hostel. Not bad; the same trip booked on a Greyhound in the US would have cost at least 5 times as much. That night, a big group of us, about three dozen, gathered at the travel agency office and set off for the bus pickup point.

I took a little while saying my goodbyes to friends and fell a bit behind the main group. They quickly rounded a corner and ducked into an alley. I had lost them. I dashed about in several directions, but they had vanished without a trace. I eventually calmed myself, and realized there was only one feasible way they could’ve taken. I quickened my pace down the dark alley, making my way through an empty Thai boxing gym, and sure enough I’d caught up to Adam, who was bringing up the rear of the group. We walked a couple of blocks and ended up at a guesthouse, where we hung out about an hour waiting for the bus.

Cultural Mixup

At the guesthouse I befriended some boisterous Australian dudes. At first I thought they may be from California because Australians always look they just came from the beach. Surf and skate culture were born in Southern California but Australians wear our brands – Quiksilver, Billabong, Rusty, etc. often even better than we do.

The bus came, and off we went, to a new and unexplored place. The ride was rather uneventful and I slept very well. The girls seated across from me seemed to be having a tough time of it though, taking sleeping pills (either Ambian or Valium) but were still restless.

Around midnight we stopped at a convenience store, which we swarmed. We were all quickly put off, however, when we saw that it was all the “traditional” Thai food in the cafeteria. In the convenience store, it was nothing but sweets. There was really nothing substantial for us, a group of westerners, that we could eat.

Early in the morning we were awakened, and the driver told us “Welcome to Chiang Mai.” I had no idea what to expect. We were dropped off at a gas station; I went inside trying to find a map, but in vain. I kept saying “pan-thip,” the Thai word for “map,” but since my pronunciation was most certainly wrong no one understood me.

It was about 8 in the morning and we were loaded up into the back of pickup trucks, called “songthaews,” which had benches and walls and roofs of tin, and carted off.

Cultural Mixup II

Adam and I followed up on a tip given by an Irish girl I’d met at a park in Bangkok, and dropped off at a hostel called “Little Bird.” Of course, there were no vacant beds at the hostel, so we put our names on a waiting list and prepared to set off to find another. Before we left we befriended a very friendly Korean girl named Kiri. When I went to use the bathroom, she was hanging out in the hall, and I began to speak to her in Thai. She laughed because she didn’t understand, I had mistakenly taken her for being Thai. Kiri joined our small but growing group, and together the three of us set off to find a hostel with vacancies.

We found a rather nice 3-story hostel in a small neighboring alley called “Mojito House.” The host was an older, but still youthful tiny Thai lady who was very friendly and soft-spoken. Having checked in, I told the others I wanted to rent a motorbike and explore the area. They agreed, and a little while later we had a pair of motorbikes that we rented from a shop called “Mr Beer.” A smiling European dude in shades had passed us by in the alley on a bike, and I stopped him and asked where he found it. He directed us to the shop, and recommended what we should pay – 100 or 150 baht for 24 hours ($3 or $5).

When we met Mr Beer however, he only had automatic bikes to rent us and they cost 200 Baht – $6.66. Still, that was close to being the best $6.66 I’ve ever spent in my life, because the events which followed on that first day in Chiang Mai will linger forever in my memory. Adam and I checked out bikes and Adam shared his ride with Kiri. After we rode around lost for about half an hour, we eventually agreed to focus and chose a destination on the map outside of town – a mountain called “Doi Suthep.” We studied our map carefully to figure out our bearings, and off we went.

A Temple Amongst the Clouds

We reached the base of the mountain and began our upward ascent. The road was so quite and peaceful, the trees around us so timeless and tranquil, it was as though the mountain was welcoming us, gently beckoning us onward.

After a little while we reached a trail, and dismounted for a little stroll amongst the mountain scenery. There was a river where I washed my face. The sun beamed down on us. We took several photos, dancing around and acting like silly fools. At that moment, we hadn’t a single care or worry. But this was just the beginning.

We got back on our bikes and after a little ways we came across a forest shrine, white all over with a little spire – the shape of tiled roof shingles. There was a large white Buddha statue inside and an altar made of marble. Shakyamuni Buddha sat before us, eyes cast outward, in his famous “repelling Mara” pose.

Exploring Doi Suthep mountain.
Adam and Kiri, taking in the sights.

Exploring Doi Suthep mountain.
Posing at a mountain shrine with my pimpin bike, courtesy of Mr. Beer.

Statue of Shakyamuni Buddha at Doi Suthep.
Shakyamuni Buddha, repelling Mara.

We continued on and a little while after reached a lookout point. There was a roofed area and a platform where we could gaze down upon the world below. It was a spectacular site to behold. For someone who had only just left the United States one week ago, I felt so free and released from the burdens and cares of regular life.

Under the roofed rest area a man was playing a stringed instrument and wailing out in Thai. I haply went up and began dancing along to the music. Adam recorded my antics on my iPod as I hopped to and fro, waving my arms and kicking my legs like a madman. Onlookers watched and laughed gleefully. It was a fun time and a great day to be alive.

Here’s the video Adam took:

We rode onward, heading higher and higher up the mountain. We passed another lookout as the road became windier, snaking left and right up the mountain. The road finally straightened and became wider. Before and above us, unbelievably, lay a huge temple complex. Two huge sets of stairs led upwards, one to a small forest alcove with a bronzed statue of a sitting monk at its pinnacle. The other stairway was much more immense. Close to 1,000 steps lay before us. Ornate green serpents flanked us on either side, their scales, thick and numerous, serving as handrails. People were struggling, and breathing heavy as they made their way up the immense staircase. We pressed upward, and finally reached the large temple – “Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.” What awaited us there was unlike anything I’ve seen.

Steps to Wat Doi Suthep.
All those late nights on the Stairmaster finally paid off!
At the top of this mountain, was a large Theraveda Buddhist temple complex and village. Ornate golden shrines and statues greeted us as we arrived. Flowers everywhere, groups of people praying, the place was teeming with life. Loads of people walked about the complex – Thais, French, Germans, and who knows what else. I think that all of us visitors were struck by a sense of awe at the temple’s magnificent splendor. But the best part was on the far side of the temple, where a white and blue tiled veranda, that looked like marble, stretched out to a stunning view below. Large, puffy white clouds surrounded us – it was as though we were high atop a floating temple in the sky.

Balcony of Wat Doi Suthep.

I can count on one hand the number of places I’ve been to in this world that fill one with such a sense of peace, calm, and awe like the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. These are a selective few places I visualize in my mind’s eye when I need to return myself to that sense of peace. The Sierra Madre mountains in Baja California, the Byodo-In Temple in Kaneohe, the Capilano river park in British Columbia, Arizona’s Sedona mountains, Bukit Bendara in Malaysia, and that’s about it.

We stayed at the temple for quite a while, relaxing, soaking in the sun, and observing the prayers, rituals, etc. Since I’ve studied and practiced Buddhism (though a different form and sect) I spent a bit of time talking with an elder monk about his Theraveda Buddhist philosophy and practice. I wanted to take it all in so I could remember it clearly later.


The “Chedi” at Wat Doi Suthep

After a while, we raced back down the serpentine steps (much easier this time), got back to our bikes, and continued our ascent further up the mountain. A little higher and we encountered a couple of Hmong villages, and another point of interest called the “Phu Ping palace.” (pronounced poo-ping palace – the obvious connotation produced a snicker or two). The Hmongs are the ethnic mountain people of Southeast Asia, and the Phu Phing palace is the residence of the royal family when they visit Chiang Mai, as well as host to foreign heads of state.

Entrance to Hmong village in Thailand
Entrance to one of the Hmong villages.
We took a short stop and kept going. We still had some daylight left, and were determined to reach the top of the mountain. At this point we were very deep up in the hinterlands. We pressed on, our trusty bikes trudging along slowly up the steep inclines. Only, we could never seem to reach the top. We did, however, come to this vista with a remarkable look out point:

Vista point of Doi Suthep mountain.

We kept on keeping on, like the dedicated troopers that we were, and went even further. We were hungry for the sense of accomplishment that only reaching the summit could provide. Only, the road seemed to leveling out, and it looked as though it continued on to another mountain altogether.

So we did the only thing we could do. We dismounted from our bikes, and took a dirt path. We climbed up a difficult dirt road on foot. After a while a Korean couple on a bike went passed us. Managing on that road with a bike like that was a risky move. But they came down after a while, and Kiri talked to them in Korean for a few minutes. It seemed as though they too had failed to reach the top.

We pressed on with dogged determination, and occasionally through the trees we were treated to some magnificent views of the hills around us. But after an hour or so the task seemed hopeless. The path never seemed to end. We congratulated ourselves for the effort, and resolved to hurry back.

We made our way back down the trail at a rapid pace. To keep ourselves happy and entertained, Adam and I started singing songs loudly like fools. We delivered an impassioned cover of “Tainted Love” along with a few other favorites. We reached our bikes, and made haste back down to the city.

I remember the feeling of coasting down the mountain as the day’s events turned themselves over in my mind. We found secluded forest shrines and temples, and hidden villages nestled within the trees. Breathtaking views and scenery surrounded us as we meditated with monks in a temple high among the clouds. At that moment, I had a “peak life experience” where I felt 100% alive and free. It was a life-changing, and eye-opening, day for me.

But the best was still to come.

Mountain Doi Suthep in Thailand
Kiri and I taking a break after a long day of exploring.

Doi Suthep in Thailand
Adam, trying to take a “serious” pic.

This blog post – part one of my time in Chiang Mai – perhaps provides too much detail and yet is an overly inadequate of description of my first day in this northern Thailand city. Part two, soon to come, will cover many of the adventures (and there were many) yet to come over the next three weeks – the famous Loy Krathong floating lantern festival and parade, elephant rides in the jungle, getting in cages with tigers, firing off way too many cheap fireworks, Thai boxing matches where Thais get matched up with foreigners, becoming indoctrinated into the “digital nomad” culture of Chiang Mai, enrolling in Tai Chi classes, learning to play the bamboo flute, a little bit of travel romance… and a whole lot more!

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