Finding Common Ground off the Grid, Chiang Mai

In Asia & The Pacific, Destinations by Kathryn Lejeune

For once, we arrived much too early. Groggy and rather queasy from the previous night’s revelries on Khaosan Road, my husband, Nick, and I did not fare well at Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market.

Humid, cramped corridors and heavy wafts of fish sauce drove us prematurely into the relative fresh air of a waiting taxi. We had come away with some incredible finds, including silver jewelry and a backpack cheekily labeled “www.com”, but it was simply not the time to brave the stalls. Besides, we had an overnight train to Chiang Mai to catch.

Once at the depot, we easily confirmed our tickets and settled in as much as we could for a four hour wait before boarding. Waiting is an inevitable condition of travel, but let me assure you that you do not need to be at Bangkok’s train station so far ahead of time. During our wait, the national anthem blared its nightly performance from tinny loudspeakers, whereupon everyone stopped what they were doing, stood, and held their hands to their hearts in pride and solidarity. I tried and failed to imagine the national anthem playing daily in the US and receiving such an enthusiastic reception.

Finally, our train was announced and we made our way to a busy platform saturated with diesel smoke. Trains, to me, are inherently romantic and here, reflected in every car’s shiny metal siding, was an inviting sense of adventure. We had opted for second class sleeper tickets, instead of splurging another $15 for first class, and I have no regrets. Each pair of seats faced each other across a small table, and were quite comfortable. A steward came by at night to help everyone convert the space into a bunk bed with privacy curtain. I had a feeling I would be up early, so insisted on the lower bunk with a window. My little nook was surprisingly cozy, and I drifted off to sleep as the conversations around me were absorbed into the night.

I woke to pale pink morning light shining over misty mountains. Silhouetted palm trees emerged from the fog and floated silently past my window like eye motes. The slow insistent rhythm of the train beat in time with my heart as I sat in quiet reverie, determined to remember the moment forever. Slowly, sounds of waking permeated the cabin in a myriad of languages. A gentle sing-song voice rose above all the rest as a steward walked past bearing muffins, coffee, and juice, “Goose mor-ning! Goose mor-ning!”

Arrival in Chiang Mai was delayed upon the revelation that the train had taken a wrong turn sometime in the night and had to backtrack quite a ways before getting it right. We and the rest of the cabin took this in amused stride, acknowledging with a shrug that we saw more of the country this way anyway. A few hours later than scheduled, we rolled into a charming and historic city that quickly learned to love.

Chiang Mai was built in the thirteenth century and surrounded by a large moat to protect the populace from threat of invasion by the Mongol Empire. This moat still exists today, framing the center of town and making it easy to keep your bearings. The city is a magnificent mixture of old and new, with hundreds of ancient temples, or wat, co-existing in harmony alongside very modern shops.

A cheerful tuktuk driver took us to Baan Say La Guesthouse on a quiet street in a chic neighborhood. The boutique hotel is run in a very personal and caring manner by its young owners. I loved the spacious white walls accented with dark wood, wide staircases, and vintage Thai furnishings. Our third floor room had a balcony overlooking the town and forested foothills, and was frequented by chirping geckos. There was even a friendly house cat with a crooked tail hanging around, whom we nicknamed LaLa.

As I walked out of the hotel that first day, I was sprayed with a hose by a bent old woman who had been watering the garden. At first I thought it was an accident, but as Nick joined me I saw her turn and intentionally spray him, too! “Oh, don’t mind her,” Gig, the receptionist, laughed, “she just really likes Songkran.”

Songkran, Thailand’s New Year festival, traditionally involves throwing water on people, but had taken place nearly a month before. Nevertheless, the old lady cackled in delight and sprayed us again while singing in Thai. We didn’t mind at all.

That afternoon we rented scooters for 250 baht, or about $8, per day. Our meandering journey took us to Wat Umong, whose beautiful grounds featured a glassy pond, tall moss-covered chedi, and a huge Banyan tree festooned with brightly colored ribbons. Orange robed monks walked around serenely, smiling welcomingly at us as they went about their day. I walked barefoot through a 13th century tunnel worn smooth by centuries and imagined all those who had come before me, what their lives had been like and how the world had changed since the stone was first carved. I felt incredibly small, but also experienced a powerful connection to all of humanity- past, present, and future.

From there, we rode back into Chiang Mai proper, where we found a blues bar blasting Muddy Waters and framed photos of blues legends plastered the wood paneled walls. The only other patron was an elderly white haired biker woman completely decked out in studded leather and was served a neat glass of whiskey while still sitting astride her 1200cc Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The next day, a fifteen minute scooter ride north of Chiang Mai brought us to Tiger Kingdom, where you have the chance to interact with beautiful huge felines. A smiling crisply dressed woman greeted us graciously at the entrance and informed us that we had a choice of playing with baby, teenager, or adult tigers. Baby tigers were the obvious choice! She nodded in agreement at our wise decision and withdrew. A minute later she returned frowning and wringing her hands in distress as she told us sadly, “I’m so very sorry. We do not have baby tigers today, only baby lions.”

We graciously accepted her apology and assured her that we would be just as happy with baby lions. Relieved, she took us through the park where we passed by the enclosures of the larger tigers. I slowed as I neared, admiring the enormous, magnificent creature whose heavy muscles rippled beneath a shiny coat as it stretched luxuriously. We stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment before I was called to catch up with our host. Inside a small playroom, we were introduced to Dave the lion cub. It was his nap time so he wasn’t quite active, but that was just fine with me. Sleepy cat or no, it was amazing to cuddle the little guy.

Returning from Tiger Kingdom, on a busy highway, Nick and I lost each other. Hand signals weren’t enough to indicate “exit here” and as I pulled off I saw Nick drive past me with a look of confusion and dismay. Panic momentarily overtook me as I waited at the off ramp, eagerly checking out each passing motorist. After several minutes, I realized he probably wouldn’t remember which exit I had taken, so I headed back to the hotel. Sometime later, while pushing to the head of the line at a stoplight, as is the custom, I found him waiting in the crowd. I pulled up beside him and smiled. He smiled.

Thank you, Chiang Mai, for challenging me to be adventurous, but always knowing when I just needed to sit back and enjoy a smoothie. I’ll see you again someday.