Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Chiang Mai

The major city of northern Thailand, population 170k in the central city, with maybe a million or so in the city environs, 315m or so in elevation, centred around the 'old town', which is a city founded in 1296 by King Men Rai the Great, and made somewhat hazardous by the smoke from bush fires in neighbouring Myanmar and Laos (Thailand already having burnt most of its forests). (The neighbouring province of Tak ("Tark"), which abuts Myanmar, is near to declaring a disaster, due to the smoke.) This inner city is surrounded by a wall (not in the best of condition, I doubt if it could withstand assault as it is, and a moat). ...And, the inner city is where the action is...

Chang Mai bus station.
Chang is a tourist city, there are lots of tourists, lots of hotels, lots of guest houses, lots of tasty restaurants, and plenty of things to do. I have heard Chang described as boring, nothing to do. To those people I say "you are so wrong!"  I found the inner city to be vibrant. In these two or so square kilometres are where most of the tourist sights exists, a mix of temples, museums, gallerys, and ancient ruins. These are found along a mix of small streets and alleyways, set admidst small shops and guesthouses. A few days to explore all, if you are interested in seeing all.

The bug museum
An interesting painting

Bugs for your delectation

Outside the city are a host of more energetic activities. These include 'treks'. Treks on elephant back for a day or three, treks through the jungle——treks to somewhere. You can abseil, visit Laos, raft down a river. All great fun.


Most of the tourists I saw were younger westerners, there is a 'community' here of western backpackers and so forth. I saw only a handful of older folk (such as myself), however, I am given to understand that there are such people, but they live outside the city and tend to be permanent residents, retirees with a Thai wife, who have escaped the rat-race 'back home', and live comfortably on their retirement income. I was also told that more than a few Bangkokians have moved north to Chang Mai and purchased houses, also for the quiiet life, escape the rat-race of the Big Mango.

Facility wise, Chang Mai has it all. There is an electronics/computer mall, several large chains and lots of smaller shops. There lie outside the inner city. Fairly, anything you want you can get here.

Guardians of the Buddha.
The Buddha.

Wat Phantao

A disadvantage is that the train and bus stations are aways out of the town, ~5kms or so. This requires a trip into the city, at the conclusion of a long and exhausting journey. You are at the mercy of the local drivers (capitalism sux). I suggest paying 60-80 baht for a trip from either into the city. You will be told 150b or 100b, but try and keep the price reasonable. Its a matter of respect. If you feel so inclined, as I do, tip your driver when you reach your destination. A driver in Thailand does not make a large living, a tip of even 20 baht can help.

There are lots of good vegetarian restaurants in the city. One is 'Mai Kaidees', which is a branch of the same in Bangkok. The same menu in fact. It is small, seating for maybe 30 tops, but the food was the same high quality. Another I stumbled across is 'Mingkwan Vegetarian Food'. This is a Thai place, so the food is spicy, but tasty and cheap ($1 for lots of food and one bottle of water—beat that!).

Information at your fingertips.

A few points of note:

The City Pillar Shrine. There is one in this city, as there is in most provincial capitals, however, surprisingly, ... it is closed to the public. It is only open a few days a year, on special occasions (the 8th and 9th lunar months). I was told, by a local driver (these guys know everything, or at least a convincing facsimile, which reflects local beliefs), that the shrine contained a buried pillar, 1m deep, but inside the shrine, at ground level is a Buddha statue. There is some deep history here. Also, surprisingly, there are signs at the shrine saying 'women not allowed inside'. This is a departure from the norm. Normally women are equally welcome to a shrine as are men. Apparently, it is the Buddha image that restricts women.

The Chiang Mai pillar is named, Sao Inthakin. It is 1m high, and composed of bricks. There is a long and complicated history here. 
 Putting these two facts together leads me to conclude that this shrine plays a different role in Chang Mai society than do other such shrines I have seen. As this shrine is located at the eastern entrance to the major Wat in the city and province, Wat Chedi Luang, named after the large and imposing central chedi ('jed-E").

City Shrine building.

One other site I like to spot in a provincial capital is the Provincial Hall. These are the governmental admin centres of each province. Usually, they are found near the city centre, but there is a growing tendency to build new and towering structures a few kilometres outside the city. This tends to be a cluster of impressive architecture, as a myriad of government departments cluster around the larger.

The Hall of Chang Mai is maybe 10kms north of the city. A large, new, and impressive building, surrounded by others such as the Ministry of Finance, the prosecutors office, and many other such agencies. Of interest there is a commemorative geographical marker here. These are apex truncated square pyramids, ~1m on a side, with their geogrpahical coordinates marked, to five decimals. I have come across a number of these in my travels in the Land of Smiles. Interesting objects.

Geo marker.

The former Hall lies within the old city. It is now a museum, the 'Chang Mai City Cultural Centre' (worth a visit). Formerly, prior to 1984, this building—which is substantial and impressive in itself—had been a royal residence as well as the Provincial Hall. Prior to this a Buddhist wat resided here.

Chang Mai City Cultural Centre

Three Kings Statue.
King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai; his contemporary and good friend King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai; and King Ngam Muang of Payao.
These three gentlemen founded (legendarily) Chiang Mai.

There is lots and lots and lots of accomm in the inner city, however, to me it seems a little on the pricy side for what you get. Maybe 30% more than a less touristy city. Maybe I am being picky? However, it seems to me, that too many young people are willing to pay more for a seemingly 'cool' guest house, which is cool, but in reality does not have all the convenience you would expect from a similarily priced accomm elsewhere. Or maybe I am being picky?

Some thoughts to ponder:

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