For weeks leading up to the trip I had been memorizing Thai phrases with a language app I had on my phone. This crash course in travel and culture, I had no doubt, would be a difficult mountain to ascend. I knew, though, that the only true way to learn about anything or anywhere is to experience it first-hand. So with just a carry-on bag each, my friend Matt, who had invited me on the trip, and I began our journey. After sixteen hours cramped in coach, we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which Matt had informed me was the second largest city in the country.
When we got off the plane, I saw a money exchange store so I turned to Matt and said,
“I’m going right here to exchange money,” motioning to the nearest money exchange store I could see.
“Not here,” he said.
“Where then?” I asked.
“The basement,” he quickly answered.
I followed him down a series of escalators to the quiet basement floor and down a ramp to a different looking exchange store than the others upstairs. It had an 8% better exchange rate, too! I smiled and looked at Matt who said,
“Yup, that’s how they get tourists.”
I snickered, changed my dough, and we went back upstairs and outside to catch a cab.
We caught a cab and told the driver the name of our hotel. He spoke a bit of English and recognized the hotel’s name. Even though he barley spoke English, he loved country western music, which was made apparent not only by the photos of country western stars plastered to the roof inside his cab but also by the Jimmy Buffet song playing on the radio. When he discovered we were American, he was very excited to try and speak to us. After I kindly asked him to turn down “Margaritaville,” he taught me to count to ten in Thai, a skill he quickly showed me how to parlay into counting into the thousands.
While driving through the heart of Chiang Mai, the first thing we noticed was a large wall lined with a moat. I had read in the National Geographic travel book I had that this structure dated back to the founding of the city in the 13th century. It said that the wall was built in an almost perfect square, 1,600 by 1,600 meters. It surrounds what used to actually be, and what is still referred to as, “The Old City.” There is a road built along the wall connecting the web of streets and alleys inside the square as well as the streets that break off of it out in all directions. The city is surrounded by rain forest covered hills and located in the Northern part of Thailand. As we were pulling up to the hotel, our driver, Ghee, told us that seeing the city on motorbikes was the only way to go. He also tipped us off to where to go to rent them and how much was fair to pay. We checked into the hotel and each went to our separate rooms to drop our bags off before heading out. I was immediately stunned at how nice the room was. A bedroom, a living room, nicely furnished with a kitchen and a balcony. All of this was only one thousand, fifty baht per night including tax. I did the math and figured out, since the exchange was 30 to one at the time, it came out to $35 a night. I thought to myself how hard it was just to find a motel back home for under $70. Just then the phone rang and I heard Matt’s voice,
“Meet me at the bar in the lobby when you’re ready.”
I headed down to the bar, and he had already ordered me a Heineken which was sitting on the bar in a “koozie,” which I’d later understand was because the humidity can warm a beer in just a couple minutes.
“Cheers,” I said as our drinks silently bumped against one another, the thick koozies preventing that gratifying clink.
“So?” Matt asked.
“So what?” I asked, pretending not to know the question.
“Should we rent bikes?”
I knew the question was coming, but it excited and scared me a bit. The first thing I noticed when we were in the cab, even before seeing the wall, was that Thais drive on the left side of the road. Not only that, but everyone seems to honk at everything, and the traffic is no joke. The streets are packed with cars and huge swarms of motorbikes. I’d ridden dirt bikes and quads growing up but never anything in such a dense urban environment and definitely not one so unfamiliar as this. Still, there was no way I was going to say no.
Our hotel was only blocks from the square, and the bike rental spot the cabbie told us about was even closer, so we hoofed it. As we walked I paid close attention to where our hotel was in regard to the square. With a population of 131,000, the city has a quaint feeling. There are no skyscrapers like Bangkok’s seemingly endless skyline and it’s 8.2 million residents, but Chiang Mai is a bustling metropolis nevertheless. When we arrived at the scooter rental spot Ghee recommended, I addressed the owner.
“Wan la tao rai, khrap?” I said, a phrase I had memorized using my phone app, which meant, “How much per day?”
“Nung roy bpad sib baht,” the man answered, which by now I knew to mean 180 baht, which I also now knew was $6.
Thanks to the cab driver I also knew this was a good price.
“Deal,” I said.
We paid him and were off. The motorbikes turned out to be simple gas and brake scooters which was kind of a relief. Now it was just a matter of getting used to the flow of traffic, and getting my bearings!
We spent most of the day exploring the city. We drove up and down every street and alley we could find. We passed locals and tourists on the narrow streets filled with open air markets, bars, restaurants, and endless food stalls with vendors selling everything imaginable. Everything I saw seemed to be in more vivid colors than I’d ever seen. Parked motorbikes lined every street. This truly was the only way to see the city. We rode to a bar on the edge of the Ping River right outside the Old City. It had an outdoor area facing the water. When the waiter came over, Matt again ordered two Heinekens. I finally asked him if there was a reason he was only ordering Heinekens. I had never known him to drink Heinekens so religiously. He explained that anything not made in Thailand costs a lot more due to government tariffs. Apparently, Heineken built breweries here to get around them, and he was ordering them because they were cheap!
That night we drove around eating at food stall after food stall. We ate food that was salty, spicy, sweet, meaty, fishy, hot, cold, crunchy, and soft. The Chiang Mai street food scene at night is an all-out assault on all five senses. I learned that in Thailand they do not generally use chop sticks, a fact I was stunned by. How many times had I asked for chop sticks in Thai restaurants back home?
“What an idiot” I thought to myself.
I had recently seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel cooking show filmed that same year that we were visiting Chiang Mai. I was particularly interested in a one food stall I had seen on the show. I told Matt,
“We have to find this stall. The woman who runs it wears a cowboy hat, so keep an eye out.”
We rode around a while until Matt suddenly stopped, and I pulled up next to him.
“What up?” I said.
“Look,” he said as he pointed across the street.
Sure enough, there she was cooking at her stall as she did every night of the week. We parked our scooters among the endless rows of others and sat at one of the outdoor tables that was set up behind her stall. We ordered the only thing they have there,” khao ka moo” which is stewed, slow-cooked, pork leg in a sweet master sauce, served, of course, with rice. Everything is eaten with rice in Thailand. I kid you not; it was the best meal I had there, and our bill was 60 baht or $2 for the both of us! We thanked the woman, and I asked her to take a photo. She smiled and obliged.
One of her workers, a young man that seemed like a family member, as these operations often are family run, spoke pretty good English.
“How long are you guys here for?” he asked us.
“Just a few days,” Matt replied.
“Have you ridden up the mountain to the Temple yet?”
“No. What mountain?” I responded curiously.
“Doi Suthep. There’s a temple at the top of the mountain, and if you haven’t seen Chiang Mai from up there, you haven’t seen Chiang Mai.”
That settled it. The next day we were going.
We woke up fairly early the next morning, packed a backpack, gassed the bikes, and headed up the mountain. The route up was a steep and windy two-lane road surrounded by jungle on the both sides. We quickly discovered that unless we wanted to ride behind a truck driving painfully slowly while huffing their non-government regulated fumes, we’d have to pass using the right lane, which we did more than a few times. The narrow two-lane road and blind corners made it sketchy but exhilarating. Thirty minutes or so into the journey we spotted a small waterfall popping out of the jungle wall next to a turnout. It was a perfect place to stop for snacks, smokes, and a photo op. Across the falls, from halfway up the mountain, on the other side of the road, we caught our first view of the city below. The amazing, elevated view of the city was surrounded by rainforest.
We continued on a bit and eventually came across a dirt road turnoff where we saw hikers coming off a trail. We looked at each other and without words parked next to the trail and got off our bikes. We hiked up the jungle trail a few minutes before coming across a three-tiered waterfall that dwarfed the fall we’d seen earlier. We climbed to the top taking time to notice the unfamiliar plant life we’d never before seen. Eventually, after a photo op, we climbed down and back through the jungle trail to our bikes.
After a few more miles’ ride up the mountain road, we arrived at the staircase that leads to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. A thousand steps lead to the temple. At the bottom, vendors of all kinds were selling local fruit, coconut water, and the tastiest juices you’ve ever had. There were Buddhists from all over the world who had made the trip to see the sacred temple on the mountain. After making the climb up the steps in the high altitude, we were happy to have made it to the top. At the top, before entering the complex, we changed out of our shorts into the pants we had brought in our backpacks and removed our shoes. Shorts and shoes are not permitted. Upon entering the temple complex, our jaws dropped. Set on the edge of the mountain, everything in the temple complex appeared to be made of emerald or gold. Statues of the Buddha, big and small, well-kept gardens with structures surrounding them were filled with monks meditating and leading prayers. In the center of the complex a 50-foot, solid gold tower was surrounded by multiple 15-foot high, intricately designed, golden umbrellas. Umbrellas are an important symbol in Buddhism. Buddhists from all over the world were holding incense and walking in circles around the golden tower, making offerings as per their tradition.
We walked to the edge of the complex to the railing, and from the high elevation looked out over Chiang Mai and the endless green hills that surround it. At that moment, I gave thanks for all the things I’d learned about the country in just the brief time I’d been there. I gave thanks to the people who had helped along the way.
I had ascended this first mountain knowing I had learned much about Thailand, but in looking out over the vastness of the city, I knew I hadn’t even scratched the surface yet.