Robert Bound reporting from Chiang Mai: Thailand’s unofficial second city is a beguiling collision of contrasts: a young university town with an ancient, storied history; a town of temples and boxing stadia; monks and go-go dancers; bustling markets; and oases of calm. We found a quietly confident town on a very human scale.
Population: 500,000 (but swells during the northward exodus of the Thai winter from November until March)
Founded: 1296 (Chiang Mai means “new city”)
Religion: home to more than 300 temples
History: Chiang Mai was ruled by the Burmese from 1556 for 220 years; in 1938 it came under the control of Bangkok
Southeast Asia is on the cusp of summer, and the weather is showing off terribly. An over-tired toddler of a storm front is coming in over the hills to the north, bringing high winds that batter and heavy rain that teems then clatters. Later, steam rises from everything caught in the deluge, that great mood swing in the sky. It’s hot and humid, then cool and dark and strange; then comes the rain. Now it’s still and blinding bright. The traffic – buzzing scooters, burping tuk-tuks and the red Song Tao cabs – comes to a halt as drivers pull over to watch and raise an eyebrow at the weather towards their fellow wayfarers; then the parade of vehicles starts up again. Parasols swapped for umbrellas are shaken out and girls dance between the puddles gathered in potholes. The gulleys are blocked with banana leaves. Drains rush like applause. And then the heat again. Chiang Mai is changeable.
Some things last forever, however, and the city’s qualities endure. Chiang Mai is ancient and beautiful with the old town protected by city walls, which are themselves surrounded by a moat. The city is reached through imposing gates at the points of the compass, policed by fearsome stone dragons and snarling brickwork dogs; and these gates are locked at night to keep the riff-raff out. Or at least they were once. Chiang Mai’s past is storied with kings, riches, temples by the hundred, seats of great learning, battles won and lost, a Burmese regency and the application of guidebook epithet “The Rose of the North”. Frankly, she sounds like a character from a soap opera. So let us explore.
On dry land or wet, and away from the history books and the tourist guides, Chiang Mai is a cacophony of activity. It buzzes and ticks and hammers and stitches and fries and sews and meditates and snoozes and buys and sells and shouts and smokes and chews and spits and bats its eyelashes and puts its palms together in greeting and says “Sawatdee”.
There is great depth and detail in this town. It is host to an abundance of temples with bells that chime in the breeze. Some are pagodas pointing straight to nirvana; some boast serried roofs and swooping gables that stir feelings of divinity; some are tiled, others shingled, and a few employ an elaborate layering of hundreds of thousands of leaves to keep their Buddha dry. So much of the city is wrapped up in material: countless wrists are adorned with bracelets; sacred trees wear sashes tied with prayers on ribbons; even the lamp posts are covered with ivy-like spreads of telephone wires. Walls are decorated with paint, stickers and doodles. There are notes advertising services in intricate Thai script, English or Mandarin, with offerings and palm readings and phone numbers for massages or yoga instructors. Or perhaps visits to the Tiger Kingdom or those Thai sporting perennials: the bungee jump, the zip-line jungle safari and the white-water raft experience.
Chiang Mai is a site of historical significance then, and it is a haven for western backpackers. But there’s a lot more to experience in between these two extremes; a whole city in fact. Chiang Mai is busy with tourists – of which your correspondent is just one – but it’s not for them. Chiang Mai’s soul is still old and looking inward for nourishment rather than ever outward, to the familiar lodestars of Europe, the US and China. Thailand’s unofficial second city, Chiang Mai is big enough to take care of itself. “I came here to find a balance,” says Jane Wowaroon. “The pace up here is better for the soul than in Bangkok.” Jane is the name above the door of Jane’s Kitchen on the Sarmlarn Road, a healthy, brunchy sort of place that does a mean juice, knows a trick or two with a poached egg and stretches the taste barrier of brown rice to the max. As a Thai-American born in the US, Wowaroon moved to Bangkok to become an interior designer and in 2013 came to Chiang Mai t, “not work 12-hour days and race against the clock and the traffic all the time”. Her place hums with the short-order industry of whisking, chopping and zapping the juicer until her father covers his ears. It’s a family business, as many here are. Over a Green Goddess juice, I’m told where to go to plug into Chiang Mai’s nightlife that evening, specifically its live music scene and jazz bars. Dessert is a chocolate truffle with an unspecified additive that makes the scooters we’ve hired feel as quick as Kawasakis and heavy as Harleys, but hey.
Back on the hot, shimmering streets, past gilded temples and monks queuing at the atm, through the smoke of those wheezing tuk-tuks and the waft of the pork skewers cooking on roadside grills, past the schoolgirls clasping newspaper-wrapped bouquets and the bustle of the market, you recognise Chiang Mai as something of a minimalist’s nightmare. There’s just so much of everything here. If the devil is in the detail, no wonder there are 300 temples in town. A new thing are the mascots, the cutesy representatives of coffee shops, clothing stores, design outlets and the like. These are big plastic models of, say, a fat man grinningly sipping a latte or eating a curry, or a giant anthropomorphised labrador giving passers-by a thumbs-up (do labradors even have thumbs?) to vouch for the quality of the free wi-fi available. For all its impenetrable but often charming layers of historical detail, Chiang Mai can feel like a city designed with Instagram in mind. The wi-fi is free and fast almost in order that you can upload to your social network as quickly as you can say “Kop khun maak”. No, thank you very much.
West we go, along Ratchadamnoen, past fidgeting tourists, their restless cameraphones committing yet another image of Wat Phra Singh to a shrugging hard drive somewhere else in the world. We exit the old town through the Suan Dok Gate and cruise to Suthep, where the leafy grounds of Chiang Mai University green the northside of the highway and the pagodas and prayer hall of Wat Suan Dok decorate the south. The university is on a break but Ying will show us around. She’s got a year left of her six spent studying architecture and is glad she’s in Chiang Mai, “a chilled city but still a city – but Bangkok is so Bangkok!”
What’s the difference? The size, the busyness, sure, but Ying is immediately philosophical about the town she’s chosen as her college home, “It’s interesting how buildings make you feel,” she says, “and in Chiang Mai, in many parts, nothing is built over 24 metres high so that nothing is taller than the temples.” We wondered something like this when we flew from Bangkok’s high-rises over forested hills and turned over the Air Force golf course to land at Chiang Mai International: it’s a stocky little town, sprawling out from the lazy, brown bends of the Ping River. It’s a town on a human scale.
The University’s Faculty of Architecture corkscrews skyward like New York’s Guggenheim and trees grow in its cool courtyard; it’s definitely over 24 metres tall but if a Faculty of Architecture can’t make a bold statement about buildings then what can? As it’s quiet time and there are no students hurrying about or hanging out, Ying walks us down to the nearest market, within university grounds, where we eat quails’ eggs poached in cast-iron moulds and kanom krok: coconut milk with corn done the same way and served in cocoa leaves with a cocktail stick to spear them. It’s an early supper to snack on as we wander to the college running track. The light is good as it goes down and anyone can rock up and run so it’s a popular pastime at sundown: triathletes and duffers, keep-fit mums and young men straight from the office jog around, keeping time, perhaps, thanks to the metronomic calling of the crickets.
The very best place at dusk, despite the lack of a bar serving sundowners, is the Ang Kaew Reservoir. This artificial lake has matured enough to fool you and the couples selfie-ing on its shoreline that it is an entirely natural feature of the landscape. The environs are a lovers’ lane for courting couples, decorated with hanging trees and the blinking lights from the zoo on the forested hillside; in this pocket of calm, only the lily pads are disturbed by the carp flopping languidly in the treacly waters. Soundtracked by cicadas and sweet nothings in a foreign tongue, it’s a painterly and beguiling place. It’s striking how unselfconscious young lovers are in this town where life is lived outdoors (much more so than anywhere in Europe). The reverie lasts as long as it takes to realise we can’t remember where we parked our rented scooter.
The next day is wai khru, when schoolchildren across Thailand give praise and gifts to their teachers. It’s a good morning to be down at the Lam Yai flower market, perched on a straight of the Ping River between the Nakorn and Nawarat bridges. The market is a blaze of orchids, tiger lillies, poinsettias and jasmine. Among the serried ranks of Chiang Mai’s flower-sellers there is an especial abundance of the yellow lotus, the ubiquitous temple flower. A group of Maedang schoolgirls are choosing blooms for teachers’ day. Which teacher? “Mathematics!” says one. “We hate mathematics!” chant the rest. Classrooms will be groaning with stems and lurid with pollen come break time; as we know, in Chiang Mai it never rains but it pours.
Behind Lam Yai sits Warorot Market, Chiang Mai’s largest and the place where housewives hustle stallholders for the best and freshest. Vegetables grown in this northern Eden of fecundity are the most perfect things we’ve seen. Fish are plump and constantly re-iced to keep them from being slow-baked in the 40c heat. There’s dried fruit, boiled chicken, fowl tied by the feet and chillies prepared a hundred ways. But nothing is as popular as Dam-Rong, the pork shop where shoppers nudge themselves toward the best pork rind, sausages and chilli dip in town. Staffed by half a dozen girls in vaguely branded mauve aprons and overseen by an omniscient, unsmiling grandmother, the name of this outlet travels widely: at the airport there are boxes marked Dam-Rong, chock-full of grunt and bound for Bangkok.
The push-and-shove atmosphere of this popular shop is as nothing compared to the athletic aggression of the Thai boxing ring. Your correspondent went to the Thaphae Stadium (there are other places he went, too; let’s not be shy). Tonight it’s kids fighting (though one has to be careful when saying this because in the rulebook they’re probably classified as “junior adults”). Tough as nails, these combatants look as if they have endured hardscrabble lives in which these boxing matches are rare opportunities to advance.
The spectacle is impressive: girls and boys – young ladies and gentlemen, then – ducking and pawing in practice and then going for it in the ring under spotlights that show, in slo-mo detail, the sweat and oil flying off their taut bodies as they box and kick to the shouts of the crowd. Writing this 6,000 miles away it’s still possible to hear the jabber of the commentary and the endless circles that the three-piece house band describe with their drums and pi so, a sort of snake-charmer’s oboe. It is a roundhouse to the side of the head.
Thaphae is quite fun but it’s living in a touristic time-warp, even by backpackers’ standards: there is a “Kop Bar” to celebrate Liverpool FC and a huge mural in another bar of a leering Keith Flint, nutter-in-chief of the Prodigy. A night at the fight might be better done at the more pukka Kawila Boxing Stadium across the Ping near the San Pakoy Market, but that was in the process of reopening after having burned down. And on that note – we shall allow you a moment to form your own thoughts on the significance of Kawila’s recent fiery fate – we leave Thaphae Stadium.
In Chiang Mai in summertime you are wise to spend much of the day in the shade, or better still an air-conditioned suite for a siesta. But the evenings are played out of doors and the best places are open to the elements on four sides. The North Gate is a jazz club and a fixture for touring musos to rock up; music students from the university will try to unlearn their strict tutoring and get their groove on in front of some good players and a friendly crowd. Many of them are expats and tourists, enlivened by the music, refreshed by the quite good cocktails and held captive by the Sri Phum Road in front. It happens to be Sexy Ben’s last night in town after three months of “messing about and playing anywhere I can” in Chiang Mai and his fast friends whoop along to every note of his sax solo on “Stormy Weather”. Bon voyage.
Rolling on into the night we find Mojo, a sort of roadside rock’n’roll joint on the Charoenrat Road. It’s over the river and on a street strewn with galleries, bars and design shops with more zeroes on their (still very reasonable) price tags than you’d find elsewhere in town. Sanim Yok, Ying’s favourite band, are playing; two Thai virtuosi guitarists and a catalogue of classic Southern rock for tonight’s set, played to a mostly Thai crowd of fellow musicians who’ve come for some open-mic action washed down with a few Singhas. New in town is Lawrence “Binkey” Tolefree, just in from Chicago to sing for his supper. He’s rapping and beatboxing to the delight of a crowd more used to Eric Clapton and the Stones.
You’d have thought that there’s always time for a nightcap or two in Thailand, wouldn’t you? After the bar and the club and the street-food stands and the jazz place, it seems reasonable to assume you’d be able to sit somewhere in the inevitable company of a Bob Marley compilation CD and sing the praises of this old town over a few fingers of Sang Som. But you’d be half wrong. There’s a new broom in Bangkok and it wears stripes on its sleeve and requires proprietors to kowtow to a semi-official curfew. The way to get round it is to duck under one of the rolling shutters just shy of the witching hour and get locked in. But once you’re in, you’re in – and that’s not ideal.
I told you there were other places. In fact, the girly-bar scene in Chiang Mai is not a scene so much as half a street of girls waving, smiling, not-quite blowing kisses but probably keen on a “girl drink” if one were to be forthcoming. Beside any question of morality, this seems quite naïve and policed by femininity rather than big men with earpieces and it’s less easy to get into that sort of trouble in Chiang Mai than it is in Bangkok. So it’s a go-go a-go-go for one last drink before bed.
The temples look more golden than ever today; the beauty of a low-rise town in which these chedi are the highest peaks you see. This town plays second fiddle to Bangkok – that skyscraper-strewn hothouse – in many ways. But Chiang Mai has that rare air cultivated by many but rarely successfully: that of simply not needing to compete. Tuk-tuks are for tourists but temples aren’t; the markets will never be beaten by the malls and street food is simply how most of Chiang Mai eats. An old city with a bright young university of, say, architects who don’t necessarily care for the monotony of glass and steel, is a fine place to learn and then – who knows? – to stay. We’ll remember an old lady walking down Chang Moi with a canary in a cage and the beautiful girls riding side-saddle on their boyfriends’ scooters, never once breaking their gaze from yours. Chiang Mai is changeable but nature stays the same.