Published on September 11th, 201214
Checking Out Chiang Mai…
|TIME WARP WARNING! Lacking an internet connection (hell, no electricity nor running water for that matter) for most of the past month, the tales of my dash into Thailand, and subsequent weeks riding camels and milking yaks in Mongolia are… necessarily a tad out of date.|
I’m now back in the sublime cradle of civilization (a.k.a.: happily within wifi range) but these posts of my many recent adventures may seem like a bit of an out-of-order time warp. Sorry.
Once again, I’m FREE AS A BIRD!
But not without a “Plan” (or two – indeed, I’m seldom without a Plan “A”, and “B”, and “C”. It’s just not prudent when skipping ’round the globe as intrepidly as I do, not to be ever ready to change course at a moments’ notice). There was a month’s adventures in Mongolia ahead of course, but after that???
On one hand, my long coveted Asian Shangri-La (Dalat, up in the cool, green mountains of southeast Vietnam) surely beckoned.
BUT, I’d meanwhile heard many good things about a similar haven in Thailand – Chiang Mai, apparently a newly minted expat mecca. Interestingly, it was the “expat mecca” part that initially rather turned me off, as moving halfway ’round the world only to hang out with fellow Westerners would seem a tad silly, no?
Nonetheless, I figure they all must be drawn there for SOME good reason, and I wanted to check it out as a possible alternative to settling down in Dalat. Besides, the two towns are similar in size (around 200k population), both around 8 hrs. from the big city (Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh), and both are situated at a tad higher elevation (thus a bit cooler than the sultry temps of sea-level Asia.)
In any case, I was aimin’ to find out. Thus, as a prelude to my month’s trip to Mongolia, I booked a 5 night dash into Chiang Mai to see for myself what all the hoopla was about.
Long story short? I was enchanted the moment I arrived.
Surrounded by the crumbling remains of ancient walls set beside a moat, the “Old City” of Chiang Mai is a perfect blend of old and new. Westerners yes, but I actually bumped into but a few. The usual knots of tourists of course shopping at the night market, along with a handful of expats intently pecking on laptops at the (indeed, happily generous) array of Western cafe’s and cozy “whole grain” bakeries.
Wait! Why that’s ME! This is what I DO, people! Pretty much travel the globe gawking at the trinkets at night markets, and by day – peck on my laptop sipping a lo-fat cappuccino. Yes, I also scarf down most every morsel of local street food within arm’s reach, and dabble some in trying to drum a bit of English into adorable Asian kids. But the truth is, I’d forgotten just how much I missed having a few of the Western niceties whilst surrounded by the exotic foreign cultures that I love.
You see, the beauty of Chiang Mai (and clearly why it’s become such an expat mecca) is that it’s somehow managed to infuse a modicum of Western comfys into the landscape, while retaining a robust ambiance of authentic Asian culture. That plus…
It’s CHEAP. Indeed, dirt cheap. Cheaper than Saigon here in Vietnam – and believe me, that’s C.H.E.A.P.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Let’s step back to the day I arrived.
The goodness started with my choice of hostels (remember? though hotels in Chiang Mai were quite reasonably priced – many for < $25, I’d opted to get back to “My Shoestring Travel Roots” on this jaunt and booked a shared dorm in a hostel).
Ah but… FWD House is most definitely a step above the usual dreary hostel. Indeed, the “box bed” concept is utterly brilliant. When you open the (lockable) storage doors of each bed… you effectively have your own private bitty hotel room. For… just 5 bucks a night!
Air conditioned too (wisely – electricity being spendy as it is – from 8pm – 8am when folks need it most – for sleeping), and super swift, reliable wifi. A sweet little open-air restaurant with the most delicious curries, cooked to order by the owner’s wife, plus tasty little complimentary snacks each evening. And the location? Ideal! Inside the “Old City” walls, in a quiet Thai neighborhood (a gilded temple spire loomed but a block from my dorm window), and just a 15 minute stroll to the night market, the Thai street food market, etc.
Which brings me to… the single most compelling reason that I simply MUST live in Chiang Mai for a spell:
Two words (and one of them is an article): the FOOD!
OMG! I instantly fell head-over-heels in love with the Thai food. Of course I’ve been to Thailand before, but that was ages ago and I only dimly recall the food (save for a most memorable “Cashew Chicken” one night in Bangkok, and a wondrous Khantoke lunch in Chiang Rai). And of course Vietnam’s no slouch in the foodie department either. But suffice, I’d forgotten just how delicious Thai food can be. So varied, so artistically served, such a subtle blend of the legendary “5” Thai flavorings: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, hot. Let me tell ya, these folks have “delish” NAILED!
Ah yes, from the instant I tasted that first spoonful of “Green Curry” at the FWD House – I was hooked. And later, deep fried oysters and mussels at the night market, and the main street food market – every night a dazzling cornucopia of every imaginable treat – spread out for nearly a quarter mile!
Indeed, see for yourself:
It’s like… an Asian “Bite of Seattle” – on STEROIDS – verily every night of the week. And the tab? Little more than 2 bucks for a complete dinner!
Ah but the food and the Western comfys sprinkled throughout the cobbled streets is only half the story. My dear host at FWD House kindly took me around to a half dozen English schools to check out the teach opportunities. And suffice – plenty of EFL work should I want it.
And as if that weren’t enough, he also took me to a couple of expat apartment complexes and… Again, see for yourself:
Smith Residence. Yesirreee. I could live there happily, for a mere $220/month.
Now I ask ya – why the heck WOULDN’T I give Chiang Mai a go for a year or so?
There’s Dalat – my first love. My long-daydreamed Asian heart-throb that’s been in the back of my mind since… since before I even hopped on that one-way flight to Asia. Dalat – the old French hilltop hideaway that I only reluctantly put on the back-burner after completing my CELTA and accepting ILA’s job offer to teach in the nutso city of Saigon.
Decisions, decisions. Which to choose? Where to begin the next chapter of the TravelnLass’ nomadic life?
For weeks now, I’ve wrestled with the pros ‘n cons of each option – whilst cramped on northbound planes to Mongolia. Perched atop camels lumbering through Gobi sand dunes. While wincing on a stallion for 6 days in the wilds of western Mongolia. And again on a couple of planes to Beijing and back here to Saigon.
Sooo… which will it be? Which lovely haven shall I call “home” next?
Whatcha think? Where do you all think I should unpack my bags and stay a spell: Dalat? or Chiang Mai?
Do let me know what you think in the comments. For I’m clearly still leaning to and fro here, and I need to make a decision soon!
And meanwhile, check out the full assortment of my pics of Chiang Mai in my Flickr Thailand 2012 Album.