Southeast Asia Update #6 [Northern Thailand]
If you’ve been following this blog series from the beginning you may remember that our initial goal for this two-month trip was to visit four countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. At one point during our time in Vietnam, however, we decided it’d be best to exclude Laos from our itinerary altogether. This is because we felt we wanted to slow our trip down a bit and stay in Vietnam and Thailand longer than originally planned. In my last post, I covered our time in northern Vietnam, but instead of booking a flight into Laos from Hanoi, we went directly to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
It was tough saying goodbye to Vietnam but we were also very excited to return to Thailand after having only spent just under a week in Bangkok at the start of our trip. Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand with Bangkok unsurprisingly at number one. The flight from Hanoi to Chiang Mai was only two hours and we arrived in the late afternoon. At the airport, we shuffled through customs, bought new SIM cards, exchanged our remaining Viet Dong for some Thai Baht, and hailed a taxi to our hotel where we’d be staying for the next four days.
Our hotel was actually located quite a ways from the airport; about 40 minutes outside of the core of the city. This hotel wasn’t our first choice, but unfortunately, most of the good places in the downtown area were booked. While searching for a hotel we were actually kind of confused as to why everything was sold out, but suddenly Madison realized that the week we chose to stay in Chiang Mai coincides with the massive full moon festival known as Loi Krathong and the associated lantern festival Yee Peng. Two festivals in one, so the upcoming weekend would be chaos. The hotel we ended up with was a very well-reviewed resort in the countryside north of Chiang Mai. Owned by a French and Thai couple, Nok’s Resort was a small, community style complex with only eight rooms. Four rooms on two sides faced the inner portion of the complex which had a pool in the middle. Nok is the name of the Thai female owner who is married to Yannick, the French co-owner of the resort. They greeted us as we pulled into the complex and it was quickly clear that neither of them (or the small staff) spoke very good English. Throughout our stay, most of our conversation was done through expressions, gestures, and a little bit of Google Translate. Attention to detail and well thought out amenities combined with all its modern touches made Nok’s Resort one of the best places we’ve ever stayed. Its tight community feels made it very conducive for interaction with other guests, and we did end up making some friends during our stay. Given the long drive from the resort to downtown Chiang Mai we had been worried about constantly accruing large taxi bills, but luckily we met an English speaking couple during breakfast on our first morning there who offered to drive us into town with the car they had rented. We took them up on this offer and had a pleasant chat with this English-Thai couple on our way into town.
Chiang Mai was a far different experience than Bangkok. One of the first things we noticed was the conformity to traffic laws here. People actually stayed in their own lanes and we didn’t hear constant honking like we did in Vietnam, so Chiang Mai also seemed very quiet to us. There were pedestrian crosswalks and every once in a while a car would actually stop to let us cross the street. It was much calmer and friendlier here. Our first day in town didn’t consist of much, we just explored a little bit of the ancient Walled City on our way to Nimman Road. Walled City is a square-shaped section of Chiang Mai, surrounded by a moat and giant wall, directly in the center of the circular-shaped outer and metropolitan areas. It’s essentially the heart of the city and is similar to the Old Quarter in Hanoi (Vietnam) and Old Town in Hoi An (Vietnam) in that it is the most historically preserved aspect of the city. Inside the Walled City you’ll find dozens of temples, quaint restaurants, and narrow residential streets. Nimman Road is a trendier part of Chiang Mai where you’ll find newly completed building projects such as the giant MAYA shopping center and One Nimman food court. If we were to move to Thailand this is most likely the area we’d end up in first. It really reminded us of certain areas in our hometown of Portland, Oregon.
For a couple of days during our stay in Chiang Mai we didn’t even need to leave our hotel. Nok’s Resort had almost everything we needed and the hospitality was next-level. They even had motorbikes to rent. Throughout this backpacking trip, one thing I had constantly wished I had done was ride a motorbike, which as I might’ve mentioned in an earlier post is by far the most common method of travel in SEA. Certain cities in Vietnam like Da Nang or Hoi An seemed like the best places for tourists to learn due to the fact that the traffic is much calmer there and the streets are straight and wide. Motorbike accidents are also apparently a really common way that tourists get injured (or killed). Considering the fact that I’ve never ridden a motorbike before and I don’t have an international license, Madison and I kind of let the possibility go. That is until we arrived at the countryside of Chiang Mai. When Yannick, one of the co-owners of our hotel, told me that I could rent a motorbike if I wanted, I couldn’t resist. He even taught me how to ride one and took me out for a test drive! On the days that we decided to stay at the hotel all day, we would end up renting a motorbike for an hour and cruise the beautiful countryside.
Loi Krathong was actually a week-long festival that began on a Wednesday and lasted until Saturday. We decided to join the festivities on Thursday which was when the lantern lightings began.
Well before heading into town for the festival though, Madison and I had decided to go swimming at the Grand Canyon, which was basically a small man-made rock quarry filled with water that slightly resembled the actual Grand Canyon in North America. Yannick, the co-owner of our hotel, offered to drive us to the Grand Canyon and then later into downtown Chiang Mai for the festival. We took him up on this offer and paid him a small fee for the ride. It was a beautiful place and a perfect activity in Chiang Mai’s heat. Here we did some cliff jumping, floated on inter-tubes, and ate at a nearby restaurant.
At around 5pm, Yannick picked us up from the Grand Canyon and battled Los Angeles-grade traffic into the city. Not only was it rush hour, but massive amounts of people were flooding towards the Walled City in preparation for the night’s festivities. Everyone was to gather just outside of the Walled City on a couple of the bridges crossing a river to the east. While people were lighting little flower boat lanterns and casting them down the river, others would be lighting floating lanterns and setting them adrift into the sky. The result is a sky filled with floating lanterns which makes for very picturesque moments. Of course, we had seen pictures on the internet of what this may look like for us, but nothing prepared us for the reality of how beautiful this event was.
Just before sundown, we finally made it to the Walled City. Shopkeepers claimed the sidewalks selling clothes, food, and festival souvenirs. We shopped around a bit before making our way to one of the bridges that we read would be an ideal spot to see the lantern lightings.
By sundown, we had positioned ourselves midway on the bridge, acquainted ourselves with mosquitoes, and waited for the action. One at a time, people gradually began lighting their lanterns and floating them toward the sky. There were many failed attempts as people learned the best way to let them loose. People watching from the river shoreline would cheer at some of the successful launches. As soon as it got dark multiple groups of people would light them at once. The sky was now lightly sprinkled with glowing dots that I often confused with the first stars coming out at night.
Eventually, huge clusters of these things were entering the sky as people all over the Walled City sent their lanterns off in unison. As the lanterns followed the same wind current they started to form a long, swirling trail into the sky. It was a brilliant display; the sky looked dotted with fireflies.
Some people would say little prayers or make wishes as they cast their lanterns away. Festival music could be heard in the distance. Car traffic was brought to a stand-still as massive amounts of locals and tourists crowded the bridge we were on. After about an hour of watching lanterns float away, Madison and I decided to make our way off of the bridge to find some food. Getting off of the bridge was a difficult task as we tried to find openings in the densely-packed crowd. Impatient motorists tried to create openings for themselves which led to small bouts of hostility between them and bystanders. Eventually, a security guard managed to create an opening for a few cars and motorbikes, so we swiftly followed behind. Once off of the bridge we were able to gain a new perspective on just how massive this gathering was. Hundreds of floating lights could be seen drifting into the sky from multiple points, and thousands of people flowed through the streets and onto the bridges. Festival music was playing in the background, colorful LED toys were being tossed into the air, and the smell of various foods filled our noses. It was sensory overload but also very serene when I really thought about the privilege we had to be a part of Loi Krathong and Yee Peng. We made our way to a restaurant we had found online and all-the-while I couldn’t help but look up, mesmerized by the dynamic constellations of lanterns spiraling into the dark sky. Once again my iPhone failed me, but the memory is still fresh. After dinner, we walked around a bit more before hailing a taxi for the long ride back into the countryside.
On the Sunday following the Loi Krathong and Yee Peng festival, it was time for us to take our scheduled bus ride to the little town of Pai. Much like Sa Pa in Vietnam, Pai is a small valley town up in the mountains which requires several miles of windy, uphill roads to get to. In usual Southeast Asian bus fashion, the ride to Pai was filled with near collisions with oncoming traffic and aggressive driving etiquette from our driver. But we made it to our destination efficiently and in one piece.
Pai ended up being a tiny oasis of tourist dreams. It was filled with foreign expats, locals, and tourists alike. Foreigners zipped by on rented motorbikes. Western hippy expats roamed the streets with their bare feet and dreadlocks. Local Thais exhibited diverse styles, featuring everything from laidback hipsters to Muslims in full religious garb. This place actually had the highest concentration of Muslim Thais that we had seen thus far.
We were dropped off at the transit station located right in the middle of the famous Walking Street, which is where most of the action happens in Pai. Street food and clothing vendors were just getting set up for the evening. A taxi took us to our hotel which was only a five-minute drive up the street and off a side road and into farmland. Our hotel was called Kirina Retro House, and it had this whole teddy bear theme going on that we actually found quite cringy. It was a pretty decent accommodation though and is probably great for kids. Also, we had an amazing view from our patio of a large mountain in the distance with rice fields in the foreground. After checking in and getting situated, we made our way back to Walking Street just in time for sunset.
No motor vehicles are permitted on Walking Street, as the name suggests, and as a result, the street becomes crowded with pedestrians moving from street vendor to bars or restaurants. This is where we actually ate more street food than any other time on our trip combined. It was all very accessible, cheap, and diverse in its offerings. One night we were able to spend about $6 USD between the both of us on a four-course meal by hopping between food vendors.
Walking the entire downtown area of Pai can be done in about twenty minutes on foot. On some of the streets surrounding Walking Street you can find many additional sitdown restaurants, dive bars, and clubs. During the day, when all of the various businesses open up, Pai becomes a bustling, self-sustained little city where you can book tours, rent motorbikes, or whatever other errands need to be done. Our first full day in Pai we ended up renting mountain bikes from our hotel and riding around the larger metropolitan area where we discovered so many amazing little side streets, shops, neighborhoods, and farms that made us really fall in love with the town.
Further outside of Pai is where you’ll find some of the more major tourist attractions which consist mostly of natural landmarks and temples. During one of our full days there, we hired a driver to take us to Bamboo Bridge, Pam Bok Waterfall, and the Land Split. The latter was a giant land fissure created during an earthquake in 2008.
Although we hired a driver to take us to most of these landmarks, renting a motorbike is by far the best way to explore the land outside of Pai. After much consideration about the safety and legality of renting a motorbike, we finally caved and decided to rent one from our hotel in order to explore some additional areas outside of the city. With the little experience I had from riding around the Chiang Mai countryside I felt pretty confident that a could navigate the windy mountain rodes leading outside of Pai. The first landmark on our list was yet another giant Buddha statue built atop a steep hill just 4 km outside of town.
After making that pilgrimage we stopped at a cool vegetarian restaurant before making the 10 km drive to Pai Canyon. On the way there we saw some elephant farms which I just had to stop at to see one of these creatures up close. We had some mixed feelings seeing them chained up to fences, but I was glad I finally got to see an elephant up close during this trip.
Pai Canyon is an incredibly scenic hike over steep ledges that offer panoramic views of the mountain valleys. We timed this little adventure with intentions of seeing the entire canyon before the rush of tourists arrived later in the evening. Sunset is the most popular time to visit Pai Canyon, and for good reason. The skies were mostly clear save for a few clouds just over the hills. By about 5pm large amounts of tourists arrived looking for the best vantage points to view the sunset from. A few drones buzzed around the sky capturing what I’m sure were amazing photos of the valley and ridges. Close to 6pm the sun finally began its descent behind the mountains while the sky cycled through yellow, orange, pink, and purple hues. It was well worth waiting around for two hours to experience this. Just after twilight we beat the crowds out of the Pai Canyon parking lot and made our way back into town for the night.
That following night we discovered a bar with the largest selection of beers and ciders we had come across in SEA. They even had imports from our very own Oregon, including selections from Deschutes Brewery and Rogue! This pleased me greatly, it was like having a little piece of home with me thousands of miles away, and I used this as an opportunity to spark up some conversation with the bartender and let him know how much I appreciated them having Oregon beers.
This eventually led us to meet another foreigner sitting next to us from Amsterdam. He introduced us to his favorite Belgium beer which I tried and enjoyed. We ended up really hitting it off with this guy as we made fun of American politics and learned a bunch about The Netherlands. Several beers later we showed him a couple of the cool clubs we had found during previous nights here in Pai. We ended up staying out until around 2am before finally calling it a night, although Pai was still very much alive around this time.
So many expats settle in Pai for anywhere from a few months to a year, and it’s easy to see why. It’s very chill, self-sufficient, full of interesting people and nature areas. The same goes for what we saw of northern Thailand in general. Pai and Chiang Mai had many of the same charms we find at home in the Pacific Northwest, but with the added bonuses of SEA culture and interaction with foreigners. There were definitely some places we wished we had gone, such as Chiang Rai, but our time was limited and our next destination called to us. Next on our list was the final two-week leg of our trip: the Thai islands. After our four days in Pai, we traveled back to Chiang Mai for two more nights — this time staying deeper within the actual city — before boarding a plane to Ao Nang, a small coastal town on the mainland of the Thai Islands.