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Chiang Mai

Friday October 22nd, 1999 to Wednesday October 27th, 1999
An ancient temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Although it's only home to about 300 000 people, Chiang Mai is the 2nd most populous city in Thailand (Bangkok has 10 million). Historically, some of the more remote Thai provinces have been less than complete in their acquiescence to the central government in Bangkok, which helps to explain why Chiang Mai is known as Thailand's "Northern Capital;" to many people in the north, Bangkok is so distant (both physically and conceptually) that the regional administration in Chiang Mai is the only relevant government.

Touted by tour operators as the "gateway to the north," Chiang Mai is situated at the southern end of the infamous "Golden Triangle," where Thailand, Burma (aka Myanmar), and Laos meet at the Maehkong (Mekong) river. This part of Thailand was once internationally renowned for it's huge opium industry, but the central Thai administration has tightened its grip on the area recently, and much of the production has moved across the border into Burma.

Chiang Mai itself is a remarkably multicultural city, with (in addition to ethnic Thais, who are the majority) a large ethnic Chinese population, hill tribe(?) people, Burmese and Laotian immigrants, and quite a few ex-pats who can't stand the noise, dirt, traffic, heat, etc. (I could keep going, but I won't), of Bangkok. The city is a popular destination in and of itself, but also because of the numerous trekking companies that offer multi-day treks through the surrounding mountains. Hannah did one of these treks shortly after she arrived in Thailand, and this was again the principal purpose of our trip to Chiang Mai.

Chedi guardians in Chiang Mai, Thailand

We left on Friday evening; the trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes about 9hrs by road, so we took an overnight bus. We arrived Saturday morning, made arrangements to leave on a trek the following day, and then set out to see as much of Chiang Mai as we could in 1 day.

The 1st thing that we noticed was the temperature. Having spent almost 8 months in Thailand, I had not yet experienced a day in which the temperature didn't reach at least 30°; the temperature in frigid Chiang Mai, however, topped out at about 27°.

Because many of the important Chiang Mai sites are outside of the town, we decided that the best way to see them would be by rented scooter. We were able to see many of the important wats(?) (some dating from the early part of the millennium), including Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a very significant mountain-top wat to the north-west of the city. We also made it to an impressive nearby waterfall, and the somewhat less impressive royal winter palace.

A waterfall north of Chiang Mai, Thailand

In the evening, we briefly visited Chiang Mai's famous night market. Besides being an excellent place to find Thai and hill tribe handicrafts at very low prices, the Chiang Mai night market is interesting in that the roots of the market can be traced back several centuries to when Chiang Mai lay on the caravan route by which merchants from southern China brought their goods through to Burmese ports for conveyance around the world.

The next morning, after some anxious moments and one aborted attempt, we set out on a trek (the company that we original registered with wasn't able to take us because one of the other trekkers was sick, and without her and her friend there weren't enough people to justify a trip — fortunately they hooked us up with another company, whose truck we literally chased down the highway).

We spent the next 3 days walking, bamboo-rafting, and riding elephants through the jungle, led by our guide, Rose (pronounced "loss," of course) and accompanied by a veritable contingent of Dutch people. We spent 1 night in a jungle camp, and the other in a hill tribe village, where we were able to watch the hill tribe people peform their traditional dances and songs and we were even invited/coerced into trying to copy their uneven dance steps. We saw some fairly stunning scenery, standing on top of one mountain and looking down at others (some of which were actually across the border in Burma). Although the mountains aren't particularly large (generally in the 2000m range), the mere fact that they're foothills to the Himalayas makes them impressive.

Northwest of Chiang Mai, Thailand

In participating in a trek, we could hardly avoid contemplating the relative merits of trekking through hill tribe villages. That the treks impact the hill tribe people is certain; that this impact is predominantly negative is less so. While the fact that bunches of boorish farangs(?) periodically come tramping through their villages certainly interferes with their ability to live the traditional lives of their various peoples, these traditional lives are far from idyllic. Hunger and disease are common, and as much as we might have been interfering with his ability to live a traditional life, I can hardly regret the fact that we were able to give some antibacterial cream to a hill tribe farmer with an infected foot (he'd been bitten by a scorpion). I can certainly sympathize with people who say that the glut of trekking companies in Chiang Mai is destroying the hill tribes' way of life, and this is certainly not an unequivocally positive development; neither is it unequivocally negative, however. To a certain extent, I think that we just have to realize that change happens, and that in some situations there's not a whole lot we can do to stop it, even if we don't like it.

In any case, at the end of the trek, our guide generously hustled us back to Chiang Mai just in time to catch the overnight bus back to Bangkok, where we arrived dark and early (around 5) the next morning.

More information about Thailand is available on the About Thailand page; you might want to have a look at it if you haven't already.

You might wish to look at the Chiang Mai photos in the photo album.

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