Chiang Mai and the Mae Hong Son Loop

With 7 hours to kill in the Kuwait airport, now is as good a time as any to finally blog about the mountains, Wats and food of Thailand’s northwest (warning: khao soi features prominently). From a week exploring the lovable city of Chiang Mai, to the awe-inspiring, stunning creatures at Tiger Kingdom, to a ridiculously improvised Mae Hong Son Loop, there was no shortage of new, interesting things to see and do.

Chiang Mai

In 1296, long before the former Prime Minister Thaksin focused his energies on revitalising his hometown’s reputation as a culture capital of Thailand, Chiang Mai inherited the seat of power for the Lanna Kingdom from the neighbouring Chiang Rai. Fearful of Burmese invasion, the Lanna kings built a surrounding wall around the core of Chiang Mai, known today as simply “the old city.” Much of these walls, painstakingly preserved or rehabilitated over the years, surround the core of modern day Chiang Mai (though the city is definitely going through a lot of urban sprawl and now seeps out a ways). As protective as the walls and the moats adjacent to them were, they couldn’t keep the powerful Burmese empire at bay, and Chiang Mai became an occupied city, first under the Burmese and then the Thai kingdom from Ayutthaya. In the late 16th century, it was folded into what was then Siam and has been a rising star ever since. The city has over 300 Wats, including the forest temple of Wat U Mong (best visited at dusk – minus the mosquitos, of course) and Doi Suthep, perched on a mountain and famous for its golden Chedi (under renovation whilst we were there), and is a jumping point for treks to the hilltribes of the Northwest, most notably the Karen long-necked tribe.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai

Preliminary note on lodging: those of you heading to Chiang Mai might want to stay at the unbelievable Na Inn (136/7 Ratchapakinai Rd). For 650 baht for a double room ($9.25 each), the place felt like and looked wonderful. We got 3 new bottles of water every day. The room was made up each afternoon and what a room it was: the furnishings were modern and clean, the shower fantastic and the space enormous. There are definitely much cheaper places to stay in the city, but for the price, location (just inside the walls of the old city, south of Tha Phae Gate) and genuine loveliness of the staff it’s a great option. I found the place through TravelFish but there were no other reviews to speak of at the time. We decided to give it a go and were beyond happy with the results. Their website features pictures of their rooms and surroundings. Email them first if you plan on going – it’s a small place, and they take advance reservations.**

Note: this hotel has now changed owners. For updated hotel suggestions head over to Travelfish’s accommodation page for Chiang Mai.

Border Run to Renew your Thailand Visa

Before I got to explore Chiang Mai, I had to do a border run to get more time in Thailand, as my 30-day transit visa was about to run out. The best way to do this from Chiang Mai? A day trip to Mae Sai and a walk into Tachilek, Myanmar (Burma), buried deep within the Golden Triangle. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it ended up being an interesting day, my minivan replete with diverse people (a vet for elephants whose wife is a renowned travel writer, a muay thai student, a student of Buddhism and meditation, an Israeli couple from Switzerland who were living their retirement in Chiang Mai, among others). The routine at the border was quick and efficient: you gave in your passport and got a receipt – required to pick up your passport later, you had a bit of time to shop at the astoundingly cheap markets of Tachilek (for political reasons, given the current climate there, I opted against spending any money on the Myanmar side – my $10 visa fee was plenty) and then piled back in the minivan and returned to Chiang Mai. As soon as I stepped into Tachilek, boys clouded around selling Viagra, Cialis and – interestingly enough – playing cards featuring Saddam Hussein and members of his cabinet. I told the boys I was not a prime candidate for the penile-enhancing drugs; the Buddhist student mentioned that he would prefer playing cards with live dictators, not dead ones and thus wasn’t interested. And, finally, we were left alone.

Crossing into Myanmar (Burma); sunset on the way back to Chiang Mai:

Cooking School in Chiang Mai

Once you’ve tasted the mouth-watering food Chiang Mai has to offer, you’ll want to learn how to make it. Luckily, Chiang Mai is renowned for its many quality cooking schools. Upon the advice of the adorable Aussies I met on Ko Phi Phi, we opted for the the Thai Farm Cooking School, situated on its own organic farm just outside city limits. Most of the cooking classes in Chiang Mai take place in cramped, stuffy kitchens, so it was a fantastic experience to go to the market first and get our rice and meat, and then tour the farm’s garden to pick out the vegetables we would use during our class. For only $25, we took a full day cooking class and were so unbelievably full at the end of it that we took several of our dishes home in a doggie-bag.

A small selection of the 12 dishes we made that day:

Despite having a full week in Chiang Mai, we quickly learnt that there is just no shortage of spelunking to do. Within the old city, doze
ns of gilded Wats sparkle in the afternoon sun. Together, they whisper the history of the city and its changing rulers: you can find temples in each of Lanna, Burmese and even Sri Lankan -styles, each more lavishly adorned than the last. There is fantastic food aplenty, with my newest obsession (the rich, delicious and spicy khao soi) in a starring role, especially at the bustling night market food stalls. Renting a motorbike is the most efficient way to get the most out of the 2nd most visited city in Thailand, at at $5 a day (with discounts for longer term rentals) you’d be crazy not to troll around and explore. Outside the Old City are several markets teeming with people and interesting, reasonably priced things to buy. From the Andusan night bazaar (on Chang Khlan Road), to the sprawling, never-ending Sunday Walking Street on Rachadamnoen road starting at Tha Phae Gate, to the daily Warorot Market at the Ping River, there is a dizzying array of weavings from the northern tribes, food, drink and clothing on offer. If you want something more upscale, the Airport Center Plaza is a huge mall on the outskirts of the city, with all the western shops of Kuala Lumpur’s KLCC mall and a matching slew of restaurants. In short: what’s not to love about Chiang Mai? Steeped in culture, food for the ages, tons of classes (ranging from cooking, to muay thai to Thai language lessons) and all easily navigable, even for the directionally disabled (like me). I definitely plan on heading back.

Schoolgirls visit Wat Phra Singh; the older chedis behind the main Wat:

Chickens for sale at the Warorot day market; the bustle of the Sunday Walking Street:

The Mae Hong Son Loop

When Craig came to visit, I thought it would be perfect to take a multiple day motorcycle trip. The question was: where should we go? In the end, we started out toward Chiang Dao but met two couples who had criss-crossed the country on motorbikes and strongly recommended the Mae Hong Son (hereinafter – in true lawyer style – “MHS”) Loop as a great ride through the mountains and a quick way to visit Pai and MHS. Plus, we’d be able to circle back under the shadow of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s tallest mountain) on our way back to Chiang Mai. Their advice was spot on, and we definitely had a fantastic time.

After our out-of-the way first night in Chiang Dao (where we slept in tiny unheated bungalow at the foot of the caves – temperatures dipped to 3 degrees celcius so we froze), we looped back to the turn off of Route 107 to Pai, rumoured to be Thailand’s “hippy capital”. To get there, we had to tackle a substantial part Route 1095, through the mountains. We were driving 125cc Honda Clicks. Powerful bikes they aren’t. I weigh less than Craig so was much zippier on the steep upturns; conversely I was also the one who fell off the bike 3 times, so whatever time I made up by being “zippy” I promptly lost by somersaulting down a steep mountain road. Short people? Not so good at the motorbiking.

Pai might be hippy-esque in a laissez-faire, “nestled in the mountains but couldn’t care less” kind of way, but we found ourselves in the middle of piles and piles of Japanese tourists. Granted, the sleepy town does have the smallest bus terminal I’ve ever seen, sells a lot of bongs and opium products and there were a lot of dreads tumbling down the backs of those who had settled there, but it did not give off the promised relaxed vibe we had hoped for. Perhaps during low season?

Our plan post-Pai was to head to MHS. We were told – on several occasions – that it was a mistake to try and do this in one day. A mistake and dangerous. “You are too small to go in one day!” I was told. I wasn’t biking, I was motorbiking – so I’m not sure what my size had to do with it. Sure, it’s exhausting trying not to fall off the freaking thing, but a Honda Click isn’t really a physical challenge. Determined, we set off disgustingly early on our 2nd day in Pai, hoping to make it to MHS by sundown. We ended up making it with time to spare, but not without our share of adventures (my falling off the motorbike – AGAIN – in back of a giant truck of cabbage when the truck’s drawbridge fell open and started showering me with cabbage, almost running out of gas midway through the mountain pass without a town or petrol stop in sight and going to pee in the bushes without realizing it was THE turnoff point to one of the area’s main attractions). In addition, I have a terribly small head. I’ve worn kids hats my entire life, and my baby brother loves to tell me that this obviously means that he’s smarter than me because he has a bigger brain. The helmets we got when we rented our bikes just weren’t going to, so I bought a helmet that fit me properly. A kid’s helmet: blue and white stripes, a huge cartoon decal on each side and – for reasons unknown – the word “PINKIE!” scrawled in unrestrained script on the side. With my chestnut-coloured ponytail peeking out the back of the helmet and my height, the people we met were amazed that an 8-year old white girl was driving her own motorbike through the mountains. It wasn’t till we stopped for lunch that it made sense: people would look at Craig, then at me, then at Craig and then point and say “how OLD is she? DANGEROUS!”. Those of you who have been to Thailand know full well that 8 year-old bad-asses drive their own (manual) dirt bikes all the time, but apparently there was a different standard for Farang. Also? I fell off – the 8 year-old Thai boys didn’t.

Finally in MHS, we were able to sample the amazing street food, see the beautiful Wat Chong Kham and explore the surroundings with our motorbikes. We stayed one night in a bug infested hostel (I had the spider bites on my face to prove it) and took off for Chiang Mai again, winding upwards until we were close to Doi Inthanon, and then barreling down the multi-lane highway on the way back to Chiang Mai. With a huge day of riding through the mountains and dusk looming large, we stayed in Chom Thong for the night at what felt like a Thai Disneyland (think log cabins with green roofs and cartoon characters). Rising early the next day, we dropped our bikes back to Mr. Motorcycle, trying gamely to explain the dents and scratches, and then promptly went to sleep at the incomparable Na Inn.

Trip Stats

Km covered: 840
Curves in the road from Pai to MHS: 1864
Times we had to bribe a park ranger to siphon fuel to our bikes: 1
Amount for the park ranger’s gas (1 litre): 100 Baht
Cost of a litre in Thailand: 15 Baht
Bowls of khao soi consumed on the trip: Jodi – 6; Craig – 1.
Dogs that ran after our bikes, barking: too many to count.

Me and my Pinkie helmet; the falls on the way out of Chiang Dao:

Our first night’s sky was a rare feat of nature: the moon, Jupiter and Venus forming a happy face:

a Wat built into the mountainside on Route 1095.

Wat Chong Kham at night.

The end!