Chiang Mai, Thailand
This is my final Asian blog past for the foreseeable future. I can’t say I won’t be returning, it has been an incredible journey of learning, adventure and self-discovery for the last four and-a-half years, and I scarcely believe that it has been that long, neither that it is over. I mentioned in my last post what I will be moving onto so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is safe to say that I only plan to continue the recent themes of my life, just in a different part of the world.
So many visitors to Asia make Thailand their first stop so it is a little ironic that it is my final one (although I did visit a couple of years back). While most people, and of course myself previously, head to the scenic beaches and hidden islands, I planned to discover some of the more rural and mountainous attractions that Thailand has to offer. Although my trip was slightly spoilt by sickness (flu) and I was unable to do some of the more remote trips that I had hoped to undertake I still managed to have a memorable time around Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is synonymous with many things, Lanna culture, tigers and elephants and of course temples. Many, many temples. The Buddhist zen that permeates the innumerous temples that exist within and outside the ancient city walls and moat transcends the spirit of the city itself. They are the Starbucks of ancient culture, there is literally one on every corner, and a couple in-between.
There are three particularly renown temples; Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phrang Singh and Wat Chiang Man, that dominate the draw of Chiang Mai’s cultural epicentre, but one should not be fooled into thinking that they are the only temples worth visiting. One of my personal favourites was found to the north of the city walls at Wat Lok Molee. The ‘chedi’ in the temple grounds was dressed in orange robes like it was a monk itself and they also had a couple of old Mercedes that I imagined the monks might cruise round town in on a Friday night.
The central area of the city is surrounded by an ancient wall and moat. The remains are strongest in the four corners of the old city. Designed to protect the city from invading Burmese armies and such, the city is now penetrated by main roads dissecting what were once the four city gates.
The sculpted-elephant base of the chedi at Wat Chiang Man, the oldest of the cities temples dating from the thirteenth century.
A monk giving his ear a wiggle inside the main temple building at Wat Chiang Man.
My trip wasn’t blessed with the most glorious sunshine (unless I was pedalling up a massive mountain!) so some of my pictures are a little less vibrant than what is actually represented to you in person. The serene grounds of Wat Chiang Man deserved a little better.
Despite having suffered one day of the beginning of a bout of flu that I had picked up in Hong Kong, I hired a road bike on a Friday morning and embarked on an epic trip to the summit of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand and part of one of the smaller mountain ranges that link to the Himalayas.
I hired this carbon road bike from Spice Roads, a cycle tour company operating out of Chiang Mai. I planned to cycle from Chiang Mai, in a south-westerly direction, and then ascend the slopes of Doi Inthanon before returning to Chiang Mai, a 200km+ round route. I took a rest at a strawberry farm on the mid-slopes of the climb and a few local farmers enjoyed admiring it.
The first 60km were rattled off in two hours. I wasn’t feeling 100% but the combination of a fast and light road bike and my regular training sessions along similarly flat riverside pathways in Korea meant I was able to spin along the smooth tarmac in good time. When I finally reached the beginning of the 47km climb and the park gates I was in confident mood and nicely warmed up.
Halfway up the climb there is a national park centre, the sign marking it made an excellent point to take a memorable photo courtesy of a Korean woman who I dragged away from her tour group. The day was sunny and I was beginning to regret wearing tracksuit bottoms, having left my cycling shorts in Korea and the shorts I had come with likely to chafe on such a long journey, I however had little choice.
As you ascend there are markers lining the road marking every kilometre, this is a great thing when you are flying along and they keep coming fast but are soul-breaking when you are crawling up some of the 30%+ incline slopes and you feel like you haven’t seen one for an entirety. This one told me there is 9km to go and 38km already behind me.
7km from the summit disaster struck. My front wheel got a puncture and with no means to fix it I sat on the wall you can see on the background until I could wave down a vehicle that was suitable enough to take me to the top. Fortunately two Thai gentlemen called ‘Mat’ and “Tree’ were generous enough to stop and rescue me with their pick-up truck. They drove me the remaining 7km to the summit and then insisted that they take me back to Chiang Mai afterwards. They seemed to be on a trip to the two chedis near the summit and so I was lucky to get some good photos and experience the feeling of being at the top of Thailand’s highest mountain as well.
The army station marks the summit of the 2,565m high mountain.
One of the chedis rising above an ornate garden.
The chedis are quite modern but are serene and calm inside.
A little hazy but this is the view to the south of the mountain from the near-summit chedis.
From one chedi across to the other. One was built to honour King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the other to honour Queen Sirikit.
Mat and tree lived in Lamphun, 20km to the south of Chiang Mai so I have to be very grateful to them for the kindness in dropping me off at my hotel in Chiang Mai and their insistent refusal to accept any payment from me.
The following day I dropped my bicycle off and rapidly determined that my climbing exertions the previous day had accelerated my illness and I retired to my hotel for the day to sleep it off.
Waking the next day I felt reasonably invigorated and headed into the city. I stopped off to book a mountain biking trip for the next day before looking at the two other main temples in the central old city. First up was Wat Phra Singh and then later I stopped off at Wat Chedi Luang.
Despite there being a plethora of temples I had to commend the variety of styles that you could see across the religious and ancient locations.
The chedi at Wat Chedi Luang was partially destroyed by a strong earthquake in the sixteenth century, nonetheless it remains impressive. It is difficult to imagine that there was another 30m of ‘chedi’ that should be atop what you can see in the photo.
There used to be a large emerald Buddha seated in one of the alcoves of the chedi, it was moved to another site in Luang Prabang but this little mini version still remains.
Some of the faded artwork on the temple walls, telling historical Buddhist tales.
My second cycling adventure came in the rather more extreme form of downhill mountain biking. I booked an intermediate level trip with Chiang Mai Mountain biking and on the penultimate morning of my stay in Chiang Mai I found myself at the top of Doi Suthep, a 1676m mountain that shadows Chiang Mai from the west.
After all the riders displayed their ability, or inability, to jump over a small log (I have the ability :-)) we cruised down the mountain track to a coffee shop while the guides monitored our confidence and ability before splitting us off into groups. Fortunately, despite never having done any downhill mountain biking before, I was put into the advanced set.
Our group of riders taking a breather after an uphill section.
From the coffee shop we snaked past the tourists who had come to see the cherry blossom at the mountain cafe before descending a variety of heavily rutted jeep tracks and technical single track that jutted between the jungle trees and occasionally through remote mountain tribal villages and nearby streams.
A break in the jungle gives a view down to Chiang Mai in the east.
This was as good as the trail got. I would have liked to have shown the trail as bad (and as fun) as it got, but it is almost impossible to stop and take a photo when other riders are following you or because the terrain is so steep and rocky. The trail was vigorous enough to break two of our group’s bikes, my rear cassette was destroyed as I powered down to climb a section (although I think it was because the gears were so poorly indexed that the chain tore the higher gears apart), and another rider had his rear dérailleur snap off completely, meaning the guide had to switch some parts so his bike became only capable of free-wheeling the downhill sections.
Everybody took a spill of some spectacular kind, I managed to get my front wheel stuck in a rut as I ducked under a tree on a fast section, the rear end rapidly overtaking the front and throwing me over the handlebars. I was relieved to only wind myself and smash my knee off a rock, considering I had face-planted in Korea a few weeks previously and turned my face into something resembling a pizza, (hence the holiday beard).
The descent ended several hours later by a large lake at the base of the mountain, we were fed a traditional Thai meal before being driven back to our hotels. A superb adventure.
On my last day I was customarily lazy, although I did meet a friend for a coffee and we went to the cinema to see the enigmatic Liam Neeson in Taken 3. One remarkable point was that they play the national anthem of Thailand at the beginning of a movie, never have I witnessed that anywhere before, I’m sure Liam Neeson was honoured.
My second trip to Thailand certainly surpassed my first, I certainly enjoy the pace of living in the northern areas (people are very friendly and forthcoming), the adventure to be found in the mountains and the noticeable authenticity and variety of food that I felt was missing from previous travel to the south.