Published in T Qatar: The New York Times Style Magazine
Chiang Mai: Of culture, coffee and contrasts
From carefully preserved relics of some of the oldest Buddhist temples in northern Thailand, to kitschy tattoos and hip coffee shops, Chiang Mai offers something unique for curious backpackers and culture connoisseurs alike.
By Priyanka Pradhan Photographs: Lavanya Ullas
Our 12-coach train leaves Bangkok’s bustling Hua Lamphong Station with a loud groan, slowly leaving behind the mayhem of the city’s sleepless streets. Traffic lights, strobe lights and neon lights whiz past the windows, fading into gradual darkness as the overnight journey to Chiang Mai begins. By breakfast, it feels more like time travel than a ten-hour trip. The crisp mountain air and idyllic, wayside railway stations greet victims of raucous nights at Khao San Road, promising a refreshing change of scene from Bangkok.
Outside the Chiang Mai Railway station, a bevy of striking red, fire-truck styled local taxis stand waiting for the stream of tourists that arrive every morning.
“Which hotel you go?” taxi drivers ask, scurrying to find their first customers for the day. I observe how the hotel’s name is enough for taxi drivers to tell exactly where I need to go. No GPS needed in a town that seems to be on first name basis with each other, I guess.
As the taxi drives past the old town, scenes from nearly 700 years ago seem to come alive. The town is surrounded by a moat and a defensive wall built by Chiang Mai’s last ruling Lanna dynasty in the 13th Century AD, to keep Burmese invaders and Mongols from entering. As we drive along the circumference of the moat, I wonder how such a shallow moat was able to keep an entire army from entering the city. However, according to a local legend, this seemingly innocuous moat was filled with deep waters and ferocious crocodiles at the time. Eventually, the city did come under attack from the Burmese army, who established their own kingdom in Chiang Mai the 16th Century AD. The Lanna Kingdom’s walls may have partially collapsed since, but the four majestic gates of the kingdom are immaculately restored. These gates serve as important landmarks for directions in the town even today, giving me a distinct feeling of being lost in a time warp in this slow-moving, historic town.
A walk down a few winding by-lanes makes me snap back to the present.
“Free Wi-Fi and coffee”, “Home-grown, organic coffee HERE”, “Become a certified barista” boards welcome me into a lane, choc-a bloc with banners outside well- manicured gardens and landscaped outdoor sit-outs. A whiff of freshly brewed coffee, cigarette smoke and hot pancakes is enough to entice me into one of these coffee shops along the way. My fancy, latte-art laden coffee arrives as I begin to wonder where the old-world charm of the town has suddenly vanished.
“This is small town with a very urban, or say, say hipster vibe,” says the Thai coffee shop owner, who introduces himself as Nico. “Chiang Mai is multicultural, full of interesting contrasts and is very tourist-friendly… you can find the best cuisine from Italian to Mexican, catered to more than four million tourists that arrive every year.”
He adds, “You know, local Thai people here don’t enjoy coffee. Most of the coffee produced in the country is either consumed as instant coffee or exported as the same. This ‘local, freshly-brewed coffee’ culture is purely tourist-led and has started to thrive only in the past 5 years. Infact, today Chiang Mai has the highest density of coffee shops in all of Thailand.”
There’s a strong rationale behind this trend. Thailand produces two kinds of coffee- the Robusta, which grows in Southern Thailand, contributing to 98 percent of the coffee produced in the country and the Arabica, which is grown in Chiang Mai and the neighboring Chiang Rai regions, which contributes only 2 percent of the total produce. According to him, in Chiang Mai, this coffee shop trend can be attributed to the exceptional quality, soft textures, low acidity and pleasant floral notes of the locally produced Arabica beans.
In an attempt to cash in on the strong coffee sub-culture, even Starbucks set up its towering two-storey shops across town. When I quiz Nico about competition from the global giant, he asks innocently, “Do they make coffee? Really? I thought they only sell cups of milk.” He shares a laugh with his barista.
On stepping outside, I found that the green-and-white Starbucks logos do stand out among the modest buildings in Chiang Mai. In stark contrast, local settlements are simple, unassuming and functional, still built in the Lanna style of architecture. These homes, called, ‘Ruen Ka-lae’ are similar to traditional Thai houses, except that these are constructed entirely from teak wood and built elevated from the ground to protect from flooding.
The 300 temples in Chiang Mai prominently feature intricate teak wood carvings, just like the Lanna homes. However, another unique feature that begs for attention is the serpentine element in these temples. According to Thai mythology, serpents known as ‘nagas’ had served the Buddha faithfully and hence deserve a significant place in Thai architecture, particularly in the Northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The nagas appear on the arches, along the tiers of temple roof and especially on carved staircases as seen in two very important temples in Chiang Mai- the Wat Chedi Luang and the Wat Lok Molee.
At Wat Lok Molee, which was first mentioned in a charter in 1367 AD, Nagas are seen decorated along the tiers of temple roofs, which according to a Buddhist legend, are meant to represent the cosmic river of life source.
The skillfully constructed naga staircase, seen at Wat Chedi Luang speaks of another legend – The Naga shape carved stairs symbolize the three ladders that mythically link earth to heaven. This temple was the tallest building in the Lanna Kingdom at the time of completion in mid 15th century AD, and even housed the mystical and much revered Emerald Buddha (originally found in 43 BC in the Indian city of Patna) in its prime.
Fascinated by these ancient legends of the Lanna dynasty, I make my way to the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center for a deeper insight into the kingdom, through music and folk dance. Taking center stage are the classical dances from Chiang Mai, collectively called ‘Fawn Thai’ which include the graceful ‘Silk Weaving’ dance and the more famous ‘Fawn Lep’ or the Finger Nail dance. Another spectacular tradition is the Lanna sword dance (Fawn Lap) performed to music from two famous Thai stringed instruments, the Seung and the Pin Pia. The male dancers balance a number of swords on different parts of their bodies while fighting off their rival with a sword sheath– a feat that defended Chiang Mai against their enemies for centuries.
A short, red-truck taxi ride and what seems like another time warp away is the trendy neighborhood of Nimmanhaemin, where hip, young locals step out for a drink or two. Packed with tattoo and piercing studios, upscale pubs playing Thai pop music, fashion boutiques and posh bookstores, the crowd here is almost exclusively Thai and unmistakably moneyed. In a contrast to this, are the intersecting lanes of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, which are a lot more inclusive and thronged by tourists that happily embrace the synchronized chaos, seedy bars and wheeler-dealers of everything from T-shirts to mind-bending experiences.
Nightlife wraps up early, though. So much so that even the ubiquitous and generally reliable 7- Eleven convenience stores won’t serve certain beverages after midnight. Surprising, for such a backpacker-friendly town but somehow it makes sense too, considering that locals are making an effort to prevent this town from turning into yet another party haven.
Chaing Mai seems to offer something for everyone. Adventure and thrill-seekers go zip-lining or trekking in the forest canopies near-by, while wildlife enthusiasts can spend a day bonding with Thai elephants at rescue centers and culture buffs may visit one of the many hill-tribe villages in and around the city. Except for someone looking for a fun night on the town, who’d probably find himself juggling shots of espresso at a rad little coffee shop instead.
Chiang Mai International Airport is well connected via 17 international airlines.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai: 700 kms
10 hour train ride either overnight or during the day
70 minutes by air
11 hours by bus.
Where to stay:
Yindee Guest House, Ratvithi Rd (Old town)
Spicy Thai, Nimmanhaemin road.