Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday in the Park with All the Hipsters in Chiang Mai

Wat Pra Singh (taken by Quentin)
Day 4 (Jan. 27): I explored Chiang Mai on foot with a new friend.
Although I had only the vaguest of directions, I managed to find my hostel without a problem. After checking in, chilling for a bit, and finding a new French travel buddy, I was off to explore Chiang Mai!
Bunchun Art and Hostel; the art explosion lounge on the ground floor was a great space for hanging out.
Chiang Mai hostel rec: Bunchun Art and Hostel is a wonderful space created (and curated) by some super-friendly folks. It's absurdly affordable (the cheapest place I stayed at during my whole trip, not counting someone's home) and has a very unique atmosphere. The entire hostel is filled with art -- sculptures, paintings, and murals -- all of which is created by local artists. Most of it is also for sale to help support the art community. The staff speak excellent English and are very helpful with booking day tours or treks for you. My adventures in and out of Chiang Mai wouldn't have been possible with the guys at Bunchun. I'd also heard that it was a queer-friendly hostel. This wasn't immediately apparent, but on my first night, the hostel owner, Vee, invited guests to watch a local drag show (with Thailand's well-known "ladyboys"), and that was as good an indication as any.

Pad thai at a local restaurant. Mmm, peanut powder!
Anyway, I set out on Monday afternoon looking for lunch, along with Quentin, un mec de Paris who was two months in on a half-year trek around the globe. I was glad to have met someone who'd already been on so many awesome adventures (in South America and other parts of Southeast Asia), and it was also great that I could use my rusty French again. (A lot of my notes from the two days I hung out with Quentin are sprinkled with French words as a result.)

We got lunch at a local restaurant with absolutely no English on any of its menus. I simply had to point to something that looked like pad thai, and fortunately it was! It was also delicious. I wish I knew what the restaurant was called, but I can't read Thai. I just remember that it was near the art museum and had no walls and excellent decor.

After lunch, we walked from Bunchun, which is located next to the Marché de Nuit/Night Bazaar, into the Vielle Ville/Old City (about twenty minutes). The only thing I knew about Chiang Mai going in was that it is famous for having many temples. Well, this is very true. There was about one temple on every block. They were as ubiquitous as convenience stores. Quentin and I wandered around a few but then made a beeline for the largest and most famous, Wat Pra Singh. It is located on the far western end of the Old City, so it took us a while to get there. Without any real schedule, though, the leisurely walk was very nice.
Quentin and me outside the walls of Chiang Mai's Vielle Ville.
Headless Buddha. They're not supposed to exist if broken...
Wat Pra Singh is also lovely. I didn't want to bother paying the entrance fee to the actual temple, so we just wandered around the grounds and saw smaller shrines, broken Buddha sculptures in repair, and a special wishmaking ceremony involving a cup of water that you can lift to the top of a temple using a pulley in order to spill it on the roof.

We then walked across the city to the Chiang Mai Women's Prison, because there is a famous rehabilitation program for the inmates in which they learn how to give traditional Thai massages and make a decent living out of it before returning to society. Unfortunately, the prison massage center was full when we arrived, and reservations are not possible. Instead, Quentin and I headed across the city again (lots of walking today) for Buak Hat Park in the southwestern corner.
Suan Buak Hat in Chiang Mai.
Thai Dr. Seuss hands me a $1 ice cream sundae.
This park is such a gem! It is "super-paisible" and full of trees, flowers, and fountains. The perfect place to chill, and thus a great place to people-watch. Men were doing extreme yoga (and offering lessons), while other people jogged or biked around the park. Pigeons flocked to couples feeding them bread crumbs from park benches. On the grass, dozens of foreigners were sprawled out on blankets, smoking, meditating, or playing music. They all had dreadlocked hair and baggy mahout pants (elephant pants), and I wondered if I'd walked into a hipster commune of some sort.

I had such a nice time walking around the park and taking photos; I was really taken in by how beautiful the park -- and by extension Chiang Mai, and all of northern Thailand that I had seen so far -- was, and I felt like I could easily while away hours and hours here. Give me ice cream from the bizarrely-dressed ice cream man or a one-dollar mango smoothie and a book, and I'm good for the whole afternoon.

Later on, a group of older Thai men began playing hoop takraw, drawing a big crowd of specators (mostly foreigners). Quentin, who used to play basketball, was really curious about how to play; he'd imagined that it was kind of like basketball in a circle. As it turns out, the game is more like hackey sack. You can use your head, shoulder, elbow, or feet to hit the ball, and the goal is to get it into one of three hoops hanging thirty feet above the ground. This is very difficult to do. However, it is fun to watch. I kept egging Quentin on to join them in the game, but he said he was no good at soccer. I wonder if Park Ji Sung would be good at takraw.
Hoop takraw at the park in Chiang Mai. It's harder than it looks... and it actually looks hard!
Eventually, as evening approached, we made our way back to the hostel, where I got in touch with two of my Fulbrighter friends, Jet and Cameron. It's kind of a funny story: I'd seen that Jet had uploaded a photo of himself riding an elephant onto Facebook, realized that he was probably in Chiang Mai, and messaged him asking if he was in the city and able to meet up. Coincidence of coincidences: his hotel was right across the street from my hostel! So that night, we met up at the Night Bazaar.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. It's pretty, but kind of blah... a night blahzaar. (Taken by Quentin, who is tall.)
The market itself was pretty thorough, with hundreds of stalls selling every kind of souvenir a tourist would ever want: clothes and textiles, toys, sculptures, food, jewelry, soaps, elephant-shaped things, cheap household things, useless shiny things, and the like. I found it rather lacking in authenticity, though, so I didn't look around much. I also don't recommend eating at the food court that is attached to the market. You have to purchase food tickets that can be used at the vendors (and you can return any that you don't use for a full refund), but the vendors are pricey and the food is nothing special.
Left to right: me, Cameron, Quentin, and Jet at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.
Anyway, it was really nice to see Jet and Cameron and exchange stories. They had just been to Malaysia and regaled us with some choice horror stories... we also bonded over these amazing fruit shakes that we found. Okay, no, seriously, this is the best thing in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai food rec: There is a tiny shake shack found at the back corner of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, next to the large stage where people dance sometimes. The shack is run by a smiling, friendly woman who makes the most delicious and cheap fruit shakes ever. The fruit smoothies are only 20 baht, and the mixed shakes are 30 baht (90 cents in USD). And she has avocadoes! The "Sweetsunrise" shake is a whole mango, a whole banana, and a whole freaking avocado mixed with syrup and condensed milk for 90 freaking cents! What?! The shake portion is so large that you have to take a sip of it first (the "taste test") before she can fill it up and put the cap on. So this pretty much blows my mind. I don't know how she makes a profit, but take me back to this shake shack and I will buy ten freaking fruit smoothies from her. Every day. They were that amazing.
The one-woman shake shack in Chiang Mai. LOOK AVOCADOES!
DRINK THIS. IT IS DELICIOUS AND IT COSTS 90 CENTS. SCREW YOU, JAMBA JUICE.
Quentin and I went back to the hostel that night and hung out for a while with the staff and fellow travelers, spreading the gospel of the tiny shake shack with avocadoes.

And... here are some SNAKES.
Hissss...

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