Thailandâ€™s northern capital, Chiang Mai, is a city of either 200,000 or one million, depending on who you ask and who you include in the count. Of no small importance are the tens of thousands of tourists (both foreign and Thai) who consider Chiang Mai a must-stop on any visit to the country, plus the large numbers of Western expatriates who have made this their home. The expats are invariably married to Thais and most are proprietors of restaurants and bars, ensuring that no Western creature comfort is left unmet (for me, this means my first bagel and cream cheese in nearly eight months).
Deciding what to do in Chiang Mai is as easy as selecting a day trip from the hotel tour deskâ€™s menu of activities and piling into an early-morning mini-van; from there, we follow our driverâ€™s orders and go with the flow which, in the case of bamboo rafting, we take quite literally. On this day, the first really sunny day of the week, we are also taken on a one-hour â€œtrekâ€ to a Mon hill tribe village, on an elephant â€œsafariâ€ through a well-trampled patch of â€œjungle,â€ to a Karen hill tribe where we see village weavers making scarves and sarongs, and to a gorgeous waterfall â€” all in less than nine hours.
It is interesting for Tay and I to experience this type of jam-packed activity-cramming, even if it is a departure from our normal unrushed, independent style. Our fellow day-trippers (from Canada, Singapore, Texas, Denmark, and Belgium) are in Thailand with extremely limited time, so the pace suits them and most are, in fact, interesting to talk to. Weâ€™re not used to having so much company during our ventures, and it is nice. Especially, of course, the company of Bermom, whose quick New York step falls perfectly into place (except while cautiously crossing a dilapidated bamboo bridge).
And even she gets exhausted after a few days of touring â€” to the umbrella, jade, silk, and paper factories, to the Roon Aroong hot springs, to the Night Market, the Day Market, the Sunday Market. There is a lot to do in Chiang Mai and many reasons why it is such a popular stopover â€” and base camp â€” for so many tourists.
So we all agree to slow things down, take some time off from official â€œtouring,â€ and to seek out a quieter side of Chiang Mai â€” on our own. Tay wanders off to investigate Thai massage schools for when we (possibly) return in January, Bermom walks through the red-bricked gates of the old city, map in hand, with the intention of finishing the Dalai Lamaâ€™s book on happiness while sitting in the peaceful grounds of one of the cityâ€™s 300 wats (Buddhist temple grounds).
And me, well, I find an Internet place that will let me plug in my laptop. Not as culturally engaging as my travel companions, but I needed to check in with my co-author on the progress of our book, and of course, I wanted to spend time with you.