Our last two weeks in Thailand were spent tucked up in the north, soaking up culture, sights, sun, and, of course, more excellent food. Specifically, we have been in Thailand's cultural hotbed, Chiang Mai, and the mountainous hippie haven, Pai. The scenery is idyllic: green mountain peaks, winding rivers, terraced farmland. Now, insert hip cities and relaxing mountain villages and you have utter paradise! We could easily stay here for the remaining five and one half months of our year. I could also rave about the region for just as long. Instead I'm breaking it down to reflect our itinerary:
Friends of ours in DC had spent time in Chiang Mai and based on their experiences, we knew we would need time here. So, we planned accordingly. Our first weekend in this exciting city was spent in the trendy Nimmanhemin neighborhood, an up-and-coming section of town popular with ex-pats, travelers and well-dressed, young Thai. This neighborhood is northwest of the popular Old City, and is brimming with coffee shops, hip eateries and juice bars (you MUST try a fresh mango shake) and borders Chiang Mai University (CMU), which has an excellent art museum!
We stayed at the adorable and affordable iSleep Guesthouse, comfortably tucked in the mews and situated across from a delicious little restaurant called Nadiya's Mom's. The hotel had free bikes, a major perk, and we pedaled through the arboretum, up to the Kruba Sivachai monument (patron saint of Chiang Mai), the Huai Kaeo Waterfall, and through the campus of CMU, before stopping for refreshments at Catmosphere Cat Cafe. This area of town is also a convenient jump-off point for Doi Suthep, a very popular hilltop temple! I also recommend watching a sunset or two from the rooftop of the glitzy Maya Mall, and catching a movie at its resident cinema. (We saw Spectre, you should too.)
I like Pai. I have to be honest, however, Pai was a little touristy for me - it was like the Waikiki of Thailand. I got past that because, more importantly, this region of Thailand is rich in ethnic diversity as several Thai, Myamarese, Chinese and Muslim cultures converge here and the surrounding landscape is filled with waterfalls, canyons, and farms. I highly recommend visiting the local waterfalls and trying out natural water slides - I met up with a very lively and welcoming group of backpackers who gave me a lift on a scooter to said natural water slide and had a refreshing time!
While there, we stayed at the cozy and clean Rainbow House. It was about half a mile from the main walking street (where visitors can find myriad cafes, shops, and bars) and had sweeping views of fields and mountains. Sunsets here were quite the spectacle especially if you make the trek up to the White Buddha. To top it off, Pai has a bustling street-food scene overwhelming us with the numerous vegetarian Thai, Chinese and Halal options - not to mention the abundance of fresh fruit and $0.75 smoothies!
Our second go at Chiang Mai was centered around Loi Krathong/Yi Ping, an annual festival of lanterns that occurs on the 12th full moon of the Thai lunar calendar. We stayed in the Old City, which is full of historical monuments and Buddhist temples (Wats). Today, it is also a backpacker haven, and hosts numerous hostels, guesthouses and hotels and is an excellent base for exploring the Saturday and Sunday walking markets, and the night bazaar; accessing a vegan cooking school (we have about 20 new recipes to bring home!); and participating in Loi Krathong/Yi Ping events, the largest of which were based near the Tha Pae Gate and the Ping River, but also at lots of the city's Wats, which seem to delight in putting on colorful Loi Krathong displays of their own.
To kick-off the three-day festival we joined a Couchsurfing event, hosted by a lovely couple I met in Pai, and cooked Khao Soi, a regional delight of curry and noodles. The event took place at their hostel, with the generous help of the owner and a neighbor, both Thai, who provided guidance for the nearly two-dozen international participants. The food was delicious, I have this recipe too, and the community we shared is yet another reminder of why Ryan and I love to travel! Festivities continued the next day with a parade, which we watched from a rooftop bar in the good company of Cissy and Niet, who we met at the cookout.
Loi Krathong/Yi Ping reached its pinnacle on the full moon of November 25th. Ryan and I had the good fortune of meeting friends of friends, Kat and Roger (and family), who kindly invited us to their home for tacos before joining the mass lantern launch. We floated Krathongs (small boats made of leaves, decorated with flowers, three incense sticks and one candle), and set sail flying lanterns into the night sky to symbolically let go of the old, and welcome in the good and new!
And just like that, our month in Thailand has come to a close! We are so lucky to have visited such a vibrant country and experienced the kindness and welcoming hospitality we have. Thank you, Thailand for having us. We will see you again!