Chiang Mai is the main city of northern Thailand, and is one of the key cultural and arts centres of the country. Chiang Mai is considered the most important city in Thailand after Bangkok — but unlike the megalopolis further south, Chiang Mai is pleasantly cool, reasonably low in air pollution, and easy-going and friendly. The city is also the jumping-off point for the many adventure activities available in northern Thailand, including jungle trekking, river rafting, and rock-climbing.
He was with me omnipresently, during my sojourns in hippie-thronged Mexico and South America. He abandoned me in North America and in Europe, where nobody can fit so much as a pony-tail into their hectic modern lives, let alone a daily dose of stoned inner peace. But now that I'm in Thailand, I can most definitely say that my old friend Bob Marley is back, and that he's bigger than ever. Bob is, of course, the undisputed king of all Reggae, the mascot of all hippies, and the master of all chill-out music. His red-yellow-green, dreadlock-infused banner flies tall and proud, everywhere you may go in Thailand.
These two girls, and myself, all met each other randomly (and all at exactly the same time), in the staircase of my guesthouse in Chiang Mai today. Adi is an Israeli girl who works full-time for a non-profit organisation back home (and who lives on that organisation's kibbutz), and who's currently volunteering here in northern Thailand. Maria's a physiotherapist from the city of Graz, in south-east Austria — I didn't make it there back in December, but by Maria's accounts I should have. Maria was volunteering in a remote community up in Nepal, and now she's cruising around Thailand on a motorbike.
After a quick brekkie, this morning I jumped on the 8:30am minibus out of Pai, and headed back to Chiang Mai. For the third time. I'm getting to know this city quite well: too well, in fact. But what can you do? It's the gateway to northern Thailand — there's simply no avoiding it. I was pleased to find, upon my return, that all my old haunts are still alive and well in this city: I found the same good-value guesthouse that I stayed in last time; and I returned to the same cheap Internet joint that I previously frequented. There wasn't much left for me to see here: although I did meet Adi and Maria, so I spent a bit of time with them today. I also booked the package ticket, which as of tomorrow night will get me started on my long journey south, direct from here to Ko Tao. Chiang Mai's a nice enough place; but I think I'm just about over it.
Tonight I finally got around to visiting the largest and the most famous of Chiang Mai's markets, the city's Night Bazaar. The market runs every evening from around 6pm-12am, and it stretches along a broad avenue for about 5 blocks. It's an incredible experience: the market is filled with endless food, endless souvenirs, endless clothing, and... well, endless everything! I arrived there a bit late this evening (11pm), and the cheap eats in particular were largely closed by that time; but I still managed to find some places where I could grab a bite. I'll have to return to this market another night, and to explore its many and varied colourful stalls a bit earlier.
Here in Thailand, hostels have never really taken off as the budget accommodation option of choice. That's because the country is chock-full of guesthouses — small, often family-run places with private rooms and a bit more charm — and these guesthouses are already such incredibly good value, that other budget places simply have no chance of competing against them. I have no problem with guesthouses: a private room (often a private bathroom as well) is nicer than a dorm; and there are plenty of other places to meet fellow travellers, apart from in a dorm room — on tours, on buses and in bars being a few examples. However, what I do have a problem with, is the insidious way in which guesthouses around here have expanded to offer bookings for such extra services as tours, buses and further accommodation. And, more to the point, I have a problem with the way in which they take advantage of their position as "the place where you sleep", to establish a monopoly over any and every service that a tourist could possibly want.
Thailand is infamous for being a steaming hotspot of all things sex-related. Sex abuse, sex entertainment, sex tourism — you name it, sexy, and they've got it. One of the particularly less appealing of these things is the popularity of sex changes in Thailand. So common are the transsexuals — who started out as men, and who have consumed masses of artificial hormones (and some of whom have also undergone surgery) to become women, and who end up something in between — that here in Thailand, they have a special name. They're called "ladyboys". And they're bad news. Most of them are fairly obvious to look at: i.e. their sexual appearance is totally... well, f$#%ed. But quite a few of them have taken it so far, that you can't tell them apart from real women.
I'm relieved, and a little amused, to find that "the old tour agency game" that I played so many times back in South America, can be played here in Thailand as well. And the rules are virtually identical, too. Here in Chiang Mai, it's the usual setup: there are a hundred different agencies, all offering similar activities, and all quoting slightly different prices. But in the end, they all ring up exactly the same people who actually run the tours, and they all send you on exactly the same tour; and really, it's all exactly the same thing. So you may as well just visit 5 or 10 of them, pick the one that quotes the cheapest price, bargain them down further still, and go for it — because the price and the agency doesn't matter in the slightest, it's all the same tour. Thailand also operates by the standard "book when you get there" rule: it's cheaper to book things when you arrive in Chiang Mai, than to book them from Bangkok (same as booking in Cusco vs Lima), as more cities away only means more middlemen, each of whom will take a cut as they call the next friend down the chain. C'mon, Thailand: you think I started backpacking yesterday, or something? I know this game, you don't fool me!
Everyone's dream is to find a bar where you order one drink, and where they insist on refilling that one drink for free, all night long. Tonight, that's exactly what I found: I ordered one whisky and coke; and the lady behind the bar just kept topping it up again and again. Not a bad deal! The place in question was the "quintessential dodgy Thai bar" — quite a sight in itself. Deplorable Thai pop music playing non-stop. Ladyboys hanging out on the benches. Rickety old pool table with awkward legs and chipped balls. And to top it off, a z-grade horror-slash-porn movie on the TV (monsters exploding out of the stomachs of naked women, every 2 minutes or so). Why don't we have places like this back home?
After the cooking class (and the enormous lunch that came with it), a few of us went over to Chiang Mai's Sunday market, which takes place just on the edge of the old city, in a long plaza just next to the canal. The Sunday market is a nice little tourist affair, but it's not very big and its variety is limited: just a few shmontses and shmutters, really. Lots of ornate bags and sashes, lots of bulk-produced little wood carvings, and lots of artwork and jewellery. Also some good fresh juice stalls, which my bottomless stomach still had room for, even after lunch.
The dark horse of today's cooking class, this quiet and rather awkward young English guy came by himself and said very little. I talked to him a bit, and discovered that he's been in Thailand for some time, and that his passion is Muay Thai (Thai boxing) — a gruesome sport that makes its Western equivalent look like a pillow-fight (strange, as it's quite incongrous with the otherwise peaceful and friendly nature of Thai people). The English boxer has been to several of the infamous Muay Thai training camps — they admit keen tourists at some — and although he hasn't tried a proper fight yet, he claims that it's a great sport and that it's very fulfilling. I say "each to his own" — personally, I'd rather eat a raw cockroach than even watch one of those games, let alone participate.