Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Chiang Mai

Thailand falls outside of the scope of this blog, in that it's not actually a part of Shanghai. But on the other hand, proximity to South East Asia is one of the best parts of living in China. It's convenient to travel to, it's extremely cheap, and there's really a wide variety of attractions. I'll have a few posts concerning Thailand and Cambodia over the coming months, and I had a few posts about Bangkok, a couple years ago.

First I'll mention the city of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, about a hundred miles from Yunnan and the southern border of China. Chiang Mai is a city of 1.3 million people that extends on and on, but the city center has something of the feel of a small city, only there's hundreds of ancient temples. I'm a big Buddhist religion nut, just walking around looking at the temples was so interesting:

Thai Buddhism is of a different variety than Northeastern Asia, and the temples are much more interesting (and even, mysterious) than the temples of China, which are the ugliest and most uninteresting temples in Asia - to be fair, Chinese temples usually don't get government funding or official encouragement, and were actively destroyed during the Cultural Revolution only 35 years ago. In Thai temples, there's many more statues, decorations are much more intricate, there's more worshipers, and there's iconography and interesting practices I tantalizingly only half-understand, like these ropes tying together the Buddhas.

While I found the temples to be the highlight, and also the most fun to photograph, Chiang Mai is simply a pleasant city to be. I could easily imagine spending an entire vacation there. People are friendly, the weather's beautiful, tourist infrastructure and foreigner-oriented businesses are extensive but easy to get away from, and there's a lot of different sites and activities. There's a lot of interesting markets, I tried a very fun one-day Thai cooking school, also there's popular treks around the area, often multi-day excursions amongst hill tribes. While I had to leave the longer treks for a future visit, I took a one-day trek where, amongst other things, I went around the Thai countryside on an elephant.

I didn't run across any Thai restaurants that I would call excellent, but there was a whole lot of very good, very cheap street food. Here's a typical bowl of Chicken Pad Thai, it's available just about anywhere in Chiang Mai, or really any Thai city:

There's a large Chinese presence throughout Thailand, although it's diluted by being several generations removed from any large wave of immigration. Still, particularly in Bangkok and Northern China, it was normal to see houses and stores with Chinese decorations, most commonly these talismans:

If I have complaints about Thailand, one would be that I was stranded there, by myself, by the infamous airport protests, and the second would be that it's so convenient, fun, and inexpensive to visit, I find myself measuring trips within China against just going to visit Thailand. Really, it's generally cheaper to go to Bangkok than to Sichuan.

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