Beauty in the details: finding character in the quiet spaces of Chiang Mai, Thailand
“We came to Chiang Mai about twenty years ago” a thin faced woman said to me in French as we swayed back and forth in the songthaew from Doi Suthep. “They never used to sell these sort of hippie clothes” she said motioning to the Italian couple in gauzy elephant print pants across from us. “Yes, it was very normal, plain trousers and shirts and shoes, an the food was much spicier” her husband added. “It had much more character back then.”
I spent my first two days walking around the alleys of the walled Old Town. In Chiang Mai there is something to be said for getting off the main drag. Many of the wats (Thai temples) that I enjoyed the most are not written about in the guides — I just happened upon them by chance.
There is something very fairy-tale-esque about Thai wats. While I don’t find the architecture to be anything special, it is the ornate and extremely meticulous decoration that really blew me away. So much thought and time has gone into the design of these sacred structures that one can’t help but think that the artisans had gone into some sort of meditative state as they placed each mirrored tile.
Aside from the wats and the Chiang Mai Museum I didn’t find much else in Old Town that really impressed me. While quaint and picturesque I couldn’t help feeling that Chiang Mai’s Old Town is a bit of a production put on for tourists. Prices are inflated and everything is in English. It doesn’t feel Thai at all. Having been in Asia for almost seven months now I have visited night markets, street vendors, and cheap beer bars ad nauseum. I was reluctant to spend more than a couple of nights in this same kind of environment. While there is plenty to do and see in Old Town I left the backpacker shuffle opting for a private room in a quiet corner of Nimmanhaemin for the remainder of my stay.
What character I felt the city had been lacking in the first two days was well made up for when I moved to the western part of town. My small room was a bargain, costing me only six more US dollars than the dorm room I had been staying in. I had easy access to the small café-lined streets of Nimmanhaemin and also to a main vein where catching a songthaew (a kind of jump-on jump-off taxi used in Thailand) to another part of town would be no problem.
While I originally planned to only spend four days in Chiang Mai, I ended up extending my stay another three days. There was a lot to explore in this new part of town that I couldn’t help but feel aligned much more with my sensibilities. My friends at Rosie's Café in Hoi An gave me a thorough list of their favorite cafés and restaurants to check out and I made a point to check them all out before leaving.
Due to the city’s comparative cleanliness, the readiness of locals to practice and communicate in English, fast wifi, and generally low cost of living Chiang Mai has become a magnet remote workers. Nimmanhaemin is full of quiet little cafes and co-working spaces that cater to this new group that has only emerged in the past ten years.
While some could argue that the influx of foreigners has choked the city of character, to me it seems that this new crowed has done more good for the town than bad. They have brought money that is spent in alignment with progressive values. People in Chiang Mai are paying for quality, buying locally sourced goods and supporting the arts.
On my last day in Chiang Mai I had the pleasure of visiting the Baan Kang Wat artists village. This community of Thai artists is set up on the grounds across from Baan Kang Wat about three kilometers outside of town. The village is simply constructed with concrete and steel but has been draped in a lush display of tropical plants and flowering vines. Baan Kang Wat is where nature and art meet in calm and creative space. Small gardens line the walkways that lead to various artisanal shops selling anything from ceramics to paintings to clothing and fabrics. There is a small coffee shop, café and a stand to have an ice cream.
Chiang Mai is a wonderful little town that lives up to the hype for me. While some believe it has lost its character I would suggest taking a second look. After moving from Old Town to quiet Nimmanhaemin I began to understand why so many people choose to stick around Chiang Mai. Over all I found that I was most happy when I got off the Lonely Planet route, skipped the paid attractions, and made my own way around town. Like its glittering wats, the beauty is in the details of Chiang Mai and the character is there is you look beyond the commercial.