CHIANG MAI, Thailand—To say the north of Thailand differs from the south is one of the most obvious observations you can make about this country. And by “south,” I mean Bangkok and the surrounding plains and the close-by islands. I’ve not had the pleasure of going to the Deep South of Thailand.
Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern rose, is a charming, bustling little place in the mountains, with maybe 200,000 people. Surrounded by un-imposing hills blanketed by dense jungle, these bumps in the earth resemble the wrinkles of a comfortable blanket. I noticed, on the train up from the chaos of Bangkok, that these northern highlands rise gently, without snap transitions between plain and mountains. For that would be too sharp, too sudden. Like the Thai people, the very land seems to abhor contrast and conflict, preferring a slow, harmonious transition from the plains of central Thailand to the southernmost offshoots of the great Himalayan range.
Speaking of the train, the jungle comes right up to the train tracks, branches and leaves brushing the side of the train sometimes like the whisk of a broom. Other times, rice paddies jostle for space with the trestles and iron rails. It is as if the flora are eager for the train to be on its way so it can get back to the business of reclaiming this strip of dirt and steel cleared by people.
I’ve noticed, when taking photographs of so-called “pristine” places, I often find myself annoyed and disappointed wherever I see electrical lines and poles in the foreground of such picturesque landscapes. I imagine, with some artful dodging, I can mentally erase the signs of progress from the scene and return it to some imagined pre-electrified period of Thai history where cheerful peasants worked the paddies and there was nary a Coca-Cola billboard in sight.
But then I think: what arrogance of mine to demand these people stay, literally, in the dark? While it’s fun to think we westerners are entering an undiscovered land full of friendly natives and tasty, unprocessed food, the locals no doubt like electricity, cell phones, penicillin and the like. Paved roads get their vegetables to market before they spoil and modern communications keep them in touch with their children who have gone to work in Bangkok. ATMs allow them to get the cash the youngsters remit. This realization tempers my distaste for the trappings of modernity, for I can come and go as I please. The people here are tied to the land, and they want more from the region than a pretty picture.
But back to Chiang Mai. If there’s one city it reminds me of, it would be Berkeley in the Bay Area. A small, liberal town anchored by a college with a stunningly high population of aging Western hippies who just kind of washed up here. There’s a great local music scene, with the North Gate Jazz Co-Op leading the charge, and an old city laid out at the end of the 13th century in the center of town, laid out in a satisfying square and bound by a moat where locals still fish late at night.
But it is Thailand and singularly so. Stretches of the old city walls still snake around the central city, home to a high concentration of glorious and moving Buddhist temples such as the impressive Wat Phra Singh. Their stupas reach skyward into the deepening evening, while below, orange-wrapped monks chant their evening prayers, their voices a vibration that fills the old city in a soothing, almost subliminal, thrumming that I can feel in my chest.
If only there was decent wine country up the road, it would be perfect.
Even now, the old and the new jostle together comfortably. For instance, I’m sitting in a Starbucks overlooking the old walls of the Tha Prae gate while tourists wander the square and some dude on a Segway bugs the crap out of everyone. I swear, those things and their riders are like the 21st century version of French mimes. I just want to drown them.
As this is Thailand, there’s also a bumping little girlie street with a few go-go bars for the aging punters in town. What Lawrence Osborne wrote in “Bangkok Days” holds true for Chiang Mai, as well: “Bangkok is where some people go when they feel that they can no longer be loved, when they give up.” Chiang Mai even more so. These men sip sweating Chang beers or drink heartily from from old mugs; you know, the kind that look somewhat like crystalline golf balls, the dimples reflecting the neon of the bar. Women too young to be there—or with the men—pour ice into the beer to dilute its high alcohol content.
I’m a bit of an anomaly on the streets of Chiang Mai. I seem to be the only Western male of a certain age without a sweet Thai girlfriend on my arm. And I’m not in a band of boisterous drunken young Western males making asses of themselves in McDonald’s at 2 a.m. (Yes, I was there, but only because Chiang Mai closes up relatively early leaving night-owl chow hounds like myself with few options.)
Still, if you start early enough, you can eat well in Chiang Mai, but again, this is Thailand. It’s hard to eat badly anywhere here. I practically tripped over offers for cooking classes, and if I had more time here, I’d be elbow-deep in them. The cuisine up here differs from the south’s, which is more influenced by the Chinese and their noodles and frying. Up here, the main influences are Burmese and Laotian. They use more beef, more pork, fewer noodles and the north’s dishes tend to be based on only two Thai flavors—spicy and salty—versus the traditional four flavors of central and southern Thai food—sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Sticky rice, brought in a little woven baskets, commonly accompanies most meals and is shaped by hand into little balls for dipping into condiments.
I should note that I came up to Chiang Rai, originally, to tag along with my friend, Chawadee Nualkhair, who wrote the excellent book, “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls,” and blogs over at Bangkok Glutton. Check her blog out and buy her book, please. They’re both excellent. Chawadee and her spitfire aunt took me in—along with her photographer and his assistant—for stomach-expanding spreads over two days, including a trip to the local market with everything from fresh from the field produce to fighting beetles tied to nails pounded into a bamboo stick.
It was Thailand in a microcosm: hospitable, delicious and overwhelming to the senses. “It makes you laugh with delight to think that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre earth,” wrote Somerset Maugham when describing Thailand. it’s hard to disagree with that when confronted with Thailand’s north.