A Slow Walk Through Chiang Mai
By Cory Palencia

Having travelled to both South America and Europe, I realized it was time to get closer to my roots. The intention of my trip to Thailand was to spend some time in Asia, closer to my homeland in the Philippine Islands, while still exploring and experiencing new cultures. During previous trips to Brazil and Spain, I was largely dependent on travel guidebooks to point me in the right direction. On this trip, I wanted to focus on the people, be more present in the moment, and rid myself of expectations. I wanted to have my conversations lead me to what I would do next.

After a short stay in Pattaya, the so-called “Detroit of the East,” and then a clunky train ride, I stepped foot onto the Chiang Mai train station platform. I booked my time in Chiang Mai at a hostel that was bursting with life. It was a large open-air campus with a pool, lodging, another building for booking trips, and even a Thai cover band playing old favorites. Each morning, headed out into the humid air of Chiang Mai, I enjoyed having a sit down with friendly Germans or a lovable, rogue Swede, or the customary Australian students that grace the lobbies and living rooms of hostels worldwide.

More than 700 years old, the down – town portion Chiang Mai is surrounded by what remains of old castle walls and a moat. These relics serve as a reminder of the once constant threat of Burma and the Mongul Empire led by Ghengis Khan. Built in 1296, Chiang Mai is Thai for ‘New City.’ Historically caught amid wars and conquests, Chaing Mai is now a thriving metropolis recognized as the unofficial Northern capital of Thailand. A strong creative undercurrent runs through the city, thanks to the presence of Chiang Mai University.

During my stay, I planned one activity a day then spent the rest of each day meandering through the streets. I found a farmer’s market tucked away outside the city walls and open in the sleepy, dewy mornings. Everyday I went and purchased a bunch of stubby, delightfully sweet bananas. I couldn’t get enough. Full of sights and smells, the market featured all the varieties of fish being prepared for sale, clothes, fruit, popsicles, and assorted gifts. Of the many markets to visit in Chiang Mai, the most well-known is the Saturday Night Walking Street, in which pedestrians and vendors take over the busy Qualia Road. Vacationers check out unique items and northern Thai food at the market.

Almost every day would end with a meal from a street vendor that sold Kuay -tiaw Khrae and Bamii (traditional Thai soups) near my hostel. The vendor was more permanent than a cart but with fewer walls than a store-front restaurant. I had to walk around a maze of chain-link fences to the family that sat by the register watching shows on a tiny TV. The first time I went, they seemed to think I was more familiar with the process than I actually was. I paid up front, without a menu, and picked the meat I wanted. I stood around until the matriarch kindly pointed to a seat. Soon, I was given a bowl with pork slices, unknown meat balls and thin rice noodles. Before I could dive in, the matriarch returned with a spice rack and a beer I had ordered and pointed to a couple of barrels containing sprouts and other greens to garnish my dish. I loaded up on the sprouts, green onions, and tons of chili peppers. If I wasn’t already sweating enough with the heat and humidity, the food helped.

I had the opportunity to visit the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, which teaches vocational skills to inmates. The goal is to break the cycle of poverty and crime by providing training and employment opportunities. Trainees are selected based on behavior and type of sentence, usually non-violent crimes. They can choose options such as working in a café, making crafts for the shop, or helping in a massage parlor. They are also taught how to cook and to speak English. The wages they make while working are kept aside and given to them upon their release, giving them new life skills and a nest egg to help the process of reintegrating into civil society.

While I was there waiting for a massage, I enjoyed a Thai tea on the patio at the café. It was peaceful sitting and listening to the water fountain bubble nearby. Once inside, the women washed my feet, provided me with a robe and slippers, and led me to a massage table in a large room.

Although I was next to a bunch of other people, privacy forgotten, it was very enjoyable to listen to the women talk amongst each other in Thai, entertaining themselves and laughing while working. They were very professional and attentive the whole time. Throughout my trip I had received all kinds of massage, ranging broadly in quality and I can say that these ladies were some of the best. It is refreshing to see government take a proactive and rehabilitative approach to serving the people in their prison systems.

On another adventure, I went to visit one of Thailand’s most famous and magnificent temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which rivals any of the great reli – gious sites around the world. The temple, Wat Phra That, rests on a mountain named Doi Suthep. I took a Rót daang, Thai for ‘Red truck’, up to the base of the steps of Wat Phra That. Rót daang are common and cheap methods of transportation around Thailand. They won’t make a trip until they are full, or full as they can get. A variety of stalls sell souvenirs and food all around the temple. It is a long climb to the top, but also a peaceful experience among the ornate steps, the sounds of many tourists dampened by the close trees that hug the path. The temple stairs are flanked by two large, exquisitely decorated nagas, or mythical serpents, to guide guests up to the Wat.

The temple area is largely silent, and for good reason: the massive golden stupa dominates the area and commands attention – its design is serene and the scale of it is truly impressive. Visitors light incense and pray peacefully, receiving blessings as they kneel before friendly monks, who laugh easily. Every inch of the temple contains historic art and artifacts worthy of appreciation.

The legend behind the creation of Wat Phra That centers on Gautama Buddha; the location of the Wat was chosen because of a relic found there, claimed to be a bone of Gautama Buddha. A king placed a fragment of Gautama’s bone on top of a white elephant. The elephant then made its way up the mountain, trumpeted three times, and died. The king took this as an omen and immediately ordered construction of the temple. The site where the elephant perished is now the location of the great stupa.

My time spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand was one of my favorite experiences abroad. The people are friendly, and the city carries itself with a small-town provincial feel rich with history. The lush surrounding forest balances the buildings and the urban bustle. There is so much to do and yet also time to take it slow. Chiang Mai is an essential destination for serenity, history and culture.