Thursday, December 25, 2014

Charming Chiang Mai

** Long post ahead, don't say I didn't warn you!

Thailand was never really on my list of places to visit or even run but there I was on a cool Friday morning with the wife as we got off the plane to get our first taste of Thai hospitality, more specifically Chiang Mai hospitality.

Both the wife and me planned our Chiang Mai trip around the Chiang Mai marathon. Most of our holidays are normally planned around runs, obviously. We try to kill two birds with one stone and get the best of both worlds, running and a holiday at the same time.

Thapae Gate
We signed up for this holiday cum race pretty early, way back in July this year. We managed to get a pretty good flight deal and found a nice and reasonable hotel, the Top North hotel, that was located a mere 100m away from the original race start location, the Thapae Gate. The start location was later changed at the last minute due to the numerous street vendors occupying the open space there or at least I think that was the reason. 

The vendors setting up for business. The size of the durians were as big as jack-fruits!
Since I was due for my much needed Christmas leave anyway, we decided to go two days prior to race day to have some time for sightseeing as well. It was a very early morning flight, all the better to maximize our stay. We reached Chiang Mai around 8.30am, took a cab and made our way into the old city. The cab driver was no different than our cab drivers back here in the sense that he was under the illusion he was a clone of Lewis Hamilton or something.

After a 15 minute or so formula 1 simulation of a ride, we reached our hotel. Seeing as how it was still too early for check in, we stored our luggage at the hotel and opted to check out the surrounding area. We had quite a bit of time to spare and I was feeling hungry as well. 

The bustling streets just outside the gate
To be absolutely truthful, prior to arriving in Chiang Mai, I was pretty skeptical of the place and wasn't really looking forward to it. I looked up Google maps and used their street view to 'walk' around the place just to get a feel of it and wasn't at all impressed. God, it looks just like home, maybe somewhere in Jalan Ipoh. 

The long canals of water separating the old and new city
How sadly mistaken I was! Google street view is not something one should use to judge a place cos Chiang Mai is nothing like back home! From the moment I left the hotel, I was awe struck by the place. I could hardly wait to drag the wife down every nook and cranny. The simplistic and old charm feel of the place was truly amazing.

The amount of details on the walls were simply phenomenal!
With the weather being pleasant, cool, even with the sun, we took our time walking around and enjoying the place. The first place we headed to was the famous Thapae Gate, being one of the four gates surrounding the perimeter of the old city. The street vendors were already in the process of setting up their stalls for business and we made a mental note to come back later at night to check out the fares they had on offer.


One thing about Chiang Mai is that there isn't any shortage of temples. And most of these temples are really works of art. Naturally, we just had to visit all the temples that were in our path. The first temple we visited was just 200 metres away from Thapae Gate, unfortunately I didn't get its name. It was huge and had exquisitely intricate carvings on its walls and surroundings. This was where I had the opportunity to make a donation and paste some gold stickers on the statue of Buddha seeking some divine intervention for my race on Sunday.

Seeking some divine intervention ...
We explored the place in silence enjoying the serenity of the temple and checked out the food stalls in the temple grounds that was in the process of setting up for business. We next made our way towards the Three Kings Monument but not before stopping every 100 metres or so to admire the surroundings which caught our eye. Of cos, being the vain pot that I am, photo ops were aplenty with the wife always saying to me, 'You're not going to post this again, are you?' LOL!

Seeking help to find my way around ... LOL!
After finally making our way to the Three Kings Monument, we took stock of the race venue, familiarizing ourselves with the place, spoke to the race officials to glean some info about the race on Sunday and headed back to the hotel to check in. We decided to first get some stock of tidbits and drinks from 7-11 before checking in and were amazed at how cheap things were. We walked around wide eyed buying stuff before finally checking in.

The view from right outside our hotel room door
Our hotel, a four storey building was more motel like, the kind you see in those b-grade private eye movies. It wasn't one of those 5-star hotels but I liked the ambiance and feel of the place. The rooms were all facing the pool and the place was clean and decent. We requested a ground floor room as I wasn't looking forward to having to hike up the stairs after a 42k run on Sunday. The room was clean but had furniture and fixtures that were from the 80's, literally! Checked out the bathroom immediately to see if there was hot water cos I read some reviews prior to this about no hot water in the rooms. Was glad that there was hot water in our room.

Emulating Simba!
What we didn't have though was a kettle for coffee or tea making. I wasn't too happy with that and went out and checked with the reception and was told that they didn't provide coffee/tea making facilities. Bloody helll! I need my coffee. But I can't really complain, you get what you pay for and truthfully, it wasn't all that bad. Aside from that I liked the place. We decided to rest cos we had plans for a shake down run along the perimeter of the city a little later in the evening.

A different section of the gate
After a short rest, we laced up and headed out for our run cum sightseeing tour. The sun was still out but the cool wind made the weather just right for an evening run. We had to be careful during our run cos we had numerous junctions to cross along the way and the drivers here are really frightening so much so that we witnessed two accidents during our run with one that saw a pick up ram into a motorcyclist that I was amazed that the rider got up and walked away with only a limp!

The roads are simply so clean!
We weren't the only ones running, loads of other runners were out running as well cos seriously it would be a sin not to run here. The city was lined by a 'waterway' (for want of a better word) with rock solid brick walls at the corners dividing the old city from the new. The entire run provided lots of opportunities for photo taking and I took full advantage of it. This is the only time you will see me taking silly photos of myself and fooling around. During a race, it's strictly a no-no for selfies, holding hands and all those kind of stuff. A race is serious business for me.

With Leong at the race venue
After a nice slow and easy run, we headed to the stalls by the main Thapae gate to look around and grab some food before heading back to the hotel. We decided to call it an early night as it had been a long day and we were up since 2am. A new day of exploring beckoned the next day. The night air got so cold that we ended up switching off the air conditioning and just sleeping with the fan on and even then it was still bloody cold. The bed was too firm to my liking and we both found it a little difficult to fall asleep but exhaustion got the better of us eventually.

The new race start venue, The Three Kings Monument
The next day saw us up bright and early. We took up the hotel buffet breakfast at only 100baht a person, which was really cheap for a western styled breakfast before heading out to pick up our race kit and then explore more of the place, especially the back lanes which we soon found to have tons of hidden treasures to see.

It was still early and the race venue wasn't packed yet. I was surprised when someone called my name and saw that it was Leong, a long time volunteer/runner. Didn't think I'd see anyone that I knew over here but was glad for the familiar face. After some chit chat and photo taking, we said our goodbyes for now and headed out to explore the back lanes and wait for Jamie, who would be arriving later in the afternoon. Just as we were heading out, I heard someone calling out 'Bro! Bro!' and looked to see that it was Mohd Fuad. Another familiar face :D A short hello and chit chat and we were off again.

The wife looking in awe at her dream cottage!
Now the back lanes here threw up a host of hidden gems. Unlike the back lanes back home, we found more beautiful temples, cozy dwellings, yummy food shops and much more. The back lanes were really clean and we had a fun time taking pictures of just about everything. My entire initial perspective of Chiang Mai took a 180 degree turn and I was simply loving the place. I was beginning to wish I had planned for an even longer stay. 

Hidden back lane restaurants offering authentic Thai cuisine. 
I have no idea why the wife is looking at banana trees!
After nearly two hours of exploring the back roads, a quick lunch, then back to the hotel for a short rest before meeting up with Jamie to hand him his race kit and making plans to meet up again later for the welcome dinner at the race venue. After mingling around and spotting a lot more Malaysians present, we wanted to grab the free dinner but the long queue discouraged us. We ended up eating elsewhere for something safer since it was race day the next day and we didn't want to end up with stomach issues. Said our goodbyes early and called it a night.

Extremely life like statues of monks in prayer
A short note if you ever put up at the Top North hotel is that the centralized water heating doesn't come on in the wee hours of the morning. I was up at 2.45am to get ready for the race and wanted to take a shower to wash the sleep off my cloudy mind. Turned the faucet and the bloody water was freezing cold. Left it to run for a little while thinking it would heat up but no such luck, the water remained as cold as ice. I have no qualms taking cold showers back home but it was just too chilly to attempt it here. So, it was just a quick splash of cold water on the face to shake the sleep off. We found out later that the hot water supply comes on around 7am or so.

Even more life like statue wannabes  ...
Sunday was our final night in Chiang Mai and even though we were tired, we weren't going to let it go to waste. Right after the race and a short rest later, Jamie and me met up to sample some of the more authentic Thai cuisine. Now that the race was over and done with, we could eat whatever we wanted. The wife wanted to rest for a little more and didn't join us. A short walk looking around for a place to eat, we found a shop offering just what we needed. After a yummy and relaxed meal discussing the race we parted ways.

The wife was awake by the time I got back. She was hungry and I joined her for a quick lunch at the hotel restaurant by the pool. This was where I met more Malaysians who were also putting up in the same hotel. Chit chatted with a few of them for a bit, with one fellow, who ran the 10k asking me if I had won! Hahaha! In my dreams maybe.

A dog meditating in the temple compound, well more like sun bathing!
Later in the evening, Jamie messaged me saying that the Sunday night market was up and running. I knew there was a night market but didn't know it started right at the Thapae Gate. The wife and me made a beeline for it and found the entire road closed to traffic with stalls selling just about anything and everything as far as the eye could see.

The bustling night market
The Sunday night market was sort of like Jonker Street in Melaka but a heck of a lot cleaner and what I really liked about it was that it was a no smoking zone and everyone actually followed the rule. It was bliss walking in clean, fresh air. Anyone walking through Jonker Street or any night market back home would know how bad the air can be with people puffing away. It was also very clean for a night market.


Some of the items at the market
Walking stall by stall, the wife especially was intrigued by everything on offer. We didn't opt for luggage check in and only came with a carry on so buying too many things was a no go. Maybe the next time we visit the place. We had our dinner in one of the temples which had a host of food stuff on offer. We also had a little surprise when suddenly during dinner, everyone stood up at attention and the national anthem (or at least I think it was) blared from the speakers. Of course we and all the foreigners all stood up along with them. Both of us were a little taken aback cos of the abruptness of it all.

A street performer strutting some traditional Thai tunes ...
After the delicious and tasty dinner, we continued exploring the night market, bought some snacks for later, a few mementos for home and finally with tired legs, we headed back to the hotel. It had been a long day and we were both exhausted but satisfied. We called it an early night as we had a morning flight to catch and the taxi we booked was due at 6am. This time though, hard mattress or not, we fell instantly asleep.

A night view of the hotel from outside our room
As I left the airport on the plane back home, I was thinking of how many more places and things we had yet to see but for now, the experience would last a lifetime. Chiang Mai had given us a great time, the people were friendly and warm and I got my personal best marathon time here. How very small of me to initially think that Chiang Mai had nothing to offer and I stand totally humbled by the experience. I will be back, not to race this time but just to enjoy the place, the people, the food and all it has to offer.

Till then, thank you Chiang Mai for the memories!

My race review here

2 comments:

  1. come back next year Nick, you're the suitable candidate for UTCM...and bring Jamie as well :)

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    Replies
    1. I don't know about Jamie but I've quit utra's and selling off all my ultra gear ... LOL!

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