New Years Eve! Day of the biggest party celebrated throughout the globe. I however started it very early – 2am to be precise.
This isn’t to say I didn’t sleep – I slept like a rock. I just went to bed so early that I hit my sleep cycle early. Spent the next five hours dozing in and out, iPod in my ears while I waited for dawn.
Biggest issue unfortunately was my bunk mate. He was determined to get every penny of his night train sleep, and had the curtain closed on his bed right up till 9:30. The conductor was putting the beds away from 7:30 to allow people down and let them talk or eat breakfast, but he wasn’t allowed to wake anyone. So I was stuck on my top bunk for breakfast and conversation pretty much until the last half hour.
So happy to get off that train and into the train station. Been told by some Canadians that Chiang Mai would be cold this time of year since its so North, and was prepared for Hanoi weather. What I got, was a beautiful balmy morning that actually felt warmer than Bangkok. Certainly not complaining.
Taxi’s and tuk tuks are on me the second I leave the station, and most unique, the minibus. I thought they meant a typical minibus like the one I rode from the border, but no. Not sure if they’re unique to Chiang Mai or if I just didn’t see any in Bangkok, but the minibus is similar to the military vans you see. Pick up trucks with two benches along the sides for passengers. They pick up a collection of people going to different places and drop you off for a pre-agreed price. I managed to haggle mine down to almost half his ask – though this was mostly due to me literally only HAVING that much on me – which was better than any of the other backpackers on the bus managed.
Since they were dropping people off, it wasn’t the fastest trip, but eventually ended up at my digs for the night, Mandala House:
Now, I’d come to Chiang Mai for one reason – a tour I’d booked through G Adventures: The Hill Tribe Trek. Which included 2 nights in Chiang Mai, and 3 days hiking in the Northern hills staying with the local tribes. As such I was going in blind to my accommodation – I’d tried to look it up online, but the only information I’d been able to get was that it was pretty much impossible to book. That said, first impressions were good.
And only got better when I saw my room. Now this is what I’d been hoping for in Cambodia. A big room, with a big double bed, slightly decent view and all the desirable comforts. Plus, a hot shower (admittedly one that requires a good ten minutes to warm up).
When I’m feeling like a human being again, I head out to have a look at Chiang Mai since I have very little time here. Get a little lost to start with as the map Mandala House give me doesn’t include the tinier side streets that the hotel is actually on, and get completely turned around. With the help of some additional tourists, I get my bearings and head towards Thape Gate, and the entrance to the old city.
This is where the big New Years celebrations will be happening. They’ve already got the stage out, and nearby in the square, dozens of food and market stalls are being set up. Barely any food out yet but already smells unbelievable.
Chiang Mai was once surrounded by a brick wall, but as the city expanded, this more or less fell to ruin, and is now only apparent in random ruins throughout the city. However the streets still within these ruins walls are the oldest part of Chiang Mai…and sadly quite touristy too. I was looking for lunch, and swear every single place I went past had foreigner prices – I wanted pad thai, and I knew you could get it for about 50 baht, but nowhere seemed to have it for less than twice that. Eventually, hunger won out and I went to the next place I passed that was full of people – a small restaurant on a corner of the main road called ‘The Terrace Bar’.
Frankly do not know why it was so busy, because it was pretty damn awful. The service was unbelievably slow, the prices 3 times what the locals would pay, and when my pad thai finally appeared? It was served on a huge plate, and barely took up a third of it. Think I finished it in less than 5 mouthfuls – at least the drink was relatively well priced, and my passion fruit cup was gloriously good.
Of course, once I left, I came across no less than 3 places that had the prices I was looking for, but tried to ignore that and carry on, ended up outside a private museum. Specifically, the Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders, owned by one of the greatest mosquito experts in the world. Had a special offer on right now for entry, so decided to give it a look.
Had a huge collection of butterflies and mosquitoes, but honestly found the news articles posted on the walls regarding the history of the owner to be the most interesting thing on display – that and the malaria exhibit and how taking malaria pills might actually make things worse for you. Apparently many mosquitoes are actually useful – improving ones immune system and helping you fight off disease. Its hypothesised that bird flu actually came into being because of the mass exterminations of mosquitoes via spraying – as it killed off the useful mosquito as well as the malaria spreaders resulting in weaker immune systems in the animals.
I also found a buddhist temple, although to be fair this was one of many I’d passed – not lacking for the temple in Chiang Mai. However this one was important enough to be listed on the map, and had multiple New Years decorations inside. However, I was in a vest top and had completely forgotten to bring something with long sleeves or a scarf, so wasn’t allowed to go inside with bare shoulders. With this in mind, decided to head back to the hotel so I could look at the other temples in the area.
Along the way though, I saw something amazing…
Yes, that is a mobile fish and chip shop. I haven’t seen fish and chips since I left the UK! I actually burst into laughter when I saw it, and the guy turned and asked if something was funny. I had to explain it wasn’t mocking so much as joyous disbelief. I wasn’t that hungry since I’d had lunch not that long ago, but decided I’d have to come back later tonight and have some just for the sake of it. Though given how wonderful the market forming in Thapae Square was, that might be too much hassle.
Course, after returning to the hotel to get a shirt and walking back, I happen to spot upon the name: Dee’s English Fish and Chips. Clearly it was fate – and i bought some right then and there regardless. Chips weren’t fantastic, but fish was lovely.
Revisted the first temple, then followed my map upwards to the oldest temple in Chiang Mai. Along the way I found the Lanna Folk History Museum, and considered going in. However it cost to enter, and was only going to be open another 40 minutes, so figured it would be a better idea to come another day if I had time.
The temple in the North of the old city is very beautiful, its painted red with gold designs all over the walls. Also had a reclining Buddha to the right of the main idol which I’d gone looking for before but never actually seen. This temple also appeared to be a haven for animals – as I wandered round I found at least 5 cats on the premises, as well as several dogs, some wearing coats. Given that one was perfectly comfortable walking onto the front of the temple and lying down without anyone stopping him, get the feeling they’re welcome here.
Behind the temple is another shrine too, in a much different style. When Chiang Mai was being built, this is where the Royal Family lived. When they were ready to leave, the living quarters were pulled down and they erected this temple on the site. Its white with elephant sculpture, and has a hair relic enshrined inside.
Headed back towards the city after this, stopping by another temple along the way, but I’m starting to feel a touch of temple-itis again. Chiang Mai has literally hundreds of gold roofed, white walled Buddhist temples, and I’m starting to hit my limit. Besides, I have to get back to my hotel for a meeting regarding my tour at 18:00.
As it turns out, I’m the only one staying at this hotel – nobody else booked through G Adventures, though the gentleman who greets me does say there are more on the trip, just in different places. That’s a little disappointing – I’d hoped to meet them and have company on New Years.
For the tour I’m given a checklist for what to take, and warned to pack light as I’ll need to carry what I bring for 3 days. Also, everything but drink and souviners are included, so make sure to bring cash to stay hydrated and to buy things from the tribes we’re staying with. Once that’s over, I’m told to be ready for 8, so don’t party too hard tonight.
Sun is setting and the party in town is beginning, but I take those words to heart and decide not to head out until I’ve perfected my bag. I’m taking my rucksack and leaving the Osprey here as it can easily handle 3 days, and then begin the difficult task of figuring out what I should take. Proper sleeved tees are best for carrying backpacks, but if its hot vest tops are going to be far more practical. End up taking 2 vest tops and my base layer for lightness, and also taking my linen shirt to act as a ‘long sleeved top’ as recommended on the list since its by far the lightest. The list also states its best to bring a jacket in winter, so after much debate, bring my brown linen jacket too. The end result? My bag feels heavier than it should be, but I honestly haven’t brought anything the tour company hasn’t told me to bring, and I’m pretty sure I’ve carried heavier in my day – surely 3 days will be fine.
Bags packed and prepared, its time to go enjoy New Years in Chiang Mai! Out the window I can hear fireworks, and the sky is heavy with glowing lights. Walking out the door proves these are floating lanterns – hundreds of them creating a beautiful picture in the air.
Market is heaving with tourists and locals alike. Stretches down 2 streets and the square. Thanks to my fish and chips I’m really not hungry, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna pass up a gastronomic party like this. I’ve even taken out an extra 500 baht so I can properly celebrate. Anything that looks good, I’m having, whether this is deep fried pumpkin (one of the most underrated vegetables on the planet), gyoza, sushi (this one may have been a mistake) and chocolate cake. Was also tempted to try a roasted quail, but I just didn’t have the guts to go through with it.
To get away from the food heavy market, walked along the river to see where people were launching the lanterns. Sellers were everywhere, helping you light them and send you flying. Considered buying one, but it seemed more something you did as a group rather than solo, and it was just as much fun to watch people try and light them. One I saw was released at the wrong time, and ended up crashing into tree branches. Everyone spent the next five minutes watching that tree waiting for it to burst into flames, but no, lantern never caught fire, and fell back to the ground once the fuel was burned.
That was the downside to these lanterns. They were stunning to look at, but they don’t last too long, and eventually come floating back down to earth. Every now and then one would fall down in the river or the market and catch some hapless passer by completely by surprise. Chiang Mai is going to be littered with these things tomorrow. That said, watching them in the sky was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. No photo I took did it justice.
When I get back to the centre, I try to watch the show on the stage, but I can’t get close and its mostly in Thai. Do hear a bit of random English translation but not enough to follow whats happening. As such, with my stomach full and my resolve weakening at the number of awesome stalls with things I want to buy (I really wish I was here on holiday so I could just go crazy and buy stuff for me and other people, this place is gift heaven!), decide to head to the hotel and come back half an hour before midnight.
If anything, 23:30 is even busier than it was earlier – think just about everyone in Chiang Mai has come out to usher in the New Year. It becomes obvious very early on that I’m not going to get anywhere near the stage, but do find people slinking behind a stall to stand on a cement tree stand. Follow their lead, and get a slightly obscured view of the stage thanks to the big New Years decoration several metres in front of me. A view that gets worse when some yahoos decide to climb said New Years decoration and block the view of us back here. Too far away for us to complain though.
Though my biggest bone was the man and his daughter in front of me. There was a space in front of them that would have given me a better view, but I held back from moving in front of them as it would have meant blocking any view the little girl had. However, just as the final few minutes began, the man picked his daughter up and hoisted her onto his shoulder – completely blocking the view of everyone behind him including myself! I try to get his attention, even try to get into the now large space in front of them only to be brushed off or blockaded, and instead have to get my phone and record the damn thing while leaning half off the stand holding onto a tree branch for support. This is what I get for being polite.
Happy New Years Everyone!