or some reason we weren’t really looking forward to visiting Thailand. In the back of our head we might have been thinking that mass-tourism wouldn’t have done the country much good and we feared that we would be disappointed. However, after our first week in Thailand we had to admit we were pleasantly surprised!
Our first stops were Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai is usually a quiet little town, but at the time of our visit it was a little more happening as we arrived around King’s day and the accompanying Father’s day. On this day the much revered King Bhumibol and Thai dad’s are celebrated and everybody and everything literally turns yellow (yellow is the color associated with the King).
The festivities include a fun fair with all sorts of little food-stalls. Check, we’re in! Only a few hours in Thailand and the first fresh Pad Thai has already been gobbled down. The fair also has the obligatory variety of shooting stalls and the accompanying fluffy multi-colored teddybears as prizes. However, one of the main attractions really intrigues us: a big tree in front of a Chinese temple that has been decorated with countless shiny colored pieces of rolled up paper. For 20 Bath (0,5 EUR) you can buy a ticket and pluck one of the pieces of paper out of the tree with a hooked stick. On the paper is a number and with that you can get your prize from the raffle stand. Next to the usual junk prizes, we spot at least 10 bikes, a washing machine, a microwave and a fridge. Let’s see whether lady luck smiles down on us today! We suspect that we have a small advantage: we are a tad taller and can pluk the little papers at the top of the tree without having to break our back. You have to admit, if you were decorating the raffle tree, where would you put the best numbers?
We manage to snag a red paper roll with number 404. Would this be our lucky number? Judging by the look of the Thai teen who receives our little paper, it sure looks promising. His eyes are twinkeling and he excitedly calls out to his raffle-colleagues. Something big is unhooked from the stall ceiling and by the time it arrives at the counter we can see why the teen was so enthusiastic. We have won a white acoustic guitar! If you know that there are as many guitar shops here as types of curry’s, that says it all. After the obligatory photo-op with the raffle people, we strut around with our Elvis guitar as true rock stars while passersby congratulate us. We are already very locally famous, but what to do now? Should we learn a new instrument and join one of the many Thai coverbands? We’re already happy that we didn’t win a fridge, we wouldn’t even have made it back to our hotel lugging that around. (We ended up donating our guitar to a Chiang Mai kids charity with a music school. )
We don’t just celebrate in Chiang Rai, we also explore the surrounding hills and mountains. With a scooter we make a 250 km day trip to Mae Salong and the remote Thoed Thai. These are both located in the Golden Triangle, skirting the Myanmar border. Mae Salong feels very Chinese, and that is not only due to the Chinese tourists that flood the place, but also because a regiment of the Kuomintang retreated up till here after the Chinese civil war. In between the mountains covered in tea plantations (previously opium plantations), there are worse places to settle down with your runaway regiment. Firmly off the tourist trail, Thoed Thai turns out to be a surprisingly interesting village, set in one of the furthest corners of Thailand with a beautiful temple, a big Buddha on a mountain top and the old headquarters of the Myanmarese war- and druglord Khun Sa.
Closer to Chiang Rai we visit the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun): a shiny glittering temple which resembles a fluffy meringue cake decorated with imaginative and often gruesome white sugar-paste figurines. We also swing by the Black House (Baan Dam): a big garden filled with diverse dark and black Northern Thai buildings and faux temples, filled to the rafters with all sorts of macabre furniture and art made out of stuffed animals, antlers, horns, robust chunks of wood, and animal skins.
Chiang Rai is a nice little town in beautiful surroundings, but we end up preferring Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is quite a bit bigger than Chiang Rai, however, many people we met said it was a very busy city and fast becoming a second Bangkok… but to us that seemed like quite an exaggeration. Chiang Mai is a pretty calm city, very liveable but very alive!
In between the ancients city walls and the many temples this city is a happening place and we are lucky to visit the city at the perfect time: just when NAP 2014 and Design Week 2014 are in full swing.
NAP is short for Nimmanhaemin Art & Design Promenade. Nimmanhaemin is the trendiest neighbourhood in Chiang Mai overflowing with fun and hip little shops, restaurants, bars etc. Especially contemporary handmade creations seem to do really well. During NAP all this is put in the spotlight and the neighbourhood is more lively than ever. In the coolest alley, all the local stores congregate with little stands showcasing their wares in the trendiest stalls imaginable. You can stroll from one booth with handmade jewellery or artisanal bathing products, to another with handmade toys and shoes… you name it. Some of our favourite stuff: the children’s toys of Nook Nook (http://www.nooknook.com) and the shoes and handbags of Hand by Boon (http://www.handbyboon.com). Cool little shops, good food & cheap cocktails, scores of Thai hipsters and loads of free floating creativity. NAP is right up our alley!
The coinciding Design Week 2014 (http://www.chiangmaidesignweek.com) strives to bring together the local entrepeneurs, creative spirits, artists and designers and to encourage their pursuits. A great initiative of which the artists and other creative people make handy use to exhibit their most beautiful creations and show their best ideas. Everywhere in the city you can find art expositions, temporary pop-ups of local handmade fashion and art, and cool parties where everybody can get together and network to come up with new crazy ideas.
Thailand obviously has a lot of young and creative talent, which is something we both really enjoy. Young local and enthusiastic people that make something special out of their passion. It energizes a city, makes it flourish and gives it a nice cosmopolitan vibe. During Design Week and NAP we even feel like we have been transported to London or Berlin (an impression only reinforced by our hip guesthouse http://sleepguesthouse.com). Expositions with impressive new creations, garden parties with little lights dangling in the trees, hay bales & coloured cushions on the floor and a live jazz band in the background. Does it get any cooler? Trow in some local trendsetters, artisans and artists and we are sold!
As many of those who have been here can confirm, Chiang Mai is a beautiful cultured place where we easily felt at home. And that coming from us who were pretty sceptical about Thailand!
For the local bites and munchies, have a look here to find out what we got between our chopsticks. Craving some Thai food closer to (our) home? Visit our favourite Thai in Brussels, Thai Talks (read all about it here).