First Days in Chiang Mai

My flight to Chiang Mai was scheduled to depart at 1:10PM – and my beautifully-appointed, spic-and-span Thai Airways 777 (!) pushed back from the gate at exactly 1:10PM. Smiling flight attendants had shown passengers to their assigned seats – plus the flight was about three-quarters full, so most everybody flying solo had an open seat next to them. Oh, and then once in the air, we were served a tasty (and free) boxed lunch of a couple of small sandwiches. We arrived at the gate in Chiang Mai at exactly 2:20PM. United, are you listening?

Anyway, my first impression of Chiang Mai was… uncertain. It’s not especially pretty on the short trip from the airport and traffic, as it seems to be everywhere here, is cuckoo. So, I guess we’ll see.

I checked into the Dusit D2, though perhaps not as efficiently as one might hope – plus there was a real hard-sell on purchasing breakfast. And I was frankly AOK with having breakfast here! But in order to get the special rate, I had to determine right then and there which mornings I wanted to have breakfast. Kind of annoying, but what’re you gonna do?

Anyway, was shown up to my room and it was… questionable. Besides looking a bit shopworn, there was a whiff of mildew to the place. Anyway, I wanted to settle in and have a nap, so I opened the window and hoped for the best. More to come on this later…

After freshening up, I headed downstairs to meet up with my Evening Market Tour with Chiang Mai Street Food Tours. And it was… okay. I was a little leery at first, as the first couple in the van when I got in were yakking about their next trip to Cabo and how much room there was in the timeshare. The next couple seemed of a similar ilk and they were yukkiing it up about whether the “ghettos” were worse in Philly or Baltimore. Yikes… But once we got to our first stop and sat down to eat, everyone seemed to relax and it was fine. Our guide Tom was a good guy, and trained us to order in Thai at the various stalls we stopped at.

My favorite was our first stop, where we had tom saap (spicy Northern Thai soup) and spicy and aromatic fish dish with crispy fish, onions, fish sauce, etc. and sticky rice. Other stops included khao ka moo (braised pork knuckle in aromatic sauce) which we actually got two versions of – one from the famous Cowboy Hat Lady and the other from the stall next door, prepared by her sister! Both were quite tasty… It was a good sampling of food from a variety of vendors – though I’ll confess, I wasn’t swooning over any of it.

Got back to my room and the smell remained. Not overpowering, but certainly not ideal. I’ll be honest – at this point, I was not really loving Chiang Mai. But tomorrow is another day…

And so it was! Up early for a decent breakfast at the hotel, then a quick walk up the street (in bone-chilling and overcast 69 degrees!) to Zabai Thai Spa, a small place that was well-reviewed online. Made an appointment for 3:00 that afternoon then headed toward the Old City. On my way, I stumbled across Wat Bupparum, a lovely temple right in the middle of the city. Ladies on the grounds had small bamboo balls with live birds inside – for a donation, the birds are set free. There were a variety of roosters and hens roaming about and the ancient part of the wat was impressive.

I continued on my way and discovered Wat Pan Tao. Another beautiful temple with a pagoda in back in the midst of being repaired. I was stopped by a trio of young monks, who asked if they could speak to me and record a video. “Of course!” I said. I guess this is a way for them to practice their English – which was far superior to my Thai! Very nice young men (and I foolishly forgot to have them pose for a photo with me).

Continued my amble to Wat Phra Singh and had a quick look around. Was ready to call it day and headed back the way I came – but I spied a rather massive ruin of an ancient wat above the rooftops. Not sure how I’d missed it earlier, but this turned to to be Wat Chedi Luang.

The temple complex is large and contains several of different and very beautifully decorated buildings, with impressive carvings and decorations – probably my favorite of which was the City Pillar to the left of the entrance, whose interior walls are covered with elaborate paintings. And sorry, no chicks allowed!

I continued past these structures and came to the ruins of Wat Chedi. Now, my philistinism is well-known – and frankly, ruins are not always of great interest to me. But this was breathtaking – both beautiful to look at and a marvel of ancient engineering. Absolutely the highlight of my day in the Old City. I wandered around for at least an hour and will likely return later in the week.

Back to the spa, where I had a two-hour going-over – and walked out feeling great. Price was the usually shockingly reasonable – I recommend Zabai unreservedly!

I must say, though, that while I was getting my massage, I was dwelling on my dissatisfaction with my room at the hotel. Again, it wasn’t untenable, but given that I’m staying here a week, it was annoying.

So, once I got back to the hotel, I stopped by the front desk and shared that I wasn’t all that happy with my room and why. Turns out, I was speaking with the assistant hotel manager, Ann. She apologized, told me she’d show me another room to see if it was more to my liking and off we went. On the ride up in elevator, she indicated that the rate I was paying was on the high side (for the record, it’s $90 per night…), so she’d upgraded me. We arrived on the 9th floor and I was shown a one-bedroom suite. “I’ll take it!” I blurted.

Ann told me to take my time getting my belongings together, then just ring for the bellman. I think I was re-packed in about three minutes and soon enough was ensconced in my spacious new digs. Squeaky wheel gets grease!

Later I had a pretty decent dinner at Papa Curry, a Japanese curry place I’d seen earlier. Not the friendliest vibe in this place, but a darn tasty katsu with a decent curry. Back to the hotel with a couple of beers and off to bed, preparing for an early start for my visit with elephants. And, after a really nice day out and about, I was really liking Chiang Mai.

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