The guidebook describes Chiang Mai as “a country retreat”, “blissfully calm and laid-back”, “a place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok”, and a “sleepy country town”. D & L are therefore startled to find the historic centre bustling with tourists and tourist restaurants and tourist services and cars and taxis and motorbikes. It is busier, noisier and scruffier than the languid idyll they had imagined.
As they settle in for a few days, so does a wet weather front. They buy umbrellas and hear that they are better off where they are in the north, while southern Thailand is beset by floods. They explore using a map of the town, its idiosyncratic lack of detail and scale keeping them guessing, paddling down quiet alleys they might otherwise have ignored.
In the evening it is raining so they don’t go far. On the first corner they find an empty table at Henry’s Restaurant. It’s not mentioned on any recommended restaurant lists they’ve seen. It has half a dozen tables and is artfully decorated with Buddhas and driftwood and sequined cushions. The table bases have ancient sewing machine pedals. They are approached by a woman in a floor length leopard-print dress. She is possibly 4 months pregnant. She looks crossly at them. From their table they squint at the menu board which is out on the street.
L: Umm… hello. Pad Thai please.
Woman: Kao Soi. I recommend.
L: OK, thanks. And two small beers.
Woman: Only large.
She gestures at the next table, where two women are drinking out of enormous plastic beakers.
L: Right. One large beer, then, and two glasses.
Woman: Only large glasses.
They are soon each drinking an enormous plastic beaker of beer. The Kao Soi arrives in an earthenware pot – fragrant Thai chicken curry soup, gently spicy, and crunchy with fried noodles and beansprouts. It is delicious.
D: I object.
L: (slurping) To what?
D: To my cutlery. I don’t want a spoon and a fork. I want proper chopsticks. I want to eat like a local.
L: You want to eat like a local? Take the spoon in your right hand and the fork in your left. They don’t use chopsticks in Thailand.
D: Oh. How come we had them in Bangkok?
L: We were in Chinatown.
D: Oh. Are you sure?
L: Look around you.
D: Oh. In that case, I withdraw my objection.
Later they walk home.
L: D’you think Henry’s her husband?
D: What are you talking about?
L: Henry’s Restaurant. Where we’ve just been. The lady in the leopard-print dress – d’you think Henry’s her husband?
D: I’m pretty sure that WAS Henry.
L: What are YOU talking about? She was pregnant!
D: She might have had a bit of a beer belly.
L: Anyway, she was splendidly grumpy and her Kao Soi was heavenly. Can we go back?
L: Oh, dear, d’you know Chiang Mai has over 300 temples?
D: Holy crap! And how many hills?
D: I vote for the hill.
L: But it’s got two temples on it.
D: Can’t be helped. It’s high time we went for a walk.
It’s drizzling, but that’s not going to stop them heading for Doi Suthep, the highest bit of ground around, even if it is swallowed in cloud. They hop into the back of a songtaew, the red shared taxi trucks that ply the streets of Chiang Mai. On the western edge of town, beyond the University, is the start of a pilgrimage path, but they’ve failed to explain properly where they want to go, and the taxi driver heads the wrong way. D slides along the bench seat and knocks on the glass partition but communication is impossible. He jumps out at each red traffic light to discuss the route through the driver’s window. Eventually he gets into the cab beside the driver and map-reads. They reach the edge of town, where the forest takes over, and hop out.
The path winds up through the trees, dripping with rain, past overgrown viewpoints and trickling cascades. Every so often, strips of orange cloth, resembling monks’ robes, are tied around trees to line the way. Thick in the cloud and deep in the forest, they arrive at Wat Pha Lat. A cluster of temples loom out of the mist, linked by stairways lined with enormous serpents and other fantastical guardians. Orange-robed stone monks meditate beside a stream which pools and then trickles its way down the limestone face of the hillside. Buddhist chanting can be heard from within a candlelit wat. It’s wonderfully atmospheric and almost deserted.
L: The snakes on the stairs are called nagas. They’re based on cobras and sometimes they have seven heads.
D: What are they doing?
L: Protecting the Buddha and the temples.
D: It’s a great place for a picnic, isn’t it?
It’s now properly raining. L looks sceptical.
L: Maybe not today.
D: No. Come on then.
They pick up the path again, which is now smaller and much steeper, slick with mud. They climb slowly upwards through the forest, panting. The ground glitters with flakes of quartz washed clean by the rain, and they find a steep flight of mud-carved stairs. The world is silent save for their breathing and the patter of water on leaves.
An hour or so later, they meet the road, and have no option but to follow it. It is busy with traffic, wheels hissing on the wet surface. Two corners on and the road widens, suddenly teeming with cars and minibuses struggling to park, roadside stalls selling food and souvenirs, hundreds of sightseers in bright plastic capes, and lines of taxis waiting to take them back to town. It’s an unromantic climax to the walk. A long flight of naga-lined stairs leads the sodden crowds up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. At the top, as a reward for the climb, are broad shady terraces from which to admire the views, but today there is nothing to be seen.
D: This is one of the country’s most sacred temples. A bit of the Buddha’s shoulder bone is buried here.
L: Who’s the white elephant?
D: He’s very important. A monk brought the fragment of Buddha’s shoulder all the way from Sukhothai in the 14th century, but somewhere on the journey the bone broke into two bits. One half was put onto the elephant who wandered around the forests until it died.
L: Right here?
D: Yes. So this is where they built the temple and buried the shoulder bone.
Back at the foot of the steps they are lured towards a queue of shared songtaew taxis.
Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?
They get into the back and join 6 other people. There’s not too much space, but it’s fine. They wait.
Driver: Chiangmai-Chiangmai-Chiangmai! Chiang Mai?
Two more people get in. They all budge up. Two more get in. Everybody squeezes along. Three more are encouraged to join them. Everyone does their best, but one has no option but to stand outside on the rear step and hang on. Which he does as the taxi hurtles its way back down the mountain’s seven miles of roller-coaster curves and dips. The road is still wet but at least it’s stopped raining.
They can’t put it off any longer. Today is temples day.
D: This one’s my favourite, even though it’s the smallest.
L: That’s not fair – I wasn’t even allowed in!
In a tiny chapel in the extensive grounds of Wat Chedi Luang, is the city pillar supposedly raised during the founding of Chiang Mai in 1296.
L: So? What took you so long?
D: I couldn’t actually find the pillar.
L: Oh. So what did you find?
D: In the middle there was a sort of wedding cake affair with a standing Buddha on top.
D: And very cool stuff going on, on the walls.
L: What cool stuff?
D: I have no idea, but it looked very exciting.
D’s photos show a burst of floor-to-ceiling technicolour. There are cutlass-wielding demons tearing through a forest, people paying homage to a prince, hunting scenes, processions and crowds praying to the Buddha, all with the Wat faithfully reproduced in the background.
D: I could have stayed in there for longer. But I suddenly remembered you were standing out here. In the rain.
L: Thanks for that.
On they go. Just next door.
L: Well, this one’s my favourite.
They have reached Wat Phan Tao, which is built entirely of teak. Inside, the dark wood ceiling is supported by huge wooden pillars, and on the altar a huge golden Buddha glows in the gloom. Lines of copper alms bowls fill one aisle, making music as the devout drop their pennies. Outside, an artificial island is decorated with prayer ribbons and lanterns, and an orange Buddha sits in meditation guarded by several of the town’s stray dogs who have taken up residence. It is a fiercely protected piece of canine real estate, and interlopers are seen off with growls and yelps.
It is time for lunch.
They find a café. Their sandwiches arrive with a side salad curiously topped with a glacé cherry, but no cutlery. L speaks to the waiter:
L: Please can I have a fork?
The waiter looks puzzled and faintly shocked.
L: I need a fork. Please can you give me a fork?
The waiter looks scandalised. D comes to the rescue.
D: Or a spoon?
Comprehension floods over the waiter’s face. He beams and returns with a spoon. And a fork.
L: What was all that about? You’d think I’d said something desperately rude.
D: I can’t think what, for fork’s sake…
It is time. For more temples. They are on a mission.
It’s dusk by the time they finally splash their way south to Wat Sri Suphan, in the city’s silversmith’s quarter.
L: (grumbling) This is absolutely the last one. And it’d better be worth it. I’m soaking.
They walk through the gates.
L: Blimey. That’s amazing!
They stand in the rain and stare. For once, there’s not a glimmer of gold to be seen. Instead, the entire temple is crafted of silver.
L: Is it actual silver, d’you reckon?
D: Mostly nickel and aluminium, I think. Or maybe zinc?
L: Still. It’s astonishing.
It is intricate and elaborate and beautiful and twiddly and prickly. There are statues and bass-reliefs and decorative panels, from ground level to the topmost spires of the roof, all in gleaming silver.
L: Not again! Says here, according to Lanna Belief, I’m not allowed in. Apparently ladies entering inside this area may deteriorate the place or otherwise the lady herself!
D: That’s probably best avoided.
L: In you go. I’ll just stand here. In the rain. Like last time.
D disappears happily into the welcoming glow of the interior. L walks around the outside. The whole temple is set on a sea of turquoise ceramic tiles, lapping at the foundations like wavelets. On the outer walls there are panels showing ships and temples, forests and seas and animals and people. The whole of the rear of the building is one enormous silver mural. Along the sides are small panels of great sites of the world. L spots the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China, and even Stonehenge. From the roof, great silver dragons stretch their wings as though about to take flight.
D re-emerges. The interior too is clad floor to ceiling in silver. Except for the Buddha at the altar, which is gold. Flanking the inside of the doorway, the walls show terrifying skulls, and a demon swallowing a crowd of people. Dozens of little backlit niches display delicate filigree work.
Outdoors the silver continues, still catching the last glimmers of light as darkness descends. A great silver Buddha sits draped in silver robes, in front of the temple. Nearby is a large banner in tribute to the late King Bhumibol, set in a decorative silver frame. And surreally, to one side the Hindu elephant god Ganesha shelters under an elaborate silver umbrella accompanied by two gigantic mice – one silver, one gold.
D: This is definitely my favourite.
L: Mine too. Even without going in. But it’s time for crisps. And beer. And a bath. We are so done.
Before they leave Chiang-Mai, they return for dinner at Henry’s. She scowls in welcome as they sit down and obediently order Kao Soi and two enormous plastic beakers of beer. A couple with a child arrive and hover at the entrance. They ask to see the menu and Henry explains crossly to them that the menu is the blackboard right in front of them, in the street. They try to sit at an outside table, but Henry won’t allow it and makes them sit indoors. They sit, disgruntled. They ask to see the menu. Henry has had enough and scolds them loudly.
Henry: Look, you two! I’ve told you already! The menu is on the board outside!
She has gone too far. The family get up and leave.
Henry: (muttering) Crazy. They’re crazy!
Half way through the meal, Henry decides, unprompted, that an announcement needs to be made. She goes from table to table, telling each of her diners separately.
Henry: You want toilet? No toilet! Go over the road! In the temple.
Everyone is fine. No-one needs to go.
She comes to clear their table and peers into the earthenware pot of Kao Soi. She looks at L accusingly.
Henry: You didn’t like it?
L: I loved it!
Henry: You didn’t finish it!
L: I did – look!
L pokes around nervously in the pot to show that there is no morsel of chicken or beansprout or noodle remaining. Only a centimetre of broth.
Henry looks at them in disdain, picks up the pot and stalks off.
L: I love Henry! And her Kao Soi. How can you not? She is so terrifying and excellent. Don’t you love Henry?
D: Yes, I love Henry too.