Well, it’s been a few days since we moved into our apartment, and we have been keeping ourselves very busy! The first few days were spent mostly exploring the surrounding area, picking up essentials for our apartment (even though it’s fully furnished, there were small things like a trash can, soap, toilet paper, etc. that we needed to buy), going grocery shopping, and doing small things like that. A lot less touristy (and less interesting to read about), a lot more practical. But Friday and Saturday were 100% Chiang Mai tourist fun!
On one of our first days here, we ran into an American mom and son who were traveling around Thailand together. They had just finished a bike tour of the city that lasted all day, and they said they had a blast! The tour guide, Nooh, advertises only by word of mouth and runs very small tours. We contacted him and set up a tour for Friday morning!
We met Nooh on Friday morning at 7:45 at a Starbucks near Tha Pae Gate in the Old City (we seem to meet at Starbucks a lot. I think the locals choose Starbucks as a meeting point for westerners because it’s easy to find), and walked to his nearby shop. The tour would be the two of us, plus Benay, a woman from the D.C. area who is about our age. Before we left on our tour, Nooh gave us a very quick “safety briefing” which basically consisted of the following: 1) When I say go, you go. Don’t worry about checking your surroundings, I’ll do that for you. 2) Stay single file and stay to the left (cars drive on the left side of the road in Thailand). 3) When riding in traffic, free your mind. Julia and I had done a bit of biking on the roads already, but the “free your mind” advice really resonates. People behave much differently on the road over here than they do in the States. It’s more of a cooperative effort to get everyone to where they want to go, rather than the “me-first” attitude that seems to dominate the Western world of driving (including yours truly)…but that’s the topic of another blog post entirely!
Our first stop was for breakfast. We biked about ten minutes northeast of the Old City to the eatery where the workers of the nearby municipal building get their meals during the day. Part of the 1100 Baht (~$30 per person) price of admission was Nooh paying for all of our food and drink during the tour!
After a delicious breakfast, we walked to the nearby market. Now, we had seen some markets in Chiang Mai before, but they were nothing like this. This market is the Costco of Chiang Mai. All of the restaurants and grocery stores buy their products from this gigantic outdoor market. We couldn’t believe how much … everything there was! Each stall had a few years’ supply of their particular wares. The market opens at 4am every day, and many farmers will drive up to three hours to get there! I asked Nooh what happens to the unsold products, and he said that everything gets sold! The merchants might start selling things for cheaper towards the end of the day, but they won’t bring what they can’t sell. Nooh stopped at one of the stalls and bought a small snack for us – some black rice with coconut milk, topped with a sweet bean custard of some sort and mung beans sprinkled on top. Especially because of the black color, this is the sort of thing we would never have thought to buy if I wasn’t touring with a local!
After exploring the market, we got back on our bikes. Nooh carries bike locks, but rarely uses them. We even just left our helmets in the baskets. As Nooh said, “In Chiang Mai, people don’t steal”. That’s certainly the impression that we have gotten during our time here. Nooh is more concerned about tourists doing anything shady than locals!
We biked for a long ways, all the way to a village south of the Old City. This village is where all of Chiang Mai’s silversmiths come from. They don’t work with silver anymore (unless it’s a special order). Instead, they work with aluminum, which is up to twenty times cheaper, and much easier to work with. The villagers pound out raw sheets of aluminum into amazing works of art, all by hand! The level of detail they are able to attain is incredible. After a short watch, we get back on the bikes and head to the nearby Silver Temple (which, again, is actually aluminum). The aluminum for this temple, a few million dollars’ worth, was funded entirely by the village!
From there, we biked to the center of the Old City for a place that Nooh claims has the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai. The meal was indeed very good – though it’s hard to think of a meal we had that we didn’t absolutely love! After lunch, we biked to the Nimman district, west of the Old City. If Chiang Mai has a hipster district, this is it. Just biking around reminded me a lot of an area like Ballard. Lots of hip shops, lots of coffee, lots of people walking around with tight shirts and big beards. A little taste of home! We stopped in one of the coffee shops for some Thai Iced Tea and homemade cake!
We rode for a little while, including up a fairly steep hill, to an area northwest of the Old City – the Huay Kaew Waterfall! We parked our bikes and did a short, but very steep, hike through the forest. After walking for just a few minutes we were completely surrounded by nature, even though we are still very close to the city! It’s dry season right now, so the waterfall is really more of a stream, but it’s still very beautiful and serene. It’s very hot by this point, and we’re all a little tired from our hike, so we take some time to rest by putting our feet in the water. We sit down and talk with Nooh for a little while, who is a very interesting person! He’s lived in Chiang Mai since 1994 after moving here from Bangkok. He’s never left the country in his whole life, and he’s thirty-seven years old! He’s very passionate about music, and used to play in a band…and at open mics. Nooh’s English is some of the best English from a local that we’ve heard in Chiang Mai, and he was entirely self-taught.
We hiked back down the trail and got back on the bikes to start making our way back to Nooh’s shop. We stopped one more time for yet another snack and drink. Nooh treated us to fruit smoothies and curry puffs – my personal favorite food I’ve had so far, which is really saying a lot! After our snack, we made our way back to Nooh’s place. Our tour that started at 7:45 lasted all the way until 3:30! A fun day full of exploring the city, tasty food, and great company!