After experiencing such triumph and hardship in Siem Reap, we were excited yet nervous for the second destination of our two week Southeast Asia Adventure.
Thankfully, all our fears were for nothing. As soon as we arrived in Chiang Mai, we sensed a shift in the air that made us feel at once safe and welcome. The air was cleaner, quieter and full of promise and I could feel my body slowly release all the tension and anxiety that still lingered from Cambodia. This feeling of comfort would stay with us for our 5 days in this golden city in northern Thailand. Things were turning around.
Our first night in Chiang Mai was spent walking briskly through Old Town to the Night Market and finding a dinner spot. I was struck by number of foreign tourists walking around which made me feel so happy after months of living Penang with limited foreigner contact. While many people prefer “authentic” travel experiences with locals, I enjoy finding touristy areas that cater to my Western needs. This is because I already live in authentic local communities! Chiang Mai, a well-known haven for expats and digital nomads, perfectly suited my travel needs (and juice bar needs).
The next morning we left our guesthouse ready to explore! With a map in hand denoting a “Temple Walking Tour” through Old Town, we set off in the direction of our first temple, Wat Phra Singh. Ahead of us, we caught a golden glimmer in the sky, alerting us to the presence of something spectacular ahead. As we came closer, our eyes adjusted to the glare of golden dragons piercing the blue sky. We had arrived.
The exterior was like nothing I had ever seen before. Dripping with opulence and modesty all at once, the walls and ceilings begged to be gazed upon and revered. Removing our shoes with care, we draped scarves over our shoulders and crept through the massive open doors. Before us sat a magnificent golden Buddha with a serene smile on his face. We had no choice but to slowly move across the quiet carpet and approach this imposing yet calming figure. Leaving the prayer mats to the monks, we explored the sides of the temple including an alarmingly life-like statue of a monk.
Scattered around the temple grounds we found wise words pinned to trees, urging us to do better and be better. We lingered longer than necessary in the shade under the leafy branches, finding some respite from the unforgiving sun. It was almost noon and getting hot! We wandered away from the temple complex and towards an oasis in the steamy streets… a 7-Eleven. Armed with ice-cold water bottles slick with condensation, we set out in search of some food.
Eventually we rediscovered The Writer’s Club, a restaurant we had read about in our detailed map of Chiang Mai. We sat down on the open-aired terrace and immediately ordered iced drinks and pad thai. We had to try authentic pad thai during our first day in Thailand! And believe me, it was delicious.
With bellies full, we resumed the temple walking tour and walked down to Wat Pan Tao, an interesting temple made of teak wood. Inside, hundreds of ribbons dangled from the ceiling, promising to brush the tops of our heads in a loving embrace. We knelt in front of the golden Buddha, absorbing calmness and the scent of wood.
But the most magnificent temples were just to come. Rounding the corner, we followed the throngs of tourists into the vast complex of Wat Chedi Luang. The impressive golden facade of the viharn accosted our vision and drew us closer with eyes up and mouths agape. We removed our shoes next to the large white bodies of Naga’s, mythical snake like creatures standing guard around the staircase, and stepped inside. The deep red carpet caressed my aching feet as I walked in awe through the cavernous room. Sweat-stained worshippers knelt with their feet away from the Buddha as a sign of respect while tourists like myself snapped photos with little regard. Hopefully Buddha didn’t mind.
Upon leaving the temple we followed the crowds to an imposing brick structure that took my breath away. Standing at 60 meters tall, Wat Chedi Luang is an incredible temple even with its toppled spire from an earthquake in 1545. Rows of elephants stand guard around the upper level while more stone Nagas stand guard at the base. While walking around the enormous temple, we came upon a group of young monks who appeared to be going through some sort of group exercise involving blindfolds. It was refreshing to see these monks in robes of various shades of red laughing and having a fun time.
We also found shrines to each animal of the Chinese Zodiac. We made sure to provide an offering of flowers to our respective animals to bring good luck. I carefully placed a ribbon of flowers around the Dragon’s neck and said a prayer for luck and prosperity in the coming year. Carina left a similar offering to the Rabbit.
We spent a lot of time wandering around the temple complex, checked out the reclining Buddha and sat down just watching monks come and go. The heat was still unbearable so we devoured ice cream cones in a weak attempt to cool off. After a while we left, determined to find a juice bar for some additional nourishment. Blessedly we found Dada Cafe where I about jumped for joy when I saw Kombucha on the menu. My dear kombucha, it’s been way too long…
The cold juice was perfectly refreshing and held us over just enough to walk back to our guesthouse, shower, and find dinner. We ate at Ginger House, a swanky place literally next to our guesthouse. We dined on stuffed river fish with crispy basil to the smooth sounds of a Spanish guitar player. Random right?
After dinner we basically collapsed into bed, totally exhausted but at peace. We were in Thailand. Our troubles in Cambodia were only a distant memory. We were safe. I drank kombucha. Our trip had only just begun.
And tomorrow we were going to hang out with elephants! What could be better?