From Chiang Rai it was about 120 miles southwest to Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. As with Chiang Rai we’d been here in 2009 but so far out of town we never really got a sense of it. People rave about Chiang Mai so we wanted to give it another chance, scheduling five nights so we’d have plenty of time for hiking and exploring. To my surprise, as with Chiang Rai, I’m left a little puzzled; it just didn’t live up to its hype.
To give the city its due, it is a nice combination of old and new with a pleasant river running through it and lots of hiking and other adventure options in the area. There’s a walled-in old town in the center that was the capital of the old Lanna kingdom and its various successors from 1296 right until the 20th century. Amusingly “Chiang Mai” means new city, in contrast to the old capital of Chiang Rai. I don’t think of a 13th century city as exactly “new” but that’s the name and they’re sticking with it.
We did one day-long hike (Mark having recovered sufficiently to join me) that was … OK. Lonely Planet describes November to February as the best time to visit Chiang Mai but by the time of our visit the landscape was more than a little parched already. What was particularly annoying is that we didn’t start hiking until more than three hours after we were picked up; there were multiple stops to pick up others and more stops to wait for another truck and then a stop to … I don’t know why, but another stop.
Once we finally got going the hike was OK. There were three little waterfalls that were worthy of a swim or shower under the water flow. This was supposed to be one of the nicest day hikes available, though, recommended by our hotel, and it just wasn’t that good.
The other big deal in a city like this, of course, is the food. On our first day Mark observed that there was a well-regarded Indian restaurant on TripAdvisor, Rajdarbar, just two blocks from our hotel, so we figured we would try it. It couldn’t have been more nondescript, just a hole in the wall with a few tables, but the food was so damned good. We had lunch there every day we were in town except the day of the hike, trying different dishes and they were all just excellent. Low prices, cheap cold wine, and great food – that’s the kind of place we love.
Dinner was more hit-or-miss. One night we went to a Thai restaurant, Dash!, that catered to tourists but had good reviews. Terrible! Thai food for Westerners who are afraid of Thai spices. Another night we went to David’s Restaurant, a very upscale place that was rated #1 on TripAdvisor with perhaps the most highly skewed ratings I’ve ever seen; nearly 3,000 “Excellent” ratings compared to 255 “Very Good” and practically none below that. Naturally we went. Results? Meh. There was nothing bad (OK, the vegetables that were a substitute for potatoes were actually bad), but far from the excellence I’d expected. To be fair, it’s pretty unusual to find genuine fine dining this far from a major city, but especially considering the price it was disappointing. On the other hand, I didn’t write (or at least haven’t yet written) my own TripAdvisor review; I just didn’t want to be that nasty guy who says bad things about something everyone else raves about. David, the proprietor, makes a practice of stopping by your table to chat a bit and who wants to dis him once you’ve met him?
Chiang Mai’s culinary reputation was saved by Kat’s Kitchen, where service can be slow because Kat cooks everything herself. Another one of those utterly nondescript places that you’d never know about but for TripAdvisor reviews, but this one lived up to what we’d hoped for. And at literally one-fifth the price of David’s.
Otherwise we did what we do best in Thailand if we’re not at the beach. Mark got a lot of massages, mostly foot massages, since they’re cheap and usually pretty good. I’m working my way through some books on 16th and 17th century French history that are keeping me entertained. Oh, that and making plans for a spin through the U.S. coming up soon, when we leave Thailand. We’re going to do something we never, ever did when we lived there: we’re going to do a long road trip, in this case from Duluth to Key West, visiting friends along the way. That’s giving us something to get excited about!