From Bustling Bangkok to a Warm, Weary Morning in Chiang Mai

Diary date: 9-10th October 2019 (days 8-9 so far).

Leaving Bangkok

After last night’s strange experience in Sukhumvit, we begin the next day by sorting out tickets to Chiang Mai. We play around with the idea of visiting Ayatthuya or Sukhothai on the way up north, but ultimately decide we’re not interested in all those extra transport hours. The only bus we could book leaves from Chakrabongse road, an area just off of Khaosan Road littered with transport agencies.

Reading back through my travel notes now, I wonder: can you imagine the impact COVID has had on these areas? The industry must be decimated, the tourist-centric streets empty, all those the livelihoods affected. Fuck. 

Our bus leaves at 8 pm. We hang around in our ill-fated party hostel for a while as S needs to do some interviews for the film/documentary he’s creating on Southeast Asia. The finished product is great, I’ll embed below:

Skipping ahead through an exceedingly uneventful day, we find ourselves at the sleeper bus pickup location. J is here, we all stock up on snacks for the journey. I leave my card in the ATM—I’m an idiot, I know —and just as I’m realising that I’ve walked off without it, already a guy is running up behind me to hand it back. Respect, Thailand 

The journey is… fairly bad. As it’s nighttime, I can’t see any of the surroundings except occasional streetlights. The journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is supposed to be beautiful on the train at daytime, so I think I would do that instead if I could change the past.

I can’t sleep for ages, and when I finally do it’s fleeting and intermittent. You know, that kind when you can’t accurately say for sure if you were ever asleep at all?

Arriving to a beautiful morning in Chiang Mai

It’s a breath of fresh air. It’s around 5 am, the city awakens languorously, rubbing its sleepy eyes. Not many people are about and delicate, illuminating sunshine—the kind you only get in first breaths of the morning—dances on the city.

We depart from the bus just at Chiang Mai centre’s perimeter. We witness the city’s strange square-shaped outer perimeter; the ancient city is nestled inside this squared area, with parts of wall, moat, and road surrounding the outside. The centre of Chiang Mai has a smaller population of only around 120,000 people, but the greater Chiang Mai metropolitan area comprises a much larger area, home to almost one million people.

Seeing somewhere ‘quiet’ is strange after Bangkok. It’s peaceful and picturesque. It’s different. There’s not a skyscraper in sight.

The morning, somehow, feels kind.

The dawning sun feels tender and inviting. Everything looks clear, as if putting on glasses for the first time.

There’s a certain kind of headspace that attends being awake at this hour while sleep-deprived—a profound unreality. You feel like you could do anything, and it wouldn’t ‘count’, because you’re not really, truly, awake. This time of the morning, first light, is strange regardless—like you’re part of a secret, seeing the world before anyone else rises. It’s the most gentle time of the day.

This Chiang Mai morning is almost enough to make me want to become an early riser. Almost.

These strange feelings are intensified by the fact that we’re in a completely new place, without expectation or understanding. Just a bit of optimism and excitement to see what this new city offers.

There’s also that strange feeling that attends being quickly transported from place to place, your time-space sense altered. The line between the first day ending and the next day beginning becomes blurred—as if you’ve skipped something but gained something too; existing between what’s happened and what’s about to happen. The previous day didn’t end, but the next one is beginning anew.

Basically, what I’m trying to say with all of this, is that not sleeping is a trip.

We book a hostel, but have to wait until the owner wakes up to respond to our booking and let us in. We sit on the outside seating and watch the world (not) go by. Birds’ chirping fills the sky and our ears, the sun is beautifully balanced,—not overbearingly hot, but revitalising and warm—and we’re all smiling. The moment is serene, and one I think I’ll never forget.

The view look out from Family Home
The view, looking out from Family Home

The owner eventually gets back at 8 am. A friendly guy named Joe welcomes us. He offers us an array of fresh produce—those tiny Thai bananas, rambutan, mangosteen, and guava (or known in Thai as farang, which is also what they call European foreigners, lol).

A picture of a half-peeled rambutan, a fruit I'd honestly never heard of before visiting Thailand
A half-peeled rambutan, peeking out from its shell, a fruit I’d honestly never heard of before visiting Thailand!

In my sleepy state, the rambutan fascinates me… It’s a lychee-like egg thing wrapped in a vibrant red, soft-spiked shell. They taste surprisingly amazing. For lack of better words, it’s like a squishy, sweet, uh, soft-boiled egg. Yeah. Tender, fleshy, and delicious; maybe grape-like?

Even though we’ve only booked in one night at a rate of £5, Joe treats us like family. He offers us shower and change facilities before we’ve even checked in, and he has a filter coffee machine set up with local coffee from Akha Ama. Delicious. We continue to sit outside, now with our fruit and coffee. Feelin’ good.

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret—every day, once a day, give yourself a little present…

The coffee hits my brain, and my tiredness subsides—now there’s just contentment. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world right now. I don’t know what it is about this morning, but everything just falls into the right place, interlocking like a puzzle.

Do you ever think about how rare these moments of true happiness are? Beyond mere contentment, when you feel like the subject of an all-encompassing force, making you smile silently, glad that certain pieces have fallen into the right spot to make you one of the rare few to experience true happiness on this day. There, in that moment, with the right conditions, you feel it. The puzzle completes.

I don’t know, it’s something hard to articulate—the mystery of those transcendently happy moments. What I do know, is that they always stick out in memory.

Everything in the world just feels right on this day.

Coffee always melts away sleep deprivation so pleasurably, hitting like some kind of low-grade speedball—but only for a short while. I’ll pay the price with a crash later.

Do I sound like I’m exaggerating? Yeah, maybe.

Where are we staying? What did we eat?

The hostel we stayed at is called Family Home in Chiang Mai, and if you’re ever in the area I can’t recommend it enough! It’s one of those places that you can feel at home, on the opposite side of the globe.

The vibe is just great. He recommends us a local vegetarian restaurant called Aum Vegetarian restaurant; we head there and eat the famed Khao soi, Thai milk tea, vegetable dumplings etc.

Amazing. It looks like the restaurant won the Travellers’ Choice award for 2020 on Tripadvisor, so my recommendation is vindicated. It’s cheap, too! Go here, and make sure you try Khao Soi. Probably my favourite food from all of my time in Southeast Asia (ok, except maybe Bahn Mi in Vietnam...)

A spread of food from Aum Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai: khao soi, spring rolls, Thai milk tea, jasmine rice...
A spread of food from Aum Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai: Khao soi, spring rolls, Thai milk tea, dumplings, smoothies, curry, blue butterfly pea rice… Just look at that!

Then we come back for a nap, head out after for some street food. A lady prepares a smoothie in front of me with mesmerising speed and skill—I choose mango, pineapple, and lime for my smoothie, and it only puts me back 30 Baht (~£0.74!)

We wander around, and take in some lovely sights:

A random temple we came across in Chiang Mai
A random temple we came across on the backstreets of Chiang Mai. So much hidden beauty here.

Later that evening, it’s coincidentally our host’s (Joe’s) birthday! He hosts a BBQ with all of his travelling guests and local Thai friends alike. We try to talk as much as possible, but the language barriers are a bit difficult. The Sangsom rum flows, and he’s even prepared grilled tofu for me instead of meat! What a legend, man.

We all get drunk and head into town, but the clubs here are an epileptic’s nightmare. Flashing lights in this place called ‘Zoe in Yellow’ are like nothing I’ve experienced before. It’s fun, but we decide to leave the group and head to a nearby Jazz bar instead, ‘The North Gate Jazz Co-op‘. Much nicer vibe in there.

Anyway, that’s it for today. A lovely day overall.

Vive Le Chiang Mai. Could see myself living in a place like this.

What does tomorrow have in store? Find out here. Just small a small teaser: we end up talking to some local monks about Brexit…

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