Last week, I spent a very enjoyable four-day break in Chiang Mai, Thailand's fast-developing second city. It gave me the opportunity to catch up with a very close friend who has lived up there for several years. And let's face it - it's always a pleasure to get out of Bangkok for a few days.
This was probably my fifth or sixth visit to The Rose of the North. My only regret is that I don't get up there more often. And with competition rife among the low-cost airlines, you can now do the return flight for as little as 3,000 baht from Bangkok. Now that's what I call a travel bargain.
I'll put my hands up and admit I've been somewhat unkind to Chiang Mai in past blogs. On past visits, I've usually had the job of playing tour guide to my ageing parents and a couple of their friends. It's never easy to move a group of elderly folk around a sizeable Asian city without having every tout and unofficial tour operator descending on you from miles around. And Chiang Mai certainly has its share of locals all wanting to pile you into whatever vehicle they have and take you all on a tour of the sights. In the area around the Thae Pae gate, these guys hang around on literally every street corner. Run out of shampoo, and a simple walk from your hotel to the nearby convenience store becomes an exercise in running the gauntlet. You avoid eye contact, you shake your head and you just keep on walking.
I realize now that this has always been my problem with Chiang Mai and what's made me develop a rather negative attitude towards the place. I've simply spent far too much time hanging around the tacky tourist area near the old moat. My pal Andy summed it up perfectly
"I never venture into that part of town. There's no need to. That area of Chiang Mai to me is what lower Sukhumwit in Bangkok is to you. You only go when you have absolutely no other choice"
He was right. Every other business in that central area seems to offer foot massages, hill-tribe treks, tailor-made tours or quirky ethnic clothing. Some places even offer a combination of all things under one roof. Chiang Mai can be tremendously dispiriting if all you fancy is to be left alone for a quiet afternoon stroll and have zero interest in being taken to elephant training camps, tropical aviaries or exotic monkey shows.
The restaurants in the central moat area - and oh boy, is there is an abundance of great places to eat - do a very commendable job of fusing an authentic Thai food menu with western favorites such as a full English breakfast and sausage and mash, but where there are finicky, budget-conscious tourists, there are always weary waitresses. I ate at several restaurants in the tourist ghetto and while I wouldn't describe the service in any of them as ‘unfriendly' I wasn't exactly rushing back to the hotel to log on to Trip Advisor to tell the world about them either.
But let's leave the tourists to their baggy linen pants and their Ping River rafting experiences and move into the Chiang Mai suburbs because it's in the Chiang Mai suburbs that ‘an idyllic lifestyle' begins to take on a whole new meaning.
My pal Andy has spent five years looking for the perfect Chiang Mai apartment, and he's moved digs several times in the process. When he invited me over for a gander at his new condo, overlooking the Doi Suthep mountain, I got a feeling he wouldn't be going anywhere soon. Forget the good-sized bedroom, the spacious, comfortable lounge and the fitted kitchen, all in a well-appointed complex with its own gym and swimming pool - it's that view from the window that would sell the place for even the most jaded real estate agent. I stood in the kitchen and looked out at the mountain tops hidden by mist and angry grey clouds and said "how could you ever tire of that view?"
Andy's a funny bugger at times though. It's almost as if he doesn't appreciate what he has. I know familiarity breeds contempt and all that but when Andy said that life even in the midst of nature's glorious bounty can still be routine and sometimes lonely, I had to remind him that there were probably ten million people in the UK who would gladly change places with him in a heartbeat.
Over the four days in Chiang Mai I'm not ashamed to say I became very envious of Andy and his lifestyle. Whether it was zipping around on his motorcycle or navigating the sois and sub-sois on his trusty mountain bike, he always had something to do, somewhere to go or someone to see. Out in his own little Chiang Mai suburb, far from the maddening crowds, Andy knew every decent restaurant and every special lunch menu. We sipped ice cold lattes in one of Chiang Mai's numerous modern coffee shops and to get the heart pumping, we ambled half-way up Doi Suthep in the midday sun, as only mad dogs and Englishmen do - much to the amusement of the Thais as they drove past in their hired taxis. What a perfect life you could lead in Chiang Mai.
I delved deeper into Andy's exercise and health regime and found out that walking up Doi Suthep was something of a daily ritual. Sometimes he makes the journey alone and other times a newly-made friend will accompany him on the steep ascent. After a couple of hours of vigorous power-walking and a quick check of the stopwatch, Andy will take lunch at the local temple and a meal consisting of brown rice and something else disgustingly healthy, all washed down with bottled water and fruit juice. Listening to him go on about how he'd embraced a lifestyle far removed from the one he led in Bangkok, made me feel more and more out of condition.
"You need to take care of your health Phil and start moving around a bit my lad. Too many hours spent sitting at that computer can't be good for you"
Andy was right again. Damn those reformed couch potatoes!
Since I've returned to Bangkok, I've spent considerable time surfing Chiang Mai property websites. I get the notion that the grass could well be greener on the other side. It would be a few years before I made the move but it's certainly a goal to aim for. I'm now trying to get my wife to buy into the idea of ‘life up't north' and to her credit, she's keen on the idea without exactly gushing with enthusiasm. So far so good.
Many Bangkok expats still view Chiang Mai as a bit of a backwater. It can't be much fun having to travel all the way to Bangkok just to see a western movie or get a decent pizza. However, Chiang Mai has developed beyond recognition in the last decade. Out on the motorcycle with Andy opened my eyes to that aspect. Chiang Mai has all the bars, restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets and shopping malls you could ever need. We even poked our nose into a couple of IT malls and they were both on a par with anything you would see in the Bangkok suburbs. So no worries about getting a broken computer repaired.
Best of all, Chiang Mai has a wonderful relaxed feel to it. It's a place that begs you to slow down and take things easier and you start to chill out the moment you land at the airport. Chiang Mai might well have an airport that boasts the word ‘international' in its name, but it's still distinctly ‘toy-town'. You pull your baggage off a lazy, slow-moving carousel, you saunter through a deserted arrivals area and there's not a single soul pulling at your sleeve and barking ‘taxi! taxi!" In fact once you've paid the very reasonable airport taxi fee at the official kiosk, it's quite a job to hunt down the actual taxi drivers. Eventually you find them - sitting under a shady tree playing checkers or enjoying a chat and a smoke. I had a lady drive me into town and she wouldn't hear of me struggling to get my bag out of the trunk once we'd arrived at the hotel. What a perfect start to any four-day break.
If only teaching salaries in Chiang Mai matched those on offer in the capital and there was an abundance of teaching work available. Chiang Mai would be the ultimate paradise in which to live and work.