Chiang Mai: The Quiet, Charming Soul of Thailand

As a Westerner with hardly any prior exposure to Asian culture, I couldn’t even imagine what my first venture there would be like. My decision to start with Thailand (as I’m guessing the Asian side of Turkey doesn’t count) was quite unceremonious: many people I knew were going, and I wanted in on the fun. While this normally isn’t enough to influence my travel destinations, I padded myself with recommendations and gladly waded into the culture shock that was Thailand.

Truth be told, Thailand was an emotional roller coaster. Aside from the fact that I got severe food poisoning en route (note to self: never take China Air), it was the first time in my travels when I truly felt like a fish out of water. This admittedly hurt my pride, as I consider myself the type of person who can walk into any situation and rapidly adapt. Here, I did not speak the language, I knew nothing of the customs, and I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I could not hide my insecurities behind a cool façade, because physically it was obvious that I did not belong. I was exposed, and while this was uncomfortable at first, the vulnerability ultimately did me a tremendous favor: it made me receptive to change. I had to accept not being in control, a challenging feat considering my neuroticism. I developed a hypersensitivity to people’s discomfort of being in a foreign country, which I previously took for granted. Sympathetic glances, clueless shrugs, and lopsided grins became valuable currency in making friends. Thailand taught me to go with the flow, to trust in locals’ recommendations and follow my gut feeling rather than a mindless Google search.

There was a stark difference between Northern and Southern Thailand. Koh Samui andPhuket were saturated with jaded inhabitants who spent their days shuttling herds of naïve tourists through overpriced, overcrowded tours. The traveler’s treasure, I believe, lies tucked away in the foothills of northern Thailand: Chiang Mai was the authentic experience I had come into this country craving. Quaint and laid-back, the city pulses with culture and creativity. It’s significantly cheaper, calmer, and the locals are friendly and polite. Amongst Chiang Mai’s gems are its majestic temples, the two scenic mountains that loom over the city, and the vibrant markets. My favorite memories included:

Chiang Mai (and all of Thailand, really) was teeming with wonderfully exotic creatures. I still remember quivering in terrified exhilaration as I rested my head against the muscular flank of a giant tiger, as well as the bubbling excitement of nuzzling a tiny, napping tiger cub. I can close my eyes and relive the carefree liberation of riding atop an elephant through the jungle, syncing my breathing to the rhythm of its heavy, pounding steps. Throughout my visit I encountered wild monkeys, an anaconda, and a mongoose. The experience of seeing and interacting with these beautiful, unfamiliar animals was simply unparalleled.

Visiting the Mae Sa Waterfall felt like I was walking through a secret chamber of Chiang Mai’s heart. Located in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, Mae Sa consists of a series of 8-10 tiered cascades. Much like the spirit of the city, it was serene and unassuming, yet alert and bustling all at once. I was shrouded by tranquility as I delved deeper into the woods, shedding a layer of tension with each step. The air was infused with the scent of rich, moist wood and fresh moss. Despite the worn-down trails, I barely encountered a soul – perhaps the winding paths are designed precisely to divert us into separate directions. With all urban distractions stripped away, I could finally sit still and revel in the intimacy of the moment.

I was entranced by the centuries-old Khantoke tradition of dinner accompanied by an exquisitely slow, classic Thai dance. Guests sat barefoot on cushions checkered across the floor of a large, open roofed space, and were served dinner on circular wooden trays. The show began shortly after, with the Fingernail Dance being the loveliest of them all. Smiling Thai women performed in a graceful, trance-like, almost eerie tempo, their movements guided by their long, golden prosthetic fingernails. The Sword Dance, in which two young men artfully balanced dozens of sharp knives across their bodies, was equally as hypnotizing. It was fascinating to watch each blade resting against nervous flesh, threatening to draw blood at any miscalculated move.

Chiang Mai houses one of the most spectacular Buddhist temples I visited in Thailand. The Doi Suthep temple, named after the mountain it sits 3,000 feet atop of, radiates a sanctity as brilliant as the gold it is constructed of. The 300-step climb up the famous Naga Serpent Staircase was absolutely worth the overwhelming sense of reverence that enveloped me once surrounded by the impeccable, precious Buddah statues, kneeling patiently in their shrines. Upon finally reaching the top, a fundamental truth dawned on me, as real and inevitable as the droplets of sweat trickling down my back. The fact that a human being from any cultural background can walk through the gates of this temple and feel connected to its rich spirituality is truly special. This carried a delightful irony: in a place so far away, foreign, and culturally distant, it was still possible to feel at home.