In Australia, we had become so used to hostels, that they had come to provide a measure of comfort for us. Wherever you went, you could find one, and chances were (with the exception of Byron Bay), you could get a room. In Thailand, (and presumably most of Asia,) they have ‘Guest Houses’, which are a step up from hostels and a step below hotels. Averaging between 10 and 30 dollars per night, they are a nice option for the budget conscious traveler who doesn’t wish to share a room with scores of other people, or pay the high price for rooms in Western hotel chains.
After spending one grueling afternoon wandering around the streets and alleys of the downtown ‘inner city’, we found a place that had exactly we were looking for: A pool. A nice, shady, covered pool. When it’s hot enough that even the Thais are sweating and heading for shade, it makes sense to do the same. With children, there is only so much sitting around an air-conditioned room you can do. Even if TV is up your alley, it’s all in Thai, and letting your children watch pirated DVD’s all day long is somewhat irresponsible, even if they are only 3 dollars each at the market.
Although the small hotel we had booked for our arrival in Chaing Mai was nice, it lacked the character we were looking for, and seemed to cater to those booking a room from somewhere other than Chiang Mai, most likely from small Travel cupboards in Bangkok. For the next part of our stay in Chiang Mai, we chose the Awana House, a guest house owned by a retired Dutch Farang and his Thai wife. We were starting to notice that there were a lot of older Western men with young Thai wives. I suppose it’s an arrangement that works for both sides, as the men get easy immigration into to Thailand, and the women get to play with the Farang’s large, ahem, bank account, but there’s a part of me that wonders if both sides are just using each other. I usually get a queasy feeling when I see these couples, the way you might from seeing a collage guy dating a sixteen-year-old.
At any rate, we were situated just a block from Tha Phae Gate on one of the little single lane side streets known as “Soi’s”, and we were right in the heart of the city. I suppose part of the allure of Chiang Mai comes from the fact that even in the city center, there are no buildings over two stories tall, other than the temple spires, and all of the shops and restaurants have a friendly ‘meet the owner’ kind of feel. One thing you hear about Thailand that we were finding to be true is the eternally friendly nature of everyone. They are quick to smile, and always greet with utmost respect and presence. This is probably due to the predominance of Buddhism, which teaches respect for all living things, and moment to moment awareness as a core part of the belief system.
Our first few days in Chiang Mai were spent just wandering the dense network of Soi’s that sprouted from the East wall of the inner city. The café’s and restaurants tucked into the little nooks were like little oasis’s standing out in the grime and mayhem of the city. One initial concern we had was the safety of the food. Warnings abound for world travellers. ‘Don’t eat the street food’ or ‘Don’t drink the water’, and while these rules may apply to India and Mexico, they certainly don’t apply to Thailand. Some of our best culinary experiences were had by eating what was served from a gritty cart at the side of the street.
We were fast getting hooked on the charm of the place, and we had barely begun to scratch the surface of what it had to offer. We also quickly learned that although small, the downtown core was difficult to walk with a four-year-old. However, there were no lack of Tuk Tuk’s willing to escort us from place to place. Indeed, it is hard to walk around downtown Chiang Mai without having a Tuk Tuk driver offer you a ride every twenty feet. We often took them up on these rides, finding the small three wheeled motorbikes a fast and easy way to get from point to point. If you could ignore the thick grey smoke pouring from their exhaust, and the less than friendly price for a ride, Tuk Tuk’s are a great way to travel. Otherwise, they are a novelty that only a tourist could love.
We were also quickly falling in love with many of the small shops located in the downtown core, most notably Gecko Books. Both Theresa and I have a fetish for books, and our children seem to have picked up on the habit as well. Hours were spent perusing the crowded aisles of the used book store, finding hidden treasures to sustain and entertain us, often followed by an epic meal in one of the many fine eating establishments, discovering amazing new dishes that we didn’t even know existed, like the legendary Khao Soi, a noodle dish swimming in the most amazing broth, served only in Northern Thailand. There was much to do and see, and we were only scratching the surface. I had the feeling that we were going to be staying in Thailand for a long, long time.