Chiang Mai

True to her word, Koi picked me up at Chiang Mai train station sometime around dawn, a good hour and a half before she’d normally have had to get up for work. Even if I hadn’t liked her before (and I quite liked her before), this would have strongly endeared her to me. She was driving a full-size 4-door Isuzu pickup truck, with a growly diesel engine. We sat half again as high as most of the rest of the car traffic, and it was easy to imagine ourselves piloting a HumVee through the back streets of Baghdad, on high alert for snipers. We stopped for coffee and croissants en route to my hotel (which Koi had booked for me, and which was the nicest hotel I had stayed at in Thailand to date). Large room, two thick and fluffy bath towels, silent aircon, and limitless hot water. Pricewise, it was a bit upscale from my typical Lonely Planet-esque digs, but well worth it for my planned few-day stay. I was able to check in early, around 930 am, and I immediately availed myself of a shower, testing (and affirming) their claim of limitless hot water. This put me in the mood for a mid-morning nap, after which I poked around my neighborhood, the Muslim Quarter and the adjacent Night Bazaar, which, despite itss name, was alive and kicking by midday.

Koi phoned me later on, suggesting supper at a riverside restaurant run by a friend of hers. Across the river, the city lights twinkled, reflecting in the calm waters. Accompanying us were Khae and three of her friends from Payap University: ChingChing, Sukie, and Fang. As far as I could ascertain, Khae’s friends had limited English at their disposal, an impression that was borne out by the fact that they sat at one end of the long table and spoke in Thai, while Koi and I chatted in English at the other end. This would turn out to be a reiteration of a lesson I seem to keep forgetting: don’t rely too strongly on first impressions!

As it turned out, by “few-day stay” turned into a nine-day marathon. It was lengthened thanks to a bit of stupidity on my part: after it proved impossible to secure a sleeper car on the return train to Bangkok, I opted for the second best choice, a VIP bus. A note: people in Thailand (and Japan too) customarily speak languages that have no “V” sound, so when they pronounce “VIP” it comes out sounding something like “Bwee-eye-pee”. I tried to explain that the “V” sound can be made by putting your top front teeth against your lower lip, and blowing air through the opening while making an “uh” sound in the throat. I might have well been explaining this in Swahili. Or Martian. So, back to the VIP bus. It turned out there wasn’t one of those available either. All that was left was a standard bus, which is comfy enough, I guess, but which does not have personal movie screens, gratis snacks, and an attentive hostess. There is a hostess, but she is not attentive. Khae went ahead and booked that for me, suggesting that we hold off paying for it until that evening; with luck, in the meantime, there might be a cancellation on the train. We had until 11pm to pay for the ticket. Not to telegraph the ending or anything, but at 11:09 Khae looked up from her winning UNO hand and let out the Thai equivalent of “aargh!”, correctly making the observation that the window had closed for paying for the bus ticket, and I had lost my booking. This created some difficulty: as originally scheduled, my Wednesday night bus would have gotten me to Bangkok on Thursday morning. I would have hustled over to the Cambodian embassy to obtain my visa, which would be ready early Friday, and by Friday evening (in a perfect world), I would have been drinking 50-cent Angkor draft beer at a Siem Reap sidewalk bar. Missing that bus meant that I would be stuck in Bangkok over the weekend awaiting my Cambodian visa on Monday, which didn’t appeal strongly, so I bagged the whole idea and wound up staying in Chiang Mai for an extra four days. This was no hardship whatsoever, as Chiang Mai is one of the loveliest places I have ever visited, and nobody has ever had more charming guides!

Tawan Court, Chiang Mai, $27 per night

 

Queen Sirikit Garden

 

Queen Sirikit Garden

 

Queen Sirikit Garden

 

Queen Sirikit Garden

 

Chiang Mai Zoo, up close and personal with the animals

 

ChingChing charms a baby elephant

 

The birdman of Chiang Mai

 

Young musician at Walking Street

 

The second half of the duet

 

One nigth only!

 

 

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