Snuggled into a green valley, Thailand’s “Rose of the North” got its name from the once underdeveloped urbanscape and clean air. While the rose has seen its heyday, 725 year old Chiang Mai has managed to retain its cultural and artistic heritage, despite the tourist tide that was bound to occur.
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, the first in the Lanna Kingdom, and unlike its sister town Chiang Rai, it has developed its tourist sector. These days, culture buffs may visit colorful hill tribes or rainforest-flanked stupas, and night owls can find plenty of opportunities to paint the town red.
In this northern city on the banks of the Ping River, modern condos, boutique hotels and entertainment venues are virtually flush against gilded dragons and mosaic- or jewel-encrusted temples.
But did Chiang Mai’s rumored tranquility still exist?
I was keen to find out what had happened with the hub of Northern Thailand, and set off on a trip along the Lanna trail from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai.
Collecting my ticket at Chiang Rai’s bus terminal 1
City pigeons were fluttering above idling coaches, cabbies were looking for stray travelers, and the loudspeaker announced a departure when I arrived at Chiang Rai’s bus terminal 1.
There were only a handful of Thai people waiting for their buses, no farangs except me, and everybody kept quiet. But the near-empty rows of seats in the waiting hall were not nearly as jaw-dropping as the numerous murals that depict life in Chiang Rai, hill tribes, and what there is to do and see in this fascinating town, such as the iconic white temple.
I enjoyed the absence of shouting ticket sellers and made my way towards GREENBUS’s ticket office, which is right next to a café and a large snack shop that sells Thai desserts, nibbly-dibblies and anti-vomiting Stugeron pills.
“Where are you going?” asked GREENBUS’s employee and handed me a questionnaire. I had to produce both my Bookaway voucher and passport, and once I’d filled in the questionnaire, she stapled a small slip with my seat number to it.
There were still a few minutes to kill, and unsure as to whether or not there’d be a toilet on the bus, I paid those three baht to leak the lizard and endured the reek of stale piss.
Then, a host came around the corner and announced loud and clear, “Chiang Mai kap. Mueang Chiang Mai kap.”
Checking in again
I followed the Thais to platform 13 and scanned the QR code. Travelers had to answer several personal questions such as, “What’s the purpose of your visit?” A spruced up male host must’ve been wondering why it took me so long to complete the online-form. In an effeminate voice, he said to me, “You can check in on the bus.”
There was an announcement in Thai. I understood “mai sabai,” which translates to “feel unwell,” and figured they were reminding people they were not supposed to travel if they were feeling unwell and would have to tell the staff about it.
The coach was half-empty and everybody was wearing a facemask. Without one, the guys wouldn’t have let anybody board the bus. Nobody was speaking or eating. Stickers on the windows indicated that eating and drinking was banned to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This must’ve been the reason why the host didn’t serve anything aside from refreshing towels, not even bottles of water.
I put my backpack in the overhead, stowed my laptop bag in front of me, and took a seat. The leather seats were comfy and reclinable. This was a so-called VIP Bus after all. The seats featured armrests that I could flip up, and there were footrests I could dismiss too when not in use. Also, there was a restroom, though the pissoir was positioned a bit low and the sink at the “right” height.
The driver turned the ignition at 4:30 pm on the dot and pulled out of station 1. It was totally quiet apart from the bus’s rattling sounds. The AC’s temperature felt just right; I didn’t need a hoodie. The bus stopped at interchange 2, waiting in vain for more passengers for six minutes.
Riding at twilight
I grabbed for the earbuds, listened to MP3, and watched the landscape roll past. Riding towards Phayao, we passed jewel-encrusted Buddhist sanctuaries and chromium spirit houses that glittered in the sun and radiated peace as much as Chiang Rai’s dense urban forest.
Cutting southwest to Chiang Mai on bumpy, curvy roads through woods and flooded, green-brown fields in the middle of nowhere, I spotted gilded pagodas and both white and golden Buddha statues hidden behind trees on top of hills.
Meanwhile, twilight fell. The sky turned to a shady purple dotted with minute glitter stars. Approaching Chiang Mai, I wasn’t prepared for having my socks blown off and failed to whip out my cell phone in time to capture a precious little Thai moment.
A vintage, run-down Cuba-style car with chromed, vivid turquoise blue colors but no windows, a wrecked body, and a damaged hood was chugging and sputtering down the road. The Land of Freedom, I thought to myself and liked the idea.
At 8 pm, the driver pulled into Chiang Mai’s bus terminal 3 after a 3.5-hour ride. I took it slowly and was the last person to get off the coach.
The moment I stepped off the bus, a local woman asked, “Songthaew?”
“Songthaew” sounded promising – the shared taxi pick-up trucks are usually the cheapest mode of transport in Thailand; a ride rarely costs more than ten baht. But since all other passengers had vanished into thin air already, I wasn’t sure whether that was going to be cheap and asked, “Tao rai kap?” (How much?)
“Nueng roi baht,” (100 baht) said the female taxi driver.
Whether money-wringing had taken hold with the arrival of tourists or whether delicate manners still existed among Chiang Mai’s citizens, I couldn’t tell. One thing was certain: the temple bells had yet to ruffle Chiang Mai’s quietude.