I’ve been in Chiang Mai for a week now, walking around and looking at things in a lazy, good-natured way. I came from Bangkok on a freezingly cold overnight train and have been staying a bit out of the old city in a trendy neighbourhood called Nimmanheimen, where, amongst the conceptual haircuts of the university students on their motorbikes, I come off like a jolly middle-aged auntie pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose and doing her darndest to keep up with what the young people are up to these days. We all sit together in one of the countless coffee places, sipping our drinks and looking at our phones.
I’ve been to the wat at the top of the mountain and to the student art gallery at the university. I have been to the used bookshop and night markets in the old town, and to a beautiful vegetarian restaurant under a tree on the grounds of a nearby temple. I’m practicing my Thai number and about six basic phrases, getting the tones laughably wrong, and slowly getting to be friendly with a lady who sells fruit and with the staff of the local massage place down the road.
My favourite thing to eat has been the sour fermented pork sausage–I’ve had it on a stick from a street seller and stirfried over rice with egg and vegetables at a restaurant–and the crispy noodles in yellow curry I had at the temple restaurant yesterday. I have, at a minimum, one iced coffee and one iced tea with milk per day.
I have spent a lot of time alone. This guesthouse is beautiful but I feel quite isolated amongst the other guests, most of whom are Thai or Korean or Japanese. When I checked in last week the receptionist asked, with some concern, if I was traveling alone? With no friends? When I confirmed that to be the case, she said, ‘I’ll be your friend!’ and took me out for noodles and ice cream, over which we talked, quite seriously, about boys.
I did take a cooking class the other day, where I learned to make a couple of basic Thai dishes and met some very nice Western acquaintances: a Bulgarian couple taking a two-week massage course in town and a Polish violinist who is coming to meet me for lunch and a pedicure this afternoon. The American Thing has come up several times in my chats with other (Western) tourists; everyone wants to know why Americans love their guns so much. Everyone says ‘I hear it’s very beautiful there’ when I say I live in New Zealand.
I’ve been reading a lot and sleeping a lot, going to bed at seven or eight or nine every night. I’ve been very assiduous about sunscreen and insect repellant. I walk around in my sundress and comfortable shoes and look at things: the Buddhist shrines at every restaurant, the kids on their phones, the vintage shops and Japanese boutiques, the red trucks emblazoned with TIGER KINGDOM, the nail salons and massage places, the childrens’ dance competition at the Sunday walking street, the other tourists in their myriads, the fruit sellers and monks (also on their phones).
I do have plans to do some other activities before I train back to Bangkok and then south to Koh Tao for a week of diving–a bit more shopping, a day at an elephant conservation project, a visit to the World Insect museum–but on the whole I’m keeping things pretty cruisy. I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything, so I just walk around and look at things.