DM and MM's Thailand 2005 Trip Diary

Day 3 - Chiang Mai: Wat Doi Suthep

Tuesday, 12 April, 2005

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18:53

We are back in our hotel, exhausted after a long day of sightseeing and shopping.

We rose at 06:30 after a decent sleep, oblivious to the noise of the night market taking place right outside our widow and just one floor down. We had breakfast compliments of the hotel. It was a large buffet including traditional western breakfast items - cereal, toast, sausages, eggs, croissants, pancakes, etc - plus some Asian items including fried rice, fried noodles with the traditional four chili condiments, tropical fruits - and even a fully stocked salad bar with various types of salad components and dressings.

After a selection involving muesli (very good, not too sweet), ham and fried egg on a croissant, and some rice and noodles, followed by pawpaw in yoghurt, we headed out for the day.

Our first order of business was securing the services of a tuk-tuk to take us out to Chiang Mai University, from where we planned to get a songthaew up the mountain of Doi Suthep to Wat Doi Suthep. Before walking a block, we had hailed a tuk-tuk and negotiated a fare of 70 baht for the trip to the university, but not before having to show the driver on our map and confirming it on an old map he pulled out of an array of pamphlets and maps stuffed into the roof over his head.

The driver took off and we enjoyed our first tuk-tuk ride through the alternately narrow or crowded streets of Chiang Mai. After going a few blocks he stopped and hailed a fellow tuk-tuk driver who was waiting beside his own vehicle for a fare. A rapid-fire exchange of Thai and the production of the driver's map again seemed to indicate that our driver wasn't sure where to go...

21:45

We've returned after another evening foray to the night market.

Returning to this morning, the tuk-tuk driver eventually sorted out our destination and took us out to Chiang Mai University. Along the way, we got our first glimpse of the city wall around the old town area as he took us through it to get there. We were expecting to possibly get wet as people celebrating Songkran a day early threw water at us, but we must have been a bit early in the morning.

At the university we found a row of songthaews and some enquiries in halting Thai determined that we were in the right place for a trip up the mountain to Wat Doi Suthep. A driver instructed us to take a seat on a small padded bench by the side of the road. As we waited, we read a sign written in broken English indicating the songthaew would leave when at least eight passengers were ready. As we were the only ones there, and it was barely 07:30, we became concerned that we'd have to wait ages.

My Thai even with a phrasebook wasn't up to making sensible enquiries about how long we might have to wait, as I seemed to keep getting the pronunciation so wrong that they had no idea what I was saying, so I tried saying we wanted to go soon. This prompted an offer to take us immediately and wait for an hour to bring us back, at a price of 200 baht each. Since the normal fare was 30 baht, and we weren't sure an hour would be enough time for us to sightsee once up there, we felt inclined to wait - a decision made more palatable as a man and a young girl arrived and joined the waiting passengers, making four of us.

We crossed the road to sit and wait in shade out of the already searing sun, and after only a few more minutes another songthaew arrived from the town and a bunch more people negotiated passage up the mountains.

We all piled into the songthaew - nine of us in the back and two in the front passenger seat next to the driver. The drive up Doi Suthep mountain was a little faster and more furious than would be considered safe back home, but despite some laxness about staying on the one side of the road as we wound our way up steep curves and switchbacks, we arrived in one piece. For much of the 15 minute journey we were tailed by a family on a motorcycle, dad driving, mum holding on behind, and daughter - about seven years old - sitting between dad and the handlebars. The girl gave a cute and broad smile as we played peekaboo out the back of the songthaew around the tight curves of the road.

Dropped at Wat Doi Suthep, we were assaulted by an array of food vendors and market stalls selling all manner of craftwork and other goods. The first order of business though was scaling the 306 step Naga staircase to the Wat from the road. The stairs led straight up to a peak above the road, flanked by a pair of long dragon-like snakes that cascaded down to form walls next to the steps, with the tails at the top and the heads below.

At several places up the steps there were groups of two or three children, aged about three to eight, dressed in colourful local costumes. As we walked past they called out in English word to the effect of, "Hello, take my photo, I have no money" - clearly looking for donations for posing for photos for tourists. One of the older children even had a baby in her care. The parents were presumably around somewhere, but nowhere in evidence.


GameBoy Monks
Once atop the staircase, we followed a sign asking "Foreigne this wa please" to pay 30 baht each admission for non-Buddhists. Then we wandered around the wat, which was essentially a cluster of temple buildings in a large courtyard. On the southern side was a monastery, where we saw several orange-robed monks. Some were just boys, and were seated playing with a GameBoy! Others roamed the wat and were a common sight as we looked around, surrounded by hundreds of other tourists and locals, mostly Thais but several Europeans conspicuous too.


Bells
We were careful to observe the proper etiquette, removing our shoes before entering any temple buildings, sitting on the floor inside with our feet pointed away from any monks or Buddha images, and keeping our head lower than those of the Buddhas. Photography was allowed freely though, so we snapped away, securing memories of the wondrous decorations and artwork around the wat.

There were of course many Buddhas, most covered with gold, some placed in separate smaller temples around the main central temple. The architecture was all amazing, with ornately decorated and colourful rooves. After circling the central temple, we finally went in. It was an open courtyard inside, square, with the inside walls lined with Buddhas. At each central points of each of the four sides was a shrine area containing a larger Buddha and various devices of worship such as burning incense (which made the air thick with heady smoke), burning oil in lamp-like containers, candles, flowers stuck in boxes of sand, and so on.


Chedi of Wat Doi Suthep
In the centre of it all was a stupendous golden chedi (the Thai word for a stupa, or pagoda-like tower) - a tower of gold rising in round tiers to a spire 24 metres overhead. It was surrounded by a square fence of stone, around which was a fenced walkway with accessways at each corner. Devout Buddhists walked around this pathway clockwise, carrying flowers (unopened poppy blossoms they looked like - perhaps lotus flowers?) between their joined palms. The chedi was coated in a solid layer of gold, glistening radiantly in the sunshine, making an incredible sight.

We wandered around dazed by the richness of the decorations and the density of the crowds of people who had come variously to sightsee or to pray. I performed a couple of the devotions, pouring lamp oil on to burning wicks in bowls and pouring fragrant water over a small golden chedi about a metre high, sitting atop a small table.

Leaving the wat, we headed back down the steps and stopped to buy some souvenirs for Michelle's co-workers in the small market at the base of the long staircase. I bought a snack of grilled pork balls from a vendor, who grilled them in front of me while I waited - delicious. Michelle wanted some fruit and we found a vendor selling bags of fresh sliced fruit for 10 baht each. Michelle got rockmelon and I got guava. The guava came with a small bag of crystals, which Michelle urged me to dip a piece of guava into. I did so, and couldn't recognise the taste at first, as it was an odd combination of sensations. Michelle then informed me that it would be salt, sugar, and chili powder mixed together. It was interesting and I had a few more pieces of fruit with it, but decided I preferred the fruit plain. Michelle also tried some of the plain guava and liked that so we shared it.

We also bought a bottle of water (10 baht) to stave of dehydration in the sapping heat and humidity. Although Wat Doi Suthep was at an altitude of over 1,600 metres, well above Chiang Mai, and I'd expected it to be considerably cooler up there, it was still very hot.

The next job was securing a ride back down the mountain to Chiang Mai. After a shorter wait inside a songthaew, we managed to get a full load, including three crammed into the front passenger seat, and held on tight for the breakneck hurtle down the mountain, paying even less heed to lane lines and the central dividing line than we did going up. That songthaew dropped us at Chiang Mai Zoo (not far from the university) and we had to board another for our trip the rest of the way to Wat Phra Sing in the middle of town.

This trip saw the first serious water throwing of Songkran hit us in the back of the bus, and we were mostly wet by the time we got to Wat Phra Sing. The driver took us by a rather roundabout "scenic" route, dropping off all the other passengers along the way, but at least we got there.


Wat Phra Sing
In contrast to the crowd at Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Sing was mostly empty and very peaceful, except for a tannoy announcing various things in Thai from the roof of central temple in the complex. We availed ourselves of an extremely nice and clean public toilet in the wat; we had to take our shoes off and use supplied slippers within the toilet building! Then we took a very leisurely stroll around the wat grounds, which had lots of greenery - large trees in stands cut by pathways. Monks were working on some crafts in the courtyard area under the trees, and dormitories for them were at the back of the complex. We saw some working on paintings, carvings, and one doing something with enormous long bamboo poles.

We bought more water from a vendor inside the wat grounds - 5 baht and icy cold, very refreshing as we drank it in the shade. It was interesting to see that there were food and drink vendors plying their trade on the wat grounds. It seemed that it was a very public place.

Then we went into a small side temple, then the main temple, where a huge gold Buddha was flanked by dozens of smaller ones. In the smaller temple a monk sat near the front reading a glossy magazine; in the main temple an old monk sat looking very regal and important on a low chair, watching everyone who came in.

Leaving the wat, we walked east along Phra Sing Rd. We stopped soon after at the Cat Cafe - another outdoor eatery a bit like the Family Place, but with only four or five tables in a small pebbled space by the footpath. The kitchen was a shed next to the tables. Michelle had vege fried rice while I had basil fried chicken and rice. Again, the food was very good and very cheap; 90 baht total including two bottles of water.


Stalls near Tha Phae Gate
Then I bundled my camera up in a plastic bag as we headed on down the road to Tha Phae Gate and the Songkran water throwing madness. By now it was after 15:00 and we were walking along a street market that was in the closing down stages. Michelle found some bracelets and bought one for her mother, with turquoise chunks strung together.

At Tha Phae Gate, we saw full on Songkran madness as people lined the streets, throwing buckets full of water as passing cars and motorbikes. We crossed the road and passed through the gate itself (an access gate in the old city wall) and found ourselves in a large open area full of a concert area in the process of being set up, as well as numerous food stalls. Having just eaten, we didn't feel like trying any of the delicious looking food on offer, except that I couldn't go past a stall offering fried crispy squid, prawns, minnows, as well as grasshoppers, crickets (two kinds!), whirligig beetles, silkworms, and "worms" which looked a bit like skinny witchetty grubs.


Mmm!
I paid 10 baht for a small bag of crickets, which the lady sprayed with some sort of thin sauce from an atomiser before handing over. We went over to a seating area consisting of low circular tables on reed matting, at which people were sitting down, directly on the matting. I tried spearing a cricket with the supplied bamboo skewer and eating it. It was not unpleasant, the main sensations being crunchiness and saltiness - essentially it was like potato chips. Except the legs were a bit spiky. I finished off the bag, which also contained an errant whirligig beetle, bigger and blacker. It was also harder and crunchier, but otherwise similar to the crickets.

In the nearby market stalls, Michelle found some bags like the ones she'd wanted to buy last night, only to find it was the same lady running the stall, as she recognised us! We bought two bags - one for Michelle and one for her mother.

Leaving Tha Phae gate, we passed some tourist police who handed out free bottles of iced green tea, which we accepted, before crossing the road which was full of traffic moving at a crawl through the crowd of people tossing water about. We walked back to our hotel, getting thoroughly wet in the process as we passed other groups of youths, children, and some adults on the streets armed variously with buckets, water guns, and hoses. We accepted it all in good cheer and everyone was having a great time of it. The water also helped us cool down in the heat, so it was actually quite welcome.


Songkran water throwing
Michelle found a shop selling scarves and other clothing on the way, and went in to browse. She was concerned about dripping water inside the shop, but the friendly woman who worked there explained in acceptable English that it was okay, and only to be expected at this time of year. The scarves cost only 50 baht each, so Michelle bought several for use as gifts. Closer to our hotel, and dripping wet and worried about her leather shoes, Michelle bought a pair of cheap rubber sandals from an early opening night market stall.

We arrived back at the hotel around 17:30. After a quick rinse in the shower I went for a swim in the pool, then had a real shower. Too worn out to move, we rested until 19:00, then left again for another evening out.

This time we hastened to the food bazaar area and looked for a hill tribe market marked nearby on our map, but it was difficult to locate and we guessed it was probably a day market only. So we looked for food, but decided to work up an appetite first by getting our feet massaged for half an hour for 50 baht each at a stall in the bazaar. Wow, it felt great on our tired feet and legs. As we sat there enjoying the massage, we traded Thai phrasebook phrases with an American couple seated next to us, and caused great amusement with our foot-masseuses by trying out our Thai on them.

Feet feeling wonderful, we stopped in an open air seafood restaurant, sitting down just as rain began spitting from the thundery sky. We were quickly moved under cover by a waiter and ordered a vegetable egg noodle soup for Michelle and chili fried shrimp with rice for me, with a fresh coconut cut open for juice as a drink. It was all delicious again, although this time the seafood dish cost 200 baht so the bill was much more than any previous meal.

Wanting some dessert, I tried pointing at something that may have been sticky rice at a stall which had lots of colourful gelatinous blobs in bowls. I was determined to try sticky rice as I'd read in our guidebook that it was a specialty of northern Thailand, but I hadn't seen any up to now. Despite a lack of communication, I ended up with a bowl of something - but not sticky rice. It was mixed coloured blobs that may have been fruit or might have been some weird sort of jelly thing, all mixed with sugar and ice. It was cool and sweet, and not bad. Michelle bought a sliced green mango from the same stall that had given us a free mangosteen to try last night. We both enjoyed that - it was like an apple or pear in texture, not at all sloppy like a ripe mango, and a little tart but also slightly sweet and with a definite flavour of mango to it. Very nice - I must look to see if we can find green mangos back home anywhere.

Then we headed home and, exhausted, turned in for the night.


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