Levelling Up in Chiang Mai, Thailand

It’s time for another installment of travel tales from my Grand Adventure in Asia. Now that I’m no longer travelling, I plan to post these on alternate Wednesdays, interspersed with the same sort of mental-health posts and personal observations that I was writing before the trip. Mondays will continue to be about books and media (SF&F-focused, but not exclusively), as always. I’ll continue to post twice a week for now. Enjoy!

Our first stop in Thailand was Chiang Mai, the country’s second-biggest city. It’s in the northwest part of Thailand, among rolling hills that keep the temperatures down to something very reasonable for North Americans. This means it’s a popular destination, not only for North Americans but also for Chinese tourists, whose numbers have exploded recently due to cheap flights.

We found Chiang Mai to be more intense than Malaysia, in all sorts of ways. Because we’re geeks, we quickly started to talk about this as “levelling up” — a video-game term referring to mastering a level and moving on to the next. For example…

The Traffic

The stupa in front of our guesthouse

The stupa in front of our guesthouse

Our guesthouse, Kamala’s, was on a tiny side street. (Note on addresses: Non-main streets are known in Thailand as sois. Thai addresses give the nearest main road, then the number of the soi, because the sois themselves don’t have names, even though they may be large streets. So Kamala’s was on Chai Sriphum, Soi 1.) Across the soi was an old Buddhist stupa, a useful landmark since it was visible from several streets away.

The soi was lined with other guesthouses and the occasional Thai massage place, but it was short on restaurants. This turned out to be a problem because the traffic was utterly terrifying…

Don't be deceived by the canal down the middle -- this is the evil street!

Don’t be deceived by the canal down the middle — this is the evil street!

On our first day, we walked to the nearest proper road and discovered two solid lanes in each direction of cars and songthaews (red minibuses) and tuk-tuks (think golf carts acting as taxis – basically the same as auto-rickshaws in India, except with a deeper growl to their engines), with extra “lanes” of motorcycles squeezed in between and weaving in and out among the bigger vehicles. And there were no sidewalks, and no traffic lights immediately apparent, and a canal to cross in the middle.

The patio in front of our guesthouse

The patio and soi in front of our guesthouse

So we beat a hasty retreat, not feeling up to braving such a thing just yet. Our soi was reasonably quiet, but all the restaurants and the old part of the city lay across the evil road. Also on the other side of the road was the nearest ATM – another problem, because we’d changed our leftover Malaysian ringgit into Thai baht at the airport, but had forgotten to pull out more cash. We had barely enough for dinner that first night.

On our second day in Thailand, we got a little braver and ventured out a little further (remember what I said about levelling up? The whole point is that it’s gradual). We penetrated the tangle of sois around our guesthouse, found an ATM, crossed a busier street, got lost coming back, got successfully un-lost, and managed not to get run over.

(So how do you deal with being a pedestrian in Thailand? An ex-pat friend advises that you don’t. Taxis are cheaper than tuk-tuks for short trips and don’t mind doing them, even if it’s just to help you get to a destination on the other side of a busy road!)

The Ziplining

One of the reasons we chose to go to Chiang Mai is its reputation as an adventure-travel destination. Nearby activities include whitewater rafting, ziplining, riding and bathing with elephants, rock climbing, and trekking (multi-day hiking).

(That last one is all about “ethnic tourism”. Basically, the main attraction in this part of Thailand isn’t the scenery, but the remote villages, and their unusual cultural practices (and dress, and so on). While I’m all for learning about unusual cultural practices (hello, I write fantasy), the idea of parading past and gawking at some poor people just trying to live their lives is just too weird for me. I try to imagine it happening on some Aboriginal reserve in Canada, and I just can’t. Similarly, we made a point of skipping tourist-oriented cultural shows and museums. I suppose they’re a way to keep traditional arts and minority cultures alive or at least remembered, but until I could figure out where the line is for me, I resolved to give them all a miss.)

What I did do was ziplining.

Me leaping into the abyss. Photo credit goes to an anonymous fellow zipliner.

Me leaping into the abyss. Photo credit goes to an anonymous fellow zipliner.

Ever heard of it? It’s like a playground on steroids. You climb up to a wood platform built around a massive tree, from which a cable stretches out high above the forest floor to another tree. You’re wearing a harness, which is hooked to the cable. Then you push off the platform and zoom along the cable to the next platform. Rinse and repeat.

I’d never tried anything like this before, canopy walks notwithstanding, so I was pretty nervous. (My travelling companion decided he wasn’t even going to try it.) A mixup with the pickup time didn’t instill confidence. The bumpy ride out from Chiang Mai on sketchy roads to the jungle site didn’t help. Neither did learning that I was the only non-Chinese tourist there.

Me reaching the far side. Photo credit goes to my anonymous fellow zipliner.

Me reaching the far side. Photo credit goes to my anonymous fellow zipliner.

The two young men who accompanied our little group looked like young punks, but they were very friendly, had an air of great competence and attention to safety details, and showed sympathy to my knocking knees. I expect it wasn’t a coincidence that I was sent down the lines first out of our little group for nearly the whole way (except the very first zipline, where I hung back and made someone else do it!). Our guides also had an air of nonchalance about jumping off the platforms to zoom along the cables. One even had a habit of going upside down.

I found the experience quite scary but also thrilling. It was really quite safe — the harnesses are doubled up for redundancy, and one guy pushes you off from one platform while the other catches you at the far end. You sit in the harness as if for rock climbing, and you can hang on but it doesn’t really help anything (I hung on anyway). The platforms are crazy high, but there’s so much vegetation that you can’t see straight down to the forest floor anyway as you zoom along between the branches.

Bromeliad!

Bromeliad!

The emphasis was on adrenaline, not nature, so I don’t have much to report about the jungle flora and fauna. But while catching my breath on one of the platforms, I saw a bromeliad — a plant that grows on tree branches up in the canopy. I first learned about these many years ago from Terry Pratchett’s Diggers series, and never thought I’d get to see one.

Rappelling down from the platform

Rappelling down from the platform

For the final touch, we rappelled down a rope to the forest floor. Most of the gang seemed to find this the scariest, but I actually found it less so, maybe because I’d done it before while rock climbing. I can tell you that my legs were wobbly afterwards, though!

The Food

I can’t talk about Thailand without mentioning the food. We ate a lot of coconut-milk curries, very spicy and delicious (though thank goodness for the ubiquitous rice to take the edge off the heat!).

One night we splurged on a restaurant, Dash!, recommended by our well-travelled friends from the Cameron Highlands. The restaurant was a beautiful teak-wood building with a patio outside and romantic lighting throughout, and little cushioned nooks upstairs overlooking the candlelit patio below. Appetizers and entrees were European-style – shrimp wrapped in bacon, then tilapia (yum). Then when none of the desserts proved to be gluten-free, they offered to make a traditional Thai dessert – sliced banana in warm coconut milk (double yum). It was the first time I’d had this, but not the last!

Besides adventure tourism, Chiang Mai is also famous for its temples. In the next installment, I’ll talk about those and share more photos.

For another angle on my experiences with long-term travel, pop on over to Turtleduck Press, where I’m talking about some of the things I’ve learned that will stay with me for a long time.

Have you tried “levelling up” while travelling or elsewhere in real life? What was your experience?

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5 responses to “Levelling Up in Chiang Mai, Thailand

  1. Hi, I have actually been to Chiang Mai but many, many years ago (I don’t think ziplining had been invented then). Loved Thailand in general and loved the Thai food. I have a favorite Thai restaurant nearby my current home, run by a native Thai woman and her American pilot husband. It brings back the memories of a lush, poor/rich country that I was able to visit again at a later stage in life. You make me want to sign up for my next trip. I’ll pass on the ziplining.
    http://www.janiceheck.wordpress.com

  2. Janice, lucky you to be able to revisit the same places and see how they’ve changed (and how you’ve changed)! Interesting how Thai food evokes travel memories for you. I knew I liked the cuisine before I went — we’ll see if it has added layers for me now, too!

  3. Pingback: Jungles and Flights | My Southeast Asia Travels

  4. …dang you for making me want to go to an authentic Thai restaurant.

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