Train No 9 to Chiang Mai is the Rolls Royce of the State Railway of Thailand. Recently built by the Chinese it’s swish, clean and comfortable. The carriages are spotless and brightly lit, the sleeper bunks are broad, the sheets are crisp, the air conditioning is polar, the digital information screens are 21st century, the staff are polite and deferential. That said, there are a number of ways in which It doesn’t match India Rail despite the latter’s crowded carriages, noisy fellow travellers, onboard wildlife and ingrained grubbiness. Instead of a constant procession of chai wallahs and food sellers who hop on at each station with freshly prepared treats and meals, Thai Rail’s new train offers a rather sterile buffet car serving microwaved ready meals. We went for Thai green curry and fried egg. It was actually very tasty. And those glaring lights stay on all night, which is odd on a sleeper train. But it would be churlish to complain about the luxury when the 13 hour 700 klm journey, leaving Bangkok in the early evening, cost a little over £25 each.
Chiang Mai was refreshingly cool when we arrived soon after daybreak and negotiated a ride in a Rot Daang, the two bench red trucks that serve as the city’s public transport, to our hotel just inside the walls of the old town near the Thapae Gate.
The city is busy, not only because like us, travellers have abandoned the south and its rains for the north, but the Chinese New Year is only days away. The popularity of Chiang Mai with Chinese tourists is a relatively new phenomenon. Certainly we weren’t aware of it when we were last here. According to reports, one reason is the release in 2012 of Lost in Thailand, a film which broke the Chinese box office record previously set by Titanic. In the hotels, eating places and tourist sites Chinese groups and families far outnumber other visitors.
Many come to the city to experience the activities on offer in Chiang Mai and the surrounding foothills: we’d done the rafting, jungle trekking, elephant rides, hill tribe visits and cooking class when we last here nearly two decades ago and weren’t tempted by one that was new to us – the zip wire. Flight of the Gibbon was the original zip wire company and they offer a network of an astounding five kilometres of wires beneath the jungle canopy an hour away from Chiang Mai.
As for us, we settled for gentler pursuits. Inside its moat, and apart from its main thoroughfares, the old city is a mostly traffic free and tranquil place to wander and pass the day. You are never more than a few hundred yards from a wat and far less than that from a food stall or restaurant. Wat Phra Singh, the Lion Buddha, is the largest and most significant but there are scores of others. The joy is coming across them as you spend the morning wandering aimlessly around the lanes and alleyways, stopping for a beer or iced coffee or a browse at the produce at Somhet Market, as the whim takes you.
Lert Ros is a simple eating place on Soi 1, Thanon Ratchadamnoen, specialising in Isan food. The open kitchen is on the street where the cook stands, like a maestro before his instruments, behind a row of oil drum braziers filled with glowing charcoal and on which the speciality of the house, red tilapia, fresh from the city’s River Ping we were told, stuffed with lemongrass, is barbecued. The diners sit behind at wooden tables in the dim interior. We ate there twice; the fish was as good as it looked. With it we ate another Isan speciality, sour and spicy som tum salad, made with grated unripe green papaya and peanuts. Delicious.
At dusk on the square near the Thapae Gate the crowds gather to watch the street performers: a young girl in traditional dress performing a graceful dance; a fire dancer, a bare chested young man blowing blasts of fire up into the night sky; an old man with a drooping moustache and long grey hair singing and playing on a western drum kit and bizarrely and inexplicably, a long horned cow skull attached to the handlebars of the bicycle next to him. Sunday night is Sunday Walking Market night and the street artists give way to the professionals. On a large stage with a full lighting rig and sound system a singer and his band are backed by a troupe of synchronised dancers in white bejewelled hot pants. The traffic on Rachadamnoen Road gives way to the crowds who weave their way between the hundreds of hawker stalls that have appeared during the late afternoon: trinkets, handicrafts, clothes, souvenirs and, naturally, food, untold quantities of it.
In the morning we negotiated a shared Rot Daang to Wat Phra That Doi Sukhet, one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred sites, sitting high on Doi Sukhet, the jungle clad mountain that dominates Chiang Mai, and joined the crowds making their way up the final 306 steps to the golden chedi and a view out over the city and its airport far below us.
We stopped off on the way back to the city at Chiang Mai Zoo and spent the afternoon wandering about the lush grounds that sprawl up the forested slopes of Doi Sukhet, sought out the exotic bird life in the huge aviary fashioned in a canopied valley, fed the elephant, visited the very impressive aquarium and returned to the city in a Rot Daang with seven young bashful novice monks for a well-earned cold beer and iced coffee. That night we ate at the Night Bazaar – barbecued chicken, pad Thai, seafood noodles and, of course, papaya salad.
South, to Bangkok, and straight on to the Gulf of Thailand tomorrow