Chiang Mai

Wow. So it has been a week since I left the UK for Thailand I can barely describe everything that has happened. Long haul flights, airport layovers, jet lag sleep deprivation and constant change have given the last seven days a hallucinatory quality. Arriving in Bangkok after dark felt like stepping in to Bladerunner. Every single second of my three days in that city was saturated with intense sights and sounds. Bangkok looks more like the future than any city I’ve journeyed to. A monstrous entity bristling with glass and steel towers. And down at their roots on the blistering hot streets is an indescribable density of human life. Every inch of space is crushed with street hawkers, food stalls, tuk tuks, mopeds like flocking birds, cripples and filthy children preying over begging bowls, trendy hipster kids, immaculate office workers, McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC and the other brands of hyper-capitalism, christian missionaries, orange robbed monks meditating on smartphones. And traffic. Traffic like you can not believe. Like the city sounded an evacuation alarm and never switched it off. All broiling under the stark sun. Anything that isn’t a condo tower, skyscraper or shopping mall is crumbling in architectural decay. Gaping cavities reveal gangs of grease covered men smashing together engines, ranks of women going blind over sewing machines. Stuttering towers of reclaimed circuit boards and computer monitors. The gaunt murderous eyes of two hundred feral cats. And then another Starbucks. As the sun sets the side alleys of Sala Daeng are populated with squads of costumed bar girls and their pimps, touting laser printed catalogues of possible sexual services, and affluent college students in pristine uniforms navigating from one high end coffee bar to another. Hippie back packers and tattooed ex-pats all standing out in the crowd. And me, the flaneur pedestrian writer in a hat, soaking every sight in.

Three days and I escaped to Chiang Mai, my destination for this journey.

North, and high in the mountains, Chiang Mai is a few degrees less overheated than Bangkok. It was the capital of its own kingdom as late as 1774, and nominally independent until 1939. It’s famed for its unique character, great culture, and increasingly world famous as a traveller destination. The old town sits within a wide square moat, and its Eastern quarter is dedicated to western backpackers and a growing cohort of Chinese tourists. Kikie’s guest house furnished me with a private room for two nights while I hunted an apartment for my stay in the city. When I imagined Chiang Mai, the old town was what I imagined. Narrow winding lanes, local street cafes and a bunch of backpacker friendly nightspots. Chang beer is famous among travellers who come to the city, as is a local brew whisky which can be bought by the flask almost anywhere.

But my expectations of Chiang Mai were defeated on my second day when I ventured in to Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman. The western distract of Chiang Mai outside the old walls and along the Nimmanhaemin road has become home in the last five years to what can best be described as a community of globetrotting yuppies, reinforced by Thailands own ever more prosperous creative class. Nimman is a mecca of coffee bars, international cuisine, boutique residences, galleries, craft shops and more. I’m typing this in Punspace, a co-working space where twenty other western and thai young professionals are writing, coding, designing and the other kinds of work a Macbook and internet connection allows you to do anywhere. My thumbprint has just been taken so I can access the space, its good seating and free coffee, 24/7.

I’m partly here to think and write about the phenomena of the “digital nomad”, professionals who can work from anywhere, so choose locations that, like Nimman, offer a high standard of living at a very low cost. But for the moment I’m just enjoying the experience of the place. I’m full of ice tea because the restaurant I had lunch in kept giving free refills and it was the best ice tea I have ever tasted. But I realised something today, as I walked Nimman after settling in to my new apartment. I don’t know quite what I expected of Chiang Mai. But I didn’t expect to be living within two minutes walk of – not just one – but two Apple computer stores. And on that thought I’m going to track down the Mexican restaurant I passed earlier.

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