Chiang Mai is my favorite place in Thailand, and one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia so far. There is just something about the atmosphere that gave the city a quaint and relaxed vibe. I’ll try to articulate some of the qualities I like about it.
- It’s not too small, neither too big: you can walk from one end to the other in about 30 minutes. An easy place to bicycle around.
- The central part is surrounded by a moat, which makes it more scenic
- On every corner you will find a temple; it gives the city a spiritual vibe
- There are many expats here, and as a result it seems that Couchsurfing events have many people that show up
- Vegetarian food is easy to find (yay for me!)
My girlfriend Cherry had volunteered at this wat about one year earlier. You can read about her experience on her blog. Cherry suggested I go visit the head teacher, Arjan Chareon (arjan means “teacher”), and also one of her favorite students, Netipong. I had to take this special opportunity!
I walk to a school on the temple grounds, and I see a student; I ask him if he knows Arjan Chareon. He does. I ask him if I can meet him. He walks me to a meeting room where Arjan Chareon is in a meeting with other people. After his meeting, Arjan Chareon comes to meet with me.
At this point, I’m wondering how the meeting will go. He seems like a busy guy, will he appreciate me coming in just to talk to him because my girlfriend had volunteered here one year earlier?
He ends up being warm and friendly, excited to have a connection with one of his past volunteers. I start by asking him if he remembers Cherry, who had volunteered here last year. He excitedly replied, “Oh yes, Cheri, she is the small girl!” (he pronounces her name as “sher-e”, and makes the gesture of a short person). I laugh, and I reply that I am her boyfriend, here on my own journey. For half an hour, we make small chit chat; I tell him about my ten day silent meditation retreat, and then needing to put the teachings into practice immediately after the retreat, when I had all my valuables stolen in Bangkok. He talks about a special amulet he carries with him, and having almost lost it a few times; but it always ended up coming back to him. He admits he had been sad when he thought he has lost it. We all have our attachments.
He then takes me on a tour of the school, showing me the many awards won over the years – the most recent award of being recognized as the top school in the region. The princess herself came to present this award, a high honor.
I then ask Arjan Chareon where Netipong is, and he tells me that is the boy who I had talked to when entering the school! What are the chances the first person I talked to entering the school is Cherry’s favorite student? I bid Arjan Chareon goodbye, and then I talk to Netipong for a bit. I ask him about his studies, what he wishes to do in the future. Netipong replies that he is almost done with his primary schooling, and wants to study English when he goes to university. I make more small talk with him, but he’s shy. We end our conversation as he has to leave to continue his errands.
Afterwards I walk to the temple, and go inside to meditate for a bit in front of a large golden Buddha statue, feeling grateful to have met Arjan Chareon and Netipong.
I open my eyes after my brief meditation. It feels surreal that I am here, where Cherry had been one year earlier. Meeting people she had met when she had volunteered here last year, retracing her footsteps around Chiang Mai, now living the moments I had vicariously lived through Cherry a year earlier.
I spend the remainder of my time exploring other parts of Chiang Mai.
An adventurous activity I’ve been wanting to try: ziplining. The whole experience went by fairly quickly, and it was well-run and very safe.
Rather than just having us zip from tree to tree, they keep it interesting by adding some obstacles here and there, like in the video below.
Another adventure was getting a massage from the “Women’s Prison Massage”. You don’t actually go to a women’s prison to get a massage, but a nice massage facility. The women are prisoners who are given the opportunity to become a certified masseuse when they leave prison. It’s nice that they are actually offering these women a new skill that they can be useful after leaving prison, and I hope it does improve their lives.
I received a one-hour massage for 180 baht ($6). I highly recommend it – it was a professional and pleasant experience.
And then every Sunday there was a huge night market, with lots of cheap goods and good food. I found the scene below quite charming, a police officer strumming a guitar, a woman singing, collecting donations for children in need. Little things like this gave Chiang Mai a certain friendly, welcoming charm.
Of all the cities and places I visited so far, I felt that Chiang Mai would be a spot I could see myself living in for a few months. Nice people, vegetarian restaurants, yoga studios, temples literally on every street corner, natural beauty nearby, cheap massages, $1 mango smoothies. Wait, why am I not living in Chiang Mai?
Volunteering for two weeks at New Life Foundation, where I will be doing organic farming, but it turns out to be much more.