Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city. It bustles with activity across its extended sprawl. Everywhere you look someone is busy with something. Selling something, building something, cooking something, bringing something somewhere (on a motorbike, in a pick up, with their Mercedes). And whatever they’re doing, they’re usually in a big hurry to do it.
For all of this hustle and bustle, and all of the ways Chiang Mai is so different from home, Brendan and I found ourselves frequently remarking how easy life was for us in this Thai city. Bangkok had already revealed that not all Asian urban experiences are alike. While hectic and crowded, the Bangkok streets were downright orderly compared to what we had experienced in India’s cities, for example.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bangkok traffic was no walk in the park.
I’d liken it to a Friday evening around Christmas time in Midtown Manhattan: a frustrating but somehow festive jam, where horns blare frequently, but not incessantly; where pushy drivers may block the box, but at least manage to stay on the correct side of the road. None of this can be said of the Diwali traffic we witnessed in New Delhi and Jaipur…
But if Bangkok struck us as similar to a relatively frenetic version of NYC, Chiang Mai was like the Asian version of downtown D.C. in August: hot as blazes, and hectic in spurts, but all in all a relatively calm and easy place to be.
Coco and Phoebe riding in one of the red pick ups that make up most of Chiang Mai’s taxi fleet.
Biking was a little white knuckle, but not nearly as hair-raising as in Delhi.
It wasn’t just the low crowds that had us feeling so free and easy in Chiang Mai. It was also the fact that the city is a pretty tourist-friendly place. It’s a real city with real people doing real things, no doubt. But Chiang Mai does count tourism as one of its major industries. And that means it caters to tourists. Big time.
Throughout the winding lanes of the Old City, interspersed among historic and wondrously beautiful wats…
…are countless massage parlors, t-shirt shops, coffee cafes, and smoothies places, all of which seemed to be frequented almost entirely by Western and Chinese tourists.
Like this place, which I loved, but which very easily could have been in downtown Bethesda.
Across the street from the juice place, where I got probably the best massage of my life.
Even outside the Old City, it was rare for us to meet anyone who didn’t speak English. The signs and menus were all translated, even at noodle stalls on the street. And we were able to find a decent glass of wine with little to no effort. Something that definitely was not the case in India (except, thankfully, at the Koch’s house!).
Chiang Mai is also rife with 4 and 5 star Western style hotels whose high walls and deep pools offer a respite from the heat and real life of the city. One of those oasis accommodations was, thanks to the generosity of GooGoo and Bapa, very much enjoyed by our crew.
To be honest (and as much as we all loved the pool, smoothies, and Pinot Gris), Brendan and I had mixed feelings about how pervasively “touristy” we found things in Chiang Mai. You see, before we left on the trip, we envisioned these 10 months not as an elongated tourist vacation, but as an opportunity to really see the world, to understand how people outside our comfortable, affluent Washington DC bubble actually live. With our decision to devote almost a year to our travels, we thought for sure we had invested enough time to move beyond Big Site, Check the Box tourism and have a truly authentic travel experience.
See how hopeful (and somewhat naive) we were?
Once the trip began, however, we have often felt that we’ve brought our Western affluence bubble with us: “seeing” the life of others through contrived tourist experiences, with the safety of our air conditioned tourist van, and the refreshing pool of our hotel or rented house, never too far away. Our misgivings about that dynamic have been present throughout the trip. But they came into much sharper focus during our time in Chiang Mai.
Perhaps this was because of just how touristy the city and its environs can be….
Like the Hmong village we visited where the little Hmong children quickly threw traditional Hmong garb over their Nike t-shirts when we arrived, leaving their older brothers and sisters inside, glued to their gaming systems and satellite tv stations.
I couldn’t bear to even take pictures of this tourist ploy, cute as those kids were. I did snap this one of our team, some more willing to participate in the pic than others.
Or the Bor San “village” we visited. Billed as a place where Thai craftswomen handmake Chiang Mai’s traditional umbrellas, the “village” in fact consists almost entirely of a large and expensive shop selling said umbrellas with a lame exhibit of the umbrella making techniques set up out back.
The Epcot Center feel of the place was completed by the 3-D cartoon depictions of the ladies who make the umbrellas.
William was appropriately skeptical that these ladies, rather than a factory in China, actually crafted these crafts.
Or maybe our misgivings had a different origin. Maybe they deepened in Chiang Mai because our arrival in the city felt like it marked the beginning of the end of the trip. (We come back to the States in just 6 weeks.) With the end so close, it seems natural to wonder: Are we spending these 10 months as well as we should be? Are we doing enough to open our eyes to the world? Or have we reverted too often to what is comfortable and easily available, like umbrellas in Chiang Mai?
Now in Laos, I ask myself these questions as I sit by the infinity pool in a villa outside Luang Prabang (again thanks to the amazing grandparents), listening to the women inside (whose names I don’t know) prepare our Western style omelets, watching men who may be their husbands set off to fish the Mekong, and realizing I know very little about the real life of the people I’m observing from my chaise lounge.
It’s not the most positive realization I’ve had on this trip. But even as I experience it, I decide that I am okay with how these ten months are unfolding.
For one thing, it’s hard to feel that badly when this is your postmorning view.
The “10 Steps to Zen” that Brendan recently shared with the family (during lunch in tourist trap, but very delicious Chiang Mai cafe) have also come in pretty handy.
To name a few…
No regrets. If our ambition had been to really understand another culture or place, we should have planned a very different trip. We should have picked one village, one city, or even one country and spent our ten months living real life in that place. For better or worse, that’s not the trip we chose. That choice means we haven’t had the time, repetition, and lived experience required to truly know a place or people. But it also means we have been able to ride camels in Morocco, surf point breaks in Portugal, eat tapas at 10pm every night in Seville, climb the foothills of the Himalayas for a view of Mount Everest, ice climb glaciers in New Zealand, dive on the Great Barrier Reef, bike through rice paddies in Thailand, jump from a high tree into a Laotian waterfall, and so on… And there’s really nothing to regret about that.
Practice Acceptance. For me, today, that means, accepting that there is nothing at all wrong with comforting your kids (or yourself) with things familiar from home when sometimes 10 months on the road starts to feel a bit much.
Phoebe opted not to try some of the street food the rest of us samples (and loved).
And was understandably overjoyed when we found orange Popsicles at the Chiang Mai Zoo.
Give Up Comparing. Sure Brendan and I have felt a little lame the times we have chosen upscale accommodations over more authentic homestays or hostels. Something we did in India as well as SE Asia. Many of the parents in the other family travel blogs we read brag about living in places like Thailand on less than 10 dollars a day. That’s something we haven’t come close to achieving. We could spend a lot of time asking why we aren’t as strong/pure/centered as those rugged families seem to be. Or we could accept (there’s that word again) that for us it is no sin, and in fact pretty smart, to recognize that our Irish genes need a pool to retreat to when staying in a city where the average temperature is 98 degrees. We can even relish the joy that these pools have given us and our children.
Don’t Judge. Stop judging yourself, and others, for focusing their tourist efforts on a city’s Trip Advisor Top 10. After all, there’s usually a good reason these places are so popular. Like their jaw dropping beauty…
Wat Doi Suthep. Trip Advisor’s number one thing to do for Chiang Mai, perched in the hills above the city.
Or the fact that these sites offer the opportunity and privilege to experience something you could never do or see back home, which of course is the point of tourism.
Goo Goo and the kids respectfully pointing their feet away from the Buddha.
(((Backtracking for a moment… also good to accept that if you drag your family to enough Buddhist Temples, there may come a point where the grandparents are the only ones still paying attention.)))
As the Buddha knew we would eventually realize, one benefit of not judging is that it lets you see the good in an experience you might otherwise dismiss as useless.
Take that Hmong village. We realized afterward that it actually provided pretty good fodder for discussing the complicated balance between cultural exploitation and economic opportunity. We all felt uncomfortable seeing those cute little Hmong kids paraded around in their cute little costumes for Americans, like us, to take pictures. On the other hand, many Hmong young people have been able to attend university and make a better life for themselves and their families because of the tourists, like us, streaming into their villages and buying cute little Hmong outfits to take home to their grandkids. Is it wrong to exploit a proud culture’s heritage by buying Hmong souvenirs to bring home to Chevy Chase? Or is it the ultimate Western elitism to look down on this village’s economic enterprise?
A final Zen step bears mention: Put fear aside. As we’ve traveled the world, all of us have tried to practice this step when we do get the chance to get off the beaten path, to do something that is not the easy tourist option.
A Chiang Mai case in point. On a day that Brendan took the big kids rock climbing outside the city (an option not many tourists elect)….
I had the choice to take Phoebe to a touristy craft market that we had already visited and I knew would be a fun and easy option.
Instead, on advice of some wonderful friends who know the city well, we ventured to a local food market, outside the Old City, where the Chiang Mai people do their daily shopping and, as we learned, you really don’t hear a lot of English.
Apprehensive as the tuk tuk dropped us off, we were almost immediately comforted by this scene…
Young monks gathering their morning alms.
We followed the monks for awhile then, with our fears (mostly) allayed, we ventured off to explore. Seeing live frogs and baby turtles being sold for supper occasioned some apprehension.
As did a little spill P took on her scooter.
But, overall, I think we were both very glad for the adventure.
One thought on “Zen Tourism, Chiang Mai Style”
I really enjoyed reading this and through your experiences and reflections, we are all learning. This one about accepting your choices was particularly helpful. Every single one of those Buddha lessons can be part of our own daily lives. Thanks!