Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why Chiang Mai?

Suan Dok Gate, Chiang Mai, Thailand Being the de facto capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a usual (if not, necessary) stop for many fellow travelers exploring northern Thailand. Despite my not being the most outgoing and approachable person in Chiang Mai (and the entire planet), I do meet and get to know a lot of these fellow travelers whilst here. Almost inevitably, when I tell them the online nature of my job(s) and that I can choose to live anywhere I wanted to, the question gets asked: Why Chiang Mai?

Pretty valid inquiry, I think. First, to clarify, I did not just jump on the travel blogger bandwagon as many travel bloggers that came before me had chosen to live in Chiang Mai for several months. Yes, I have my own reasons. Second, while one of my online jobs did need me to be based in Chiang Mai, I can still argue that there was still a choice on my part as it was I who chose to hunt for freelance jobs in Chiang Mai.

So why Chiang Mai then? Of all the places I have visited in Asia, why did I choose to stay in Chiang Mai the longest and live here for several months? I contemplated on creating a PowerPoint™ presentation but it reminded me of my corporate life a little too much. (Zing?) Alright, on with it.

1. The Temperate Clime

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Kid playing at the mountain temple of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Having been born and raised in Manila, a city that's hot, humid and, for the better of the year, wet, I relish being in more temperate climes. Granted, Chiang Mai is still tropical tempered only by the low latitude and the moderate elevation. That still beats perpetually hot, humid and wet in my book. I first came to Chiang Mai during the cool, dry season when temperatures drop to around 15°C. The mild, nippy air did tingle my tropical senses. What is this city in face-meltingly warm Southeast Asia that has me wearing a jacket in the mornings and at night? It's Chiang Mai, young padawan. It's Chiang Mai.

2. Chock-full of activities and things to see

Zip Line Shenanigans, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Zip line shenanigans, anyone?

In Chiang Mai, you can: Train as an elephant mahout. Play with tigers. See a panda. Walk around a historic moat. (Yes, a moat!) Eat northern food. Learn to cook northern food. Shop at the night bazaar or at the weekly walking streets. Have a street-side massage. Temple yourself out. Do a day trip to Burma. Attend film festivals. Bathe under lush waterfalls. Trek into the jungle. Bike down the mountain. Raft through forest streams. Zipline above jungle canopy. Bungy jump. And the list for things to do in Chiang Mai does go on. More attractions are propping up, too, Chiang Mai being constantly developed for tourism. If you really wanted to and had the resources for it, not one day spent in Chiang Mai will be dull and boring.

3. Chiang Mai Creative City

3D Art on the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand
3D Art on the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Amazeballs, isn't it?

Speaking of things to see and do in Chiang Mai, those inclined towards the arts, as I like to pretend I am, will be glad to know that Chiang Mai is a Creative City, at least it aims to develop itself to be one. A creative city is a place "where cultural and creative activities are an integral part of the city's economic and social functioning." That means from time to time, there will be film festivals, cultural activities, and street art exhibits, like the 3D paining pictured above. It's that artsy-fartsy shiz that make me love Chiang Mai even more.

4. Cost of living: cheap to dirt cheap

Need I say more? I do? Alright. Here's a breakdown of my monthly bahtspenditures.

Item Thai Baht (THB) US Dollars (USD)
Rent (Bedroom-apartment with AC, fridge, hot shower, TV) 3,500 112
Utilities (Electricity, water, and Internet) 1,000 32
Food and other daily expenditures (130 Baht/day) 3,900 125
Motorbike rental 3,000 96
Allowance for home necessities and weekend funsies 1,600 51
TOTAL 13,000 416

That totals to 416 dollars US a month. Even in the Philippines, with equivalent being 17,400 Philippine pesos, I doubt I would be able to live as comfortably with that same amount. Precisely why digital nomads and travel bloggers come to this place. See, much of the rewards of travel blogging and most other digital nomad work are non-monetary. Surprise! It's the flexibility and location independence we trade for what could be a high-paying job back home. Thus, we tend to live in cities with a more than agreeable cost of living. Enter Chiang Mai. Well, hello there!

5. The northern Thai food

Northern Thai Sausages, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Northern Thai sausages. Yumbers.

We can all agree that I become a totally different traveler and writer when I begin to talk or write about food. Shall I mention my voracious hunt for the Lunch Lady in Saigon? As regards Chiang Mai and the whole of northern Thailand, I believe it is safe to say that if only for the food, I would spend the rest of my days in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And the best part is, one could eat a remarkably delicious meal in proper portions for 1 dollar US (or less!). A bowl of Khao Soi, 1 dollar. A plate of Pad Kra Pao, 1 dollar. A bowl of Penang Curry and a plate of rice, yes, all for 1 dollar. I shall stop here. Let me gush and salivate about northern Thai food in another post.

With Ms. Issara of Baan Khao Tork, Chiang Mai, Thialand
The kindest landlady, Ms. Issara of Baan Khao Tork
6. Easy to feel at home with the locals

The first place I had in Chiang Mai is located right in Chiang Mai backpacker central, that is, the northeast area of the old town. Baan Khao Tork is a guesthouse, night restaurant, and live music venue. The things I loved about it are: (1) there is actually no reception and staff are gone most of the day; (2) the rooms are on the second floor and with a balcony as common area; (3) live music most nights; (4) room rate lowered each week I stayed; (5) very close to Sompet market; and, (6) the kind elderly Thai lady that owns the place. I felt right at home. I have moved out that place since then but I never forgot the warmth and hospitality characteristic of the northern Thais.

Photos the Thai Way, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Group photos done the proper way, the Thai way
7. Active Couchsurfing community

Couchsurfing is not just a site for travelers to find a couch/floor/mattress/tub to stay for the night. It has become an easy way for travelers to get in touch with fellow travelers, expats, and locals in the city. Post a message to meet up, attend a gathering, organize a day trip, ask for travel tips and what have you. Thanks to some pioneering Couchsurfers in northern Thailand, the Chiang Mai Couchsurfing community is very much alive. They are actually the people I hang out with on a regular basis while in Chiang Mai. One day, we could be exploring sticky waterfalls. The following night, we could be snorting Burmese sneezing powder. My nose never felt so violated.

8. Lots of opportunities for expats

Digital Nomad Life, Thailand
Digital nomad-izing myself in Chiang Mai

Many travelers, even before Couchsurfers or travel bloggers got here, have chosen to stay and lay roots in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There is a huge expat community in this city. Many have established international restaurants from Mexican to Italian to Indian. Many have built business and generated employment for locals as well as fellow expats. Three of the freelance jobs I have/have had were jobs I found in Chiang Mai, all of which involve the international language/s I have a grasp of (English and/or Spanish). Like I said when I wrote about out how I can afford travel long-term, I figured out which of my skills are marketable on the road. With a bit of patient searching, I found some good bread and, yes, butter.

9. Close to the Himalayas

Doi Lankah Hills, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Lush hills of Doi Lankah in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai lies at the foot of one of northern Thailand's many mountains, Doi Suthep. If you look at a map, you can actually trace the mountains starting from Doi Suthep north to Myanmar's Shan Mountains, further north to Yunnan's highland regions, and further north into Tibet and the rest of the Himalayas. Yes, the mountains of northern Thailand are considered the south-easternmost bastions of the Himalayas. I have seen the Himalayas in India, the Himalayas in Nepal, and the Himalayas in China. It is a rather sweet idea that I now live in a city that is somehow connected to the mountains I both stand in awe of and hold dearly in my mushy traveler heart.

10. The perfect combination of laidback and exciting

Tha Pae Gate, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The center of Chiang Mai at its most lively night, Sunday night at the walking street market

Finally, of all the places I have visited thus far, Chiang Mai is the only city that had that right combination of laidback provincial charm, something I longed for having lived my entire life in urban chaos, and big city excitement, something which, let's face it, I cannot live without. Bangkok and Saigon is all big city excitement and chaos. Vientiane and Hue is urban laidback without (much) excitement. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is hot, sticky and expensive. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these cities. They're just not for me.

Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is perfect in its dosage. I could be driving in rush hour traffic this hour and the next hour I see paddy fields and rolling hills framed beautifully by the dissipating monsoon clouds set aglow by the setting sun. I could be boozing it up with friends one night and the next night I could be sitting in a balcony, a lager in my hand, listening to live music from the bar downstairs. Chiang Mai and I are such a perfect fit that it will take considerable effort and a damn good reason to tear myself away and finally bid farewell.

Have I summed up Chiang Mai's charms? If given the choice, which city would you like to live in? Why?

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