Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chiang Mai, Old and New

23 January 2014 - Part 1

Chiang Mai is a lovely city, dating back to 1296 CE (or so).  It's a very interesting city, and absolutely worth exploring.

The old part of Chiang Mai was originally surrounded by walls and moats.  On the maps of the area, you can see the square that marks this part of the city.  Parts of the wall are in varying states of disrepair, even to the point of ruin, but other parts have been repaired and look much as they did when first built over 700 years ago.

And of course there are beautiful gates, fountains in the wide moats, koi swimming around in the water, and lovely parks along the walls.  Including the ubiquitous food carts that seem to constitute Thai fast food.

The roads mostly circumscribe the old city, although there are old narrow roads that wind through old Chiang Mai.  But they aren't always wide enough for two cars to pass, the area is congested with pedestrians and vendors, and somehow it's faster to just drive on the modern boulevards that surround the old city.  

So with all of these streets going over or past the moats, plus occasional rivers or canals or whatever, there are bridges everywhere.  And the bridges need guardians to keep out demons, or evil spirits, or bad karma, or what have you.  Each bridge seems to have its own animal - there's the bridge of the foo lions, then the bridge of the elephants, then maybe the bridge of the deer.  Or rabbits.  (Good guardians, aren't they?)  Each bridge is unique, and it really makes for interesting walking.

Chiang Mai is located in the hills of northern Thailand, so nights are cold and days are mild right now in the winter, although even the days are cool compared to Bangkok, which is tropical.  (Summer in both locales is fairly hot and humid.)  Everyone in Bangkok told us to be prepared for the cold, and most evenings find us wearing sweaters.

With the hills, the climate, the forests, the rivers, this area became home to many temples and holy places.  In some ways, Chiang Mai is the spiritual center of Thailand, or at least it seems that way to us travellers.  And the area has a sense of quiet and peace that is unlike other parts of Thailand, almost similar to Ubud in Bali.  Almost.  But not quite.  Some places, like Ubud, have an almost tangible spirituality that you really can feel.  Sfat (Safed), in Israel, is like that. You can feel the wisdom of sages and holy people emanating in the air.  Ubud is like that.  Chiang Mai is similar, but maybe not as strong.  Or not as tangible.  But definitely there.

Anyway, so both the old and new cities are full of temples and shrines, with all kinds of interesting guardians at the gates, or little architectural details, or lovely statues of Buddhas.  And of course monks, young and old - learned teachers and acolytes, dressed in colors from yellow to ochre to tangerine.  Walking, riding buses, even riding trains.  (The train waiting room has a special area for monks roped off.  And the airport has a Buddhist praying room.)

Check out the photo with the close-up of the shrine figurines - we have an entire group of dancing people!  Love it!!!!

Even the street signs reflect the architecture of the town.

Of course, all this holiness and history isn't everything Chiang Mai is known for - this is the home of the Night Bazaar.  Shopping continues during the day - there are stores with windows full of strands of semi-precious gems and beads and pearls.  Shops full of silk and cashmere.  Other shops full of antique fabrics and traditional clothing.  Or jewelry stores full of 98% silver jewelry sold by weight.  (Normal sterling is 92.5% silver.)  Traditional Thai arts and crafts such as handmade silk umbrellas. 
This place is shopping heaven.  Despite my best efforts, I haven't abstained.

So, I have one more day of Chiang Mai for the blog, and then our flight back to Bangkok.  We're here, things are fine, it's 11 PM, and you'll just have to wait until tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment