Unwinding in Chiang Mai

Anna’s birthday coincided with a conference in Thailand so we decided to spoil ourselves

Around Anna’s birthday, June 27, there is quite often an international ophthalmology conference so we generally try to make the most of the situation and turn it into a bit of an overseas trip to help celebrate. Last year the conference was in the Netherlands so we celebrated her birthday in the Hague and the previous year we were in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the time, however, that was just a South American getaway before we moved back to Singapore from the US. This year there was an invite-only conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand so that would be where we were to spend her birthday.
We would be flying out on Wednesday morning, but this story really begins on the Tuesday.

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Judith and Felix’s “shorts and tie” wedding at our local pub

Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Every time we go away we always have an issue that needs to be sorted — What to do with Kermit. Our friends, Judith and Felix, love Kermit, particularly Judith, to the extent that our dog was the ring-bearer at their wedding (right) and they looked after her while we were in Thailand again earlier in the year. Judith offered to do so again when I was chatting to her at the pub about this trip, but I just thought she must’ve been drunk because the offer came as a bit of a surprise, particularly after what they went through last time. Our dog isn’t high-maintenance, but she can be a handful and over the course of that four days she was with Judith and Felix, Kermit rolled in a decomposing rat again, pissed on their bed, and farted relentlessly. Let’s hope things go a bit smoother this time.

Anna had had a busy few days leading up to this trip; on the previous Thursday she found out she would be flying out to Seoul, South Korea the following night for work and returning to Singapore on Sunday night. Monday and Tuesday were just regular days for her, but she had some functions to attend after work on Tuesday evening and would want to be around when I dropped the dog and its stuff with Judith and Felix. That and the fact that Anna knew exactly what I needed to bring to their place in order to look after Kermit so it was around 10:00pm by the time we took her there. Our dog has a weird way of coping with new environments so the first step was to just run around their apartment maniacally with a toy in her mouth, flailing over her eyes until she ran face-first into a step. Again, good luck, guys.
We went home and packed, I gave Anna her birthday presents because they were too big for her suitcase, and then it was time for bed. We had an early start the next day.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018
We’re not used to going to bed before midnight so we both had trouble getting to sleep, but we managed to get up at 6:00am, get dressed, do an idiot-check to see if we had forgotten anything, and then we were on our way to Changi Airport for our 8:35am flight. We were both looking forward to this trip because neither of us had been to Chiang Mai before, but we always love being in the northern areas of South-East Asia — Hanoi, in northern Vietnam, is a place we both love, especially the climate, the culture, and the food so we expected similar from Chiang Mai. Maybe Chiang Mai might be like Luang Prabang in Laos or perhaps Yangon, Myanmar, other northern areas we’ve really enjoyed, even if there was some unpleasantness involved in those trips. Time would tell.

When we arrived at the airport we checked in, went to the Krisflyer Lounge for a bit of breakfast and went to the boarding gate when it was time. It was at this time we discovered there was a large primary school group on the same flight as us and those kids were loud. When I was in primary school, our camps involved staying in a dormitory in the middle of nowhere, not an overseas adventure, but it looked like we were going to be sharing this flight with at least 30 screaming kids aged around seven or eight years old. We had purposely booked the emergency row, but had been allocated the seats that didn’t recline. Combine this factor with the screaming kids and the next three hours could be quite painful. Time for one of those industrial-strength sleeping pills that I’m rather partial to at moments like this…

I woke up to an announcement over the intercom saying to put our seats in the upright position in preparation for our landing at Chiang Mai International Airport. Well I didn’t have to worry about that, just wipe my drool off the tray-table before folding it up, clear my head, and prepare for a few days of relaxing in Chiang Mai:

Chiang Mai, sometimes written as “Chiengmai” or “Chiangmai”, is the largest city in northern Thailand. It is the capital of Chiang Mai Province and was a former capital of the kingdom of Lan Na(1296–1768), which later became the Kingdom of Chiang Mai, a tributary state of Siam from 1774 to 1899, and finally the seat of a princely rulers until 1939. It is 700 km (435 mi) north of Bangkok near the highest mountains in the country. The city sits astride the Ping River, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River.

Chiang Mai means “New City” and was so named because it became the new capital of Lan Na when it was founded in 1296, succeeding Chiang Rai, the former capital founded in 1262.

In early–December 2017, Chiang Mai was awarded the UNESCO title of Creative City. In 2015, Chiang Mai was on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage inscription. Chiang Mai was one of two tourist destinations in Thailand on TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of “25 Best Destinations in the World”, where it stands at number 24.

While officially the city (thesaban nakhon, “city municipality”) of Chiang Mai only covers most parts of the Mueang Chiang Mai District with a population of 160,000, the city’s sprawl extends into several neighboring districts. The Chiang Mai metropolitan area has a population of nearly one million people, more than half the total of Chiang Mai Province.

The conference was being held at the Four Seasons Resort, located about a 30-minute taxi ride on the other side of town, which was also where we were going to be staying so we went through immigration, got in a cab and proceeded to make the journey toward what would be our home for the following three nights.
We finally arrived at the resort and it was absolutely breathtaking, but I didn’t even know the half of it. I knew Anna wanted to get a little decadent for her birthday and our accommodation is usually covered at conferences, however, what I didn’t realise was that Anna had paid a substantial amount extra to be put up in a private Pool Villa, essentially the top private accommodation they offer. Let’s take a look around the resort first:

That all looks extremely nice and picturesque, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. After we had checked in we were both put in the back of a golf buggy and driven to our villa, and that’s where the real surprise came. This place was larger than our apartment back in Singapore and was beyond luxurious. I’ll try to give you somewhat of a guided tour:

We unpacked, freshened up, I had a shower and donned a horrendous robe, and then it was time for lunch. We ordered room service and ate in our outdoor dining area, gorging ourselves on spring rolls, noodles, in particular ones cooked in ‘kaeng,’ a type of curry not made with coconut milk that is a northern specialty, as well as mango sticky rice for dessert, all accompanied by a bucket of beers. Not containing coconut oil is a big deal when it comes to ordering food for me, otherwise I can’t really make any plans for the next day that involve leaving the vicinity of the bathroom. Fortunately, I could eat as much of these curry noodles as I wanted and they were delicious.

Chiang Mai is an hour behind Singapore, thus it was still relatively early by the time we finished lunch so Anna decided to treat herself to a 90-minute massage and spa treatment. Me? Just more beers and reading a book while laying next to the pool until she came back.
When she returned, we took a walk around the Four Seasons Resort and it is a really beautiful place. We then came back to our villa and Anna started looking up restaurants for where she’d like to have her birthday dinner. When she eventually found one we got changed, called a cab, and made the trek back into town. There was just one thing that bothered me — Would anyone notice the GIGANTIC bite on my head? Seriously, to me it looked like I was slowly but surely developing into a unicorn. I was reasonably certain that it was from a mosquito, but when I ran my fingers over it, the bite seemed similar in size to one of those cysts that people claim to have had burst and of which had spiders crawl out or were filled with tiny eggs. But I just had to deal with it, Wednesday wasn’t about me, it was Anna’s birthday and I just had to suck it up, even if I was beginning to look like someone who had decided not to leave Pripyat after the Chernobyl meltdown.

We arrived at the restaurant and had a great dinner and then decided to pull up a stool in a bar and watch the FIFA World Cup. I’m not a soccer fan by any stretch of the imagination, but watching the World Cup in a bar is always a bit of fun for the atmosphere alone, even I get into the games. In fact, I’m even in a World Cup tipping competition at Coq & Balls, my local pub in Singapore. On the cards that night was Germany vs. South Korea and it was pretty clear that Germany, the reigning champion from the 2014 FIFA World Cup, was the overwhelming favourite. We went to a dive bar with writing all over the walls, ordered some beers, sat back and watched what should’ve been a whitewash. Only it wasn’t. South Korea held Germany scoreless the entire game and then scored two quick goals of their own at the very end for a 2-0 upset, eliminating Germany from the World Cup. The entire bar erupted, not because it was full of Koreans, but because everyone enjoys an upset win. Anna and myself were watching on in disbelief until an unsettling realisation dawned on us; we had left Kermit in the care of a German soccer fan. Judith is from Switzerland, however, Felix, the remaining 50% of the duo taking care of our dog, is from Germany and has been getting right into the World Cup, even becoming quite vocal during Germany’s matches. I sent Felix a message expressing our condolences for Germany’s elimination in the hope that he wouldn’t kill our dog and then I messaged Judith to see how he had handled the situation. She replied that she and Felix had watched the game at the pub and that he had been swearing profusely as the game went on, storming off in silence at the game’s conclusion, but he’d be fine and so would Kermit. That sure was a relief, but it was time to start making our way home, as Anna had to get up reasonably early the next morning for the conference. We embarked on the half-hour journey home and when we arrived and had wifi again I was greeted with a text:

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If you knew Judith, you would understand that the “destroyer” and “beast” comments were just sarcasm, in fact she downplayed the whole thing. We would later find out that Kermit indeed pissed on their bed again. TWICE! A very unhappy Felix had taken the wet sheets off the bed, dried the mattress and was putting on a fitted sheet. He had tucked in one side and walked around the bed to tuck in the opposite corner, but as he was doing so, Kermit ran back into the room and pissed on the sheet where he had been standing just a couple of seconds earlier. Anna sent them a message on how to discipline her, because Anna is ruthless when it comes to getting the point across to our dog and Kermit gets a very guilty, yet sad expression on her face in the process, eventually avoiding eye contact. Needless to say we soon received photos back from Judith and Felix of our dog refusing to even look at them. I guess it worked.

A few more images from that afternoon and evening:

Thursday, June 28, 2018
Anna had gone into the conference at about 7:30am and would be busy there until the early afternoon, which meant that I would be kicking back poolside with a coffee and a book before we went into town for lunch.
One thing we never knew about Chiang Mai before we came was the coffee. When I posted on Facebook that we were going to Chiang Mai, I had more than one friend send recommendations for great coffee joints in town. Apparently it wasn’t just a coincidence:

Traditionally, Thai coffee has never been anything to write home about. For many years it was overshadowed by other crops—most notably opium, grown nearby in the infamous Golden Triangle region where Laos, Burma, and Thailand intersect. Due to a focused effort from the government and NGOs, Thai farmers have turned to coffea arabica in ever greater numbers as the cash crop of choice, the best of which fuels Chiang Mai’s booming coffee scene.

Rumor has it that there are more cafes than 7-Elevens in Chiang Mai—and as anybody who’s been to Thailand would testify, that means a heap. The city feels like a public experiment in fashioning a new coffee culture; it’s one of only a few places on earth where you have progressive roasters, baristas, coffee lovers, and cafe owners within just an hour’s drive of coffee plantations and farmers. That means there’s always some cross-pollination going on; some tinkering with a new way of achieving the perfect honey process or a backyard attempt at growing Geisha.

The overall effect for a coffee lover is not unlike a wine geek in wine country: your proximity to every step of the production chain results in a series of singular, distinctive experiences. The scene is intimate but exploding, young but tethered to an ancient agricultural tradition in Northern Thailand. Most of these coffees aren’t available outside of Chiang Mai—you have to go here for this coffee experience, one that comes with the added perks of food, art, music, booze, and an irrepressible street rhythm.

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A tuk-tuk while entering town

Once again we made the journey into the city and started wandering around. We didn’t really have much of an interest in going to look at temples because they didn’t particularly seem that different than any other Buddhist temples that we’ve visited and learnt about in the past in Thailand or even much of South-East Asia for that matter. It’s not ignorance on my part, I’m sure someone might be able to explain a significant contrast between the temples and Buddhist beliefs and practices in Chiang Mai to those in the south, I’m just not a religious or spiritual person and the intricacies of these things aren’t of any real interest to me unless they are really unique. After you’ve seen them once, that’s just time that could be spent doing something else.

That’s exactly what we did: Something else. First we grabbed lunch, mainly because it was a fraction of the price of eating at the hotel, then it was off to find some coffee. Of the recommendations I had been given, none of them really seemed within the general area of the Old City we were exploring. We ended up finding our own place, the coffee was great, and then we just wandered around the shops, periodically needing to stop for a beer or two while we waited for the rain to cease. We stumbled across an enormous secondhand bookstore run by a British expat and I had almost finished reading Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim so I spent a while searching for my next read before hitting the streets again. One thing that surprised me while we were strolling around was how many tattoo stores there are in Chiang Mai, yet only about 50% of them had the word “tattoo” spelt correctly in their signage. A word of warning for people thinking about getting inked up in South-East Asia: Always spell-check your tats.

After more coffee and beers we made out way to the Night Bazaar to have a look around then went inside for dinner, deciding on a seafood restaurant that specialised in crocodile meat among other dishes. We ate more than our fill and then went to the Red Lion for some beers and a bit more of the World Cup, this time sitting next to a girl from Niigata who was disappointed to see Japan lose to Poland, but was ecstatic to see Colombia beat Senegal, allowing Japan to advance to the Elimination Round.

Friday, June 29, 2018
It was my last full day in Chiang Mai, Anna was staying on for a couple extra days while her friends flew over to hang out for the weekend, but we decided to just kick back and make the most of our villa, a relaxing day by the pool with some beers that I had bought on the way home the previous night. Again, Anna went to the conference in the morning so I read by the pool until she was done and then we had a coffee and some noodles for lunch at the restaurant due to the fact that it was raining.

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A lot wetter than it looks

We kept our promise and just sat by the pool the whole day, making use of the porch and umbrellas, having a few drinks, and occasionally nodding off over the course of the afternoon. There was one minor dilemma; a gala dinner was being held that night and I had been invited, however, I never anticipated this so I only brought one shirt and one pair of pants with me, the ones I wore when having dinner for Anna’s birthday two nights prior. A short-sleeved shirt with cats doodled all over it generally doesn’t fit the dress code for a gala dinner for an invite-only event, but fortunately the dress code was quite relaxed. In fact, most people were just going in short sleeves, I just had to hope my shirt smelled okay. Might need to hang it over a chair for a bit.

The time rolled around for the gala and it was actually quite a fun night. There were some familiar faces around from other conferences, as well as stints we had spent overseas for Anna’s work and it was pretty amusing to watch a lot of the guests, particularly those from Europe, sweating profusely while trying to look comfortable in the tropics. Besides free booze and some excellent regional cuisine, there was also some local entertainment including a band and dancers that welcomed us, as well as Muay Thai exhibitions while we ate. Take a look for yourself:

It got to around 9:45pm and a lot of the guests were tired. The conference had been starting early each morning, some were jet-lagged, some were struggling to adapt to the climate, and others had early flights the next day, so most of the people went back to their rooms. A handful of others, myself and Anna included, decided it was too early and went down to a poolside bar for some more drinks. While most of the people there were talking about work, a young doctor, a professor, and myself were talking about music and how the doctor played guitar. The conversation continued and the professor discovered that I was a big fan of Prince and we both agreed that he was an underrated guitarist. The doctor didn’t really know much of Prince’s work, but because he played guitar, the professor and I both immediately suggested he check out the exact same video; Tom Petty, Steve Winwood, Jeff Lynne, Dhani Harrison (George’s son), and Prince covering While My Guitar Gently Weeps at George Harrison’s posthumous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction for his solo career. I mainly put this in here so I had a copy of the clip, but for those of you who watch it and think it’s strange that Prince is taking a bit of a back seat in this one, just skip to 3:20 in the video and see six-string magic in action, the head-nod and smile from Dhani in the background at that point shows that shit is about to go down! I still wonder if they ever found Prince’s guitar afterward?

We continued on drinking for a while longer, but something else was continuing the next day too — The conference. That and the fact that I had to fly out in the morning. I had already packed so now just to get some sleep before I left the following day.

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There are actually two of them in this photo

Saturday, June 30, 2018
Anna had already gone to the conference again by the time I woke up, but there was a message on my phone saying to text her when I get to the airport and try not to sleep on the flight, as it’s generally on the flight home from holidays when I have had seizures in the past and she gets a bit nervous about that when she’s not flying with me.
I walked out to the lobby, passing two enormous buffalo on the way (above, right) and caught my cab to Chiang Mai airport, only needing 30-40 minutes because there’s not a lot of traffic on a Saturday morning. I checked into my flight and much to my horror, the same school group that was on the flight to Thailand would be on my flight home. Couple that with the fact that I had the exact same seat as when I came over, one that didn’t recline, and had had a full-night’s sleep, I don’t think Anna really had to worry about me having a nap on this short-haul trip.
I went up to the Krisflyer Lounge, had some coffee, dim sum, and a couple of salmon sandwiches when a woman walked over to me to deliver what she considered some bad news; they had changed the gate for the flight, but to compensate me for the inconvenience I had been relocated to Business Class. That’s pretty sweet, but they had just changed my flight from Gate 7 to Gate 10, about 100 metres down the hall in the same terminal, not much of an inconvenience, but I’m not one to fly in the face of public opinion.
When we boarded I was far away from the kids in a comfortable seat, but something else struck me — The other four or five people that were in Business Class had also been in the lounge at the airport and I saw the same woman talk to them so I guess we all got upgraded. Nice.

Anyway, I just listened to music and played Solitare on my phone for the duration of the flight, while Anna’s friends, Pat and Rosh, flew over to Chiang Mai from Singapore so Anna could have a girly weekend away for the next couple of days with two of her best friends. I just hope they did it properly.

Also, another big thank you to Judith and Felix for taking care of Kermit, buying her snacks, and just generally putting up with her again, you guys are champions!

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