Chiang Mai, Thailand — Week 1: Bureaucracy, The Old City, and Adventures in Shopping Malls

U.S. citizens, upon arriving in Thailand, can stay in the country 30 days without a visa. We had planned on getting that extended for 30 more days, for a small fee, while we were in Bangkok, but decided to deal with the extension in Chiang Mai instead. Thus, our first adventure in Chiang Mai was the non-visa extension process. Woo!

We took a songtaew, red truck — Chiang Mai’s taxi/bus system, all the way to Promenada mall on the other side of town where the Immigration Office was. At the Immigration Office, there were examples of how to fill in the form we needed and we owe major thanks to the Hungry Backpack’s post for letting us know what to expect. First, we filled out the form, then handed it and our fee (1,900฿ or $58) over to some ladies at a table outside. We were then directed to sit inside and wait until our number was called. After about an hour and a half they called my number, and then Alex’s and had us sign a piece of paper. We waited about twenty more minutes and then they called our names and returned our passports with a fresh stamp allowing us to stay in Thailand for an extra 30 days. The whole process took about two and half hours and was pretty painless.

After finishing up at the Immigration Office we wandered around Promenada mall it and then headed to the Old City of Chiang Mai to explore. We were hungry so we had lunch at a vegetarian place called Taste from Heaven. I had another vegetables in clear broth dish. This one was also tasty, and even better than the one in Bangkok because there were more vegetables! Score!

View of the Phae Gate in CHiang Mai, Thailand.

The Phae Gate, Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We had entered the Old City from The Phae Gate which is on the east side. Our Airbnb was outside the Old City on the west, so we wandered around the Old City, heading in the general direction of our Airbnb. Along the way we stumbled upon Wat Phan Tao so we checked it out. I was already in my conservative clothes (thanks to the heads up from Hungry Backpack about what to wear to the Immigration Office) so I didn’t have to change before entering the temple. Side note: I literally only have one “conservative” shirt that covers my shoulders and doesn’t have a wide neck hole…I guess should have planned better, or at least picked a shirt I like more…oh well.

Wat Phan Tao, Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat Phan Tao was so old. Being near it felt like taking a step into the past. The outside vaguely reminded me of an old barn, but only in its weathered look, otherwise it felt very special and significant.

Nearby was Wat Chedi Luang a super ancient temple. First we visited the more modern temple in front of it which was beautiful and ornate, but there was just something about the original Wat Chedi Luang. It was mystical. We couldn’t go in the original Wat Chedi Luang, but even just seeing it from the outside was amazing.

The newer temple near Wat Chedi Luang, Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As of this writing, in December 2017, Wat Chedi Luang is 622 years old. How does something that old still exist? To be fair, there used to be three temples in that location and Wat Chedi Luang was the only one remaining, but still. Who were the people who built it and how did they do it? We researched the temple as we wandered around, in awe of its magnitude, and learned a few interesting tidbits. Did you know that it took nearly a hundred years to complete building it and within the next hundred years an earthquake had already collapsed part of it? Then hundreds of years later when they decided to rebuild the temple there was controversy over the style of architecture they used. Once we knew to look for it, it was easy to spot which part had been rebuilt. I love history and feeling like I know things other people might not. My favorite part of Wat Chei Luang though, was the elephant statues. So magnificent.

Wat Chedi Luang, massive, majestic, marvelous, Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

On our way out of the Wat Chedi Luang grounds we saw tables and benches with signs encouraging people to come speak to the monks instead of just gawking at and taking pictures of them. At first we just walked by, but then I insisted we stop and talk to them. I was curious. All the monks were high school/college aged and it was super awkward at first. But eventually, one of the boys started talking to us and here’s what we learned:

His name was Paul. He was 18 and technically a novice and not a monk. One can become a novice at age eight, but Paul became a novice when he was twelve. Novices don’t become monks until they’re twenty. Paul was from a village a few hours away and his family was very poor. He chose to become a novice so he could get an education. When I asked if he could stop being a monk at some point he said yes. Anyone can stop being a monk at any time. When I asked how often people stop being monks he said he didn’t know numbers but that it happened often enough. Many boys like him from rural and/or poor families become novices so they can study and then stop once they finish their education. Neither monks nor novices are allowed to play sports or touch women because doing either distracts the mind from being able to focus and meditate. Therefore, when we went to leave Paul and Alex shook hands and I just awkwardly waved. Go figure.

Paul, novice, not a monk, Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We ended up walking all the way back to our Airbnb from the Old City which took about forty minutes from where we left Paul. We stopped at Roselato on the way as a reward for our efforts. Roselato serves gelato in the shape of a rose. It’s beautiful and delicious.

Gelato from Roselato, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I’d been told there was a grocery store in the shopping mall near our Airbnb so the following day I went to check it out. Getting there was a bit of an adventure. Our street dead ends with a decorative trellis serving as a fence. There’s an opening in the trellis, big enough for a person to fit through, and on the other side is a little stream, across from which is a gravel parking lot.

At the end of the parking lot there is a ten foot drop off to street level. To the right of the parking lot is a grassy area and if you turn left at the tree line there are stairs down to the road and paved parking lot which leads up to a big brown building. It doesn’t look much like a mall, but then again, I haven’t been to many malls in Thailand, so maybe it does. In the corner of the building is an entrance.

View of the trellis, parking lot and mall.

View of the trellis, parking lot, and mall, Kad Suan Kaew, from the dead end of our street, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

If you have an old run-down mall in your neighborhood where some of the shops are closed or boarded up and it hasn’t been renovated or updated in twenty or thirty years then you have a pretty decent mental image of what this mall looks like on the inside. And, if you’ve ever been to Drake University’s Fine Arts Center then you’ll appreciate how complicated the layout of this particular mall is.

This did not feel like a mall. There were some pop-up shops in a big open area and at the time I thought maybe this was something separate from the mall? On a subsequent trip I would take an escalator from another level in the mall and accidentally end up here so I now know it is part of the mall, but seriously, this building makes no sense. I would totally appreciate seeing the plans for this building because even after multiple visits I still do not understand how everything is connected.

Anyway, from the corner entrance I walked through the open area and ended up walking outside, in front of an entrance to a parking garage, and then back into the mall again. Which is why at first I thought the place I entered was  separate from the mall. Ergo the Drake Fine Arts Center comment — because there you can only get from one part of the first floor to another if you leave the building. In the second part of the mall I found the grocery store and was pleasantly surprised to find a number of familiar things.

I decided to explore the mall while I was there. I found a movie theatre on the fifth floor and on the second floor I found the cheapest massages I’d seen anywhere in Thailand! There were three places right next to each other and each one had signs for 150฿ ($5) for a one hour thai or foot massage. Previously, the cheapest I’d seen was 200฿ ($6) and the most expensive I’d seen was 650฿ ($20). Cheap massages: noted. I’d been wanting a massage for months but had been waiting until I got to Thailand so I could get multiple for the same price as one in the U.S.. We’d been in Thailand for a week and I still hadn’t gotten one yet! Now I had no excuse.

I met up with Alex around lunch time and we tried this place called The Salad Concept. I cannot tell you how excited I was for leafy greens. I’d been eating a lot of pad thai, which is delicious, but I just really like vegetables and was missing them. The salad was larger than my torso and came on a plate half the size of the table. I was ecstatic and it was delicious. Unfortunately, my stomach did not agree. After finishing my meal I immediately had to use the restroom. I’ll spare you the details, but it wasn’t pretty. I spent the rest of the day napping with a very sore tummy. Only later did I realize that my beautiful leafy greens were probably washed in tap water and thus I’d probably just ingested a whole lot of unfamiliar bacteria into my already super sensitive gut. Whoops. Live and learn, right?

The following day we moved to a new Airbnb. We’d planned on hunkering down in Chiang Mai for most of the rest of our time in Thailand. Our research had suggested we wait to rent a place until we arrived so we could get better, more local prices (rather than renting on Airbnb the whole time) so we waited. However, apparently we arrived in Thailand during the high season. Who knew? Since it was high season we were having a hard time finding anything available for the weeks we needed and/or no one would rent for only a month or two and we weren’t sure yet if we really wanted to stay in Chiang Mai longer than that. So we booked two weeks at a different Airbnb, spending way more than we’d planned, to buy us some time to try to find someplace else.

Near our new place was a big fancy mall so, naturally, we went to check it out. On the way we found coconut ice cream and of course I couldn’t resist. It was soft serve, what a bummer. If I’d known I might have passed. It was still good though, just not as good as the stuff on the streets, and twice the price. Lame.

The fancy mall, MAYA, has a rooftop level that opens at 4:00 p.m.. Lucky for us, we just happened to be there at 3:55 p.m., so we waited. I’m glad we did. It has a great view of Chiang Mai and the surrounding mountains.

View from the roof of MAYA mall, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In the basement of MAYA there is a food court with lots of different options, including a vegetarian restaurant. Everything is super cheap and they even had a place selling mochi! Yum!

I felt sick again on the way home from MAYA and spent the rest of the night hanging out doing a whole lot of nothing, and napping. I ended up feeling sick for the next three days. I had no appetite and could barely force myself to drink water. Lack of food and water meant I also had no energy. I survived on Nature Valley Crunchy Peanut Butter bars, Schweppes Ginger Ale, and what I thought was a kind of saltine cracker but is more like a coconut cookie. The brand name is Homey and I’m obsessed with them. I literally buy four packs every time we find them.

The second day of being sick I tried some soup at a place in the basement of MAYA, but my stomach was not having it. I spent the rest of the night laying in bed wondering if my dreams of living and working abroad were going to be dashed by my weak stomach.

By the third day I was determined not to let my tummy win. We sought out some American food, to give my tummy a break from the sudden change in diet to see if maybe that would help. We found this place called Try Umm….Café. I ordered a pizza and Alex and I split french fries. There really is something magical about french fries. What I really loved, was that Try Umm…Café had live music. An awesome older Thai guy was covering English songs and he totally made my night.

After dinner we checked out the restaurant across the street because it had all sorts of rotee. It was called Guu Fusion Roti & Tea aka our new favorite restaurant. We split a regular rotee with chocolate and a crispy rotee with whipped cream and strawberry for dessert. Simply delicious!

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