The first time I ventured across the Pacific, I was alone. I was nervous and excited at the fact that I would only be able to rely on myself, and if something were to go wrong, everyone I knew was a long plane ride away.
My destination: Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I was going to Chiang Mai to intern at a British magazine in the city for a month. I would be working on stories and doing interviews in a place that I didn’t really know anything about. I was a bit apprehensive, to say the least. But after getting settled in and exploring the neighborhood around my new apartment, I quickly realized that this place was extremely special and that I was quickly falling in love with it.
But a month was not nearly enough time. So I vowed to return.
Flash forward six months and I was back on a plane, headed across the Pacific ocean once again. This time I would be spending five months in Chiang Mai, studying abroad at the main university in town. I was back in the city I had grown to love and was more than excited that this time, I would be able to live more like a local, than tourist.
Chiang Mai is a mix of many different things. It is a melting pot of people, food, culture and sounds. Hipster coffee shops sit next to traditional restaurants, massage parlours surround food (though there is nothing gross about the 7–11’s in Thailand, in truth they are more like a fantasy land where you can find just about anything you want whenever you want). No, I am talking about food that is a mix of flavors, textures, and aromas. Thai food blends many different things into a dish and even though you might not know exactly what it is, you don’t care because it’s just that good.
While Chiang Mai is not perfect, you can often forgive the negative parts when you look at it as ancient temples. The movement and vibrance of the city was all-consuming. Motor scooters, red trucks — they all wove in and out of traffic simultaneously. As a spectator it is often a show in and of itself.
But you can’t spend five months in Chiang Mai and not talk about the food. Oh, the delicious and more than bountiful food that fills you up with spices, vegetables, and rice. I have traveled to many other countries and none of their food comes close to the amazingness that is the food in Chiang Mai. Streets lined to the brim with distinctive smelling food stalls, plastic chairs and tables, and way too many people. It all drew me in and wouldn’t let me go. And wonderfully, no matter the time of day you can find food- and I am not just talking fast food, or gross gas station a whole. While the temperatures can be brutal, there are more than enough unique and funky coffee shops with A/C to spend a day in. While the air pollution can cause the city to feel a bit apocalyptic, there are plenty of indoor areas to take cover in, like big modern malls with 4-D movie theatres (a thing I didn’t know was real until I was sitting down in one ready to watch Batman vs. Superman), or traditional walking streets and markets, like Warorat on the banks of the Ping River.
Chiang Mai is a premier destination- tourists flock there for probably the same reasons you want to go yourself: amazing food and pretty temples. But the city is also perfect for when you want to break out of the tourist chains and really see the place for what it is at its core. A place where roosters and chickens run around back streets and crow all day and night. A place where temples are so abundant, half the time you don’t realize you are walking in or around one. A place where you can find food from many different countries, but often keep going back to the same omelette lady on the corner because though it is simple, it is also somehow the best food you’ve ever tasted.
Chiang Mai is not a complex place, at least when you get down to it. The city has this laid-back attitude, different from many other million-plus populated cities, that makes you just want to sit back, eat some Som Tam and take it all in. And while there is now a very hip, expensive area, the majority of the city still goes at its own pace, ebbing and flowing through the days without much change.
I first came to Chiang Mai looking for something new — an adventure, a place that would put me outside my comfort zone and test me a bit. And it definitely did. I realized quickly just how small I was in this vast, crazy, cacophonous world. But after a while, once I got into my routine, I realized that though this place was halfway across the world and different from anything I had ever known, it somehow started to feel like home.
I loved Thailand, how could you not. But I loved Chiang Mai more. There is something about Chiang Mai that just makes you feel alive; however, it also grounds you firmly to Earth. I spent five months adventuring in and around the city, meeting new people and making new friends, and trying lots of new things (cow brain, anyone?), and I know I only scratched the surface. The city holds this magical aura that keeps you wanting to return again and again.