This whole ‘flying by the seat of our pants’, ‘leave it to the last-minute and hope for the best’ travel strategy is really starting to pay off for us. Again, it was by better luck than management that we discovered we could line up our plans to be in Chiang Mai for the annual Yi Peng festival. We rode back into town from Pai in time for the opening ceremony on Sunday, and stayed for the entire four nights of the festival. It was a crazy, busy, sometimes infuriating, but overall amazing, time to be in Chiang Mai. One major bucket list item well and truly ticked off.
The format of the festival had been changed a bit this year in recognition of the King’s death, so the opening ceremony was quite a sombre occasion with several speeches, traditional dance performances and other dedications to the King. The most striking thing was the thousands of candles used to spell out “We Love the King” in the courtyard in front of Tha Phae gate. We called it a night pretty early – we’d had a long day travelling back from Pai, and trawling up and down the Sunday Walking Street (this was a solo mission; Campbell chose to hang out at the hotel and do laundry, which pretty much sums up his enthusiam for shopping generally), and wanted to save ourselves for Monday night, which was when the festivities really ramped up.
Monday night was the night of the full moon (and a ‘super’ moon at that), which is when the people converge on the banks of the Ping River and send thousands and thousands of lanterns into the air, and set floral offerings adrift on the River. The offerings are supposed to bring good luck, but also carry away the sins and grievances of the offeror and allow them to start anew. It’s an incredibly beautiful occasion, and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. There probably wouldn’t be a single night in Wellington when conditions were conducive to send thousands of burning lanterns into the air! The crowds were intense and it was super hot and sweaty, but everybody was in such good spirits that it really didn’t matter. Eventually, we found a quiet spot to set off a couple of lanterns and cleanse ourselves of all of our bad behaviour (when will we learn?!). We parked up for another hour with a couple of beers and watched the lanterns go up, laughed at the ones that fell in the river, and generally had an awesome time.
Tuesday night was very similar, although the main attraction was a float parade through town. This is the part of the festival when a local beauty pageant typically takes place, but it had been cancelled this year due to the King’s death. We opted to flag the crowds and instead parked up on the opposite side of the River and enjoyed a few drinks while watching things from afar. We were joined later in the night by a lovely woman (Maria) from Barcelona and her friend (whose name we never did get to the bottom of) from Japan. What started as a few quiet drinks quickly spiralled into a whole lot more, and while Maria and I discussed plans for our home renovations (she’s an architect), Campbell and her “unnamed friend” had a blokey conversation conducted entirely through the Google translate app. It was a really great night ending with a quick spin past Macca’s, which is how all good nights should finish.
The crowds in Chiang Mai over the festival were unreal, so we found every opportunity to spend our days away from the touristic hub of the Old City. First excursion was to Huay Tung Tao, a manmade lake a short drive out of the city. Apparently this place is a favourite of Chiang Mai locals looking to escape the summer heat, but it was fairly quiet when we visited on Monday. The lake is surrounded by dozens of little huts that you can park up in, while you order drinks and food from one of the nearby restaurants. It’s a really cool concept and a very nice way to spend a day. In the end we opted out of having a swim – the water was brown and quite muddy and there were some sizeable catfish flopping around in the shallows.
On the same day we paid a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, an enormous temple perched atop a mountain 15 km out of Chiang Mai. The temple itself was stunning, but the crowds were ridiculous and we couldn’t handle the jandal. We got out as soon as possible and enjoyed the scooter ride back down the steep and very windy road that leads to the temple.
Our last day in Chiang Mai was a day of chores – we rented a scooter and took care of our laundry, sorted onwards bus tickets and sussed out currency exchange. In amongst all of that admin, the highlight would have to have been finding a proper, Moore Wilson-esque supermarket. I love supermarket shopping at home and was like a kid in a candy shop being let loose in one after such a long time. We wandered around for ages and did creepy things like stroking the bags of Milo and trying to smell the New Zealand cheese through the plastic. It’s funny the things you miss from home – the other day we wandered past a resort with the most lush green lawns, and Campbell turned to me and in his most sincere and serious voice said “I want to mow it”. I’m pretty confident the novelty will wear off pretty shortly after we get back home but, for now, we have fairly romanticised memories of some of the old mundane household chores.
Today we left Chiang Mai and spent a solid six hours on the loser cruise to Sukhothai. I can’t actually fault the bus trip though – it was super comfortable and I slept for most of it. Tomorrow we’re off to cycle around Sukhothai Historical Park, which includes the ruins of the Kingdom of Sukhothai from the 13th century. It is really hot here, so it’s guaranteed to be a bit of a sweat-fest, but we’ll be grateful for all that exercise given our other “must do” thing while we’re here is to binge on Sukhothai Noodles.
We have been thinking a lot about everybody at home with the shaking, raining and flooding that’s been going on. We’re very pleased that everybody got through safe and well. Take care out there!