Go say hi to the monks
Head over to Wat Srisuphan to attend a “Monk Chat” and try out this meditation thinger that hippies are so wild about. Depending on the mix of tourists and monks, this can be a slightly awkward experience. For example: the combo of you, French-Canadian retired businessman, trio of French girls who don’t speak English, and Cambodian 23 year old monk does not exactly make for a spirited religious debate. (It’s OK, you can get a Buddhist book from the library when you are back in the states, same same.) Big learning of the night? That some monks (like the one you talked to) are in it for the free education and cannot wait to leave the monastery and move back to Cambodia and get a good job and get married and have some babies! He meditates for about 10 minutes a day, not longer because he's too tired from university. He'd rather talk about American pop culture than Buddhism. For him, being a monk is more of a practical than spiritual decision.
Your half hour of meditation practice is semi-successful, considering you were battling with the sounds of dogs, traffic, and the explosive demolition in the construction site next door. Not ideal for a beginner. No feelings approaching enlightened, but at least you avoided scratching your nose or opening your eyes. This is progress from the last time an overzealous yoga teacher tried to make you meditate and you either fell asleep or thought of how much you disliked the class.
Revel in the pyromaniac’s festival: Loy Krathong/Yi Peng
Every full moon in November Chiang Mai goes nutso for this festival. For about a full week there are non-stop parades/beauty pageants/religious ceremonies and, of course, traditions that involve lighting something on fire. You have a lot of choices of how you interact with the glories of light and fire:
1. Head out of town to a big field and set off a big white hot air balloon lantern with thousands of other people. People are murky on the reasons why, but it seems to have something to do with sending away bad spirits or bad thoughts. Whatever, it's pretty! And you can add sparklers to the tail if you want.
2. Go to the Ping River and send off an adorable little floating lantern made of banana leaves, flowers, incense and a candle. These little beauties magically drift down the river, until they sadly burn out or run aground.
3. Set off sizable fireworks anywhere you want in the city, all week long. Like a park, bridge, the river bank of picnicing Thai families, and (most popular) on a crowded pedestrian street. It’s pretty much all A-OK because the Thai’s like to party.
4. Visit parks filled with colorful lanterns (sorry, pre-lit) and take millions of pictures of yourself/family/significant other, which proves to be equally popular with the foreign tourists and the locals.
Play with cute elephants
Visit the Elephant Nature Park to interact nicely with rescued elephants from all sorts of professions (logging, circus, tourist treks). This is like a retirement home for poor elephants that had unhappy working lives, so they will not do any performing for you. Instead, you and the other day visitors can help the people who actually take care of the elephants. Feed them bananas and sugar cane and melon and cucumber! Pet their leathery and prickly skin! And the highlight, throw buckets of water on them in the river for their “bath” – never mind they can do this themselves with their trunks. A hoard of do-gooding tourists chasing around elephants with buckets is a sight of its own.
And after you have fed and washed enough elephants that you are secretly a little bored of this interaction and wishing there was a nice, humane way to ride one of these elephants, they will show you a graphic documentary on how the elephants were trained. Then you will never, ever want to see an elephant carrying around tourists or painting a picture or performing in any way. Gross stuff. Best to stand on the balcony and watch them frolic into the river in their adopted herd.
Wander the streets
Spend some time walking around without a real plan and stumble on some good stuff.
Chiang Mai is all about the Buddhist temples. They are sufficiently exotic and Thai looking to keep you happily snappity snapping your camera for days. So wherever you walk, you will run into one of these puppies and be awed by the architecture and gold things and giant Buddhas and monks with cell phones. Plus, this is a good chance to lurk in the shadows and creep on the mysterious praying rituals you do not understand.
...And Street Markets
Chiang Mai is a shopping town. The overwhelming Night Bazaar is a daily occurrence, and if that’s not enough you can supplement with the Saturday and Sunday walking streets. Hurray! Best yet, street markets mean street food which is delicious and cheap. Taro ice cream! Papaya salad mixed in a mortar and pestal! Made to order Pad Thai! Chicken satay! And on and on…
...And Sidewalk Massage
If the street markets exhaust you, sit outside in a chair while getting a foot massage. And eating your taro ice cream. And watching the festival fireworks go off everywhere. And listening to the drums of a parade happening somewhere nearby. This is the overstimulating Chiang Mai you will remember for years.