All the superlatives one hears about Chiang Mai are true.
What had always struck me about Chiang Mai is that it is so strongly recommended by travelers with so many different interests and priorities. The city lovers and the city haters; the history buffs and the trekkers; the young backpackers and the mature comfort seekers – all had such high praise. How could it be that one place was so satisfying to so many different types of travelers?
As the bus from Sukhothai neared our destination, my priority was to make some choices regarding accommodations. Though I had several recommendations, none really stood out, so as we crossed the central plains then began to climb gradually up into the northern hills, I studied the city maps.
I always prefer to wander a city on foot, so decided on the area just east of the Old City. This allowed easy access to the river, the Night Bazaar, the original market Talot Warorot, and of course the densely packed and fascinating Old City, defined by its beautifully restored moats and gates, and by the faint remnants of brick walls.
By the time the bus pulled into the Chiang Mai station, I had located a promising listing in the Lonely Planet and organized a room there using my black market cell phone (bmcp). The next task was finding my way to the small, unassuming Sarah Guesthouse.
Easiest and most costly would be a taxi or a private tuktuk. Least expensive and perfectly adequate would be a shared songthaew which will carry perhaps a dozen people with luggage. But by the time I reach the waiting songthaews, the next to leave is about to depart. The songthaews only leave when full, oh make that overfull. This is Asia after all.
There are three of us now, waiting in the next vehicle in the queue and who knows when the next bus will arrive; we are facing possibly a very long wait. A little lateral thinking comes into play. We find that the three of us can just squeeze into one tuktuk, so off we go. I am dropped at my guesthouse, and the couple I have shared with continue on to some place the driver will prefer as he will be able to get a commission for bringing in new guests.
Chiang Mai has many guesthouses, far too many really. Practically every residence in or near the Old City now takes in tourists. This one told the story for me; I guess they’d pretty much run out of new names.
Of course, in Asia the phrase you hear all time is “Same same but different.” The name, of course, implies the ‘different’, but this place doesn’t look different all and I am confident enough that it is not that I get my giggle from the sign and move on. The life blood of tourism circulates in Chiang Mai. Nearly everyone seems to run a guesthouse, a restaurant and a travel desk.
But the small guesthouse I had happened upon turns out to be a jewel. It is a cement block structure on a narrow back street, two stories high, with only six rooms on each level; simple, but entirely adequate, and quiet. There is a small garden and a pleasant covered patio with wifi.
From here there are several winding back streets. Finding my way back will turn out to be much easier in the daylight.