I didn’t realise it was party time in Thailand when I arrived on the night train at Chiang Mai station. The streets of the town were decorated with colourful chinese-style lanterns and everyone seemed to be in a good mood, but then again, the Thai people always seem to be in a good mood. It wasn’t until someone asked me if I was visiting for the ‘Loi Krathong’ Festival that I realised that I’d chosen (by pure chance) not only the best weekend of the year to be in Chiang Mai, but also the best place in Thailand to see the festivities.
Loi Krathong is a public holiday in Thailand which takes place during the full moon every November. During this time, everyone celebrates the end of the monsoon season. It’s also an occasion where the river goddess is appeased with floating floral offerings for a year of abuse (and I’m sure that she needs it, judging from all those excessive plastic bags they give you at the 7/11 stores that end up floating downstream). There’s the chance to symbolically cleanse yourself of anything you want to be rid of, by releasing a burning lantern into the night sky and watching it ascend heavenwards, bringing good luck and peace of mind. Fireworks crackle and pop in the night sky and the streets are jam packed with incredibly well-behaved locals. Even those stuck in the traffic jams seem good humoured. Ornate carnival floats with beautifully dressed people wait patiently for hours for the procession to begin, smiling serenely at everyone. Even the children sit cross-legged and calm like little gods and goddesses in their gold costumes, full make up and headresses.
On the Saturday night the Festival got into full swing, so me and Rahel (my lovely dorm-mate from Germany) headed for the river in search of a year of good luck. There was a fantastic atmosphere in town and it was amazing to see the night sky lit up with the glowing lanterns. The stars had been replaced by a constellation of burning lamps, disappearing gracefully into space. We bought one for ourselves and sent it burning into the sky with a big cheer. We also bought two tiny birds in a wicker cage because they looked so scared and cramped in there. I’m not sure we should have been encouraging the woman selling them, but it felt good to send them flying for freedom. We had to draw the line at liberating the bags of river fish but I hope that someone else came to their rescue before the end of the evening.
Everywhere we walked we were tempted by the fabulous street food…. noodles (add chilli, fish sauce, beansprouts, crushed peanuts and sugar to taste and scoop it all in as best you can manage with tiny wooden chopsticks as you’re walking along the street), giant fortune cookies filled with sweet cream and coconut, tiny spring rolls, fried pancakes with banana, condensed milk and chocolate sauce, snow pungs (sweet baked rolls) and bags of fresh tropical fruit, all for a few pennies. I’m going to roll home I swear.
We sat with a beer by the river and listened to a Thai dude who looked strangely like Johnny Depp (we nicknamed him ‘Johnny Thai’) sing some classics and watched the fireworks explode in the sky. I’ve had worse evenings.
Chiang Mai was the place to get down to some serious old-fashioned self-indulgence. On top of partying and eating (we went for a Thai cooking workshop where a delightful Thai lady taught us the art of balancing sweet / salty / sour and spicy flavours in heavenly concoctions) there was also the chance to be massaged into a comatose state for hours on end until you start drooling into the pillow. Thai massage is a blissful experience, where you are stretched and pummelled by sweet smiling women who are stronger than their delicate frames would suggest. With a sense of adventure, we decided to check out the massage facilities at Chaing Mai Women’s Prison, where they have the reputation of offering the best service in town. The women receive training in massage and/or catering as part of their vocational study, in the hope that they will be able to reintegrate into society upon their release and avoid getting back into a cycle of crime again. We had a wonderful massage there and it was hard to imagine that these lovely ladies had ever committed a crime. I had to bite my tongue to stop asking my sweet therapist (Bee) what she’d done to end up in the nick…
To counteract all the self-indulgence we took morning yoga classes in town and long pre-breakfast swims in the beautiful big pool at our hostel. I couldn’t believe my luck when I arrived at this place. I was expecting the usual low-budget backpacker hangout (what more could you expect for 9 Euro per night?) so when the tuktuk dropped me off at a beautifully landscaped Imm Eco resort I was ready to complain that he’d brought me to the wrong place. However luckily for me he was right and I got to spend a wonderful four days at this amazing place, enjoying the jungle gardens, swimming pool, rainforest-style bathrooms, great food and immaculate dorm. Highly recommended!
I know I keep saying this about everywhere that I visit, but it’s hard to move on from the good life in Chiang Mai, however if I stuck around too long I would risk becoming seriously fat, lazy… and blissfully happy!
Next stop Chiang Khong…. ready to cross the border into Laos.