Chiang Mai – Part 1
During your travels, each destination fits in a unique category; would like to go again, never again, places suitable for a couple of days and places ticked off the list. However, the rarest of them all is finding the pinnacle of everything you’d ever want from a destination. Finding that perfect paradise that you could easily spend the rest of your life in complete and total happiness. Welcome to my personal paradise; Chiang Mai.
The city has a reputation amongst travellers, not only being the main destination of Northern Thailand but a must-go for the entire country. For many years there’s been a constant stream of travellers from all walks of life which has resulted in a harmonious blending of the local life and the curious travellers with their expectations and wish to gorge themselves in the local culture.
Chiang Mai’s features that make it a traveller’s paradise begins with its geography. Not only being in a strikingly beautiful region of the world, but the city itself is compact, and easily travelled around. Landing at the airport at around 10 am, the question was how to get to the city centre. I could have easily walked it, which would have taken about an hour. However, the temptation to jump into a songthaew was too strong.
These are red pick-up truck taxis that operate all around Chiang Mai. They’re incredibly cheap, reliable and found everywhere in the city. My love for this country was immediately reminded by the driver. Thai people have to be considered one of the friendliest people in the world. The prospect of jumping in the back was even more tempting by the “30 baht to anywhere in the city” printed on the side. Still, my curiosity made me ask
“How much to the city?”
“50 baht” that was predictable.
“It says 30 baht on the side”
A wide smile broke across his face as he waved me in. Even in the midst of haggling, they still remain complete sweethearts. He pulled the taxi over at the side of the street and walked to the back “Where in the city would you like to go?”. Down to the nature of the city, I decided to step out there and confident I could run into plenty of attractions with a little exploration.
A City of Temples
If Chiang Mai is known for one thing, it would be the extraordinary amount of temples found throughout and surrounding the city. It’s simply mind-blowing. Literally found on every street corner and every other alleyway you’ll find a temple. Simply walking down any given street, you’ll pass temple after temple, each of varying size and designs.
Naturally amongst the countless amounts of temples, there are highlights, such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Suan Dorg, Wat Phra Singh and countless others. In the end, I gave up on targeting specific temples as I’d see plenty on my walks between destination.
After visiting many temples, I fell for my first gullible foreigner scam, which should have been seen a mile away. The nature of the Thai’s friendliness brought my guard down. As I was walking towards my hostel, a middle-aged man sat on a moped spotted the tattoo on my arm as I approached and grabbed at it for a closer look. Upon finding out it was done by hand-poke, he claimed
“I know someone who does bamboo tattoos, I can take you to him”. Honestly, the temptation of the tattoo negated any suspicion I had until I got into the man’s car. The fuck was I doing right now? I was in a complete stranger’s car with no idea where he was actually taking me. I was simply teased with the prospect of “a friend” who gave bamboo tattoos.
The nerves were calmed with his friendly and open-personality, consistent offerings of lady-boys and his particular fondness of Michael Jackson. He insisted on playing (and singing) a number of hits that blasted out of his stereo. However, I started to notice he’d been driving for a long ass time. I could see the road-signs said we were actually 12km out of Chiang Mai. The fuck was this guy taking me to?
As he pulled into the parking lot of a gem factory, it all finally made sense. I’d fallen for the classic scam of I’ll take you here, via these vendors that give me commission. He then took me to a series of factories each plugging their own merchandise; gems, necklaces, pottery, leather etc. Eventually, after my patience had worn thin, and after I filled his tank with gas, he eventually took me to a tattoo store back in the middle of town.
First Trips Tattoo
I’d be damned if I went through the end of that day without a tattoo. I questioned the guy in the store how much a Hah Taew (5 lines) done by bamboo would cost. He gave me a price of 3000 baht, and to come back at 8 pm that night. I lay down in the empty studio as he quietly tapped away with master-level precision, telling me all about how the skill had been passed down through his family and how he had come to learn the trade.
A Dream Come True
This would be the day I underwent the first of two events I’d booked before I’d arrived. A day I had been waiting for since my teenage years since I first discovered it existed. Something I had promised myself I would do as soon as the ambition to travel was firstborn. To get a genuine sak yant tattoo from a Buddhist monk in his temple.
Sak yants originate from this region of the world in Northern Thailand, many of which are from the city of Chiang Mai. Practically any traveller who spent enough time in Thailand will have left with one thinking they were Angelina Jolie. Despite some people being attracted by the aesthetic and so cool appeal, the tattoos themselves have deep meanings and significance. Each line of script is a specific magical spell (or yant) blessed to the receiver.
Despite hearing of several people who’d had this experience themselves, it was difficult to find information on how to get one from a monk in a genuine temple. I didn’t simply want another tattoo shop experience. I found a website for a company that seemed legit and well informed. The company “Sak Yank Chiang Mai” seemed like the perfect option. They had ties with local monks and Ajarns in the area that would give the tattoos. They had a fair selection of choices, including in-house tattoos from Ajarn’s (translated roughly as master). However, the experience I was interested in was being taken to a local temple for a tattoo from the monk that resided there.
I was taken by an incredibly helpful and friendly guide called Nana, who drove me to the remote temple 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. On the way, she explained in detail everything about sak yants; the history, their meaning, the people who’d do them, who my monk was, every detail. She also explained the process and the formalities I’d have to follow.
We pulled up into a peaceful temple in the middle of the countryside where the monk resided. Following a short exploration of the area, I was led to the little building at the back of the compound where the monk was working away finishing a sak yant covered local man’s design. I was told he was ready for me, and I was told to stay on my knees before him. I then placed a donation (provided by the company) of various useful items which included tobacco, matches, incense, 1000 baht etc and handed them over to him.
This is when Nana became incredibly helpful in becoming a translator for the monk as he asked which design I wanted. I’d decided on a Gao Yord, considered the most sacred of all the Buddhist designs. He informed me it could only be placed on my shoulders. I was then instructed to remove my top and sit in front of him with my head kneeling forward. As I took my top off he started to giggle at some of the tattoos I had.
I have several tattoo’s, a number of which have been done by hand, both with a needle and bamboo in places said to be the most painful to receive one. Without a shadow of a doubt, this was the most agonising experience I have ever undergone. The Hah Taew was nothing, relaxing enough to sleep through, this is a physical ordeal. Forget the idea of getting a tattoo, it’s not the same by any means. Its forcibly stabbing a thick needle through your flesh, enough to leave bruising for days after.
That being said, without doubt, it was an incredibly fascinating, spell-binding and spiritual moment. I refused to show any sign of pain, trying my very best not to wince in pain. I sat there legs crossed and hands folded as I listened to the birds echo through the tranquil temple as monk Ranchon quietly tapped away. The process was ended with the monk blessing the sak yant blowing gently on it at the end of each spell.
A Close Call
This is when a planned quiet night almost finished with getting the shit kicked out of me. I was walking back to my hostel for an early night when a foreigner whose eyes widened as he saw me approaching pointed at me and said
“Hey!” he then stood there trying to figure out how he knew me “…you’re the guy from the hostel right?”. Some quick small-talk led to the question “wanna go for a beer?” why not?
I decided it would be a good idea to take him to Thaphae Muay Thai ring in the middle of the strip. This was a one-stop-shop for a lads Chiang Mai experience. Leading up to the ring there’s a series of tiny bars one after the other specifically stocked with bar girls. For those who don’t know, a bar girl is a female who’ll be willing to give you her company, hang-out, play pool or connect 4 and flirt for you, in the understanding that you buy her a lady drink i.e. the money goes to the house. After enough drinks punters have the added option for more hands-on business propositions for additional cash.
I thought it would be an entertaining opportunity to observe, but this was a concept my new Italian pal was clearly unfamiliar with. Immediately he fell into the same trap countless of others have on a nightly basis. He thought being charming enough meant he wouldn’t have to pay for the girl’s attention, which just isn’t how it works. He constantly tried engaging the girls in flirtatious conversation without buying the girl a drink. They were clearly having none of it. As the stadium started closing up he ended up dragging me to a dive bar which some of the girls had moved to, and this is when shit got heavy.
As I sat quietly behind observing and laughing at the Italians consistent failed attempts, he finally caved and asked for 2 of the bars cheapest beers. He told his favourite girl
“One is for you”
“But I’m going home now”
“Okay fine, I don’t want them” this was a bad mistake
“What you mean you don’t want, I order, you must pay!” it became increasingly evident he didn’t understand how all this worked.
“I’m not paying, I don’t want them anymore.” As he stood up and tried to walk away the girl swung at him and started pushing and screaming
“You pay now! I order, so you pay!” she began screaming towards the back in Thai which clearly wasn’t a good sign. That’s when the sheet metal gates at the front of the bar were pulled down and we were essentially locked in. It became increasingly clear that this guy had to pay, and he’d put me in one very fucking awkward position. As I tried walking towards the door a buff tattoo-covered Thai guy with his arms crossed stood in the way.
“Hey I don’t know this guy, I’ve got nothing to do with this” I wasn’t about to get my head kicked in over some arrogant fuck I just met that doesn’t understand the game. The Thai bouncer seemed friendly enough with me shaking my hand, but still wouldn’t let me pass. Through all of this, the guy was still refusing, clearly not aware of the situation that was developing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a classic attempt to take tourist cash but you really willing to risk a beating over the price of 2 beers? In the end, a much calmer older kind of bar girl madam diffused the situation but informed him that he still had to pay. Thankfully in the end he did and I ditched him shortly after the door was unlocked and we were let out.