The sun is a violent red disk against a muted, purplish sky, dipping down to kiss the far-off green hills behind us as we speed back towards Chiang Mai through what feels like a tunnel of slapping wind.
I’m sat behind Vicky – the blogger I spent the first week of my trip with. Hot, uncomfortable, sticky, yet buoyed up by that bubble of joy I only seem to find when I’m travelling. This is it, I think. This is what makes me happy. It’s no revelation; the whole reason I came running away to Thailand with my broken heart was that I know that I’m happier when I’m travelling. But what I’m realising, or remembering, now is that it isn’t actually travel itself but experiences, adventure, the new. Getting on the plane alone wouldn’t have been enough. It’s what happens when you travel – trying new things, seeing new places, meeting amazing people – that I thrive on and that distracts me from the pain I’ve been carrying around.
On our moped, as I’m busy getting my own mind figured out for the first time in a while, we’re racing against the fast approaching night after a day of exploring the country outside Chiang Mai. A lot of my eight days in the city was spent working in various cafés, of which Chiang Mai has millions, with as much sightseeing and eating as possible tucked in between. So to have a full day of exploration was a sudden blast of much needed fun.
Mopeds and Mountains – Wat Phra That
We started with Doi Suthep, the mountain that looms gloomily through the haze over town. By all accounts, this is simply the wrong season to visit Chiang Mai; less rainfall, increased traffic and frequent crop burning create a smoky season which begins around February every year, ruining the air – and the views. But, there was still a little to be seen through the heavy air; a muted green rolling away below us as we curved up the winding mountain road, passing a forest fire warning sign set to “medium” and a couple of intrepid (or foolish), sweat-drenched hikers. Towards the top, we parked up and plodded tiredly up the stone staircase to Wat Phra That temple.
Inside the temple, all thoughts of the missing view were forgotten. An explosion of colour met us; riotous flowers, carved red wood, and glinting, shimmering gold. Gold especially was everywhere; carved Buddhas, gilded rooftops, tinkling miniature bells and engraved hearts hanging from the big bronze prayer bells.
Being the best known and most prestigious temple in Chiang Mai, it was over crowded with tourists – ourselves included of course – but still there was an air of serenity at Wat Phra That. I found a quiet corner of shade to watch the passers by and the people giving prayers, and just as I went to sit down I spotted a piece of paper lying at my feet, containing an English translation of an ancient Chinese prophecy. “You will have success in what you’re thinking. Luck and love will be yours soon, but you should be patient.” The cynic in me wants to dismiss it as coincidence, but I still can’t quite shake the feeling that the scrap of paper was somehow placed just in that spot for me to find. It was, at any rate, exactly what I needed to hear, and regardless of your beliefs, once something has been interpreted as a sign that’s what it becomes. If nothing else, this piece of paper has served an important reminder to my over-thinking, over-planning mind and it’s constant worrying. Have patience.
Escaping Chiang Mai
From the temple, we headed to the Mon Thaa Than waterfalls about halfway down the mountain. Unfortunately, during dry season neither level of the cascades was particularly breathtaking. But it was a pretty area, deep in the quiet shade of the forest, and we had the place more or less to ourselves.
After talking all morning about our shared love for those epic sandwiches from Vietnam, banh mi, it seemed like perfect serendipity when Vicky caught sight of a Vietnamese restaurant on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. A small feast ensued – with banh mi (sadly nowhere near as good as the stuff from Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An), fried spring rolls, and a huge bowl of pork noodles. We were in pain from hunger, and all the food tasted amazing – so I’m sorry to say that our Vietnamese feast was probably one of my best meals in Thailand so far!
Our last stop of the day was at the ambitiously named Chiang Mai Grand Canyon in Hang Dong. Not really a canyon at all but an old quarry that’s been filled in with water, it’s now a stunning – and enormous – swimming hole and Chiang Mai’s answer for the lack of beaches. Between soft red cliffs, the water was a striking shade of indigo blue, so enticing in the parched landscape and after our dusty day on the bike. The low sun was sending shadows across the pool as I swam out to a bamboo raft in the centre, but it was still warm enough to swim. Better still was lazing on the raft, half submerged and deliciously cool, watching more daring swimmers leap from the cliffs into the clear water. It’s a popular place, but not too busy during the week, and spending the last golden hours of the day cooling off in that stunning setting was the perfect tonic.
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