Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Chiang Mai: The Trip

The first time we go anywhere on holiday is always a little nervewracking, a little tension-filled. Would we like the place? Would HM be overwhelmed by dust and noise? Would we be bored? Would the hotel turn out to be dark and dank?

We picked Chiang Mai for a number of reasons. HM had never been there before; I had, but that was twenty years ago and I don't remember a thing from that trip! As the unofficial provincial capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, we hoped, would be the perfect blend of small town charm and big city convenience. The weather in December was supposed to be cool and dry, a nice change from Singapore's heat and humidity. Moreover, the food was supposed to be different from that of Bangkok and the south. We could expect more northern and northeastern influences. And of course, Chiang Mai is renowned for being the marketplace of the North, as far as the arts and crafts are concerned. That it is also a city of some antiquity was something I, not HM, was interested in. Yes, crumbling walls and cobbled stone streets, just my kind of thing.

Still,something could always go wrong.

FYI, the conversion rate used here is SGD $1 to 20 baht which is a little conservative but easier to convert. The actual rate was SGD $1 to 22.7 baht at the time of travel.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Chiang Mai: The Hotels

Tamarind Village was our first choice of hotel. We had read good things about it on the online forums, and it was right smack in the middle of where the Sunday Market would be held, on Rachadamnoen Street. Because of work commitments, we had had no choice but to fly in to Chiang Mai on a Sunday afternoon, and since we had to leave before the following weekend, we had but one chance to hit the market. Hence, I wanted to ensure that we could head straight for the market once we had checked in. Unfortunately, Tamarind Village was fully booked that first night, thanks to the Royal Flora Expo that was being held in Chiang Mai. It was the internet booking agent we used who suggested Rydges Amora Tapae, near Tapae Gate, a stone's throw away from the market, so in the end we booked one night at the Rydges and four nights at Tamarind Village.

Rydges Amora Tapae

When the hotel was built, the Rydges caused a fair bit of controversy. Located right at the edge of the old city, the 12-storey building cast a shadow over many a wat, not a good thing in a staunchly Buddhist country. For tourists, the location of the hotel is a nice compromise, between old city sights and the Night Bazaar-centred downtown area.

To be honest, we hadn't stayed at a 3-star (4-star, if you believe some hotel booking sites) hotel for a while, a 3-star boutique hotel, yes, but not a standard tour package hotel. At 2200B (SGD $110) per night, we didn't expect too much from it.

The first thing that happened though was that we got bumped up to a suite, instead of the mountain view deluxe room we had booked. Was that because the hotel had messed up the booking? Oh well, a suite was nothing to sniff at.

Once we had checked in, we wondered: if this was a suite, what would the rooms be like?

The suite was spacious...

the living room and dining area

... but you couldn't accuse it of being luxurious.

HM insisted on a close-up of the fugly carpet

cheesy Christmas decor...

...made from Khong Guan-type biscuits!

coffee house, at breakfast time - tack-o-rama...

Still, things worked and if you didn't look too closely, you could ignore the inherent ugliness.

in the dim light, this looked remarkably like the Ritz-Carlton

the living room in soft lighting

the basic necessities...

the shower (bathtub's on the other side)

At the end of the day, the Rydges Amora Tapae is probably a good choice if all you want is a place, with all mod cons, to lay your head down at night, ideal for businessmen out all day for meetings and expatriates just in town to run errands, and perhaps for those whose idea of a good holiday involves squeezing in as much as possible and running around the whole day. We on the other hand like to be able to relax in more salubrious surroundings, at least for part of the time, so while we didn't regret staying at the Rydges, we were happy to take that 5-min sangthaew ride over to the Tamarind Village.

Tamarind Village

Our first sight of the hotel was in fact during our stroll through the Sunday Market.

front entrance, on a Sunday night

front entrance, by day

The funny thing about the hotel is where it is located. Although it is within the old city, the area is hardly what you would call pretty or even picturesque. Amidst car dealerships and other equally mundane buildings, a boutique hotel was somewhat incongruous. Still, the unobtrusive bamboo-lined driveway led to a much-needed refuge from city life.

ahhh, the gateway to peace and quiet


When we booked the hotel, we were aware that it was a sister hotel to the Rachamanka and the Rayavadee, both luxury hotels in Chiang Mai and Krabi respectively. However, at 4100B (SGD $205) per room night, it was definitely the junior sibling.

What we didn't know was that it was an icon of Chiang Mai design, if one of these glossy coffee table books is to be believed. Apparently, the two local architect/designers behind the Taramind Village were the ones responsible for the genesis of the so-called Chiang Mai style. And what a looker the hotel was. Suddenly I felt underdressed in my sloppy three-quarter length pants and t-shirt. (HM thinks I should invest in resort wear for future visits - linen pants, anyone?)

the hotel reception area

the foyer of the hotel

the hotel shop, so chi chi

Inside Ruen Tamarind, the restaurant

Of the 40 rooms on the property, ours was as good as a stand-alone cottage, being tacked on at the end of a row.

home sweet home

Each of the rooms had either a porch...

our neighbour's porch

... or a bath-tub.

guess which we had?

But it was the inside that we fell in love with.

HM swears that she's never slept better than in that bed.

very resort

the devil's in the details

with compliments from the hotel

eh, we almost bought a pair of these

peek a boo - two closets, on the right and the left, and swing doors that opened to...

... this (pardon me for spoiling the view)

modern facilities, phew

laundry baskets in the closet

bamboo towel rack

wooden slat shower floor

Of course things didn't just look good and feel good, they smelled good too. The in-house toiletries were a big hit - jasmine and chempaka shower gel, ginger shampoo, both as viscous as honey!

kawa-eeee, as the Japanese would say

Needless to say, we were torn between spending time inside our little cottage or outside in the lovely grounds. In the end, we only made it to the pool once in the four days we were there.

oh for more time at the pool

All in all, Tamarind Village really suited us well. It was quiet and relaxing, and provided respite from the shopping and sightseeing. It was where we needed it to be, close enough to the Night Bazaar (a 15-minute stroll) but not engulfed by the hustle and bustle of the downtown area. And in the time that we were there, we only encountered one other Singaporean party, a family of four. The other guests were mostly European. Would we have preferred to return to Rydges, where we would have to jostle with and be pushed by the mostly Asian if not Singaporean guests around the breakfast buffet table? I think not.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chiang Mai: The Shopping

A minor problem with shopping in Chiang Mai was the fact that the little boutiques and galleries that we were so fond of were scattered all over. Unlike Ubud's Monkey Forest Road, Ho Chi Minh City's Dong Khoi area, or even Singapore's Orchard Road, Chiang Mai does not have a shopping district or a shopping street where everything is centralised. As one boutique owner we happened to speak to pointed out, even on a main street like Tapae, the boutiques are not clustered together. I guess only Chiang Mai residents would know where to find what. But this was more than made up for by the markets which were the highlight of our shopping experience.

Sunday Market

We started our shopping adventure at the Sunday Market. In terms of layout, this weekly pasar malam lines Rachadamnoen Street, or Walking Street as it is sometimes known, and the sois that run off to the left and right of it.

We started at the end directly behind the Tapae Gate. Despite the crowds, it was surprisingly pleasant walking around. For one thing, it wasn't hot and humid. People didn't push and shove. And, as HM likes to point out, they didn't smell bad, perhaps because of the cooler climate. The only time human traffic slowed down was when the buskers got in the way. The blind, the destitute, rocker wanna-bes (some of these boys were really good!), students raising funds, they were out in full force.

Singaporean kids should be grateful they don't have to resort to this

no muzak, but Christmas carols in Thai instead

Touted as being the superior of the two markets (the other being the Night Bazaar), the Sunday Market stalls supposedly offered a wider selection of better quality products by hilltribe craftsmen and young Thai artisans, and less of the generic stuff.

ethnic-ky earrings

There was certainly a lot to look at, as we meandered from stall to stall - lacquerware, photo frames, lamps of all sorts, cushion covers, fabrics and bags... Our problem unfortunately was that we had no basis of comparison that first night. Were the prices fair? Were these products generic or not? We would have preferred to have checked out the Night Bazaar first. Ah well.

And we hadn't gotten into the swing of things as far as bargaining was concerned. We made some tentative attempts at it, but couldn't shake off the feeling that we were being fleeced left, right and centre. We didn't let any of this stop us though from making a couple of small purchases.

varnished wooden bangles

120B (SGD $6) for 5 bangles

Japanese-inspired table lamps

250B (SGD $12.50) for two lamps

table runners (or scarves?), handmade and dyed with natural dye made from bark and leaves, two for 170B (SGD $8.50)

We would have loved to return to the Sunday Market for a second look, but ah well, will have to wait till the next trip.

Night Bazaar

The first night we went to the Night Bazaar, it was somewhat traumatic. It was a Monday night but it was a public holiday and Chang Klan Road was closed to traffic. One would have expected this to mean more space for everyone. Instead, the crowds were pouring in, and at the road intersections, human traffic came to a complete standstill. It was suffocatingly crowded so we left the scene early.

road block

On subsequent visits, we had a much more positive experience. True, many of the products on sale were indeed ubiquitous, but with a little legwork, we found things to buy (or not as the case may be).

same same, from Chiang Mai to Bangkok

awww, too bad we couldn't think of anyone to buy these for

Elliot the Elephant, for 200B (SGD $10)

HM insists these look like minced grandma

preserved fruit (cherries, longan, assorted fruit) for 350B (SGD $17.50) in total

from Book Corner (1545B/SGD $77.25), including a cookbook by the couple who run the first cooking school in Chiang Mai

ah pek slippers for 159B (SGD $8)

woven basket for 450B (SGD $22.50)

We were most productive inside Chiang Mai Night Bazaar building. We had to restrain ourselves to gifts for friends and relatives, and what we could honestly say we would use ourselves.

saner than outside

wooden puzzles and games (120B to 140B each; SGD $6 to $7 each)

Nalinee's - silk screened t-shirts and handpainted blouses

the artist at work

900B (SGD $45) for two blouses and one t-shirt

the ZOOVA and Chang Siam Company - Chiang Mai design collectives

249B (SGD $12.50) for a Chang Siam Co. t-shirt

mango wood galore

200B for a vase

Thai silk shirt for 200B (SGD $10)

Boutiques and More

We did find one little place just round the corner on Tapae, from Rydges. Sadly, we did not take note of its name. It was however two little shops side by side, owned by the same farang.

one of Chiang Mai's little boutiques

The boutique owner had done his homework, accumulating products from around the region. Those bags certainly looked familiar - we'd seen them in Vietnam. And then there were these...

silver earrings from Northern Thailand, for 380B (SGD $19)

3 Laotian silk shawls – 495B (SGD $25.00) each

And then just down the road from that boutique, there was a dusty little shop where HM found this:

100B (SGD $5)

Then there was this shop round the corner from Tamarind Village, Herb Basics.

soaps and scents, from Chiang Mai Province

We walked away with:
  • Six bottles of Flower Water (jasmine, ylang ylang, frangipani, lotus, orchid), 120B (SGD $6) each
  • Lemongrass Essential Oil – 70B (SGD $3.50)
  • White Chempaka Essential Oil – 65B (SGD $3.25)

We even found something to buy in the pharmacies.

hey, we don't get these here

Bath mitts (60B/SGD $3 each) and a Boots sewing kit (200B/SGD $10)

The Maithong brand bath mitts were local products, stuffed with soap made from natural ingredients such as lemongrass.

Even in the highlands we found something to buy. Our one purchase from the Doi Inthanon National Park was

Highland coffee, for 100B (SGD $5)

Of course we couldn't go back without some of those luscious toiletries from Tamarind Village, could we?

Tamarind Village toiletries pack, for 1200B (SGD $60)

And we certainly couldn't have done without our trusty and indispensable Nancy Chandler map of Chiang Mai, with its eye-catching layout and many a tip on where to do what.

available at most bookshops in Chiang Mai for 160B (SGD $8)

And, last but not least, the obligatory purchases from duty-free:

Two bottles of French reds and Kilkenny, how festive (SGD $100 in total)

Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturising Lotion with pump (SGD $54) and Lancome's Advanced Whitening Anti-Dark Circles Eye Treatment (SGD $67.50)