Senior Voice -

By Dimitra Lavrakas
Senior Voice Travel Correspondent 

Thailand is an ideal winter trip for Alaskans

Chiang Mai: Exotic, delicious, inexpensive

 

Thomas Lavrakas photo

Squid on a stick can be had at Suan Kaew, the main shopping mall in town – everyone calls it "Central".

One of the favored spots of Alaskans looking to avoid winter and live on $30 a day, Chiang Mai, the capital of Northern Thailand, offers great food, warm, welcoming people and cultural sites. It's Asia without the huge crowds - and Alaskans are not used to large groups of people except at the state fair in Palmer.

My cousin Tom, who's in Chiang Mai, now advises Americans to keep a cool head. Thai people are relaxed, polite and non-confrontational. Remain calm and never resort to the pushy, demanding manner that serves us so well at home.

"I've seen a couple of people trying the old 'this is completely unacceptable' routine and it just leads to embarrassment. Turn on the Yankee charm (wait, is that an oxymoron?), breathe deeply and see your time here as free, non-pharmaceutical stress relief," he says.

Eat and eat some more

The food is great, fresh and incredibly inexpensive. Every neighborhood will have its own market. Siritwattana, also called Thanin – everything here has two or three names with multiple spelling options - has all the charm of a wall-less airplane hangar. But oh, the fresh fruit: mangosteens in season, beautiful watermelon, Fuji apples, the sweetest bananas, grapes, mangos. The readymade food is a dream, too, particularly the sweet-and-sour pork ribs.

Around the complex is a wonderful bakery, shops where you can get clothes, bags, shoes, and a great pharmacy. No prescription needed in the latter, just tell the pharmacist what ails you and he's got the goods. The last point might scare some people, but it comes in handy, or you can always go to Boots at the mall.

The weekly Sunday Walking Street is a favorite. You start at Tha Phae Gate to the east of the old town, stroll down Ratchadamnoen Street, the main east-west thoroughfare through town. At the gate, you can get quality handicrafts, Ray Bans for five bucks (no, really, I swear they're real), grilled honey chicken on skewers, and a nice foot massage.

The main street is lined with innumerable craftsmen, food stalls and what have you, and it's a nice relaxing night out for shopping, people watching and a chance to indulge in coconut ice cream. The sound of "Native handicrafts" might ring tinny to some people, but in Thailand the goods are actually quite interesting and beautiful.

America has crept in with the 7/11 chain, but with a difference. Chiang Mai's 7/11 has really good food. If you get desperate at 2 a.m., there's always a spicy chicken sandwich within reach.

There's hundreds of relaxing, charming little coffee houses in town and they're one of the real treats of Chiang Mai. Nothing beats the heat better than an iced latte, and you can get a delicious one for a buck or two.

Cultural treasures

There are lovely Buddhist temples tucked in along the way. Chiang Mai isn't really the most beautiful of cities, but the temples are real jewels.

Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, and houses two very important and venerated Buddha images - Phra Sila, a marble Buddha, and Phra Satang Man, a crystal Buddha.

Away from the city, in the jungle is a gem of a temple - Wat Palad or Wat Pha Lat. Like an archeological ruin it's trailed with vines and foliage that threatens to smother it. Take in atmospheric and multiple golden Buddhas and reflecting ponds; it's a tranquil experience to counteract the bustle.

But Chiang Mai has over 300 temples so there is always one close by to visit.

Thomas Lavrakas photo

Take in open views (including locals' casual attitudes toward vehicle safety) while riding in a red Song Tao. Kind of like roofed pickup trucks, the vehicles are everywhere and provide convenient, inexpensive transportation for visitors.

Getting around

The best way to get around is the red Song Taos. They're kind of like roofed pickup trucks, but not as uncomfortable as all that. They are everywhere. Just flag one down or walk up to a driver stuck in traffic, tell him where you want to go and agree to a price. Usually, you'll pay 30 to 60 baht, or about $1 to $2 to go about anywhere in town. Then jump in back, try not to step on your new pals, and off you go. It's kind of like a smaller version of a London double-decker bus where you could leap on and off the back.

Spotting fellow Alaskans

As in Hawaii, you can spot an Alaskan by their Eddie Bauer wear and their attitude of ease in dealing with transportation delays because they happen all the time, and less-than-modern conveniences scare us not.

I think Alaskans make good travelers: running water, a clean bed and good food and we're good to go.

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