Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai?

The internet seems to be in an endless love affair with top ten lists and declaring one thing better than another.  I never find it that easy to label something the best even when I asked to do so.  I am often asked to choose between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and give my reasons but again there are just so many variables.  Just the other day a friend asked if I had a blank sheet, without all the things that tie me to Chiang Rai, which would I choose.

The answer of course depends on who is doing the answering and on who you are and what you want at this particular time in your life.  In my experience I have also found, just because you choose one place as your residence, it doesn’t preclude spending time in other places.  For example we have been visiting Chiang Mai more frequently of late.

In the past we went to Chiang Mai primarily to visit and stay with a very good friend and do some shopping.  We now have a couple of new reasons to go there.  Our car needs to be serviced in Chiang Mai since the dealership is there and I am having some dental work done, requiring a couple more visits.

I went to two hospitals in Chiang Rai and in both cases the dentist wanted to extract my tooth, something I was not prepared to do.  One dentist recommended a couple of places in Chiang Mai and I chose the best option for me.  We spent the night in a very nice hotel, walking distance from the clinic and turned it into a romantic weekend getaway.

Later this week we have to return to prepare for a crown, my tooth having been saved from extraction.  The service and followup from the clinic has been fantastic so I am expecting to be very satisfied with the end result.  They even tried to find someone in Chiang Rai who could do the crown but the woman they recommended is out on maternity leave and I don’t really want to wait.

For me the trip from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, and back, usually ends up being more than 500 kilometers.  Believe it or not, I actually like driving in northern Thailand and I really like going on long drives with my wife, regardless of what one may read in the news about driving in Thailand.  We talk, eat and sometimes stop to do a little sightseeing along the way.  For me the trick is to forget about getting to the destination and focus on the sensation of driving and soak up the mood.  Of course the nicer your car and companion, the easier it is to do that.

Chiang Mai has much more to offer in the way of expat life, restaurants, coffeeshops, shopping and entertainment but you would be hard pressed to replicate the physical environment we have here at an affordable price and a reasonable distance from town, even with all the ring-roads in Chiang Mai.  As it is we are more than fifty kilometers from Chiang Rai but I love our drive to town, there is seldom any traffic to speak of and I have chosen environment over people.  The environment soothes my soul and nourishes me, which is more than I can say for most people.  I also like being able to get on my bike and choose from a variety of routes, all starting from my front door, like I did today.

Thirty years in Bangkok and I don’t remember any sunsets but here Cookie and I take our after dinner walk right around sunset, pretty much everyday.  Sometimes, like today, our walk is cut short by the weather and not every sunset is photo worthy but it is always my favorite time of day.

If you are trying to replicate the pace and feel of your previous life, Chiang Mai would come closer to filling that bill in my opinion.  On the other hand if you are looking to step out of your comfort zone and immerse yourself into a life altering adventure where nothing is familiar and everything you do takes effort and thought, then Chiang Rai might have fewer western offerings to distract you from your adventure.

Some people come to Chiang Rai and fit right in with the local expat community.  They seem to be of a similar age and demographic with shared struggles.  Chiang Rai is after all much smaller town and easier to negotiate than Chiang Mai or Bangkok.  One thing that has not changed after eight years up north is that I still find I have more in common with my Bangkok friends or our visitors from overseas, than with the major demographic represented here in Chiang Rai.

Sadly I have one less friend in Chiang Rai these days.  We were in Chiang Mai last week when I read on FaceBook that a friend had died that very morning.  (Without FaceBook I would find it very difficult to stay in touch with our friends spread around the world.)  We went to the cremation the other day and the praise and admiration expressed by the Thai community was moving to say the least.  He was praised for his deep understanding of the language, religion, culture, customs and history of Thailand.  He was given credit for having overseen the construction and repair of several structures at the temple where he was cremated.  He will be missed by many in both the Thai and expat communities.

We were very different in many ways but we were drawn to each other by our shared interests and our long histories in Thailand.  We understood what the other had experienced without the need to explain, which I find rare these days.  I moved here full-time at 23 and he at 33 so some of our experiences were similar and it was just nice to be able to talk with someone who went through some of the same things and knew what one was talking about.

I am guessing new arrivals might have a similar bond with those who are going through the same things they are but I don’t really know for sure.  It is one reason I sometimes suggest newcomers should search each other out and share the burden of adjusting to this new land, unless they are brave enough to do it on their own.  Choosing friends with a complimentary temperament might be a good idea as well.  There is a lot of negativity and many believers in conspiracy theories, so unless that is your cup of tea, you may be better served by searching out those who are more positive and don’t find Thailand such a struggle.