Nine Indispensable Places in Chiang Mai
One of the nicest things about living in Chiang Mai is, simply put, its density. One is always discovering new restaurants, bars; new people, new circles, new worlds. You are likely to bump into someone you know once a day, but you may also fail to see someone you know for ages. It sounds strange, but you get all the benefits of anonymity (peace of mind, for example) and all the benefits of community (help in times of need, for example). But in this climate of constant change, it is necessary to have a few places one can depend on for sustenance, inspiration, or even a decent cup of coffee. Here are some of mine.
Located on Huay Kaew Road near Chiang Mai University, The Teashop (rahn cha in Thai) is my favorite place in the world to drink way too many caffeinated beverages. It also happens to be where I have done a significant amount of writing, and here's why: It is open-air, but kept cool both by the building itself and by umbrellas, palm trees, and other flora. The music in the background is enough to enhance your drinking experience but not so much as to distract from work or conversation. Sometimes I am the only customer, and virtually every time I go I can sit at the same rough-hewn wooden table. At about 30 to 45 baht a pop, the drinks are affordable; and the coffee, while not the best in Chiang Mai, does what coffee is supposed to do. Food is also available, though I can vouch only for the breakfast and the pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup. But easily the best thing about The Teashop is its dicor, which includes replicas of famous paintings, artful ceramics, vases of roses, shelves of books (fake but not gaudy), and a color scheme that is vaguely Mediterranean. I often like to think of The Teashop as the kind of cafi in which Ernest Hemingway would have worked when he was an aspiring writer in Paris. Everybody has their illusions.
"Italian F" or "M Cuisine"
By the time this is published, the above-named establishment may have moved from its present location on Suthep Road behind Chiang Mai University, but that is where it is for now, and as the above heading suggests, nobody can seem to agree on the name of the place ("Italian F" comes from the fact that the letters "ood" have disappeared from one of its signs.) Nor can anybody agree on its hours and days of operation, though a safe bet is 1) after sundown and 2) not on Wednesdays. The appeal of Italian F can be summed up quite easily: Chicken Breast in Orange Peel Butter, a side of spaghetti, side salad, and a hunk of garlic French bread. Price? 60 baht. About a buck fifty. I have had friends who eat here four or five times a week. Italian F is owned by a Thai, a chef formerly employed by some reputable Italian restaurant, but the overhead for Italian F could scarcely be less. You sit on wooden stools and the menus are unsightly, and the "kitchen" would look like an ordinary noodle stall were it not for the pizza oven and the harried, hat-wearing staff. (The owner himself is constantly, and I mean constantly, cooking: most dishes are stir-fried in a wok from previously prepared ingredients.) Pasta dishes run for 40 baht, and recently Italian F began offering standard, full-strength tropical cocktails for the unbelievably low price of 25 baht. Soups and salads are also available, as are about thirty main courses. And the whimsical touch? The owner plays classical music out of speakers attached to the stall. I listened to Beethoven's Fur Elise there once.
The Small House Cafi
This is my neighborhood bar. I do not exaggerate when I say that I can walk there in less than 30 seconds; it is right across from my neighborhood noodle stall. Owned and operated by a young Thai couple named Yoot and Dao (Dao means "star"), it attracts mostly students or former students, mostly male, and -- except for the rare oddball foreigner like me or my friends -- overwhelmingly Thai. At Small House my nickname is Gong with a long o, which apparently refers to my shockingly long nose, a nose that has also caused countless Thais to compare me to Mr. Bean. A small bottle of Heineken will set you back 45 baht, a flask of Sang Som whisky 90; and I recently discovered that when Yoot is around several cocktails are available, including Gin Tonic and Long Island Iced Tea. The music is loud and good (this evening it was old swing tunes), and it often includes the now-popular Thai pop/rock band Silly Fools (which sounds like Silly Food when the Thais say it.) The only bad thing about the Small House is that it is located next to an unmarked intersection between the Canal Road and an extremely narrow bridge spanning the canal. People drive down the Canal Road much MUCH too quickly, while nearly every evening some driver on the bridge will be either drunk or simply inattentive. There are few more sudden and thorough ways to lose a pleasant buzz than to hear blaring horns and to cringe in expectation of a ghastly accident. Oh, and the Small House should also sell slices of New York style pizza. They don't. But this may change if I can get my hands on some start-up money. Until then, you can buy roasted squid or deep-fried meat-rice balls from vendors who are working nearby precisely to feed hungry drinkers.
You may think I am joking when I include this pox on the globalized world in my list, but remember that I am talking about indispensability. And here's another reason: the people who work in 7-11s in Chiang Mai, while they may not enjoy their jobs very much, make me smile. Get five young Thai guys in uniforms behind a counter and you have created the conditions for slapstick, ruthless punning, and funny modifications of the Thai language (like saying krap-om instead of krap). And of course without 7-11 I would have to plan ahead or live on a normal schedule, two things to which I have become constitutionally averse. 7-11 is also, blessedly, air-conditioned.
Three words: Skippy peanut butter. And practically any other nutritive cure for a bout of homesickness that you might want. Located on the up-and-coming Nimmenhamin Road, Kasem store is apparently something of a Chiang Mai institution, with Thai friends of mine reminiscing about going there as children for a treat. The store is not big -- it is more Mom and Pop than, say, Circle K -- but it sells fresh baked goods, coffee, Prego spaghetti sauce....You get the picture. Imported food is pricey, of course, but a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich can sometimes spell the difference between normalcy and what one of my friends calls a "bad Asia day", a day when absolutely everything that could go wrong eventually does. (The deafening sound of power tools or the mindless barking of fifty stray dogs are among the first signs that a bad Asia day is on the way.)
Chiang Mai University Library
A writer without a library is kind of like a plant without sunlight, which is to say dead or dying. I know. For a year I lived in a Thai town without one, and had to drive for an hour in either direction to buy a book worth the name. For 1000 baht a year, a foreigner can get a library card at CMU that enables him or her to take out up to three books at a time for one week. Hardly ideal, perhaps, and the foreign fiction is limited to three stacks (nonfiction one floor), but at least this encourages quick and usually sophisticated reading. And the library has that irreplaceably soothing smell of musty and decaying paper.
For the sake of variety, I will here mention a place indispensable to a friend of mine, and that place is the forest temple Wat Umong off Suthep Road. He goes there when he feels as though his life may be spinning out of control, and as he walks through the grounds and reads the proverbs nailed to trees, he arrives at peace of mind or some solution to a nagging problem. I too have done this occasionally, and it's a good reminder that, whatever else you may think about organized religions, even free thinkers can sometimes be glad that they are around.
The Sky Above Doi Suthep
To paraphrase Whitman in another context, I look at it long and long. You wouldn't think that clouds could do such things until you have seen them, and they can be seen from almost anywhere in Chiang Mai. Right now, at sundown (having left The Teashop I am now eating a pork chop with bacon and pepper sauce at Italian F), there is a storm coming, and dark grey clouds twice the height of the mountain itself are buzzing with ominous lightning. Sometimes such signs prove a false alarm, but often they portend a thorough and dramatic drenching. And even when rain is not on the way, the clouds are a spectacle to behold, as if the entire mountain were continuously in flames. No wonder the Thais believe that the city's guardian spirit lives up there: he sends down the rains and tempers the cruel sun.
Update: A Discotheque
Although I am generally a rather studious and even boring individual, there sometimes arises in me a primitive desire to, well, shake that thing. And my favorite place to do this is a disco called Update, located on the Chang Puak Road about halfway between the city moat and the so-called Super Highway. I know that people who frequent such places are prone to exaggerating their spiritual benefits ("I was like one with everybody, man") but I can honestly say that one evening at Update I came perilously close to enlightenment. A huge TV screen overhead was showing computer animated Japanese women dancing in time with the music, and this together with the flashing lights and the relentless thumping of the sound system led my mind to realize all sorts of things that, of course, I could neither remember nor express. I also favor Update because they occasionally play Indian Bhangra techno, which not only shakes my thing but makes me pleasantly nostalgic about India. The only bad parts about Update are that the drinks are expensive (100 baht for a small bottle of beer, which comes, oddly enough, with a straw); and that if you are a foreign male you are liable to be all but assaulted by the army of attendants in the men's bathroom, who will massage your shoulders and legs and arms and head while you stand defenseless at a urinal. They will then demand exorbitant compensation. Unfortunately one's only recourse is to state (or shout) in no uncertain terms that you wish to urinate untenderized, all the better to contemplate in Zen-like fashion the unity and emptiness of all things, or your similarity to an atom hurtling through an infinite void.
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