Friday, 5 May 2017

Searching for Street Art in Chiang Mai

Heading out of town we found ourselves at one of the countless stops we made at 7eleven for a cold drink when a group of police officers pulled up in their truck and started talking to us. This happened several times in Thailand, each time the atmosphere being that of a friendly chat crossed with a mild attempt at a shakedown, but never actually reaching that point. They'd ask where we were from, where we were going and usually then asked for a photo with us. They'd discreetly write down our bike licence plate numbers but never asked us for our names or to see any paperwork. We weren't concerned of course as we had everything we were required to have, it was just odd the way it happened several times.

Our vague plan was to spend most of our 30 permitted days in Thailand working our way north before hopping the border into Laos. First though we wanted to see some of northern Thailand and ride the famous Mae Hong Son loop from Chiang Mai. After a night in the cheapest room we'd found yet at $6 including breakfast we set off clockwise around the loop in the hope that we wouldn't keep tripping over clueless backpackers in shorts and flip flops riding for the first time as we'd heard most of them ride the loop in the opposite direction. The previous day I'd replaced my chain and sprockets, and coupled with a new front tyre and bearing a short while earlier, my bike, rather than the lame stubborn pony it had been previously now resembled just a stubborn pony. Kick all day and end up exhausted.

Our first stop on the loop was Doi Inthanon National Park, a steep climb up to a thoroughly disappointing viewpoint at about 2565 metres at a cost of 320 baht each to ride up the road, yet another act of foreigner fleecing. The last third of the ride up was much steeper than we'd anticipated, something we only truly appreciated on the way back down and we had to push our little bikes to their limits to make it. In first gear and still struggling we finally made it to the top to find a souvenir shop, overpriced cafe and a couple of small stupas. In hindsight I wouldn't have bothered.

It was becoming clear to us as we moved through Thailand that virtually everywhere we stopped tourists were treated with utter disdain by local people. Most ignored us, but a significant number were downright rude and made it clear we weren't welcome. The rest smirked at us as they tried to charge us through the nose for products and services, asking many times the going rate. They call Thailand the Land of Smiles and maybe it once was, but not anymore. A combination of over-saturation by obnoxious, disrespectful tourists and the resulting greediness of the locals that has been bred from this has created a toxic environment and caused the natives to become tourist weary. Understandably it was thoroughly depressing to be treated in this way and the longer we spent there the more I yearned to leave.

The next sections of the loop were nice enough, twisty roads but nothing we haven't seen elsewhere. For such a fabled route I found it quite mediocre, nowhere near as good as the north of Vietnam. Again, overcharging ruined many an otherwise pleasant situation, such as the little roadside cafe that served us 60 baht each for truly awful 'coffee' and when we complained the cafe owner just smiled smugly and said 'more money in Pai' as if this was somehow acceptable.

A bit further around the loop we stopped in the famous hippy-filled town of Pai. Sure that I would hate it, I was surprised to find it wasn't actually as bad as I'd expected. A deliberately styled tourist town complete with food stands in the walking street serving pizza, lasagne and all manner of other western foods for high prices, it was also possible to find a decent, cheap pad Thai and coffee for much less than 60 baht. After spending just a night there though we were ready to move on.

During a coffee stop just before the twistiest section of the loop Evan said that he had been pushing his bike further and further in corners to see how far it would go. Shortly after this I caught up with him on a steep downhill hairpin, sitting on the roadside barrier nursing his road rash after he'd dug his fixed foot peg into the tarmac and slid down the road on his side. I guess he found that limit and unfortunately lost some skin in the process.

Back in Chiang Mai we wandered around the city a little. Not an awful place, but again full of tourists, scooter rental shops and elephant pants. Its saving graces were some decent murals nd a very good night food market by the northern gate in the old city wall.

Whereas for the most part I didn't find Thailand particularly new or exciting, one thing I did enjoy there was the street art. In Chiang Mai murals appeared around every corner including lots featuring Alex Face's Mardi, Bon's birds and many by Muay Cola/Yap.

A little way out of town I'd read about a derelict building with many floors covered in murals, so with a rough location pinned on a map we set off in search of it. We weren't disappointed. Standing a little way back from the road with easy access and a place to leave our bikes out of view, the building was a street art hunters paradise. A dozen or so floors covered in huge murals including many by the big names in SE Asia's street art scene, we spent a couple of hours looking and climbing until we reached the roof and a view out over the surrounding area. Another rare gem of a place in an otherwise disappointing country.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! We did as you did. We also been in Chiang Mai and we rented a motorbike on service, and we stayed glad, because we just give a drive licence, and got the motorbike. I'm not a typical tourist, I like unusuall places, so it was my idea to ride that way. We have cool pic from that place, where you stay. You may see it on my blog!