After having a mixed two days in Bangkok, I was making my way to Chiang Mai, the Mecca of Digital Nomadism, both to stay a little while and to see the Loi Krathong festival. The festival was incredibly popular, so the only option I had was to take a cheap third-class sitting carriage on the train.
Overnight Train to Chiang Mai
I made my way to the train station at 9PM, buying a handful of drinks from a 7-Eleven as I went. The train station was packed with locals, police, and tourists. I was relieved to find the train I would be taking was already sitting at the platform a half hour before departure.
The carriage I was in felt really utilitarian; little provision had been made for comfort and it was far warmer than the outside. The seats are very tight, meaning you really brush up close to whomever is next to you.
I was one of the first people to arrive, and a rice-with-chicken seller came and sat next to me. He was incredibly persistent in trying to get me to buy something, saying things like “It’s such a long trip!” and “My food is very tasty!”. He was trying to convince me for maybe three minutes and wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he didn’t understand when I tried to tell him I didn’t eat animals. Eventually he left to bother someone else, though.
I was sitting with a 30-something Argentinian guy (who now lives in New Zealand so speaks perfect English) called Andy, and a 24-year-old Thai local who called himself ‘It’. ‘It’ had fairly good English, but he lacked confidence, and kept apologising, which Andy and I repeatedly told him he didn’t need to do. It turned out that Andy and I were the first foreigners that ‘It’ had ever met, and that he was visiting Chiang Mai for the first time, as we were.
Turns out ‘It’ was meant to be getting married in a few weeks, but his fiancée had cheated on him. He worked in a company that produces all kinds of wires and cables, and he was the leader of his team of twenty workers, which he was very proud of. I enjoyed talking to It, and he definitely enjoyed talking to Andy and I.
My carriage was full of Backpackers, most of whom had enormous rucksacks. The rucksacks looked so big and heavy that I can’t imagine they are at all comfortable to carry.
After a few hours of travelling, the train had cooled down significantly, to the point that it felt comfortable. Most everyone was sleeping (or at least trying). I had difficulty; No matter what position I got into, my neck ached.
Every so often we’d stop at a station, and lots of food vendors would come on from the platform, basically all of whom were selling dishes with some kind of meat. These people were incredibly rude; I’m not sure if it was intentional, but they’d shake my shoulder and wake me up. Maybe they do get more business this way, but it’s frustrating to be woken up by someone trying to sell you food you would never consider eating.
It wasn’t until the sun rose that it became apparently exactly how beautiful the countryside that we were travelling through was. It’s just gorgeous, look!
I played some of the (mostly ambient) music I had been listening to on the train to ‘It’, and he really liked it. I played him music like Rust, Dust, Sentient, and Miami Disco. He said he preferred the songs without lyrics, which I can understand.
Eventually, we pulled into the Chiang Mai station, and I said goodbye to ‘It’ and Andy, wishing them the best of luck for their travels.
I hadn’t booked any accommodation for my first night, so I booked a stay at Yuan Hostel (which seemed to have good ratings) whilst I was in the train station. I desperately needed to shower, change, and sleep, so I decided to head straight there.
I instantly got a good impression about Chiang Mai. It was so much more green and pretty (though the river is still sadly brown - it doesn’t smell at all though!) than Bangkok, and the traffic was waaaaay less crazy.
The more I walked, the more I liked. I wasn’t sure how much of what I was seeing was in preparation for the Loi Krathong festival (the first day of which was that same night), but I loved it. The main road I was following was completely lined with stalls (mostly selling little trinkets), and every vendor without fail gave me a huge smile. Many of the buildings were kitted out with paper lanterns (which was certainly for the festival), and just generally I saw more culture here.
Eventually, I reached the Tha Phae Gate, which is supposedly a very famous landmark. I only know about it for the fact that a British guy gratified it recently, which is a huge no-no.
Passing through the old city, I just continued to have good vibes about this place. I saw a shop spraying thin mists of water vapour t cool people down, whilst at different store locals relaxed on hammocks in the shade. Everything just felt laid back here.
Yuan Hostel was far nicer than The Overstay. The staff seemed very worried that I only had a booking for one night; they were fully booked for the next day, and thought I’d have trouble finding somewhere because of the festival. They told me that if the worst came to it, I could crash in their lobby, but I reassured them that I was sure I would find somewhere, and sure enough, when I looked I did.
I was so tired that I basically slept the whole day and night, missing the first day of the festivities. Something about the water here in Thailand has been making my hair go crazy, look:
The second day of the festivities started fairly early, but sparsely. Little things were happening all over the city.
For example, a local school was releasing giant 10ft by 10ft balloons. Once these balloons reached altitude, they dropped coloured smoke, firecrackers, and paper aeroplanes.
I spent the daytime just exploring this beautiful city.
These Red Trucks are called Songthaew, and they transport people like a taxi.
In the evening, I tried to search for where the best place to go for the festival is. There was a lot of misinformation online about having to buy tickets and go to special places; this just isn’t true. I found out that the best place would be the river bank, as the Krathong (little floating candle things made out of banana wood) aren’t allowed to be released on the moat.
I was pretty far away from the river so decided to run. The road was really congested so it was kind of cool to weave in and out of the stationary bikes. I passed by the fruit market on my way, which was useful as I’d been hoping to see one. Eventually I reached the bank of the river, where people were already floating their Krathong.
I didn’t see any lanterns here, but I could see some being released further down the river, so I decided to run there.
This bridge was packed with people, meaning there were a lot of lanterns and Krathong being released. I found it hard to get a good view, so ended up being cheeky and doing a little parkour to get onto a nearby slab of concrete a little way away from the bridge. I was alone here so my view was unobstructed and I had a lot of space to move.
A young thai boy (aged maybe 7 to 11 years old) seemed really interested by my parkour perch. I offered to help him get over there but he was too scared or didn’t want to.
Watching the lanterns go up is just spectacular.
The life of a lantern is a hard one. Some lanterns are released too early, so they lose lift and fall into the river (or on to crowds of people). Many lanterns get caught in the trees, where they quietly burn out. Some ascend happily, but somehow catch fire and begin free-falling, spitting sparks, leaking smoke, and throwing out burning shreds of paper as they go. They remind me of the Hindenberg, but beautiful rather than tragic. They burn up so quickly that they are almost impossible to catch a photograph of.
The best lanterns are those that seem doomed to fail but somehow still succeed; those lanterns that look like they will be caught in the tree but somehow evade all the branches, or those that fall towards the river but gain altitude at just the right time. Every time one of these doomed lanterns end up succeeding, the crowd cheers!
My favourite lantern was one which was falling towards us (down by the riverbank) at a strange angle. Everyone was panicking, shouting “Watch out!”. I caught onto it, stabilized it, and released it when I felt it moving away, but somehow it started spitting sparks down onto those below. A couple of slightly-intoxicated Australians roared with laughter and exclaimed “They’re carpet bombing us!”.
Eventually, I tired of standing and watching the lanterns, and went and sat on the riverbank some way away from the bridge. There, I watched the Krathong peacefully float down the river for an hour or two.
People nearby kept needing help putting their Krathong in the river, either because they were old, or because their arms were short, so I helped them.
I helped one Korean couple, who stayed and talked with me a while. I have no idea how to spell their Korean names, but they also called themselves the English names of Daisy and Juan. They were hoping to visit the United Kingdom in a few weeks, so I recommended a few places that I think are special.
Eventually I got hungry, so headed to the nearby market to look for food. The market is just pure craziness.
I kept going back to this noodle stand because there was a lot of variety and it was delicious:
There’s also lots of other things to see or buy; phone cases, clothing and textiles, smoothies, a live music show, trinkets, and even one girl who was selling loofahs to use as a sponge.
There’s even this stand selling crocodile meat and scorpions:
As the night was winding down, I went and observed from the bridge. There, I saw a Thai teenager scaring his female friends with a toy gun that made a loud popping noise. He saw me smiling and we conspired that I would take the toy and scare them instead. The girls saw us make the swap and were incredibly suspicious of me, so our cunning plan failed. Darn!
The next day went very much the same, exploring the city for the morning and then running to the river for the festival. During the day, I found some great places to eat, and took this great picture from the local shopping centre:
When I got to the river, I found that they were running a parade through the streets, which made it hard to get to the main bridge where everything was happening. I wasn’t much interested in the parade; whilst it was nice to see the Thai people in traditional dress, the crowds were too packed, and the exhaust fumes lingered in the air, producing a poor environment.
This day was also the full moon, and seeing the lanterns fly past it was especially beautiful.
I spent some time on the opposite bank of the river this time, where the locals were playing with fireworks. Here I met Sinh and Gao (though I may be spelling their names wrong), who offered to let me throw one, but I declined.
Gao (the girl) was so much better at launching them than Sinh, and I joked that she was giving him duds. Sinh and Gao were Thais who are local to Chiang Mai. I told them about how exciting the festival was to me, and that I was really jealous that they got to see it every year. They said that they were used to it.
Eventually, it got late enough (~1.30AM) that we were all tired and considering going home. I was currently staying in the peaceful Bed Ford Hostel a few kilometers away from the riverbank, and it was nice to walk home whilst watching the last few lanterns float up into the sky.
Chiang Mai was everything I had hoped it would be.