A Travellerspoint blog

Chillin' in Chiang Mai

*Randomly ending up at the perfect guesthouse*

27 °C

After postponing my departure from Sydney multiple times, I am actually, finally, this-time-I-mean-it, going to Thailand. The day before I leave, Aron and Jo order me to find a place to stay on my first night; they fear they will be held accountable for my safety, and probably rightly so. I oblige by randomly picking one of Chiang Mai’s cheapest guest houses from hostels.com or some such.

The cab driver at Chiang Mai airport has never heard of Lita Guesthouse, but obligingly drives slowly down the specified soi (lane) looking for it. Somewhat to my relief, it does in fact exist. It is a wooden house on stilts with an open air sitting/eating area on the ground floor. As I walk up to the gate, Tam, the manager, calls out a hearty ‘sawatdee kaa!’ and asks if I need a bed. I don’t bother mentioning my online reservation – this doesn’t seem like that sort of establishment – and simply say yes. She shows me up to the main room, which has mattresses and belongings loosely arrayed on the floor, mosquito nets approximately over each bed. There are several guys lounging around and smoking to the right, and two people doing Thai massage off to the left. It is a pleasant sort of chaos. I drop my pack and sit down to hang out.


At 10pm it looks like the group is going out to a jazz club which supposedly has awesome Tuesday night jam sessions. I am really tired, acutely aware it is 2am in Sydney, and am inclined to pass, rationalizing that I’ll have other Tuesday nights in Chiang Mai. Then again. I know myself to have a bad habit of passing on things out of sheer laziness and apathy. Not my best quality, and one which in my better moments I try to counter. The jazz club is about a five minute ride on motorbikes. A guy named Matt who is here studying Thai massage has room for me on his bike, so on I hop and off we zoom into the busy night streets of Chiang Mai.

North Gate Jazz Club has a small stage area, a bar of course, some indoor and outdoor seating, and a little loft-type upstairs with a couple more tables and chairs. The crowd of mostly expats and some Thais is bulging out onto the street, and with good reason: The musicians are really talented. New groups keep taking the stage, and the audience is giving off the friendliest vibe I’ve ever experienced. People are not there to ‘see and be seen,’ they are just there because it’s a good place to be. I split my time between my new friends from the guesthouse and the small open area up front where there is aaalmost about enough room to dance. I finally crawl into bed around 12:30am (4:30am Sydney time, but who’s counting) and I pass out with a smile on my face, thinking, Welcome to Chiang Mai.

I wake up to dogs barking and motorbikes zooming by at unbelievable decibel levels. I have never stayed anywhere so loud. Nor so full of smoke for that matter. I am also getting what feels like an average of one mosquito bite every five minutes. The worst is in the bathroom, where they seem to lurk about waiting for vulnerable bared flesh. Then there is the cat who frequents the joint; he seems to know I am allergic, so I am his favorite person to brush up against and even take naps with (that blue in the upper left is my shirt, he curled up right by my stomach)…


But there is something special about this guesthouse. Namely, the people staying here and Tam herself, who is known to longer-term residents as “Mama Tam.” I already feel so at home that am not shy to kick up into a handstand when I feel like it or change clothes in the corner of the room when no one is looking. Feels kind of like a college dorm to me. Plus it’s about $3/night. I’m not going anywhere else. As if to seal the deal, Mama Tam has taken my Five Finger shoes hostage.


My first full day in Chiang Mai, Matt introduces me to one of the many nearby places with great Thai food, then we get 2-hour Thai massages at a place where everyone doing the massages is blind. It is amazing how, since they cannot see, they really feel everything. Also, this being a proper Thai massage, they include the stomach. I must say, having fists and elbows manipulating my viscera is not exactly comfortable and relaxing, but it feels good afterwards.

The rhythm of life here is über laidback. In the afternoon and evening there is general sitting around, smoking and listening to music. We have one guy from New York with probably one of the most diverse music collections in the world, another guy from Switzerland who plays guitar, and sometimes Matt joins in on the harmonica.


We also have a really nice guy from Israel who Tam calls “Mister Shalom,” and it cracks me up every time. My own name when she pronounces it winds sounding like Charlotte. Which in turn sounds quite the Thai word for MSG, “choo-rot.” But I digress. Back to our daily ‘schedule’: Around 10 or 11pm, folks often go out dancing at a place nearby known simply as The Reggae Bar. This is usually followed by further sitting around, smoking and listening to music until perhaps 3 or 4am, though I tend to pass out earlier - with the indispensable aid of earplugs and an eye mask. Mornings are quiet (aside from motorbikes roaring by) as most people sleep until early afternoon. No one seems preoccupied with ‘doing’ much; plans just kind of nebulously form and shift in an organic flow.

One afternoon, the group decides to go a nearby lake. This sounds great to me; I’ve been interested to see it. After about a twenty minute ride on motorbikes, we arrive to a row of bamboo huts where you can sit in the shade and eat while dangling your feet in the water. The lake is a tranquil contrast to Chiang Mai’s urban bustle, and feels much needed. Tam orders food for all of us in Thai, and I wait to see what will emerge. Presently, the waiter strides over vigorously shaking a small bowl with a lid and plunks it down on the little table in our bamboo hut. Pai, Tam’s seventeen year old daughter, removes the lid to reveal “dancing shrimp” – lots of live little critters squirming frantically in what has to be a stinging mixture of lime and chili. Some manage to jump out of the bowl; perhaps they know what’s next for them. Pai grabs one by the tentacles and pops it into her mouth – crunch! – and urges us all to do likewise. It doesn’t really appeal to me, yet in some odd way it kind of does… I go for it. Utterly weird, but not half bad. Specifically, and sorry to be graphic here, I can feel my teeth puncture and penetrate the exoskeleton, crushing the shrimp and causing the animal to kind of, well, squirt out. I eat a few more just because it feels so interesting. This is followed by more ‘normal’ food, a steamed fish in aromatic broth and a fried fish crisped to perfection. Everyone is dunking sticky rice into the broth with their fingers and eating from the serving dishes with their own utensils when they actually bother with utensils. This feel right at home.

I don’t know how large the lake is… several hundred meters across? Well, whatever, it is good and big. After we digest, a couple of us go for a long but leisurely swim all the way out and back. This would be pleasure enough for me, loving swimming as I do, but the setting is above and beyond. In the middle there is a 'sacred tree' rising improbably out of the water, and on the other side a gold Buddha statue winking out from among trees. The backdrop is lush green mountains, a slowly sinking sun, and rays of light shimmering down through large, graceful clouds. It is take-your-breath-away beautiful. (This photo is not mine as I didn’t have a camera with me – nor did I mind, because nothing could really capture the moment – but just to give an idea.)


Dramatic lake scenery aside, life around Lita Guesthouse is the sum of many little things. There is a core cast of characters who are in Chiang Mai for several months, and others who come and go. Everyone is really cool, probably due to a self-selection effect; some people walk into the haphazard living area and leave just as quickly, while others like the vibe and stay. Some days, Tam, who used to have a restaurant, decides to cook. She randomly calls up from the cooking area through the not-at-all soundproof floorboards, “Gin kow!” Which literally translates to “eat rice,” but just means ‘come eat.’ Then we all amble downstairs for amazing Thai food. Other days, the guy from NYC with the incredible music collection will find various art supplies at the Chinese market (where you can get just about anything for near about nothing) and involve everyone in making little clay sculptures or drawing on the walls with chalk. It’s really cool; I never would have taken the initiative to get the clay or chalk, but I start sculpting or drawing, eventually stop thinking, and am surprised when I like what comes out.


It’s quite lovely, how everyone comes together to cover an entire room in chalk drawings… Is this starting to sound like a hippie commune, complete with community art flow sessions? What can I say. It works.

But let’s shake things up a little. Shattering this tranquil existence, one of the more fraught moments is when our sometimes-resident cat gets hold of a mouse and is doing what cats do with mice: Playing with it while slowly killing it. He is alternately shaking it in his mouth, careful that the teeth do not go deep enough to kill it too soon, then setting it down and batting it around with his paws, eliciting sharp squeaks. While everyone stands around in consternation over whether to save the mouse, I go for my camera, feeling slightly wrong but finding it oddly riveting.


The game/murder continues, everyone wincing each time the poor mouse squeaks. Now, I am not the biggest fan of the cat, whose favorite activity after catching mice must be to make me sneeze, but in this case I am his biggest defender: This is nature. Lions dismember graceful gazelles, leopard seals devour lovable penguins, and cats torture and kill cute little mice. No need to interfere, I say. In the end, though, the consensus goes the other way, and Pai lifts the flailing would-be hunter while someone else scoops up his terrified prey and sets it free. Afterwards, the cat runs back to the corner looking for his prized catch, and not finding it, prowls around meowing furiously. If he were a lion it would be a full-blown roar. I shrug and return to my laptop, where I was tapping away at some travel blog on which I seem to be permanently running a few weeks behind.

Posted by sbw2109 06:43 Archived in Thailand

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Sharon, this is an awesome entry! The "dancing shrimp" are totally cringe-worthy, and even though they say, "when in Rome..." I really don't think I could have done it, lol. The lake is gorgeous, and the people sound like so much fun. I can't wait to read about your further adventures with Mama Tam and the gang...

by tomiko13

Ah, I am consumed with your entries Sharon. I escape all, linger and day dream, reread your travels, and as much as I miss you, I'm very grateful you have chosen these exotic places, you have given me this (faux) bliss. You write as you dance, with joy and commitment.
Keep on truckin.......... Love

by Shari

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