Sonpeth market is overflowing with juicy mangoes, passion fruit, and ripe smelly durian. It is July: the best time to visit Chiang Mai. In the old city, backpackers and travelers chill, play guitar, get a massage and take yoga courses. Street food sellers sing a song with their wok and plastic bowls and the smell of garlic, chili and ginger lingers in the air. Koh Phangan party-people recover in tai chi classes and drink giant fruit shakes. Time stands still, we live for the moment, postpone plane tickets, and stop.
After months of traveling, I am so happy fresh and simple food is so easily available again. I eat whole fruit meals at my pretty and affordable guesthouse, in the social area downstairs or in my cosy room with its rooftop view and enough space for my yoga mat. Around the corner, vegetarian restaurants Blue Diamond, May Kaidee and Aum offer comfort food and tasty simple dishes like steamed veggies with hummus, clear miso soups and crunchy salads with creamy avocados.
The close proximity of Chiang Mai’s schools and universities have made Nimmanhaemin Road and its surrounding Sois the hippest area in town. Squeaky designer clothes and home decor shops, coffee shops with speedy WiFi, and cute concept stores inspire to create, to start something new. I go there every other day by bicycle or tuk tuk, or I flag down a red songthaew and pay 20 bhat like the locals.
Here I can be me. No uniforms are required to belong, no covering up like in India. I can order a vegan dish (which brings rolling of eyes in Germany big time), sit in the back of the temple while the monks are chanting, and I don’t need to bargain ridiculously at the Sunday Walking Market. Expat English teachers in suits and young Thais in Korean-style jeans and haircuts sit at the same table and chat over lunch. I eat stinky durian, refuse plastic bags at the market, make mistakes in my wobbly Thai and no-one minds. And if they do, they smile and tell me kindly the next day. In Chiang Mai no-one gets angry or inpatient, cars don’t hoop and somehow even the motorcycles have quieter exhausts than elsewhere.
Still, Thailand produces masses of plastic trash, and has human trafficking issues. The politics are unstable and shrimp and poultry farming wreck their environment. But in Chiang Mai, many are open to change. Volunteers from all over the world woof at organic farms like Pun Pun and Panya Project, and in human-rights and animal-care projects, often driven by the Thais themselves. The vegetarian cafés and fifteen (!) organic farmer’s markets are aimed at Thais and expats alike. Here, unlike the awkward separation I experienced in Bali and Cambodia, I feel a partnership with the local community. I support organic and fair trade initiatives, drink local coffee, take my laundry to family businesses, and discuss local challenges with shop and business owners.
So although I miss blueberries, my blender, and European modern art exhibitions, right now, Chiang Mai is my home.