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With a squeal of brakes the noisy old bus clattered into the station and wheezed to a stop, kicking up a small cloud of dust in the early afternoon sunshine.
The brief silence was shattered as the door swung open to a crowd of tuk-tuk drivers clamouring to offer over-priced rides into the city.
I scooped up my backpack, squinted towards the carpark and grinned as I headed towards the nearest songthaew.
I had made it to Chiang Mai.
Coming from a laid-back month in Laos I wasn’t sure what to expect from this large city in Thailand’s north, but after a couple of days of exploring its temples and laneways the place started to get under my skin.
Even with the downpours of monsoon season turning the streets into rivers each evening, there was something about being there that just felt right.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but as I headed south to Bangkok and on to Europe, my thoughts kept returning to that week in Chiang Mai.
A year later my body returned as well.
Much had happened in those twelve months. My previous trip had finished and I had gone back to Australia. I rented an apartment. I got a real job. I drank great coffee and pretended to fit in. For the entire time I was there, though, part of me really wanted to be somewhere else.
A couple of months ago I listened to that part of me. I packed up my life again and headed back to Thailand.
It was absolutely the right choice.
As good as Chiang Mai was during the monsoon months, it is immeasurably better when the sun is shining.
The cooler months from December to February offer a welcome respite from April’s sweltering heat or the rains that start in June. Cold enough at night to sleep without a fan but more than warm enough to lie beside the pool in the afternoon, there is no better time to be here.
And then there is the food. Oh the food.
The cuisine of northern Thailand is noticeably different to that further south, with obvious influences from nearby Burma and Laos. Khao soy is my new best friend.
The air of the night markets is filled with the tantalising aroma of foods and spices being simmered and stir-fried to perfection.
Perched on a plastic chair watching the ebb and flow of people walking past, I enjoy some of the best food and drink of my life for a dollar or two.
On the rare occasion I want something different there is a surprisingly depth of international food here as well. Excellent Mexican, Italian, Indian and other Asian restaurants do a thriving trade at very reasonable prices.
Thailand promotes itself heavily as the Land of Smiles.
While that cliche can sometimes be hard to find in the tourist-heavy south of the country, the genuine warmth of the people that live in Chiang Mai brings a smile to my own face as well.
I pay local prices for most things, not tourist rates. The cafe owners and stall holders take the time to stop and chat for a while – many know me by name, or at least by my regular order. People in the street smile at me, and I smile back.
Most of the time though I am just another face in the crowd, just another guy at the traffic lights. I am not special, and nor do I want to be.
I am just living in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is the perfect spot for people looking to drop out of the rat race and do something different for a while. Fast internet and reliable power let me work online. My furnished apartment (including utilities) costs around $250 per month, and total expenses struggle to hit $1000.
The pace of life is surprisingly slow here, and even the daily traffic jams barely raise an eyebrow as I weave between snarled vehicles on my scooter. Having one is a luxury, really – most things I need are within walking distance of the old town, and songthaews are cheap and plentiful.
The fresh air of the countryside is a few minutes away and the alpine scenery and quiet roads cry out for regular exploration.
Food, weather, infrastructure, culture, scenery. This place has it all.
The only thing it is missing is a beach – but then again if it had one it wouldn’t be Chiang Mai. Without the resorts and sun loungers this place offers something different to the rest of Thailand.
I will happily holiday in the islands for a month or two with the sand between my toes, but it is to Chiang Mai I will return when the rains come.
Of course to return, I will have to leave in the first place.
I don’t even know if I can.