I have always been fascinated by cities and towns that sit on the borders of nations. Although I’d never actually been to such a place, I figured it was reasonable to expect interesting things from a town that straddles two countries. I figured, at the very least, that such a place would feature a mix of two cultures. Two for the price of one. The thrifty Indian in me approved.
But as I said, I had never been to such a place. Few can say they have. For all our globetrotting, we make transitions not from country to country but from airport to airport, station to station. We turn our flip books with great speed, with no time to give each page its due.
In the last month, I have crossed one border and grazed past another. By the time this trip is over I will have crossed two more. But this post is not about the roadside money changers of Padang Besar or the mysterious Urdu speakers of Mae Sot. I have chanced upon something altogether more interesting: a border town where you would least expect it, smack in the middle of a country.
Chiang Mai straddles no borders, but the city is criss-crossed with borders all the same. Here’s the deal: the tourists of Chiang Mai aren’t confined to one farang part of town. Sure, there is Old City with its bike rental shops and espresso-serving cafes, but that is not where the action is. The tourists have long since leaked out of Old Town and invaded the city as a whole. As a result, the streets of the city are homogenous in their confusion. Special Massages are advertised as blatantly as the latest deals in refrigerators. The bustling (and decidedly local) Warorot Market is situated awkwardly on Tha Phae Road, with its art galleries and handicraft stores. Even the wats seem unsure of themselves: some are sober and quiet, while others offer one-on-one English interactions with the monks at select times of the day.
Each such confusion comes with its own border. While the locals and the tourists throng the same streets and see the same signs, they certainly do not respond to what they see similarly. A local knows exactly where on Tha Phae Road to go to buy eggs: she sure isn’t going to get lost and land up at an art gallery! A woman looking to spend a couple of hours studying her copy of Lonely Planet is going to find her way to a quiet bar, and not to a loud stall selling nam soup by the bowl.
A border runs throughout Chiang Mai. It twists around and turns back on itself, cuts through streets and skips over rivers. It tells you where to speak Thai and where you are better off with English. It tells you where the locals pray and where the backpackers drink.
It offers you two cultures, yes. Two for the price of one, yes. But like all borders, it leaves you starkly aware of which side you stand on.