Celebrating The New Year in Chiang Mai
New Year's Eve is that one holiday everyone hypes up. You always want to plan the perfect night in the most perfect setting with your favorite people so you can ring in the new year right. I've had my fair share of awesome New Year's Eve celebrations (and a handful of not-so-good ones too), but I can say, without a doubt, celebrating the new year in Chiang Mai was one of the best ones yet.
Relaxing at Huay Tung Tao Lake
On New Year's Eve day, Justin and I decided to escape the city and enjoy the fresh mountain air. We rented a motorbike through our guesthouse for only 150 Baht ($4) and set off. With our trusty Google Maps in hand, we drove about 15 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai to Huay Tung Tao Lake.
The lake is located within a preserve and borders a national park, so we paid to enter— 50 Baht per foreigner ($1.50). Once we drove passed the entrance and into the park, the views were absolutely breathtaking. The mid-morning sun shimmered off the lake and reflected off the tall mountains in the distance. Small bamboo huts lined the lake's perimeter, where families and friends sat together, drinking ice-cold beer, eating freshly grilled fish, and chatting with one another. Without the tropical breeze, I would have thought I was back home in New England.
We read beforehand that there are over 20 restaurants around the lake, so we drove around a bit and looked at a few menus to see which one we wanted to try. When we realized we probably couldn't go wrong with any of the restaurants (they were all basically serving the same food... same same but different) we opted to try "Restaurant #2" which had a vacant bungalow out on a secluded point. We walked the rickety log bridge to the bungalow and sat down on the colorful straw mats, taking in the picturesque views.
After ordering a cold Chang beer to share, we perused the menu. Like most menus in Thailand, there were translations in English, but they were a little "off" (consumption soup, anyone?). We decided to go by the pictures (rather than the translations) and ordered a platter of shrimp tempura to start. We then opted for a salted local fish with a side of fried veggie rice as our main course. The portions were massive, but everything was fresh and delicious. In fact, we only ended up paying 400 baht ($12) for everything... a total steal!
Justin and I spent the rest of the afternoon in peaceful bliss. We enjoyed our meal slowly. We read our books. We even drifted off for a short nap with the sounds of children laughing and splashing in the lake lulling us to sleep.
By the time we woke up and ate a few more bites of our meal, the sun started to set behind the mountains and the restaurant employees began cleaning and closing down the bungalows around us. We took that as our cue to leave, so we packed up our belongings and headed back to the city.
Lanterns, Lemongrass Mojitos, and More
As we drove into the downtown of Chiang Mai, we could feel the excitement in the air. Even though it was only 5:30 in the evening, locals and tourists were starting to filter into the streets, as the anticipation of the countdown to midnight grew closer. Justin and I hurried back to our guesthouse to shower and get ready for the evening.
We didn't really have any set plans, though. We just wanted to see where the night would take us. When we stepped back out on to the street an hour or so later, we were immediately mesmerized by the floating lanterns in the sky. Hundreds and hundreds of paper-thin white lanterns floated above our heads as we made our way to where the center of the city. We knew sending the lanterns off was a little cheesy, but we had to do it.
Near Tha Pae Gate (one of the original brick gates in the old part of the city), hundreds of people were gathering to send off their lanterns. Several locals were selling lanterns for 50 Baht a pop, so we grabbed two and headed to the center of the commotion. I helped Justin send his off first, and he did the same with mine. It was a wonderful way to kick off the evening.
While our time in China built up our tolerance for large crowds, our time in Thailand has done the exact opposite. We pushed our way out of the hoards of people and darted down a side street, needing to regroup and figure out where to head next.
We decided a cocktail was in order, so we set off down the twisty, narrow alleyways to try to find a bar we had discovered one of the first nights we were in Chiang Mai. This place didn't have a name, but we remembered the chalkboard out front that advertised Thai lemongrass mojitos, as well as the colored string lights strung inside and relaxed reggae music playing softly. The bar was also run by the sweetest Thai man named Tony, who was originally from Isaan province (where Korat is).
We were so happy when we found the tiny, hole-in-the-wall place again, but I think Tony was even happier. He greeted us with hugs and a free shot of some sort of tropical Thai rum, and instantly started whipping us up our favorite lemongrass mojito drinks. We sat at a small table with a Thai family and encouraged a few Americans passing by to join us.
We parted ways with our new Thai and American friends and headed back toward the crowds to find a bite to eat. It was getting late in the evening, and we wanted to be sure we could find a good spot to watch the fireworks (and even more lanterns) at midnight.
With our tasty streetfood in hand, we walked back to our guesthouse, hoping the rooftop may be open so we could enjoy our meals and watch the skyline light up in peace. The door to the rooftop was locked (dang, scratch that idea!). Back out the streets we went, this time away from the crowds.
We headed north of the Tha Pae Gate area and found a perfect spot to sit by the river. A few small groups and couples filtered out of surrounding apartments and hotels to join us, but aside from that, we were the only ones there.
As the clock struck midnight, the lightshow began. More lanterns drifted into the nightsky, illuminated by the bright flashes of color and sound behind them. Children cheered, adults clinked champagne glasses, cars honked their horns. In that moment, everyone and everything was captured in hopeful anticipation of the year to come.
In that moment, I couldn't help but think about the exorbitant amount of gratitude I felt— to be in Thailand, to be with someone I cared so much about, to have many loved ones in my life, to have my health, to simply be. To me, that's all that really matters.
Happy New Year to you all! I hope 2018 brings you everything you could have hoped for, and more. Cheers!