I don’t know if this is a sign of aging, or if time just passed by really quickly and I wasn’t keeping track. But it turns out my last holiday outside the Philippines happened way back in 2012 – yep, that fun and quite tiring solo three-week trip through Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam that included plenty of bookworming.
Eight years. Eight freakin’ years.
That long streak was broken this month. The content marketing agency I’m working with right now has a 100% remote team scattered throughout Southeast Asia, but we see each other annually for a team retreat.
(This year, the plan is to make it a biannual affair. I hope that does happen!)
We all met up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and spent January 16-21 in the ‘old’ part of the city. Our bosses temporarily relocated to CNX from Singapore, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a growing city with a great mix of rich history and modern developments. I really thought it was a small and quiet mountain town, but it’s a bustling urban area with cafes, markets (some with a claustrophobic crush of tourists!), and restaurants on every block. The most important lesson here is to do my research before departure. 😉️
I didn’t have free time to search for specialty bookstores; or look for books by Thai writers in English, or translated in English from the Thai. I was hoping to see something like Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sightseeing, but I didn’t have any luck for this trip.
But a few of the places we went to were quite conducive for casual reading and all-out bookworming, not to mention fully Instagram-ready for… you know, the aesthetics. 😜️
This small and charming cafe is right beside our Airbnb (which I highly recommend, BTW!). Not only did it supply us with our morning coffee and snacks (alongside Baan Bakery, which is a block away), it’s also the first photo-processing facility I’ve seen anywhere in years. That last part came in handy when we decided to gift our bosses with a printed photo of the entire group.
On my first visit there (I think it was on the morning of January 18), the owner found out we were staying next door. He promptly invited us to the cafe’s regular Saturday Jazz Night. We weren’t able to go, but I’ll make sure to stop by if I’m in Chiang Mai again because it looks fun.
Plus points: Plenty of Thai and English books strewn around the cafe, excellent cappuccinos and cookies, and its two friendly cats Kodak and Fuji.
Also, a heads up: Fuji likes jumping up the counter, getting in your face, patting your shoulder, rubbing against you for pets – and giving you a gentle love bite on your hand.
MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum
MAIIAM is some ways away from the usual Chiang Mai tourist stops, and you’ll need to get a Grab Car or songthaew to get there. I’m not sure how far away it is from the city proper since we stopped at the lovely artisan-centric Chamcha Market beforehand, but I’m thinking it should be around 15-30 minutes away.
But the trip out is worth it. The books are all at the gift shop, which is right in front of the reception and ticketing area. As expected, these are mostly coffee table books on art, as well as short reads on artists’ historical and cultural poetics/contexts. There are also souvenir items (cards and blank notebooks) that made me laugh with their witty one-liners.
MAIIAM is a small museum, but it’s packed with things to see that don’t involve books. I particularly loved the Pilar Albarracín exhibition, a direct middle finger to gender, societal, and cultural expectations of women in Spain and elsewhere. It makes me want to seek out more of her work – and rage that women worldwide still have to put up with such outdated and unjust shit.
And Luke Duggleby’s photo series “For Those Who Died Trying (and Those Who Endure)” showed sobering photographs of the exact spots where Thai rural community leaders were murdered, with their blown-up photos serving as markers. It’s shockingly similar to what’s happening to Filipino farmers and activists, and in other countries too.
Buy books at the gift shop, go through the two-floor museum’s temporary and permanent exhibits, then commence bookworming at the Kampangkaew Café back on the first floor before exploring Chiang Mai further.
The cafe also sells coffee beans from Akha Ama Coffee, which was on our itinerary but eventually nixed. I found out only because a colleague gave me a pack of its Strong blend for our Secret Santa gift exchange, haha!
A colleague and I were already in the domestic departures area of Chiang Mai International Airport (for our stopover in Bangkok), and on our way to the immigration checkpoint when we spotted this kiosk on the right side.
That meant only one thing. Bookworming stop! 😜️
This airport stall seems like an outpost of the popular The Booksmith at the super-crowded Nimman area. Obviously its selection is limited compared to its main branch, but I ended up buying two books anyway: Cecilia Watson’s Semicolon, and Ted Chiang’s much-anticipated short-story collection Exhalation.
(The yellow book, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, is a gift from another colleague. Read most of it during our four-hour flight delay from Bangkok, and the rest when I got back to Manila.)
Watch out for books with that red sticker! I paid for one book for half its sticker price, so the two totaled under THB1,000. Pricey compared to Philippine bookstore standards; but I had a tough time finding Convenience Store Woman anywhere in my city, and I was sure the two other books would be overpriced in local bookstores.
In a way, I’m thankful we stopped at just three bookworming places. Otherwise, I would’ve been lugging more than the 14kg I had in checked-in luggage. (I left Manila with just 9kg!)