Sunday, 3 September 2017

Everybody loves Chiang Mai

When someone is planning to go to Thailand I always tell them not to overlook the north, and Chiang Mai in particular. Of course if they have only two weeks in the country it's difficult to see both the north and the beaches in the south, but I still insist because I think Chiang Mai is really worth it. What people usually ask next is: "What is there to see in the north of Thailand"? 

One of the temples in Chiang Mai

Atmosphere

Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand, but it doesn't feel like that. The streets are quiet, the old town is dotted with marvelous temples and it's not as intimidating and difficult to navigate as Bangkok. In Chiang Mai you can walk almost anywhere, which is a relief after Bangkok (if you haven't been, that is definitely not a city for walking tours). It is practically impossible to get lost in Chiang Mai,  because a moat surrounds it, giving you an idea of where you are at any given time. 

A night market in Chiang Mai


What I immediately noticed about Chiang Mai is that the atmosphere is chilled out. It is the right place to slow down. The mixture between tradition and innovation is really exciting: thanks to its student population it has many trendy caf├ęs with wi-fi, but also friendly monks dressed in orange tunics waving and smiling at you. This is why many expats choose it as their base in South East Asia. It is also super cheap, both in terms of accommodation and for shopping.

Children monks in Chiang Mai


On the plus side, people in Chiang Mai are down to earth, and generally they don't insist too much with tourists, so I could just walk around and observe things without feeling pressed to buy anything or get on a tuk-tuk.

Temples

In Chiang Mai there is a temple for everybody. There is even one - Wat Bupharam - with statues of animals like giraffes and elephants, and even Disney characters, like Donald Duck eating noodles. Some temples are really old and have ruins, while some others are more modern. Most of them don't have an entrance fee and you are completely free to roam around.


An original temple in Chiang Mai


What I like about them is that there are so many things to observe, like offerings in many forms (candy bars, flowers and even money!) and statues from different traditions and religions, with the most unexpected facial expressions - they can be crying or laughing, fierce or serene. Temples in the north of Thailand tend to have a three-tiered roofline and carved gables. All around the main structures there are the so called stupas, shaped like bells.


A stupa in Chiang Mai


I even started asking around or doing a little bit of research whenever I had wi-fi so that I could understand what some details meant. The colourful ribbons tied around some pillars, for instance, mark the place of a spirit house. The ribbons supposedly keep the spirits in a good mood. It's the same reason why they are tied around the keel of longtail boats in the islands of the south. 


Ribbons tied around a sacred pole in Chiang Mai 


Overall in Chiang Mai you really perceive how rich Thai culture is. It is easy to see the beauty of the Buddhist religion, and the importance of traditions in people's daily life. Besides, I was lucky enough to be there during the Loi Krathong festival in November, which I highly suggest to take into consideration.

A temple in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong

Food

Another reason why I am particularly fond of Chiang Mai is food. There are many options, from fancy restaurants to street food stalls, or casual eateries, but the most exciting things - food-wise - were happening right on the street. 

In my experience it was easy to understand which places are popular because they were crowded with both tourists and locals, and there was a good smell of fresh vegetables and spices. The cuisine of northern Thailand is known as Lanna, from the name of an ancient kingdom, and it has influences from many countries, such as Burma and India. Typical dishes from the north of Thailand are sticky rice or som tam (papaya salad), but of course, I also ate dishes from other parts of Thailand, such as Massaman curry. What is amazing about this is that I don't remember spending more than 2-3€ for a meal. 



Thai fried rice with vegetables and tofu


The food is not only delicious, but also colourul and well-presented almost everywhere. On the down side, the names are sometimes difficult to remember. I also started to develop an addiction to Pad  thai, which is dangerous because there are so many other delicious things to try. 
 
Doi Suthep

Even if you feel tired of visiting temples, you should give Doi Suthep a chance. It is secluded and scenic, because to reach it you have to venture outside of the city (15 km), crossing countryside and forest, then go uphill until the top of Doi Suthep, a local mountain. If I remember well I went by songthaew, which is a pickup truck used as a shared taxi or bus. This means of transport is super easy to use, because it usually has fixed prices and stops.

When you arrive you will have to climb a staircase that appears to be in the middle of the tropical jungle. It is shaped like a naga, the mythical snake of Hinduism and Buddhism. It's 309 steps, but don't worry: if I made it, you can make it too without problems. Nothing like the Tiger Cave temple staircase in Krabi! If you're really lazy there is a cable car that for just 20 baht (0,50€) takes you to the top. 

Doi Suthep

 

The temple has an entrance fee of another 20 bhat (0,50€). It is quite big and, as most temples in Thailand, it includes several pagodas and areas of worship. It's a good chance to see how local people pray and pay their respects to Buddha. As any other shrines, Doi Suthep has some relics - in this case that of a white elephant bearing a magical Gautama Buddha's shoulder bone relic on the back. You also have a pretty nice view of the city and of its surroundings from a terrace.

Girl praying at Doi Suthep

Activities

There is so much more to do in Chiang Mai than just visit temples and eat delicious meals. If you love animals you can visit the Elephant Nature reserve, for instance. If you are into shopping, the Night Market and the Sunday Night Market are excellent places to goggle at the endless variety of nice purses, scarves, bags and necklaces for sale. Ethnic accessories are often manifactured around Chiang Mai, which is definitely a plus.

The night market

Trekking, rock-climbing, white-water rafting are more activities, but bear in mind that it is very hot all year round in Thailand. Another popular option is to take a cooking class, which is something that I had planned to do in Chiang Mai. They are relatively cheap, but in busy periods they need to be booked well in advance. When I visited the city was busy because of the Loi Krathong festival, and all the cooking class were already booked!


Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did you like best about it?

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