Chiang Mai is a culturally rich city, populated by monks, students and backpackers. Spectacular temples, great food and a vivid nightlife scene give visitors a warm welcome. The city serves as the largest transport hub in the northern region of the country. Chiang Mai is also home to many consulates of neighboring countries. The city deserves its title as “the gate to northern Thailand”.
We arrive by night train from Bangkok. It is a very convenient method to get here. At first glance, Chiang Mai looks a bit like a generic backpacker town with plenty of tour agencies as well as many hostels and bars. They all largely spread in quality and price.
We soon find that there is far more to discover in this place than these amenities. If you are willing to invest a bit more time you realize that Chiang Mai is temples, is food, is night life, is hiking.
WAT’s up in Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is temples. “Wat” is the Thai word for temple or monastery complex. On the small space between (the remainders of) the historic city walls one wat is closely spaced to the other. Every single wat is special in material, design and atmosphere. We spend nearly two full days to visit some of them. Time flies by taking pictures and talking to people in the temples. In the following, we present you our favorite wats:
Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan
The wat with a huge brick pagoda ruin in the backyard is pretty much in the center of the historic city. Smaller ceremonial and meditation halls decorate the alley around the old pagoda. Lovely little statues stand in front of them.
The newer temple on the place contains a beautiful, big Buddha statue. Right next to this pagoda you read the sign “Monk Chat Program – talk to them. Don’t be shy!” Behind the sign in the shades of green trees, monks and foreigners sit at tables and have conversations about a variety of topics. The monks want to improve their English and are eager to learn about your home country. They answer a lot of questions regarding Buddhism, their culture and the monk’s life. It is fun to spend an hour or two in this friendly, open-minded exchange!
Wat Phan Tao
This small monastery is also called the “teak monastery” as it is entirely made of teak wood. We enter the wat area through a small white plaster gate, decorated with ornaments and small statues.
Inside sits a golden Buddha. On the left a smaller Buddha stands in the pose of asking for a donation. In front of him a hundred metal bowls row up neatly. People put small Baht coins in there.
Wat Inthakhin Sadue Mueang
We walk into the street left of the “Three Kings Monument” place. A small teak house contains yet another beautiful temple. The interiors of the temple are held in light colors. Shiny strass pictures in golden frames explain to us scenes from Buddha’s life. The dark teak roof gives a contrasting background. A huge white Buddha sits in the back of the building and gives us his gentlest smile. He seems to have fun sitting in a much too small temple. After sunset it starts to rain slightly. The temple starts to glow from its inside and the light radiates onto the wet streets.
There are many more large and small wats to discover here! We recommend spending at least two full days for discovery.
Dining and cooking
Chiang Mai is food. The restaurant scene is extremely diverse. It delivers high quality, be it the street stands or the fancy restaurants. Like elsewhere in Thailand, food prices are pretty low.
Our personal favorite was “Mr. Kai”. Simply great Thai food (attention: spicy, if you don’t ask to leave the chilies out) at very fair prices. Check also their website. They serve a savory Khao Soi. This northern Thai specialty is best described as a yellow noodle curry with a deep fried noodle topping.
Another favorite of ours is the papaya salad: The papaya salad is freshly prepared in a big wooden bowl. The firm white flesh of an unripe Papaya is cut into juliennes (long, thin stripes). The cook adds in mung bean sprouts with sliced tomatoes. Their soft flavors mix well with two more ingredients, onion slices and soy sauce. A handful of freshly cut chilies and a squeeze of a lemon finalize the recipe. This mix transforms into a small salad hill on a plate. It is topped by coarsely ground roasted peanuts. This time, the cook does not excuse our European origin. The salad is authentically spicy, bringing tears to our eyes.
We also take the opportunity to attend a full day cooking class. The class covers the full program of Thai cuisine: First, we visit the local market and the private herbs garden of the cooking school to get information on the ingredients. Then we learn how Thai cuisine works with different “savor” compartments and prepare those. Finally, we cook a personal choice of Thai dishes on our own and enjoy the 7 course meal together in the group of participants.
There is a lot of choice on cooking classes in Chiang Mai. Ours was just great and we can definitely recommend the Asia Scenic Cooking School. Extremely well organized and great teachers with a lot of knowledge and humor.
Chiang Mai is night life. Many bars and clubs gather around the main street in the city center. Some play live music. Many hostels offer nice social areas and sell beer and other drinks.
Up for a fight? We choose to enjoy a beer at the local Muay Thai box ring. A program of (rather amateur class) fights runs every night. The place is certainly more frequented by tourists than locals. Bigger non touristic fights take place in Bangkok. It is my first time watching a box sport live, so I am not very picky about who beats up whom on stage.
The stage is well lit. We sit around it in rows of dim plastic tables. A pair of young fighters and the referee enters the stage. The fighters bow down in every corner of the ring. They pray. We cheer.
The fight begins. A crazy bombard player blows endless wild melodies. They are amplified through shabby speakers. The young fighters surround each other without much body contact. They seem to perform a tribal dance. A group of Americans takes bets and cheers towards the youngster in blue shorts. Beer, sweat and menthol vaporize into the air.
Then the first hit is landed. Sudden blood rushes through my ears. Pure adrenaline shoots into my veins. I cannot look away from it. I have never finished beer so fast.
Two hours of fighting pass within the blink of an eye. We get home (slightly drunk and) tired from watching. Thai boxing is a fascinating sport.
Where is the hiking part?
Chiang Mai is hiking, too. But most of it has become touristic mainstream. Most visitors do not like to walk, but want to do hiking trips anyway to check it off their lists. Thai people are very resourceful in pampering their tourist. At every corner of the city you see tour agencies offering the “standard one day package”: Elephant riding, zip lining, hill tribe staring. Maximum 30mins walking involved. Visit hot springs in the end to compensate the tedious walk.
I have concerns regarding elephant camps and hill tribe staring. After asking around a bit we find an agency that can organize us a guide who walks some more with us and leaves out places like the elephant experience. However, prices are far too high for what is offered and we decide to move our hiking plans further north to the beautiful city of Pai.
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