Like a queen overseeing her subjects from her throne, Chiang Mai hovers high in Thailand’s mountainous north far away from the south’s madness. Initially conceived for her trade route to China, the northern capital remains largely independent from the rest of the country. Compact, walkable and friendly, Chiang Mai has all the cultural bases covered with its food, ruins, temples, scenery, elephants, adventure, crafts and continuing traditions.
Chiang Mai’s Tasty Food Scene
As they say, when in Northern Thailand…you’ve got to try the local cuisine, especially in Chiang Mai. Lemongrass, chilli, turmeric, lime and coconut enhancing noodles, curries, pork, shrimp and fish doused with the local pepper sauce are just some of the flavours of the north.
The local speciality Khao Kha Moo, stewed pork leg served over rice with egg and spices, is readily available, especially from the lady in the cowboy hat at the Chang Puak Gate Night Market. You’ll have to join the queue since chef, writer and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain paid her a visit on air. Lively any night of the week, the open-air market has a wide range of local and international dishes, the ubiquitous Pad Thai noodles, noodle and meat-filled omelettes, larb (spicy mince salad), satays, seafood, crispy fried insects thankfully washed down with beer.
In hipster haven Nimman, short for the district located around Nimmanhaemin Street, the waft of wood-fired pizzas from Italian Restaurant Why Not? lured us in for their homemade pasta, imported cheeses, antipasto and Italian wines. Equally aromatic is the barbeque chicken at Cherng Do Roast Chicken. Served with sweet and sour tamarind sauce, the spit-roasted chicken only taunted us for a few hours in the middle of the day until shutting up shop when they sold out.
Chiang Mai’s nightlife is a mini version of Bangkok’s trappings of vice, and there are plenty of bars to indulge in. The pub on the first floor of the Night Bazaar is wonderful for bluesy renditions and its people-watching vantage point. The strip along Charoenrat Road is a great place to eat, drink and watch expats behaving badly. For a less salacious night out, The Riverside Bar has a pub vibe and Thai food. The Khao noodles and tom yum gung soup at the award-winning Gallery Restaurant housed within an antique building and riverside vantage point has romance in spades.
Once the capital of the Lanna Thai Kingdom, the Old Town in Chiang Mai lies within a square of ancient brick ramparts edged by a moat. One of the most congested parts of the city with motorbikes, cheap massage joints and backpackers, the main attraction is its temples, such as Wat Pan Tao, and gilded in fine stucco, its deemed the most beautiful of all. Wat Chedi Luang was raised 300 feet until Mother Nature intervened with an earthquake in 1545. The ancient gum tree to the left of the entrance is a reminder of home.
Within the ancient walls of the Old Town, Wat Phra Singh dates back to 1345. Although there are three main structures vying for our attention, it’s hard not to gravitate to the shimmering Kulai Chedi pagoda. However, the real treasure, the famed Lion Buddha image known as Phra Singh, lies within the small chapel, Wihan Lai Kham. I could have spent hours admiring the internal walls of the Lai Kam assembly hall decorated with exquisite murals and stucco decorations depicting the lives of the locals from the late 19th century. After all that admiration of the Lanna temple architecture, markets and food stalls, we deserved a foot massage in the grounds, and the only thing missing was a good book to read. If only I had access to and possessed the ability to read the Buddhist scriptures in the temple library.
There’s much debate over the number of steps (approximately 300) up the Naga Serpent Staircase at the 14th century Doi Suthep gives some indication of the burn factor. Next time, I hope to verify just how spectacular it is at sunrise. In the meantime, and perched 1,676 metres above sea level, Doi Suthep is a majestic backdrop to the city.
Chiang Mai’s Digital Nomad Scene
Chiang Mai is a mecca for nomads of the digital persuasion, with a constant stream of caffeine-fuelled furrowed brows lit up behind laptops in cafes all over the Nimman area. Digital nomads aside, what’s great about these places is the fast wi-fi, tasty food and coffee. The rotating art space at Gallery Seescape provided plenty more to look at than a row of laptops, Ristr8to served gourmet coffee around the clock, and the all-day brekky and cute garden at Blue & Rustic often led into lunch. The oversized pink dog statue in the garden at Iberry inspired a lengthy linger over their homemade ice-creams.
Weaving through the city and passing the Old City’s walls, several tour companies traverse the Mae Ping River languidly passing by teak houses, fancy hotels and kids frolicking on the banks. Usually a relaxing rural experience, ours took an exciting turn when our endearing guide channelled Elvis. Jailhouse Rock bellowed out of the megaphone as our scorpion-tailed boat pulled up at a spice farm for an interesting tour of all things spice, followed by a tasty treat of mango on sticky rice. Dinner cruises are also available, presumably minus a performance from the King of Rock.
Quad biking through the jungle seemed like a good idea until discovering the need for more upper-body strength than we possessed to control the powerful beasts slipping through the mud. An abundance of experienced drivers was immediately summoned to save us damsels in distress resembling pink garbage bags in the provided raincoats. Once the controls were in someone else’s hands, I began to relax and enjoy myself, even more so when my sister’s bike suddenly cut across my path and became airborne over a steep hill. Her driver may have failed to impress my sister, but the stunt provided much hilarity for the rest of the tour. No-one was injured in the making of this anecdote.
Famed for local crafts, Chiang Mai offers an abundance of silk, silver, lacquerware, wood carvings and hilltop tribal crafts. The Night Bazaar opens at sundown until 11.00pm and is a treasure trove of goodies, including handmade bags, clothing and bedding you won’t find in the shopping malls. Sunday Walking Street Market runs for about one kilometre and sells handcrafted items, and Wualai Walking Street opens on Saturday nights, and as it’s less busy, there’s more opportunity to browse and haggle.
The historical riverside shopfronts along a portion of Charoenrat Road specialise in high-end Lanna art and crafts. Nimman has a host of quirky galleries and boutiques, and for well-priced high-street fashions, the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Centre is a short walk away, as is the open-air lifestyle mall Kantary Terrace.
A few kilometres from the city, Bor Sang Village specialises in handmade umbrellas ranging from the cocktail variety to parasols to keep the harsh sun off. A tour of the umbrella factory and the annual Bor Sang Umbrella Festival has ensured all things umbrella-related are synonymous with the village.
Be part of the art
Reality as we knew it was altered at the Art in Paradise museum. We “became” the artwork among the illusion artworks, well, at least for the purposes of our cameras. My daughter braved a shark attack, popped inside a snow globe, floated through Venice, played hide and seek with a massive kitten, glided on a paper plane and jumped off tall buildings in a single bound.
Take a tuk-tuk
Flying through the city by tuk-tuk is the most invigorating way to zip through the city’s labyrinth. Haggling is part of the deal, with prices ranging between 60 and 100 Baht. Just go with it as you really can’t put a price on the entertainment factor, as I discovered when the theme song from the movie Frozen blared from our tuk-tuk’s speakers as we bunny hopped to our destination. I noted never “Let it (the handrail) go” again. Decorated in all forms of gaudy, many double as the family transport with school and supermarket drop-offs as part of the journey, and when the sun sets, some transform into mobile, albeit seated, discos. For a more sedate experience, book an Uber, hail down a metered taxi, or join the locals on the red pickup trucks (songthaews).
Trips beyond Chiang Mai
If time had permitted, we could have joined the throng of trekkers leaving from Chiang Mai or the backpackers braving the eight-hour windy drive to the remote hilltop village of Mae Hong Son. We would have donned helmets and extra travel insurance had we hit the road on a motorbike. Or we could have kept going north to the famed Golden Triangle bordering Burma, Laos and Thailand.
Hanging out with elephants
Saving the best for last, Lanna Kingdom Elephant Sanctuary is one of the few ethical elephant parks in the country that allows rescue elephants to roam free in peace. History declares Thailand’s trade routes were originally trekked by elephants as there was no other mode of transport. Today, there’s no excuse for plonking your derriere on an elephant’s back for novelty; their backs aren’t designed to carry hordes of tourists touting selfie sticks. Besides, it’s way more fun to get dressed up as a mahout (elephant carer), prepare their food and give them a mud bath in their open-air spa. Be warned, hanging out with these magnificent creatures is a life-changing experience.
If you’re continuing your travels through Thailand and looking for an island experience, you’ll be feeling the love on Koh Samui. For more elephant adventures you might enjoy SRI LANKA’S BEST BEACHES & WILDLIFE EXPERIENCES
To find out more about Chiang Mai and amazing Thailand please go to Tourism Thailand.
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