Thailand part 2: Chiang Mai. Cultural capital of the North
Our flight leaving Bangkok was only at noon, so for once, we had a good night rest, took our time waking up, and enjoyed a last breakfast with my parents. We said our goodbyes while waiting for our taxi to Don Muang airport. Saying goodbye for a second time actually hurt a bit more than the first time. Maybe because this time I didn’t leave them at home but in a spot/country that is not their home, would they be okay, would they be safe? We have been travelling for so long now that I’m not as much worried about Haythim and me doing alright, but more about our loved ones at home doing alright.
We arrived about half an hour before planned at the airport so we had plenty of time to put our backpacks in our flightbags and check them in. It was the first time we were going to fly with Nok air and since this is a lowcost airline it can sometimes be a bit of a hassle but everything actually went really smooth. As usual, we boarded the plane, sat down and immediatily fell asleep. I actually managed to stay awake almost till take off. Haythim? Not a chance in hell. He only woke up while landing at the Chiang Mai airport!!
Chiang Mai was… a relief. After 2 weeks in Tokyo, followed by 16 days in Bangkok we were really glad to finally be in a spot that had less people. Chiang Mai was still a city of about 150 000 people but that still was significantly less than the 10 million in Tokyo and Bangkok. We had booked our airbnb in the “old” city and I had already checked if there were fun things near our accomodation. Still, I didn’t expect our location to be this good. From our airbnb we could practically see Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Chedi Luang was only a 15 minute walk!! There were of course so many things to do and we had just 10 days to scratch a few of our bucketlist! The more we travelled, the more we realised that there would always be too little time to do/see all the things we planned for. And we had actually made peace with that. As long as you get to do your top things you want to do, and maybe do some extra things on the side, then that’s plenty. You don’t have to plan a thing on every single day. You’ll exhaust yourself and would no longer be able to enjoy it anymore. It’s best to take everything in a relaxed manner. Stress is a thing your would want to leave out of your vacation, right?
So we settled in our Airbnb, made a fairly easy planning for the next couple of days and just had a stroll around the neighborhood, enjoying a simple lunch in a Thai Sukiyaki place only a street away (for the record: it was delicious!). The next first day, we walked up to a nearby big temple: Wat Chedi Luang. Next to some smaller beautiful templehalls containing remnants of the old citypillar and Buddha statues, this templecomplex contains some impressive remains of a 14th century temple. At it’s highest, the temple was about 80m high and 45 m wide. After a severe earthquake in 1545, the temple lost about 30 meters and some of it’s splendor. Nevertheless it was still a very pleasing sight to see, and it certainly had an interesting ‘Indiana Jones’ feel to it too! It’s mainly brick-coloured, and the base is square shaped. It goes up like a pyramid and on each side you’ll find stairs up, guarded by a five-headed snake (or ‘Naga’) at the bottom.
There is some controversy about this temple too. It suffered damage several times over in the past and has been “restored” during the 90’s. At that time several new elements were added which would not have been there initially. Still, it is worth visiting since it does give you a sense of how even then, people were able to build such amazing things.
Later on, we took a cab and went to the Central Festival Chiang Mai. Don’t be fooled, this is basically a giant mall of 6 stories that has a modern cinema inside of it. Yes, this was important because today was december the 19th! The release date for Star Wars: the rise of Skywalker. You might have notices during the earlier blogposts that we absolutely adore Star Wars so naturally we had to see the movie asap. We’re not going to spoil things but will only say that we absolutely loved it! Best way to finish a beautiful day! We went to bed early since we planned to visit Wat Doi Suthep the next day. And hoped we would be able to get a songthaew (local taxi for multiple people) to get there, so we would arrive really early to beat the crowds at the temple.
Unfortunately you can’t always have controle over your sleeping patterns while travelling. And that night Haythim just could not fall asleep, and woke up at several hours. I didn’t have the best of sleep either, so when our alarm clocks woke us up around 7 o’clock, Haythim suggested we just sleep in and postpone our trip to Doi Suthep to the next day. I was so tired at that moment I agreed at once and went back to sleep. And I think that was the best decision, because after 3-4 hours, we woke up alive and kicking again! Since our plan for Doi Suthep went out the door, we just improvised that day and went to a little market called Warorot market. It was about half an hour walk away from us so we had a nice strech of legs! The market itself is not the biggest and is catered to the locals. You won’t really find souvenir stuff here but you’ll find a lot of local delicacies and snacks. Durian snacks (also known as jack-fruit), coconut (fruit or juice), dried strawberries, mango, cashew nuts,… and so on. We wandered around the market for a while and headed home with a bag full of delicious fruit. Since it was still only 4pm at that time, we decided to pop by the temple Wat Phra Singh.
Once again… a temple under renovation. I guess we can’t really avoid it since we are travelling for a year. We were bound to visit things that needed repair. Still it was a bummer. The outside of Wat Phra Singh looked really beautiful and we could only wonder how the inside looked. The templegrounds and the smaller halls surrounding the main temple were still accessible. You could clearly see that these had been heavily used since there were signs of wear and tear everywhere. It didn’t surprise us because we saw a lot of monks come and visit this temple, even from other cities. The temple of Phra Sing is a very important temple for the Thai people, who are mainly buddhist. The temple was built around the year 1300, and housed a statue of Buddha that, according to legends, was carved in the likeliness of a statue that was lost to the ages. I would have loved to see that statue... but I guess next time?
Though we did say we’d visit the temple Doi Suthep the next day, we postponed it a little more. Because, it was Sunday… which meant everybody and their mother would have time to visit the temple. And we can only deal with so many tourists in a day... Fortunately we did make a small itinerary of things we still wanted to do and visit in Chiang Mai. And one of the things Chiang Mai is famous for, is the many markets. We had already visited one, but on this day there was the weekly walking-street nightmarket! Open on sunday from 4 pm till midnight. This is a big market. It starts at the Tha Phae gate (or Wat Phra Singh depending where you come from). And lady luck really smiled upon us since our Airbnb was only a 5 minute walk from Wat Phra Singh.
We arrived at the market around 5 and it was already so busy, with Thai and tourists alike everywhere. The police had closed of the street so there was no traffic. The market stretches the whole Rachadamnoen street and had stalls on both sides and the middle of the road. The stalls along the side of the road sell mainly souvenirs like elephant pants, soaps, t-shirts, fruit,… and every temple on the Rachadamnoen street has its own mini food court and additional market. We visited 3 or 4 of these. Here you can find all the food you want. Everything from pad thai to chicken- and squid skewers, waffles and even lasagna (which was very good btw). We took our time going trough the market and the different food courts. After an hour or 2 where I bought yet another pair of elephant pants (i can’t help it, these things are superlight, cheap and just downstraight awesome) and a little souvenir for my god child we decided to go back home, finish our dessert (Khanom Bueang, see recommendations) and prepare for our trip to Doi Inthanon. As we exited the market we were kind of glad we went a bit early. People kept flokking to the market and at some parts it was almost impossible to move!
Holy cow, our trip to Doi Inthanon was awesome! It was the first time we booked an activity through Airbnb and we were a bit apprehensive at first. We met our guide around nine and joined a group for a total of 8 people.It was a very fun and diverse group, a Dutch couple, 3 people from Hawaï and a lady from Brazil that now lived and worked in Germany. Our guide was called Wit and later proved to be very knowledgable about nature, history, customs,… It isn’t surprising once we found out he was part of the Karen tribes that live in the hills around Chiang Mai.
We first visited 2 different waterfalls: Wachirathan and Sirithan waterfall. Wachirathan waterfall is especially beautiful. Arriving there and walking up to the waterfall really makes you understand why this is the country of a 1000 smiles or paradise. Sunshine, lots of green, fruit everywhere, and stunning waterfalls, what else could you want? I could try to explain how beautiful the waterfalls looked, but I reckon it's easier to just show you how dreamy our view was.
Afterwards we visited a local Karen tribe village. Having a guide from the same tribe was a bonus here since these tribes have their own language. Not just a different dialect but a completely different voc, syntax,… We visited several families, houses and were amazed by the inventivity of people. Their houses are build out of bamboo and are about 1.8 m off the ground. They live in the area above while the animals can take shelter below the houses if needed. And even though the house was made out bamboo, they still had a kitchen in it that was basically a wooden box with clay in it as not to burn the house down. We also saw that they were ‘smoking’ some sort of corn / grain. When asked about it, they said it is so that the seeds do not have any smell anymore when they plant them so that animals won’t find them. But if they somehow would, they would not die from it (as they would if it were insect repellent etc). At the end of the tour in the village we could go drink cup of coffee made of the locally grown coffee beans. And may I dare say this was one of the best coffees I’ve ever tasted in my life. And while I was enjoying my cup of energy, Haythim observed how the local women were weaving scarves,… It was a real simple but ingenious system. It’s to difficult to explain, luckily we have pictures!
We had a quick lunch and then headed to the top of the mountain where we enjoyed a small stroll through the greenery of Thailand. There was no real view of the surrounding area since plantation is so vast that everywhere you look you just see forest. It kind of reminded us of the Jean Lafitte National Park in New Orleans. Hot, tropical and green (and probably full of wildlife though we didn’t see any here). We were nearing the end of our day in Doi Inthanon National park so we went to visit the last part of our excursion. The double Pagoda, build in honour of the previous King , Bhumibol and his queen. Each pagoda was given its own characteristics, colours, buddhistic scenes depicted on it, and inside a sitting Buddha statue. It was fun climbing each individual mountain and discover each Pagoda’s beauty. King Bhumibol’s queen had a lovely flower garden next to her Pagoda where one could enjoy a peaceful walk. It had proven to be a fantastic day, with beautiful weather and so much in our itinerary we took quite a while writing about it! Next time we might just rent a car or something because it would give us even more freedom… aside from the maniacal driving here in Thailand we would have to face then.
Yessss, we finally made it to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep! It’s a famous temple on top of a hill just a half an hour drive from the centre of Chiang Mai. Characterised by a beautiful staircase going up the hill towards the temple, with giant Naga (snake demons) for handrails. We wanted to visit the temple a lot earlier but somehow it took us a while to find the easiest way to get there. While Chiang Mai is a big city and has taxis, you won’t actually see that many on the roads. You’ll see plenty of red coloured (somtimes yellow) Song Thaew. These are a sort of shared car/ cab that drives between 2 main areas and on which people can hop on and off for a small fee, around 50 baht (there is a similar system in Tunisia like this, called a ‘louage’). You can also rent the Song Thaew for the full price, which is usually around 600 baht. We were on the early side that day and had no luck in finding a taxi, so we walked up to the entrance of the nearby temple Wat Phra Singh, where there’s a gathering point of tuk tuks and Song Thaew. We waited a while to see if other people would show up so as to share the ride but alas, no-one did. So we hopped aboard a Song Thaew and paid up 600 baht for a ride alone. But if it meant we could visit the temple before the masses it would have been worth it and yes it was indeed. Our driver didn’t just bring us up the mountain but would also bring us back down again. So in the end our deal didn’t seem so bad after all! The drive up the mountain took about 30 minutes and one could also do it with a scooter or if you don’t mind the challenge, by bike or on foot (just don’t forget to bring a reservoir of water and some towels, because the climb upwards is pretty steep).
Upon arrival, we quickly made our way to the gate that lead to the entrance of the temple. We were greeted by a stairwell of 309 steps with 2 beautiful enormous Naga statues wriggling down as hand rails. We thought the climb not to be that difficult though we did see plenty of people huffing and puffing to get up the stairs. Once at the top you’re immediately at the foot of the entrance of the temple. It costs 30 baht per person (for tourists) and upon entering we noticed it to be so much more than worth it! Eventhough we arrived early, there were already quite a lot of people! We first walked around the temple complex with all its halls and the viewing points. It was gorgeous. When looking down from the mountain you could see all around you and everything was seemingly, covered in a sea of mist. We first thought that maybe this was smog but instead it was real mist. Mist from the night + moisture evaporating from the forest and the surroundings. It was stunning. We took our time looking at the temple from every angle. When we did a full tour we took off our shoes and entered the inner courtyard of the temple. I’m running out of words and am probably repeating myself but again, the inside of this temple was once again magnificent. There stood a central golden stupa where locals and believers walked around 3 times while praying. It had several Jade coloured Buddha statues and votive places. This was one of the most known temples here in Chiang Mai and it showed. There were several professional photographers that, for a fee, would take that perfect picture of you with the temple as background. Outside the temple, at the foot of its hill you can also find various souvenir and food stands, selling everything from skewers, fruit, to corn on a cob (my favourite snack). Grabbing some quick lunch we were instantly greeted by our cab driver who drove us back home.
For our final day here we decided to just wander through the inner city and enjoy a drink here, a foodstand there, or see some temples as we went along. Chiang Mai has some very known temples and there are plenty small hidden away pearls scattered throughout the city. I wish we would have done this sooner. There was little temple not 50 m from our door. Not a soul in sight, we entered the building and could see that it was still very much in use. The carpet and chairs showed some wear and tear and there lay pillows, clocks and other personal items everywhere. We walked further among the main road away from Wat Phra Singh and came upon another 3-4 temples. All had their own little quirks and accents. Some had Buddhist wisdoms on little plates dispersed all around the buildings, others had like 5 clocks inside the building. To what reason? No idea. Others were being renovated or had youngsters monks cleaning the pond with buckets of water. Some had an arch of bamboo completely decorated with colourful ribbons. Wherever you went, there was always something to see or discover. Chiang Mai really is a must-see place.
Japanese Sukiyaki flavored street food: There were several places that had Japanese style/ flavored food. Sort of Thai ingredients mixed/cooked in a Japanese way or visa versa. Delicious!
Sweet thai crepe (Khanom Bueang): You can find them almost anywhere in Thailand so try them out wherever you are really. It’s like superthin batter on a plate so that it’s nice and crispy and filled with some sort of meringue like substance and topped with some sort of shredded egg yolk. It is divine! Beware tho, once you start, it is difficult to stop.
Khao Soi: It’s a famous dish in Northern Thailand and it a kind of slightly spicy curry soup/ broth with noodles and and often some chicken. On top you’ll find crispy fried noodles. Now, this is the basics but everyone here seems to have a slightly different variation of it so just try em out!
Doi Suthep: It’s the most famous temple around Chiang Mai and a must do. If you make it really early you can really enjoy a spectacular ascend of the stairs. The temple itself is gorgeous and the views from up the mountain are stunning
Wat Chedi Luang: These are the remains of an old temple and altho there are some mixed feelings about the restoration it is still really worth visiting. It gives you an idea of the sheer size this once had to be before the damage from the earthquake.
Wat Prasat: This is a tiny temple with 2 buildings. One main building that is still used often and a secondary building that is closed but it is absolutely stunning (check the pictures!). Best part of this? no matter when the chance of seeing other tourists is close to zero.