Chiang Mai (meaning “new city” when it became the capital in 1296) must be one of my favorite big cities and is the largest city in Northern Thailand. The food… the temples… the culture… the shopping… the beautiful countryside… the adorable elephants. It’s a city that has a lot to offer and it did NOT disappoint!
My husband and I stayed at the De Naga Hotel just on the eastern side of the Old Town near Tha Phae Gate. It was the perfect location and we could walk almost everywhere we wanted to go. The hotel service was superb and our room very clean.
Friends of ours stayed at the Anantara Resort & Spa just off the Ping River. The hotel exudes luxury from the lobby so I have no doubt the rooms do not disappoint. It is walking distance to the night market but more of a tuk tuk ride into the Old Town to see some of the more famous temples.
Chiang Mai was especially exciting to us for two reasons: 1) we were meeting up with good friends of ours also traveling through Thailand and 2) we actually moved our vacation dates in order to partake in the Loy Krathong festival that is celebrated every year in early November. During the celebration, Krathongs (or baskets decorated with bamboo leaves and flowers) are floated along the Ping River. Often associated with Loy Krathong is Mae Cho, the floating of khom loi (lanterns) into the night sky. No words or pictures could capture the feeling and beauty of thousands of lanterns dancing up into the sky before my eyes then finally disappearing into the night while candle lights flicker on krathongs as they floated down the river. MAGICAL is all I can come up with. We fully appreciated the Thai culture.
Elephants can be seen all over Thailand and you’ll be approached by many solicitors for Elephant rides. Be aware that many of these places are more like circus rings, parading tourists around on the gentle giants that are not properly taken care of. We opted to visit Patara Elephant Farm based on a strong recommendation. Patara promotes rescue, recovery, rehabilitation and reproduction of elephants in a loving and humane way. Visitors are deemed to be Mahouts (elephant care takers) and will spend about 6 hours at the elephant farm learning how to care for an elephant assigned to you by feeding, cleaning, bathing and taking them through their daily exercise regime. At the end of the day, mahouts are encouraged to play with the young baby elephants in order to socialize them with humans. Needless to say, this was a highlight of my Thai experience and the day I fell in love with an elephant.
Most of the temples are within the old town. There are many so pick and choose based on how much time you will be spending in Chiang Mai. Even with 4 days, we still didn’t manage to see all the temples we had set out to see. Remember: temples are to be respected and everyone is encouraged to cover their knees and shoulders. I found that floor length cotton skirts and light cotton t’shirts worked best.
Wat Chedi Luang is popular because it is actually three temples in one: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Ho Tham and Wat Sukmin. You will see reclining Buddhas, a replica of the Emerald Buddha, and many monks perusing around the Wat Chedhi Luang grounds. If you’re curious about the monk life style, chat one up! “Monk Chats” are offered freely by monks who roam the temples. Many are happy to practice their English and find it as an opportunity to share their religion with sightseers. Who doesn’t want to be blessed by a monk?!
Wat Phra Singh is one of the most significant temples, housing the Lion Buddha, and demonstrates Lanna architecture. But beware of the monk sitting directly to the right of the Buddha as he won’t chat back…he’s made of wax!
For a complete listing of Chiang Mai temples, grab a guide-book or check out Lonely Planet’s blurb on temples.
For a rather unique experience, check out the Cabaret Show near the Anusarn Market. Boys will be boys…unless they’re busy being girls! My husband and I were amazed at how authentically girly these boys looked…The Thai people call them, “Ladyboys.” The show was a great and not too long. You will be amazed at their dancing skills, not so much by their lip singing skills…. Warning: if you sit near the front and are a male, you’re bound to be targeted!
Our hotel was located in the perfect location to catch some Muay Thai fighting at Tha Pae Stadium located on the eastern side of the old town. Paying a $5 premium to an already really cheap ticket will get you up close and personal on the front row where sweat will be slinging and whacks will sound outrageously painful. I actually found Muay Thai fighting entertaining and not so violent as I had feared. Muay Thai is a combat sport native to Thailand where fighters often start training as early as 6 years old. “Striking techniques utilize elbows, fists, knees and kicks, giving Muay Thai the name ‘the art of eight limbs.’” Well skilled fighters can make a respectable living in Thailand. Wages can also be made with other onlookers directly and many Thais make a living off of it. Making small wager bets on each of the matches (even the underdog wins sometimes!) makes watching the matches a bit more interesting!
We planned a dinner at Dash! based on the reviews we had read. This beautiful Teak house has live music downstairs and a more romantic seating area upstairs or outdoors. There is also a seating area on the upstairs patio that we enjoyed during the Loy Krathong festival. The food was good but due to a late reservation (9pm), half the menu was no longer available. They source their ingredients from the market each morning so when it’s out, it’s out! I would recommend earlier reservations to ensure you can order what you prefer.
Whole Earth Restaurant was a gem we found shortly after the Loy Krathong festival. We did not have any trouble finding a great table outdoors without reservation to enjoy the amazing weather. The restaurant is in a beautiful traditional Thai style house surrounded by gardens. I certainly enjoyed my Khao Soi, a traditional northern Thai food dish and the mango sticky rice did not disappoint! (but does it ever?)
Fresh coconut off the street! Street vendors are a dime a dozen in this city. For a refreshing afternoon drink, splurge on a $0.50 coconut where vendors will lob the tops off and stuff a straw into the center for you to drink the juice out of. Afterwards, enjoy the fresh coconut meat straight from the source!
Chiang Mai’s rich history lends itself to artistic handicrafts produced in the area. Shopping is a highlight in Chiang Mai and the price is always right!
Thai silk can be found everywhere. Dig a little to find the best quality of items you prefer. Silk scarves range from $3 to $30 and even the $3 variety offers lustrous silk. Silk products make for great souvenirs and gifts!
To my surprise, my husband was interested in Gold-Leaf Lacquerware. Bamboo is used as the base wood for many of the high quality Lacquerware items while other woods like Mango are used for lower quality pieces. You can find it (by tuk tuk) at Sankampaeng, or Hang Dong just south of Chiang Mai on Highway 108.
I found myself like a kid in a candy shop while shopping for Celadon before my husband kindly reminded me that I can’t decorate an entire house solely in green and blue elephants made of Celadon. Ok fine. The best place I found was Siam Celadon & Tea House at 158 Tapae Road. Get there early or they may actually run out of tea at the tea house!
Hill tribe crafts offer many options: silver jewelry, embroidery and hand-woven textiles are sold in market areas produced by the local hill tribes.
Since returning from our Thailand adventures, I’ve been asked if Chiang Mai was worth making the trip so far north and my answer is a resounding, YES! I don’t think a Thailand holiday is complete without stopping by this cultural hot bed.
For more thoughts on Thailand and the Thai culture, check out my blog post on Bangkok.