after enjoying a few days of metropolitan thailand, we boarded a plane (thai air is great, btw) headed north to thailand’s 2nd biggest city, chiang mai.
truth be told, when we started planning this trip, i hadn’t heard of chiang mai, but was encouraged by several friends who have been before to check it out. the mountains surrounding chiang mai are among the highest in the entire country, so the view when exiting the airport was vastly different than the flat, sprawling bangkok we had just been in. little factoid for you, chiang mai is the only tourist destination in thailand to have made it into the 2012 list of “25 best destinations in the world” by tripadvisor.
the most obvious characteristic of chiang mai, and one that clearly dates and categorizes it’s historic past, is the moat and defensive wall which surround the entire “old” city since burma (now myanmar) was a constant threat. we stayed outside the city walls where most hotels sit, just next to the night bazaar, but chiang mai is small enough to easily walk to most places inside the city walls (as long as we were wearing comfortable shoes).
my feelings on chiang mai now are a little less disappointed than they were when were actually in chiang mai. by the time we got to chiang mai, we were both getting a little tired of bartering for everything we wanted, fighting crowds (which were WAY less than in bangkok) and frankly, the heat. in bangkok, transportation was SO easy and in chiang mai, it doesn’t really exist. your choices are, tuk-tuk, songthaew or your own two feet. we chose the later option simply bc we didn’t have to barter with our feet.
we did take one trip outside the city, via songthaew, to doi suthep. i knew going into this leg of our trip that doi suthep would be my number one priority to see. we easily found a ride, bartered the original 500thb offer down to 400thb (i became the negotiator on this trip. go me.), hopped in the back of the truck and sat back for the 30 minute trip up the very windy mountain road.
doi suthep, in a few words, was the highlight of our trip. as legend has it, a while elephant is said to have climbed up doi suthep, at the time called doi aoy chang (sugar elephant mountain), trumpeted three times before dying at the site. It was interpreted as a sign and King Nu Naone ordered the construction of a temple at the site. after climbing up the 180 steps to get to the site, i understood how the elephant felt. but what a site to behold. the steps are lined with vendors, food stands and adorable children welcoming visitors. and by welcoming, i mean saying “hello” followed by “MONEY!!!”
the site is built around the central chedi which was built in 1383. let me reiterate that. that gold, sparking, perfect structure is 600 years older than me.
the atmosphere at doi suthep is what i found most memorable. it was filled with silent chanting (a dichotomy, of sorts but when there in the moment, it makes perfect sense), burning incense, the occasional gong banging, bell ringing, monk blessing…the energy there was equal parts exciting, spiritual and peaceful. that’s the only way i can describe it. it was a truly magical place. the photo below shows a piece of the “robe” we signed and will be wrapped around the pagoda. leaving a piece of ourselves in thailand…awesome.
we also saw 2 other major temples in chiang mai: wat chedi luang, wat chiang man (i LOVED the elephants on the chedi in back).
another highlight in chiang mai was getting to eat “khao soy“–it’s a dish originating in the north.
i’d also be remiss if i didn’t mention the famous chiang mai night bazaar from which we stayed literally a block. much like the famed chatuchakmarket in bangkok (which we sadly didn’t attend since we weren’t in town on a weekend), you can find just about anything (except a deck of cards…long story…) there. tshirts which animated when under a black light, bars of soap carved into flowers, carved wooden animals (which i regret daily for not buying) to….PETS. there are actually 2 markets across a very busy street (we likened crossing thai streets to a game of frogger) from each other, which made for even more goods to peruse. the ka lae night market also has a pretty expansive food court with a small beer garden. our dinner that night ran us about $1.67. i should also admit that the only thing i had for dinner that night was mango sticky rice–something i was a-ok with.
my overall opinions of chiang mai:
favorite thing about the city: while i still don’t feel like we saw much “every day thai life”, which is what i crave when traveling, it was definitely a less touristy look at thailand than bangkok. the city was small enough to be fairly walkable, which was really nice. many more cheap places to eat, which is something i thought would be way more prevalent. i’ll never get over how these GORGEOUS, centuries-old temples seem to pop up out of nowhere in the city. sort of like a rosebud inside a thorn bush.
least favorite thing about the city: we felt way more pressure from vendors and taxi drivers. to the extent that we didn’t get to a major site i wanted to see just because it was easier to stay put than to deal with bargaining for the 2,000th time that day. we’ll probably regret that, but that’s what return trips are for. big sites to see are scattered throughout and well beyond the city, so the only way to get to them is by taxi or songthaew…and, well, see the second sentence in this bullet.
favorite thing i ate or drank: khao soy, for sure.
would i go back? when we got on the plane to leave, i thought “yeah…i’m done with chiang mai. don’t think i’d come back.” but now that i’ve had time to decompress, i’d definitely go back. i didn’t love chiang mai as much as i thought i would, or as much as i liked bangkok, but i’d still come back. especially for Loi Krathong. i would probably just try to stay closer to the old city for ease of getting around.
hotel: dusit d2 (3 stars out of 5…location was great, they have an amazing breakfast and pool, and it’s a well-designed but we had several things happen–if you’re curious, email me…i don’t want to put them on blast–that really soured our experience.) // shopping: night market is a must. josh got some custom shirts made at new valentino tailor and they did a great job. 2.5 days from measuring to finished shirts. fabrics were just ok, but had great basics, nevertheless. // food: food court inside the night bazaar for cheap traditional thai (they clear your tables and don’t forget to dip your silverware in the boiling water to sanitize), just khao soy (for…well, khao soy. i got mild, josh got medium. he sweated for 2 hours after.), hot chilli, phon non cafe (great, cheap lunch and awesome smoothies!).