Chiang Mai is a city in the northern part of Thailand. Our primary reason for going there was to witness the annual Yi Peng festival, but we also knew that Chiang Mai is the cultural and handicraft capital of Thailand.
We decided to take a 14-hour overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Each compartment on the train had four beds (two on top, two on the bottom). Each bed came with a freshly laundered sheet, pillowcase and blanket. Even though we had a late lunch, we decided to check out the dining cart of our train and ended up having a light dinner, which turned out to be pricier than usual. It was funny trying to drink our soup and juice as the train wobbled from side to side, or came to an occasional jerky stop to pick up more passengers.
As we went to bed, we were able to draw curtains around our beds to block out the ceiling light in our compartment that remained on for the entire night. We also noticed that not every compartment had an electricity plug. Our compartment did have one, and in the morning, the train staff used it to plug in the water boiler to make coffee and tea. All in all, the train ride was an experience. But the washrooms were dirty, the air conditioning was way too strong, and at night, the cockroaches came out and roamed around, which wasn’t very pleasant.
Unlike the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a country atmosphere. It is close to the jungle areas of the country where many of the elephant farms and sanctuaries are located. Even our guesthouse in Chiang Mai had a jungle feel to it, with green plants all around and wooden rooms that make it seem like you are sleeping in a hut.
The city is simply beautiful. The Mae Ping River flows right through the city, and canals in the centre of the city are adorned with fountains. Of course the colour of the water is brown, but nevertheless, it shows that the city is well looked after. Pieces of an old brick wall surround the city, and walking through one of the ancient gates into the Old City you feel like you’re stepping into history.
The Old City itself is charming, with cafes and restaurants all around. Tour agencies are scattered throughout while shops selling handicrafts and silks are strategically positioned around hotels and hostels. Thai people are pushing carts of coconut ice cream or other snacks for sale, while super tiny tuk tuks and red trucks called songthaew drive by to pick up passengers. It is by those red trucks that we got around the city all the time since they tend to be the cheapest because they pick up other passengers on the way. They are kind of like Uber Pool or shared taxi.
But the defining characteristic of Chiang Mai is its numerous temples, which appear out of nowhere, springing up in the middle of the most plain and quiet neighbourhoods. We would be walking down the street and all of a sudden we would notice a little gate and boom, there’s a temple!
Since they are not very tall, it’s not possible to spot these temples from far away. And even for the purposes of taking a picture, it is hard to stand far enough from most of the temples to capture them in their entirety because you would then have to stand in the middle of the road.
Besides exploring the temples around the Big Buddha statue in Bangkok, this was our first encounter with the Buddhist temples. Due to the Yi Peng festival, the temples enjoyed quite a bit of activity from tourists, Thai people and the monks. Every temple is unique in some way in terms of its architecture, but they all seem very elaborate and detailed.
In order to enter the temple, visitors must remove their shoes and leave them at the bottom of the stairs. Visitors must also dress appropriately: shorts and tank tops are not allowed. Almost every temple has signs to remind visitors about the dress code. Also, public displays of affection are not allowed, so holding hands or kissing is forbidden.
On the inside most temples look similar. There are two or three big Buddha statues and perhaps several small ones as well. The floor has carpets for visitors to sit on and pray. The ceilings are covered in paintings depicting the life of the Buddha, from achieving enlightenment to entering nirvana. We witnessed many Thai people coming into the temples to pray and to place white flowers or candles at the Buddha displays. Some temples also had monks that accepted offerings from the visitors and gave out their blessings.
Our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was perhaps the most memorable. This temple is located on the top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It is a very large temple that starts with a staircase that has two Naga serpents as the railings. The serpents stretch all the way to the top and are supposed to be very impressive. However, what impressed us the day we visited Doi Suthep was the sheer amount of visitors! It’s likely due to the Yi Peng festival that Doi Suthep was swarmed with tourists and Thai people. It was next to impossible to take a picture without someone being in the shot.
At the top of the stairs, there are many beautiful things to look at. The main attraction is the golden spire and the adjacent temples that house large Buddha statues. But we found the outside to be quite intricate and interesting as well, with many shrines, Naga serpents, bells and even a lookout point onto the city of Chiang Mai.
On the inside, monks bless visitors in large groups and tie white threads around their wrists. Thai people kneel before various Buddha images and hold white flowers in their hands while incents burn nearby. We even spotted younger monks walking around and taking in the sights, white taking photographs and selfies. We were also able to sign our names on a piece of yellow robe that will be wrapped around one of the Buddha statues.
Wat Doi Suthep was definitely the most impressive temple we’ve seen in Chiang Mai due to its scale and location on top of the mountain. But even the smallest temples were charming. We found elephant and serpent imagery to be very important in temple-building, which was quite interesting.
After exploring temples by day, we wandered the markets of Chiang Mai at night. It is no exaggeration that Chiang Mai is a handicraft capital of Thailand. In fact, we met one Thai man who said he was visiting Chiang Mai with his family, driving for ten hours all the way from Bangkok. The main reason was to take part in the festival, but he also came to Chiang Mai to do some shopping. He said the prices were lower than in Bangkok.
While we visited a couple of shopping malls in Chiang Mai that were not much different from the ones you would find in Toronto, the major shopping happens at three markets: (1) the Night Bazaar which occurs every night from Monday through Friday, (2) the Saturday night market, and (3) the Sunday night market. Every one of those markets stretches for numerous blocks down one street with many side streets also occupied by merchants.
But the Sunday night market is the most popular and the entire street was blocked off from traffic when we visited. The crowd was also very intense. At times it felt as if you were in a mosh pit at a rock concert, and you were being pushed forward by the crowd. Most of the time you couldn’t see what was sold on the other side of the street because there were just too many people blocking the view.
The markets can be tiring due to the amount of walking and pushing through the crowd that you have to do. But they can also be fun. We picked up a few gifts and souvenirs on the way by practicing our haggling skills. Very often we would find the same item sold for half the price at one of the side streets, so staying off the main road is a good strategy. Many tourists take a break by having their feet massaged along the road, which is entertaining to watch. There is also lots of street food to sample, from actual meals to snacks and desserts.
We spent a total of one week in Chiang Mai, taking part in various activities (which will be covered in the next few posts). But so far, it’s our favourite city in Thailand due to its laid-back vibe, many beautiful temples and entertaining night bazaars.