Blustering leaves and pirouetting streaks of sunlight—ethereal love children of the ripples of water and pale morning sun make the Chiang Mai city moat in the am quite an arresting sight. Gently jerking me out of the stupor that the creaky night bus from chaotic, hot Bangkok to the ancient city had put me in. Bleary to bright-eyed, I go (courtesy my 7/11 iced-coffee).
As the songthaew rasps towards my hotel from the slowly awakening bus stop, the backdrop of the cool morning air, emerging sun and moat is captivating—I’m nearly oblivious to the line of local coffee shops and international chain outlets that dot the route to Villa Oranje, my home base. For a moment, I’m transported to erstwhile Chiang Mai city , founded in 1296, surrounded by a protective moat and a defensive wall. And while the invaders are long gone, and the wall decrepit, it still stands as testament to the city’s strength—straddling the past and present, at peace, with ease.
Villa Oranje Chiang Mai, in the Hai Ya neighbourhood, walking distance from the moat and the South side of the walled old city is tucked away from tourist madness thanks to its quiet residential by-lane location. And over the next week, as I strolled through the streets from one wat to another, trekked through national parks, thumbed through everything from traditional and ancient handicrafts to modern gizmos at buzzing night markets, and sampled everything – from tingling, curry-based Khao Soi to fusion pizza (Basil chicken doused with chilli vinegar), it became a home away from home. Come away with me as I revisit my favourite stops…
Wat when where
On foot, discovering sights, smells and sassy sign boards is my go-to way of getting to know a city… and it’s the nest of wats within the walled city that I try to unearth first. Exploring the area close to the hotel, I first stumble upon a tiny 600-year-old temple – Wat Muen Ngoen Kong. Isolated and featuring a jolly laughing Buddha, if you’re into quiet contemplation, this is where you get your Om on. The next and my favourite, was the 14th century Wat Phan Tao, south of Ratchadamnoen road. Beautifully decorated and featuring a teakwood viharn (shrine), I spent ages gazing wistfully at the reflection of Buddha in the pond, under the warm midday sun and returned at nightfall to find it bathed in a cascade of fairy lights and chilly night breeze (Chiang Mai city’s staple weather during my time there).
The temple is within walking distance of my next stop, the better-known, 14th century Wat Chedi Luang. The current temple grounds originally housed three temples — Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Ho Tham and Wat Sukmin, and as you wander through you will find gilded Buddha statues, immense prayer halls and monks exchanging existential chatter with civilians. My trip would have been incomplete without visiting the most famed of Chiang Mai’s Buddhist temples; Wat Phra Singh – one of the most revered, dates back to 1345 and is dominated by an enormous, mosaic-inlaid sanctuary, glistening gilded buildings, manicured lawns and influx of tourists and devout locals. My favourite part? The loosely-translated words of wisdom scattered on signboards all over -“if there is nothing that you like, you must like the things you have.” Finally, I went up to the Doi Suthep mountain to the celebrated Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, 15km away from Chiang Mai city. Rent a bike and make the most of the winding highway road, filled with the most law-abiding drivers I’ve ever seen. I fought off the dawn and dusk chill with a thick jacket and hot coffee paired with chicken satay from the stalls en route, situated at strategic viewing points. Once at the wat, you have to climb a seemingly endless flight of stairs and wade through countless devotees to access the main sanctuary.
While the temples in Chiang Mai city seem limitless, and with your patience perhaps waning, give the smaller temples a try, for a moment of mindfulness and uninterrupted quiet, and the larger temples an unbiased look for their spectacular design, intricate detailing and impeccable maintenance.
Mother Nature’s cry
On the way down from Doi Suthep, within a sharp left turn that you’ll likely miss with a blink of an eye, sits the Montha Than Waterfall in the Doi Suthep National Park. Bring swimming trunks, walking shoes and explore the trail (a moderately difficult 1 hour walk) – if you fall in love with the lush foliage and quietude, rent a tent and stay for a night (be warned, alcohols are not allowed). Sitting by the waterfall, far removed from the madding temple-touring crowd, as the cool wind played hide and seek with the tendrils of my hair, I let the soft sound of the water lull me into a meditative calm. And it was chasing this sanctity that lead me 29km away from the city to Huay Tung Tao Lake where rows of restaurants and stilted huts made from straw & leaves and endless views of the lake & mountains await – inspiring even the unlikeliest into poetry.
Another example of picture-perfect beauty in Chiang Mai city? The Grand Canyon aka the quarry. Previously freely open to the public, the man-made canyon was the erstwhile site of cliff dives and day-long picnics but by the time I made my way there, I found a new Grand Canyon Water Park – that charges admission and offers you the chance to zip line, dive in and lounge under techni-coloured sun umbrellas (and a slight umbrella of consumerism).
Happy ever after in the market place
Skip the mall-ratting in Chiang Mai city, instead, explore its bazaar culture like I did – head down to Wualai Walking Street – the site of the Saturday night market (which luckily for me was right opposite my hotel). From extensive food courts (Alligator meat anyone? Fried crickets perhaps?) to stalls selling everything from durian candy to leather briefcases, you’re not going home empty handed. The mother of all markets – the Sunday Market, starting at the Tha Phae Gate and extending for a km along Ratchadamnoen Road, was choc-o-blocked. Make like the locals and stop over for an open-air foot massage as you make the mass of market revellers your live entertainment. Also on my list was the international food park Ploen Rudee and Kalare Night Bazaar, both of which deserve at least a full evening dedicated to them. So, it was with happy feet (temple runs and nature trails #ftw), full stomachs (hi, Khao Soi) and bulging souvenir bags that I reluctantly readied myself for goodbye.
Chiang Mai is a curious land. Like the rest of the developing world, it’s straddling the line between holding on to its rich past and propelling towards a starkly different future. But instead of the obvious conflict tourist-friendly cities exhibit, the city reeks of quiet acceptance – it’s proud of its heritage, its wall, and legacies but it’s happy to create new relics. Here, you can meditate in a centuries-old temple, traipse through a national park and make the most of its consumer-friendly 7/11 culture without worrying about the effect of development on age-old culture. Chiang Mai appears at peace … both the city and its inhabitants hospitable and harmonious – and whether you’re here for a day or a month… inspires you to claw for your peace. Just don’t let your calm be as ephemeral as your vacation.
Location: Chiang Mai City, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Getting there: Easily accessible via road and rail (Approx 685 kms from Bangkok, overnight bus and train, booked prior to travel is your best bet – you can get tickets on the day of travel, if you are lucky) and air (closest airport: Chiang Mai International Airport CNX)
Best time to visit: October – April
Other attractions: Bhubing Palace, Elephant sanctuaries (Elephant Nature Park; Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary; Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand), San Kamphaeng Hot Springs, Doi Inthanon (A full day trip—rent an able car or a powerful bike to survive the 100-oddkm, uphill drive, engage a local agent for a tour or camp overnight)
For our food trail through Chiang Mai city, follow this link