My decision to visit Chiang Mai was spontaneous.
I’d arrived in Bangkok less than 24 hours after leaving hospital on Koh Phangan. I planned on going to Cambodia the next day.
Unfortunately though, I was tired and weak. Bangkok’s heat was also oppressive. I could barely walk for five minutes without needing a rest. Exploring Angkor Wat under these conditions would be impossible.
So I checked the weather in Chiang Mai. The temperature there was a positively chilly twenty degrees. I went to the train station and bought a ticket to Chiang Mai for $25. Two hours later, I was in a carriage speeding north.
Would Chiang Mai be the right place to recover from my hospital stay?
A very different city
As the train neared Chiang Mai, I noticed that the surrounding countryside had changed. The lush greens of the south were gone. They’d been replaced by autumnal hues of orange and grey.
The air was colder too. I shivered in my t-shirt as I hopped off the train and walked towards the city centre. The roads here were even relatively quiet. It was a welcome contrast to Bangkok.
I crossed a bridge, over what looked like a canal. This was actually a part of the square moat which surrounds the “old city” of Chiang Mai.
And Chiang Mai is old, dating back to the 1200s. Evidence for this can be found in the crumbling wall which still guards parts of the old city. It conjured up images of soldiers huddling next to torches, looking anxiously into the night for Mongol raiders.
My first impression, dare I say it, was that Chiang Mai has culture. It turns out that it also has a lot of temples.
Too many temples?
Chiang Mai has a reputation as the temple capital of Thailand. To say it has a few is an understatement. There’s around 200 in total. This contributes to the relaxed aura of the city.
Wat Phra Singh is the most important temple and so it swarms with people by midday. Its bleached white stupas are blinding in the sun, while the elegant grounds are a nice place to sit and reflect. Within the temple there are wax statues of important Buddhist monks. I’m not ashamed to admit I thought they were real at first.
Wat Chedi is more interesting though. The temple sits high on top of a pyramid structure. Its imposing size and stone construction reminded me of ancient Rome.
A key feature is that half the temple is collapsed. This damage happened over 450 years ago in an earthquake, yet the temple has not been rebuilt. It’s refreshing to see some living history which has not been restored. You can also chat to monks at the temple grounds to learn more about Buddhism.
However, the most memorable temple of all is not even in Chiang Mai. Atop one of the surrounding mountains is Doi Suthep, a temple which sits in the clouds. Doi Suthep’s gold stupas dazzle and look striking against the blue sky. From Doi Suthep you can look out over Chiang Mai and the surrounding valley. The downside is that the temple is packed with tourists, so it’s not the serene experience it could be.
Chiang Mai has plenty of other temples to discover. Some of my most rewarding moments came when I stumbled across a secret temple hidden down a random backstreet. It sure made a change from getting drunk on beach.
Looking at temples can get boring though. Luckily, there’s another way to pass the time once temple-fatigue strikes.
Chiang Mai’s most famous dish, the khao soi, is so good that it’s worth the visit alone. The khao soi is best described as a curry-soup with crunchy noodles and a heap of aromatics. The soup is so rich that its only given in a small quantity, making the bowl look half empty. I’d go back to Chiang Mai solely to eat it.
Walking Street is another Chiang Mai institution. Every Sunday night, the centre of the old city transforms into a night market. The main street is blocked off, and it takes about 45 minutes to walk from one end to the other. There are trinkets and clothes for sale, but the food is the real highlight. Jumbo spring rolls, spicy BBQ skewers, and irresistible banana rotee can be bought for pocket change by the Tha Pae Gate.
Another highlight is to take a cooking class. I did one with Asia Scenic, and was astonished by the genius of Thai cooking. I learned how to make pad thai, tom yum soup, green curry, and spring rolls. Although it seems hard, the ease of cooking Thai food belies the results.
What I really enjoyed about Chiang Mai though was that it’s simply a nice place to be. After two weeks in the madhouse of Bangkok and Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai’s slower pace rejuvenated me.
It’s not fair forming an opinion on Thailand until you’ve visited Chiang Mai. It’s easy to have a negative view of the country if you’ve only seen the rampant commercialism and sex-trade of the south.
Chaing Mai’s a very liveable city. I’d spend days wandering the streets, finding cafes to chill in and exploring secondhand bookstores. Even the local markets were interesting and offered a snapshot of Thai life. It was the perfect place to recover. I didn’t want to leave.
It may come as a surprise then that despite all this praise, it’s not the reason I’ll remember Chiang Mai.
For as good as all this was, a separate experience trumped everything.
In fact, this particular experience was probably my highlight of Thailand.
The chance to spend time with happy elephants.
Would you like to visit Chiang Mai? What’s your favourite city in Thailand? Leave a comment below