What we did in Chiang MaiEmma - 28 January 2017
We had plenty of time to fill in Chiang Mai, and used it as a sort of acclimatisation week.
Outside of the city
We arrived by sleeper train from Bangkok and hired a moped from a place opposite the station to leave Chiang Mai immediately! Don’t worry, we liked Chiang Mai, but we wanted to spend a couple of days out of town. We had a lovely (albeit expensive) visit to Mae Ngat Dam Lake, where we stayed on one of several houseboat resorts available. The next day, before returning to Chiang Mai, we took some time to visit the ‘sticky falls’. The name comes from the strangely grippy rock over which the water cascades, making it possible to climb the entire way up the waterfall with ease. I definitely didn’t pretend to be Spider-Man…
The actual journey to and from Chiang Mai wasn’t that enjoyable due to the traffic-clogged roads in the city. People who describe Chiang Mai as a dusty little hippy town are very wrong! However, the countryside roads are quite nice once you get out to them. Our journey back was somewhat ruined by us obsessively checking the US presidential election results every time we got a phone signal, and being increasingly horrified as we saw the numbers.
While in Chiang Mai, we ended up spending two days learning entirely new skills. First we spent a full day at Wat Suan Dok learning about Buddhism and meditation, which was surprisingly enjoyable thanks to our fun-loving teacher, Monk KK. Later we spent another full day learning how to do Thai massage, having enjoyed the ones we’d had on our trip so far. Thai massage is fully dressed, and relies on utilising body weight so that even the tiniest Thai woman can give a killer massage to make you squeal. Both were relaxed, interesting days, and we learned a lot!
Around the City
A major 'must do' in Chiang Mai is to go see its many wats. Since we’re travelling for so long, and there’s amazing temples everywhere we’re going, we didn’t want to get ‘templed out’ early on in the trip. Therefore our approach was just to duck into a wat whenever we passed one and whenever we felt like it. In this way we ended up seeing quite a few without it ever feeling like a chore or a check list.
One thing we wanted to do that we didn’t was the 45 minute forest hike to Wat Pha Lat. This is a temple still in use but little visited and slightly overgrown by the surrounding forest, with a waterfall and a scenic walk to get there. Unfortunately we’d need to take a songthaew to get us there, and we couldn’t find anyone to take us there for less that 600B. We later found out that the brand new Chiang Mai bus goes there, but apparently is a bit unreliable, and Mike’s feet were already suffering from blisters, so we abandoned the plan. Nonetheless, this is something we’d have liked to have done, especially since we could have combined it with a visit to beautiful golden Doi Suthep, which Mike has never seen.
Of the wats we saw, we had particularly lovely experiences at the following two:
Wat Inthakin Sad Muang
There were lanterns affixed to the ceiling, and for a princely sum of 40B (£1) you could buy a lantern, write your name and birthday on it, and hang it from the temple ceiling to bring you good fortune.
Wat Phan Tao
We stumbled across a magical lantern festival ritual here on the eve of the actual Yi Peng / Loy Krathong celebrations
All of these lanterns were of course not a year round thing, but were specific to the lantern festival in Chiang Mai, which we were lucky enough to be there for. It was slightly more subdued than usual due to the King’s death, but nonetheless there were enormous crowds, and fire lanterns filled the sky like constellations.
We went to a handful of markets in Chiang Mai:
The Chang Phuak Gate night market was a good opportunity to munch on some Thai street food, but wasn’t as impressive a food market as we were hoping. The Kanchanaburi night market was waaaay better!
This is the labyrinthine market in Chinatown, which is both inside a building, but also spills out into the adjacent streets. It is a bustling hub, and a great crash course in Asian markets. We discovered that when we thought we’d seen it all, we’d see yet another staircase, and above it would be a whole other floor, and above that, and above that! This is a great place to visit if you want to buy clothes, take a look at the unidentifiable cooking ingredients sold, or to get something mended (seamstresses are tucked away in one corner).
Sunday Walking Street
The market to end all markets! The sheer sprawling size of this market is phenomenal, and every inch of it was crammed with people! Basically the entirety of Old Town grinds to a halt, and wares are spread down the roads, and bulb lights illuminate each stall. There’s lots of street food, cut price on-road massages, and fruit shakes galore. And an enormous amount of stuff to buy! While most of the goods were clearly aimed at tourists, I wouldn’t describe it as tourist tat. In fact, it was hard to resist buying it all! I think in total we spent five hours walking round this market, and STILL didn’t manage to see it all.
Of course, part of being in Chiang Mai is just enjoying the atmosphere. We were also loving the good quality wifi everywhere, which made researching our next stops and writing up our first few blog posts easy. We also found lots of great food restaurants, although we found it hard work to get away from the tourist restaurants that dominate the old city.
One good cause we enjoyed visiting was the Chiang Mai Correctional Institute. Non-violent inmates at the women's prison are given the option to train as masseuses, and for a month during their sentence they’re allowed to practice on paying customers. Any money they make doing these affordable massages (200B / £5 for an hour) is saved for them when they come out of prison, to help them get established. We came away thinking that it is SUCH a good rehabilitation program, and must be of so much more benefit to these women and to society than simply locking them up. They come away with a profession, and a sense of pride! And no, you don’t go into a grim looking prison to get your massage, it is in a lovely heritage building with tinkly music and a fountain. Although there were prison guards...
Plus of course we were there for the world famous lantern festival, also known as Loy Krathong or Yi Peng. We’ll write about that separately…
Overall we liked Chiang Mai. We found the old town very touristy, but also where the most beautiful parts of the city were. I had a completely different experience this time to when I was here four years ago, because we walked absolutely everywhere, which gave me more an idea of the city as a whole, rather than tourist spots in isolation. I definitely wouldn’t describe it as a hippy town in northern Thailand. It’s a bustling metropolis, and the vibe has very much moved from hippy to hipster!