We left the hustle and bustle of Bangkok for the calm and beauty of the North. And, as anyone might know, Chiang Mai (เชียงใหม่) is the capital of this beautiful region. So many people from all over the world will tell you how wonderful Chiang Mai is, even if you step back in time:
…Chiang Mai represents the prime diamond on the crown of Thailand, the crown cannot be sparkle and beauteous without the diamond…
— King Rama V, 12 August 1883
Chiang Mai’s Old City is an interesting place full of kiosks selling you adventure, songthaew zipping tourists around town, and farang bars blasting rock music. I knew we needed to visit the city, but I was a little skeptical about having a good time as I try to avoid touristy towns. Chiang Mai really is a tourist’s gateway to Northern Thailand… but turns out the city has a lot to offer inside its walls.
Our Guesthouse Stay
As we were basing ourselves out of Chiang Mai for a little while we wanted to make sure our accommodation was comfortable as well as relaxing. Luckily, it’s really easy to find cute and unique places in Chiang Mai, though notably more expensive than Bangkok. We chose Baan Khun Krub and it was nothing less than perfect. Located within the Old City, this bed and breakfast gives you the true experience of Thai hospitality and traditional customs.
They offer 4 unique, traditional Thai-styled rooms in an authentic Thai atmosphere. We actually stayed here twice, and got to stay in two different rooms. They’re all lovely and incredibly charming. I can’t emphasise enough how beautiful this place is.
The breakfast is also lovely, with fresh Thai fruit and other dishes for you to choose from. It’s not surprise that the food was nourishing and fresh as you just feel lighter than air here. I look forward to the next I come back to Chiang Mai and I will definitely be staying here again.
Despite our accommodation being absolutely amazing, the thing I looked forward to the most was the food of Chiang Mai! Everyone tells me that the best street food in all of Thailand is here. In hindsight, I can see why. The city has so many markets — street, produce, day, night, everything!
For lunch we opted for Sa-ard Sawoei (ร้าน ก๋วยเตี๋ยวสะอาด), which specialises in fishball noodles. This place is particularly unique because they make all their fish balls by hand and they are so so so good! Alternatively, you can try a very similar version of fishball noodles called Yen Ta Fo “Pink Noodle Soup”. The broth is pink, caused by red bean curd. We ended up eating here twice because the food is delicious, yet light — perfect for a hot Thai day (and of Thai days, many are indeed hot).
Once our tummies were full and happy, we finally set out on exploring Chiang Mai. We embarked on what seemed a never-ending temple tour of the city. Seriously, Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples (or wats in Thai). It’s so incredibly easy to just run into temples here and there, but if you have a limited amount of time you’ll need to prioritise. Below is a list of the temples worth visiting if you only have one afternoon to peruse as many as you can.
Our first stop was Wat Phantao, a 14th century temple. It’s distinct as it is made out of teak wood and has intricate carvings throughout the building. Teak is a tropical hardwood tree species grown in southeast Asia. Notably, you can tell if something is made out of teak from the smell! Teak releases a very light, fragrant smell, which apparently come from oils encased in the wood.
Though this one is distinct, all temples are based on the same premise: they represent the five elements. These are:
- Water; and
Another amazing aspect of temples are these large, tall structures called stupas. They’re stone structures built over what are thought to be relics of the Buddha, or over copies of the Buddha’s teachings. Stupas tend to be rather grand and imposing, and are often covered in gold leaf. Just check out the photo above of the stupa at Wat Phantao!
Wat Chedi Luang
Perhaps one of the the more well-known temples in the Old City, Wat Chedi Luang is quickly identifiable by its golden facade. However, this temple is particularly famous for its enormous, towering chedi. A chedi is a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing relics. This specific chedi base has five elephant sculptures (one being an original made of brick and stucco). It would’ve been the tallest structure in Chiang Mai for hundreds of years. We unfortunately did not take a good photo of it as we somehow completely missed it! So, as a warning to my fellow travelers, do not miss the chedi as this temple is known as the “The temple of the Great Stupa” — oops.
There’s an interesting legend around the large tree that stands next to the entrance of the temple: if this tree should ever fall, a great catastrophe will occur. Luckily it doesn’t seem like the tree is in danger of falling any time soon!
Wat Phra Singh
Chiang Mai’s most revered temple, Wat Phra Singh is quite the sight. It’s completely covered in gilded gold and exquisite mosaics. The temple is very lavish to say the least. Inside the inner sanctuary is the lion Buddha, known as the Phra Singh (hence the name of the temple).
We really enjoyed this temple and so decided to sit in its beautiful courtyard. However, our moment to rest was immediately interrupted by two university students and a monk. It’s very common in Thailand for monks to exchange giving information on Buddhism for some practice in the English language. The two university students asked if we could have a conversation with this very young monk and if they could also film it. They said that they had a project on monks and their aim to interact with people from all over the world. And of course, how can you really say no to a monk? We proceeded to talk about his background and also some teachings of Buddhism. Like many monks, he comes from a very small rural village up in the mountains of Chiang Mai. He came to the city to study at this temple, which has exposed him to many cultures as tourists flock the area.
It was a really interesting experience and I can tell he was extremely grateful for the chance to practice speaking English.
Wat Chiang Man
My personal favourite temple is Wat Chiang Man. It’s the oldest temple in Chiang Mai and goes back all the way to the founding of the city in 1296. Why is it my favourite? Well, it’s an extremely peaceful place but of course this was accented by the beautiful hour of dusk. The grounds are humble, yet the buildings themselves are so intricate.
Toward the back of the complex is the Chedi Chang Lom, or Elephant Chedi. The golden stupa glimmered during a beautiful sunset, which is probably why I loved this temple complex so much.
Chang Puak Market
As the sun continued to set, we immediately thought of what exciting food experiences were ahead of us. Chiang Mai has tons of street food options! There are a few night food markets, as well as plenty during the day. The city is surrounded by stone walls and on each side is a gate. The north gate has a night market called the Chang Puak Gate market. The south gate has the Chiang Mai Gate market. Both are great options, so let me tell you about both!
The Chang Puak Gate (the North Gate) has a couple of famous spots. One such spot is hosted by a lady with a cowboy hat cooking slow roasted pork leg. She’s pretty difficult to miss.
The Chiang Mai Gate market is equally exciting. By this point in our journey, we were on the hunt for some keys dishes we hadn’t tried yet. Victor found a Khao Soi stand, so he got the traditionally prepared version. Khao Soi is a curry dish and is one of Chiang Mai’s specialities. It’s usually made with egg noodles and slow-cooked chicken. You’ll see in the photo below that the dish is topped with crunchy noodles. Victor loved it!
I opted for Suki, a Thai variation of hot pot. It’s essentially a mix of veggies and protein (can be meat or seafood). You can order it wet or dry, which essentially means with or without broth. I opted for the dry seafood version. This was probably one of my favourite dishes during the trip!
I think Chiang Mai has a little bit of everything. You can go relax in a beautiful guesthouse, go exploring the many historical temples in the city, and eat a ton of really great, affordable food. Chiang Mai also has a very active nightlife, so there really is something for everyone.
Which Chiang Mai experience sounds the best to you? Fishball noodles, perhaps? Check out my other posts of Thailand here.