Chiang Mai: between temples and markets
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We reach Chiang Mai with an AirAsia flight from Surat Thani, South of Thailand. In fact, if you book a few days in advance, you will avoid spending 20 hours on the bus, still paying more or less the same price (flight costs us 40 euros excluding baggage).
Chiang Mai is located in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Founded in 1296, it was the capital of the independent kingdom of Lanna until 1558. In its historic center you can admire the remains of the ancient walls that testify to its past as a cultural center. In Chiang Mai you can visit hundreds of beautiful Buddhist temples including the 14th century Wat Phra Singh and the 15th century Wat Chedi Luang, decorated with snake sculptures.
We stay at the Me U hostel, just outside the walls to the north of the old city. We pay 100 baht (about 2.60 euros) a bed in a 10-person mixed dormitory. Nice hostel, with good services and optimal location.
We begin to walk a bit through the streets of the old city and we immediately feel that everything is quite touristy, but in a genuine and typical Thai way. There are indeed very old buildings decorated with well-kept flower's and gardens; bars and cafes that look more like little oases with reggae music and vintage objects; colorful lanterns to decorate wooden restaurants and bikes that animate the city. Not to mention the immense and rich Sunday night market. It really offers everything from food to souvenirs to massages and much more. We lose ourselves in its stalls for hours and hours, trying to taste anything that passes under our noses.
With map and camera in hand, we venture in search of the ancient Buddhist temples of the city, which seem to never end.
One of the most beautiful is Wat Chedi Luang where the entrance costs 30 baht (about 80 cents). Here you can also have a chat with the Buddhist monks who are happy to give information about Buddhism and their way of life, in exchange for a bit of conversation with tourists in order to perfect their English. A truly remarkable initiative in our opinion! So we sit down with them (women pay attention not to get too close to them because contact is forbidden) and we begin to understand a little more about their way of living religion and life in general. They tell us that, depending on the role played and the age of the monk (or nun), there are several prohibitions to be respected. The most frequent are: do not dine, do not spend money on superfluous things, do not makeup, do not have sex, do not do sports or other activities considered fun, shave head and eyebrows every month. Some of them are really very young. The teacher explains that they usually start this path very early so as to acquire a discipline that will serve them in adulthood. There is also the possibility, both for men and women, to join them as volunteers, obviously respecting all their rules and making a contribution to their learning of English. It has been really an interesting and educational chat.
In addition, one of the major temples here in Chiang Mai is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. It is a temple of Theravada Buddhism, often referred to as "Doi Suthep" although this is actually the name of the mountain on which it is located. It can be reached by taking a shared taxi to the old city for 60 baht per person one way and it takes about 45 minutes. There are no fixed timetables for the departure, you just have to go to the established points (for example in the northern part of the walls you have to go to the Seven Eleven) and wait until it is completely filled to leave.
The temple is very large and majestic, crowded with tourists. Usually you can admire a beautiful view of the city below but unfortunately we found a lot of haze.
Beyond temples and marked scattered everywhere in the city, Chiang Mai is also famous for its Thai massage centres. We found out that, in particular, there are two centres a bit different from the typical spa: a center where the masseurs are women prisoners condemned to less serious crimes, and a second center held by blind masseurs. We go to the first one but we are informed by the owner that you have to go early in the morning to get in line and that at 4.30 pm the center closes because the women return to prison. So we opt for the massage center hold by blind people. The costs are in line with the other massage centers (ranging from 200 to 300 baht depending on the areas involved - about 7/8 euros), but we like the idea of making a contribution to these less fortunate communities. The atmosphere is very simple, no background music or various incense, but the staff is very nice and helpful.
Finally, if you want a drink with friends and let loose a bit 'on the track, the right place is the Yellow bar where most of the young people meet at night.
Definitely a city not to be missed if you are traveling in northern Thailand. Certainly very touristy, but still able to maintain a touch of traditionalism and Thai charm.