What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a Thailand holiday? Chances are you'll say either the beautiful beaches or bustling Bangkok. Explore the north, and discover a different facet of Thailand.
Chiang Mai is Thailand's gateway to its great north country; a region of rugged mountains, rich stands of hardwood forest, and the last domain of the complex web of tribal groups which have migrated into the relatively isolated region of the north over the past 1,000 years from their original bases in central and southern China.
I don't know if it's the hippie in me, but there's something magical about Chiang Mai that made me extend my weekend trip to a one-week stay in this city.
Rich in history and tradition, Chiang Mai is northern Thailand's most culturally significant and arguably the nation's best vehicle for educating and entertaining visitors. Here you have the opportunity to explore centuries-old temples, trek through the jungle or spend some time getting to know the northern hill tribe villages. You can even take a day trip to the border of Thailand and visit Myanmar or Laos!
There's a wide range of accommodations in the city to fit all types of travellers - from boutique B&B right smack in the old town to the luxury resort properties outside the city center.
WHAT TO SEE
As I arrived on a Sunday, I decided to head straight to the old city and check out the wats as well as the popular Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Street. The old town oozes a bit of a bohemian feel to it, possibly from the number of backpackers chilling in the area. Quaint coffee shops and boutique stores dot the main streets.
One of the most visited Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra Singh which is said to house the most revered Buddha image in the city. The temple is the classic example of northern Thai or Lanna style.
Just a few blocks from Wat Phra Singh, is another beautiful temple complex, the Wat Chedi Luang. This impressive ruined temple dates from the 14th and 15th century, used to house the Emerald Buddha, the holiest religious object in Thailand, which is now presently in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. The ruined brick chedi used to be 84m in height, but due to a severe earthquake, toppled to 60m in height. Each side of the chedi has stairways guarded by stone nagas - the mythical snakes commonly found in Thai temples.
By the end of your trip, you will probably get "wat-out". But do not miss a visit to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep tucked away in the mountains half an hour's drive from the city. The 300+ steps lead to the main temple showcasing a collection of murals depicting the life and teachings of Buddha. At the center is a gold-covered chedi surrounded by golden umbrella-like structures. Despite the number of visitors to the temple, the beautiful surrounding and the spiritual effect of the temple put me on a meditative state.
Sunday afternoons, people head to the main street to shop. Stretching from one side of the old city to the other end, the area is blocked off and the entire length is filled with stalls selling all sorts of stuff from clothing, house wares, handicraft to delicious Thai street food.
WHAT TO EAT
Chiang Mai is probably my favorite spot in Thailand to stuff myself with the yummy goodness of Thai cuisine. Khao soi (curry noodle soup) is probably the most famous Northern Thai cuisine. But there's much more to Chiang Mai cuisine than a simple bowl of khao soi. There's khanom jeen naam ngeow (rice noodles in meaty broth), kaeng hang le (a spicy pork curry), and nam phrik ong (a northern-style chili dip served with dried pork and vegetables). Sign up for a cooking class in Chiang Mai for a good intro to Northern Thailand cuisine. For a good afternoon sundowner, head to one of the riverside bars such as Good View Restaurant or The Riverside.
DAY TRIP SUGGESTION: CHIANG RAI & THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
I decided to explore another place called Chiang Rai, just 2 hours 35 minutes drive from Chiang Mai. We continued on to the northernmost of the area to visit the Burma border town of Chiang Saen. This ancient city of lies on the banks of the Mekong River at the southern-most point of the Golden Triangle. Although the town is very small, it has been used as the major trading post since the seventh century. Chiang Saen is literally littered with temples, fortresses, moats, Buddha images, remnants of city walls and chedi that all bear witness to its' intriguing past. Some of the monuments found here are actually older than the Chiang Saen era, which provides proof to an even later kingdom known to locals as ‘Yonok'. You will find many of these artifacts, sculptures, pottery and more in the Chiang Saen Museum, which provides visitors with a fascinating insight into the area's history and pre-history.
One of my favorite spotsin Chiang Rai is the White Temple "Wat Rong Khun", a Buddhist temple inspired by sci-fi movies. This temple looks bizarre, and can be a bit creepy as there are sculptures of demons and skulls surrounding the complex. I got the chills as I crossed the bridge. There were hundreds of sculpted hands reaching up, and this symbolized "hell". And that the way to happiness is by overcoming "cravings".
After crossing the bridge, you will be led to the main temple. Inside the temple, you will find Buddha statues, but the walls are filled with images of heroes from western pop culture such as Superman, Batman, Ben10 and even Neo from The Matrix.
I have to admit it was the most peculiar temple I've ever visited. But I can't deny that it's also possibly one of the most beautiful temples I've seen in Asia.
Thailand isn't all about the beaches. The country definitely has a lot to offer.