What to do in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai - 4Wat Chedi Luang

In a first visit to Thailand, getting to know the city known as cultural capital of the country is mandatory, the city of Chiang Mai.

This is the second biggest city in Thailand and is located in the north, on a mountain area, bathed by the Ping River, an affluent of Chao Phraya River.
Although not being as cosmopolitan as Bangkok it has been continuously developing in the tourist and financial levels, being nowadays a big center of jewelry and handicraft.

It was founded in 1296 and is considered the birthplace of the amazing traditions of the culture from the North and of the Buddhist religion in Thailand. There are people who state that nothing can compare to the beauty and kindness of the people from Chiang Mai, here the sense of welcoming is profoundly rooted.

Chiang Mai - 3The old city of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat and fortified walls and presents a lively maze of markets, alleys and many beautiful old temples. However it is also important to explore the modern city, which offers us the commodities and services as efficient as the ones from the capital, but in a smaller dimension.

The entire city presents us with the best there is, whether in terms of history, culture or nature. There is an enormous variety of attractions, since magnificent gardens, tribal mountain villages, natural parks with elephants and natural beauties such as waterfalls, caves and hills.

But, as always, the imposing question is “what to visit in Chiang Mai?”
And here we are trying to answer that to you and help you organize your trip to this wonderful town!

Chiang Mai - 40m             Chiang Mai - 29             Chiang Mai - 14Let’s start with the temples! These are older than the ones in Bangkok and in a little bit different style, however equally fascinating.

Just in the old city there are more than 36! This place surrounded by fortified walls is historical and extremely interesting, just walking around its alleys and discovering each corner is enough excitement! As to the temples, go in as much as you can, if you go with little time, here are a few suggestions of the most important ones.

Chiang Mai - 24mWat Phra Singh

It was constructed in 1345 by the King Pha Yu, who ordered its construction to keep the ashes of his father, the King Kam Fu. It is thought that it has been the first temple to have the Emerald Buddha, a cultural treasure that now resides at the royal palace in Bangkok.

The temple holds the famous building Phra Viharn Lai Kam, of northern style and one of the most famous buildings in the city that keeps in its interior a much venerated statue, the Phra Singh Buddha, sculpted in the old style Lana and made in copper and gold alloy, originally from Chiang Rai (another interesting northern town).

Chiang Mai - 20Wat Chedi Luang

The construction of the temple started in the XIV century when King Saen Muag Ma planned to lodge its predecessor ashes in this place. After ten years of construction there was a stop, and it started again a few years later by the order of the widow of Saen Muang Ma. The temple was finished in 1454 by the King Tilokaraj leaving the Chedi with a height of 86 m, the biggest Lana building from that time.

Chiang Mai - 8mPartially destroyed in the earthquake of 1545, this Chedi is the biggest of Chiang Mai and the place where it is located is of great importance, once it is near the city pillar, deployed next to a tree, which legend says that Chiang Mai will prosper while the tree lives.

Chiang Mai - 52Wat Chiang Man

Most likely the oldest temple in town. Here you can find several statues of Buddha, being the most important one a small figure in crystal of Phra Setang Khamani, which is believed to be gifted with power to make it rain, as well as the Phra Sila stone, which came from India.

Chiang Mai - 60Wat Phan Tao

As I said in the article about Bangkok we had the luck to be in the country while the celebration of the Loy Kathrong was happening (see article), and here in Chiang Mai we could also observe the celebration of this festive date.
We were walking in the old city, coming from Wat Chedi Luang, when we stood in front of a small temple with a prevailing wood building, a bit simpler than the temples we had seen before. At the entrance we could read “The Monastery of a Thousand Kilns”, the monastery of the thousand ovens! This inscription is due to the fact of this place being used to the foundry of the Buddha images, destined to Wat Chedi Luang.

Chiang Mai - 45This building was constructed firstly as a royal building to the governor Chao Mahawong, who used the structure from 1846 to 1854.

We decided to enter and realized it was a simpler place but also charming, and as we walked into it we noticed something different was happening, lots of people in the place, although being night and the temple full of monks preparing it for something. In this case, to the festival we watched in Bangkok, Loy Kathrong.

At Phan Tao temple, the Buddhist meditation and the lighting of floating paper lanterns come to life and create one of the most perfect and photogenic moments we’d seen. It is indescribable, the feeling and the beauty of the moment, only watching, but I think that in the pictures you can see its essence. This is Thailand and not just the usual tourism; here we live the tradition, the magic and culture.

Chiang Mai - 71             Chiang Mai - 39             Chiang Mai - 31Leaving the old city and going through the rest of town we’ll also find some must visit places.

Wat Suan Dok
Also known as Flower Garden Temple, with its Chedi in form of a bell, this temple is the royal cemetery of Chiang Mai.
In terms of architecture it may not be the most fascinating one, but no doubt about its great historic value.

Wat Umong
Very close to Wat Suan Dok is located one of the most ancient monastic temples in Chiang Mai, which has underground places for meditation. Despite a great part of the building being in ruins it is worth a visit, mostly because of the beautiful surrounding forest.

Doi Suthep
The amazing mountain from where you can observe the entire city and that keeps one of Chiang Mai’s highlights, the Wat Phrathat on the top. But to get here you must climb a staircase of 290 steps or take the funicular, despite being lazy I prefer to take the stairs!
The temple has an imposing golden Chedi, two sanctuaries and cloisters dating from the XVI century. The entire environment is amazing, we look around and see the exuberance of the temple in rivalry with the pure surrounding nature.
Legend has it that Wat Phrathat’s place was chosen when the King Ku Na searched for a place to save the sacred relics. So, these were tied to the litter on top of an elephant that was then left wandering alone. The animal climbed Doi Suthep, stopped near the top and kneeled, indicating the chosen spot.

Near Doi Suthep, around 4km, we find the Phuping Palace, the official residence of the royal family, whose gardens are open to the public.
Chiang Mai - 28Leaving the temples aside and taking advantage of the nature and culture the magnificent city of Chiang Mai has to offer, there are mandatory places, like for example the different elephant parks, which unfortunately we weren’t able to visit. These animals were always very important in Thailand, used as transportation for centuries, and nowadays used in tourism, but from what I read, they’re used with all the necessary respect (I hope so).

Another important thing to mention are the different villages with tribes that keep all the tradition and Thai manners, or the village of the  “giraffe women” refugees, or long neck women. These figure the brutality of the military regime in the neighbor Myanmar and quickly transformed into a tourist attraction in Thailand. Apparently they are used by the Thai authorities, but they assure to be happy in their host country. The use of the necklace is said to be for survival, for being used as protection against animal attacks. These villages turn out to be “tourist hunting” places, a bit dramatic and always with the goal to sell souvenirs, but nevertheless they represent the tradition and behaviors of the Thai culture.

tigerkingdom -13Being a feline lover, another place that completely got my attention was Tiger Kingdom (see), a unique experience to be able to touch and feel those perfect creatures!

Also don’t miss the street markets, Chiang Mai is probably the street food capital of Thailand, whether it is night or day, many areas of the city are filled with sellers and clients giving life to a tradition of the country and some of the most traditional northern Thai dishes, one of the markets not to be missed is Chiang Mai Gate, in the South entrance of the old city.

Chiang Mai - 69             Chiang Mai - 53             Chiang Mai - 49We also had the luck of enjoying the Sunday Market, a special market that occurs every Sunday, with everything, for every taste, handicraft, massages and food! But João will talk to you about this experience later in another article.

If you schedule a trip to Thailand, don’t leave Chiang Mai aside, it is a wonderful city, with the historical and culture essence of Bangkok, but without its frantic craziness.

Start in Bangkok and after enjoy Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai - 63mI’m sure you won’t regret it!

Where to sleep
Oasis Baan Saen Doi Spa Resort

Text: Cíntia Oliveira | Flavors & Senses in Thailand with the suport of  Emirates.

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