Chiang Mai: Thailand’s Rose of the North
Here at Travelettes, our love for Thailand is undying and forever more. Sorry to sound pretty gushy about that country, but it’s definitely a fav of ours. Sure, there’s Bangkok with Khao San Road and its never-ending bustling fun; sure, there’s the sandy partying of the southern islands; but how about some northern culture in the serene and stunning city of Chiang Mai?
The “Rose of the North” is Thailand’s fifth largest city and is elevated at 316metres with a surrounding of green jungles and mountains. It could only be accessed by river or by elephant until the 1920’s and this remote location enabled its authentic charm to be retained. The historic walled city is still surrounded by a square moat and the old crumbling brick gates on each side of the compound city still exist. Little “Sois” (laneways and alleys) criss-cross the old city allowing plenty of exploration, and you’re unlikely to get lost as the moat and gates provide some sort of navigation.
Friendly locals fill the Sois, going about their everyday business, so the top thing to do as soon as you arrive is hire a 50 baht bicycle (be prepared for some pretty vintage designs) and get rolling about. You’ll really get a feel for the community and score some delicious cheap roadside eats. Bizarrely, the Thais seem to have an infinite access to vintage Levi clothes so if you’re lucky, you’ll come across an old second-hand clothes shop and be able to pick up some cool plaid shirts or jeans. I managed to find an amazing 90’s plaid shirt that has become a travel staple for many years.
You’ll notice Chiang Mai has a ridiculous amount of ridiculously beautiful “Wats” (temples). Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is the temple to see as it’s a massive Buddhist temple still retaining all its glory. Situated on a mountainside, it grandly overlooks the city and is open to the public (roughly 30 baht entrance fee).
Many catch a Songthaew (pick-up truck taxi) up the huge winding hill, but if you’re feeling daring (and you can’t drive a scooter), load one up with your bicycle and take a white-knuckle ride back down to the city. Do check your brakes before this downhill jaunt as you really don’t want to be blitzing down with some of the hairpin turns you’ll encounter!
Songthaew taxis are in abundance in the city and are the best and cheapest way to get around. The red ones wander the streets with no particular routes, picking random locals up who flag them down. Just don’t forget to haggle!
There’s an insane amount of things to get up to in the city. Take a walkabout in the massive Night Bazaar that is on nearly every night. It’s a massive pull for tourists and it’ll feel like you’ve walked for miles with stalls upon stalls selling goods! It’s great for picking up gifts, but the stalls begin repeating themselves after a while.
Every Sunday there’s the Sunday Walking Night Market where you can see crafts and try some fantastic food that can be so authentically spicy it will truly blow your face off. The market is popular with Thai tourists who are wrapped up in scarves and hats as it’s considerably cooler than the south, but to us Brits (who are used to arctic UK weather) it will still fell positively balmy.
Be prepared to find some seriously cheap street food. Not only is it delicious and healthy, but authentic and pure. Who can argue with a noodle soup for 30 baht?! Afterwards, head up to THC Rooftop Bar. Blindly feel your way in the darkness until you reach the top where there’s glow-in-the-dark graffiti adorning the walls. Good food, cheap beer, birds-eye-views of the market, cushioned floor seating – it’s the chill-est place to drink and kick back. There’s no raucous partying like in the South of Thailand, so quiet places with good music are where most head to.
If you’re not in the mood to relax, go watch some fighting. Muay Thai boxing matches are some of the most intense fighting you’ll witness in Asia and mustn’t be missed on your trip! Kalare Boxing Stadium (behind the Night Bazaar) have real fights (not sissy tourist demonstrations) every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday starting at 9:30pm for 4 hours (400-600 baht).
The great thing about Chiang Mai is its abundance of hostels. Dorms are rife and so cheap which is a nice alternative to Bangkok/the South’s plethora of guesthouses. They make great places to meet new traveling buddies too! “Same Same” has some tight dorms and rooftop toilets, but has great vibes and hammocks to lie back on in the midday heat. However, “Julie guesthouse” is the place to try and get a bed. Not only does it have a great communal space but it’s well trusted in the backpacking community to give the best prices for worthwhile Hill-Tribe treks, cooking classes (check out Thai Kitchen Centre) and night buses/trains out of Chiang Mai. It’s a hostel in high demand, but even if you don’t get a bed they’ll welcome you to go there for dinner and play pool.
Other wholesome activities include the Zoo (PANDAS!!), Elephant Parks, top-notch massages and sunbathing on straw mats with locals in the city’s grassy parks. It truly lives up to its nickname, and this “Rose of the North” is merely a taster of what beauty the North of Thailand possesses.
Image1 via Wikipedia, image 2 & 8 via Sophie Saint, image 3 via flickr, image 4 via flickr, image 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 via Jen Aitchison, image 9 via Flickr, image 13 via All things Good.