by Gennadiy Belotserkovskiy
For many, the first impression of Thailand is azure sea water, countless palm trees, sandy beaches (thanks, Mr. DiCaprio), rejuvenating massages amidst picturesque landscapes, and happy-go-lucky Siamese people. On the way to Thailand’s southern provinces, to famous resorts located on scattered islands that lay along the coasts of the Andaman Sea, travelers make at least a day-long stop in Bangkok, a bustling capital, a cacophony of mismatched buildings – from ultra-modern high rises to decrepit temples – amidst labyrinth of streets, smells, and vices.
Similar to other megapolyses, Bangkok is fast-paced and densely populated. It becomes even more apparent at obligatory touristy attractions as numerous mega-buses clumsy maneuver to unload Chinese tourists on narrow sois (streets). Bangkok is also quite spread out on both banks of winding Chao Phraya River, so planning a functional itinerary can turn into a daunting task. Another thing Bangkok definitely lacks is closeness to nature: mountains of cracked cement, sticky asphalt and grapevine-like clusters of electrical wire peek at urban hikers from every side.
Chiang Mai is diametrically different. Depending on where you ask, there are two thoughts about it. Many foreigners inhabiting Chiang Mai moved there from the capital or from one of the islands and now swear by their new home. Those who stayed behind frown upon Chiang Mai’s provincial demeanor and pat it on the shoulder with condescension of a patronizing older sibling.
Chiang Mai (sometimes written as “Chiengmai” or “Chiangmai”) is the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand, sitting astride the Ping River. Chiang Mai means “new city” and was so named because it became the new capital of the Lan Na kingdom when it was founded in close proximity to major trading routes in 1296, succeeding Chiang Rai (1262).
Which may actually serve Chiang Mai well. Due to its perceived status of a Bangkok’s younger brother, residents and visitors alike can enjoy lower prices, sights, amenities and unobstructed nature well within reach, all in a very friendly, easily walkable town. Businesses that wouldn’t have survived a month in Bangkok due to sky-high rent and steep competition, have a much better chance of blossoming in Chiang Mai. There are hardly any tall buildings, but plenty of greenery, and numerous viewpoints to either gaze on the highest mountains in the country or look down into the valley and try to find which one of those tiny buildings is your friendly hotel. Very much alive nightlife scene along the Ping River, plenty of off-the-beaten-path, run-by-some-artist-in-his-spare-time gems mixed up with local eat-inns and stalls that sell out before 2 p.m., several craftsmen centers where skilled locals produce wood and stone-carvings, straw umbrellas, all kinds of clay pottery and porcelain that is then sold globally.
While officially the city of Chiang Mai only covers most parts of the Mueang Chiang Mai district with a population of 160,000, the city’s sprawl extends into several neighboring districts. The Chiang Mai Metropolitan Area has a population of nearly one million people, more than half the total of Chiang Mai Province.
So what can you do if you happen to descend upon Thailand’s northern capital, the country’s second most-visited city? Exploring Chiang Mai just doesn’t feel overwhelming. Possibly because the tourist groups are smaller and more mobile, spread out evenly throughout the city’s many temples, art galleries, restaurants, and plazas, and also venturing out of town for hiking, elephant rides, hill-tribe village tours or generally just relaxing in luxurious villas with private outdoor pools.
Chiang Mai has positioned itself to become a Creative City and is considering applying for Creative City status with UNESCO. Chiang Mai was one of two tourist destinations in Thailand on TripAdvisor’s 2014 list of “25 Best Destinations in the World”, where it stands at number 24.
For travelers, Chiang Mai can be roughly broken into two major points of interest: clusters inside the old city, surrounded by what used to be a flimsy brick wall, and a more modern area along the chic Nimmanhaemin or Niman Road. There’s no shortage of hotel options and the city is suited for walking so choosing shouldn’t be a problem.
There are virtually no metered taxis in Chiang Mai, but all sorts of motorized vehicles are available for rent on the spot. However, if you’re not accustomed to driving in Thailand and wish to get the feel of the town itself rather than embark on a day-long journey into the mountains, then get a pair of comfortable shoes and arm yourself with protection against sunshine/rain/mosquitoes. When walking becomes a non-option, an age-old dilemma arises: tuk-tuk vs songthaew.
A tuk-tuk or sam-lor is an auto rickshaw, also known as a three-wheeler or trishaw, or a gazillion other regional names. It’s a widely used form of urban transport Thailand. The name is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of a small (often two-cycle) engine. A songthaew (literally “two rows”) is a passenger vehicle adapted from a pick-up or a larger truck and used as a share taxi or bus. There are no meters, and fares are negotiated in advance.
OK, this one is simple. You may be tempted, but avoid tuk-tuks unless you’re traveling with a local who’s handling all the negotiations. Songthaews are much better, and often you share one with other passengers, so it ends up being cheaper. They also often run on predetermined routes and have appropriate signage. Ask your hotel for assistance. However, if it’s raining or there’s just a whiff of rush-hour, the price goes tenfold, that is if they even want to be bothered to move.
At the airport’s passport control, a placecard welcomes visitors to the Land of Buddha. And it’s true, the amount of Buddhist temples and Buddha statues in Thailand is staggering. There are plenty of temples in Chiang Mai, too, including the renowned, crawling-with-tourists temple (wat) on Doi Suthep mountain (by the way, doi means mountain), and as you roam the city streets you will be passing many others as well. Fortunately, only two beckon a visit.
Wat Sri Suphan (The Silver Temple)
A very authentic and splendid temple that’s worth a detour from Wualai walking street, home to Chiang Mai’s silver-makers and host to an unimpressive Saturday Night Market. Every surface of temple buildings, every statue, nook and cranny is molded, outfitted and decorated in shiny, highly ornamented metal, with some pieces sprouting intricate details. A bit further from the souvenir shop (with prices much better than in shops on the outside) you will find craftsmen working on elaborate metal reliefs and instructing apprentices as the temple is always a work in progress. Some special orders come from the capital and overseas, and should you fly out of Chiang Mai’s airport, observe the outside pillars; you will spot familiar motifs of Wualai St. silversmiths.
(100 Wualai 2 Ko Alley, open late; free admission)
Wat Pha Lat (Wat Palad)
About ⅓ on the way to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, on the left side of the Highway 1004 (maybe the best serpentine road around Chiang Mai), look for a short trail that leads to a serene Buddhist temple and monastery. Hidden in largely intact woodland, it has numerous buildings and statues in various stages of decay, a stream and view down into the valley. Climb around and take many close-ups for your photo album. Your mobile phone reception may be weak, so find a spot to reflect on your journeys and maybe contemplate where to eat dinner. (Highway 1004; free admission)
EAT & DRINK
A bowl of khao soi is a must-eat in Chiang Mai. This classic soup pairs two types of boiled noodles (flat wheat noodles that resemble fettuccine and deep-fried crispy noodles) with meaty chicken drumstick cooked in a moderately spicy, rich coconut curry. Khao soi is served with fresh lime, roast chilli paste, diced raw onion, and pickled cabbage – all to be added to your bowl to taste. Sold all over the city, it costs about 30-50 baht per bowl, though some fancy hotels may charge you six times that.
Khao soi portions aren’t big and leave plenty of room to sample other regional dishes:
- A selection of nam prik dips eaten with raw or lightly boiled vegetables, sticky rice or rice crackers, or pork rinds. Nam prik num is made from crushed green chillies mixed with garlic and shallots and nam prik ong, a milder dip made from tomatoes, minced pork and garlic.
- A grilled minced pork sausage, sai hua, loaded with various herbs and spices, and these days many stalls offer a nice variety of recipes, including non-spicy versions.
After following a steady diet of one-dish meals (rice with meat or veggies on top, covered by fried egg or an omelet) or consuming fatty pork and noodles, some may yearn to mix things up a little and what better way to do it than at the Salad Concept? Big portions of vegetables sourced from local farmers, homemade dressings and freshly squeezed juices… believe me, you will not find a heartier salad in all of Thailand. (49/9-10 Nimmanhaemin Rd at Soi 13, Sun-Fri 11-8pm)
AUM Vegetarian restaurant is frequented by locals as well as tourists, so staff speaks English and has international menu. Try spicy green eggplant salad and tempura mushrooms. Sitting area upstairs is cozy and rustic. (Moon Muang Rd., near Thapae Gate; 10:30 am-8:30 pm)
iBerry Garden is of the many awesome places around hip Nimman Rd., with all kinds of cool art and fancy decor providing ample Instagram moments. Lots of sitting area, both in- and outdoors, menu packed with hot and cold drinks that pair up nicely with a large choice of cakes and ice cream. It can get somewhat crowded because it’s owned by a famous Thai comedian Udom ‘Nose’ Taepanich, whose designer shop is on premises as well. (Nimmanhaemin Rd Soi 17; daily, 10:30-10 pm)
And should you require gluten free food or if you miss Western food, in particular have a dire hankering for good ‘ld American diner, then look no further than Butter is Better Diner & Bakery, whose checkered table clothes and retro movie posters will definitely be a change in tune. Have an all-day breakfast (huevos rancheros, pancakes) or order American staples such as pot roast or macaroni and cheese, but definitely don’t skip on homemade cakes and pies, all to be washed down with milkshakes, root beer floats or even a glass of kefir. All these goodies are sold at nostalgic prices of a few bucks. (183/8-9 Chang Klan Rd., Mon-Sat 8 am-5 pm and until 4 pm on Sun)
MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Center
Charoen Mueang Rd., Mon-Fri 11 am – 10 pm, weekend 10 am – 10 pm
Chiang Mai’s answer to Bangkok’s glitzy shopping mall frenzy is Maya, a lifestyle center (whatever that means). However, don’t dismiss it just yet. Two of its highlights are situated opposite to each other. In the basement, Rimping Supermarket offers up all sorts of hard-to-find items, organic foods, and an ample variety of Japanese-style food stalls. On the rooftop, the Nimman Hill sky deck features several bars and restaurants with spectacular views of the city and Doi Suthep. Also, check out CAMP (Creative and Meeting Place), a spacious cafe and modern co-working space on the 5th floor.
Inside the Kalare Night Bazaar, Changklan Soi 6; Mon-Sat 6 pm to midnight
Every evening curly haired Boy flashes his smile and puts on the best damn blues show in town. He’s often joined by local regulars helping him at the mic or accompanying on harmonica. The atmosphere is super friendly, one blues hit replaces another classic, but they stop promptly at midnight. Fortunately, parts of the market and surrounding area remain open for a leisurely late-night stroll.
91/1-2, Si Phum Rd., 6 pm to midnight
Phone: +66 81 765 5246
Literally a whole in the wall, where most seatings are arranged outside on the sidewalk, North Gate Jazz Co-Op hosts numerous local acts that play all kinds of music, from rock ‘n roll covers to power jazz. For the best effect arrive unplanned; grab a drink, find a seat and groove to music under the stars.
Dance, reggae, metal
Zoe In Yellow – outdoor beer garden and dance club – plus several of its offshoots take over most of the plaza on Ratvithi Road. However, with all those strobe lights and potent cocktails things have been known to get out of hand. So before you plunge yourself into the sweat sea of EDC lovers, walk around the plaza and discover headbanging local bands at Roots Rock Reggae or Pentatonic, a heavy metal den.
368/13 Nimmanhemin Rd Soi 17
Phone: +66 87 8108860
This gallery/workshop/community specializes in original etchings, woodcuts and lithographs, producing limited edition, hand-made prints in collaboration with Thai and international artists.
Founded in 2003 by artist and printmaker, Kitikong Tilokwattanotai, the studio’s doors are always open for anyone interested in contemporary prints and observing the operations of a printmaking studio.
700 meters beyond the Tiger Kingdom (same road) on the left, in Mae Rim
Phone: 085 021 5508
It’s far, but the views are fantastic! Rice fields and mountains, wooden houses, running chickens. The gallery’s building and the surrounding area are incredibly picturesque, so check the current installation and call for appointment.
How to get in
Plenty of lowcosters fly into Chiang Mai, including Nok, Thai Lion, Smile, Tiger, or visit http://wikitravel.org/en/Chiang_Mai for a full list. Alternatively, there are many coaches, including luxury sleeper buses, and even an overnight train from Bangkok.
When to go
End of November (Nov 22-26, 2015), nationwide Loi Krathong festival coincides with the Lanna festival known as Yi Peng, when swarms of Lanna-style flame-powered lanterns are launched into the air where they “resemble large shoals of giant fluorescent jellyfish gracefully floating through the sky”. Loi Krathong spans several days, during which lotus flower shaped offerings (krathongs) carrying a candle, incense and a coin, float down a river or canal. There are many other activities (Grand Yi Peng Parade, fireworks, decorations, beauty pageants, traditional dances featuring women with long golden fingernails) and celebrations throughout the area put on to make merit and pay homage to Buddha. More info on www.fest300.com and a very detailed post on www.tripadvisor.co.uk
By Gennadiy Belotserkovskiy; photos by May Phakdeedindan.