A mountainous region with all the conveniences of a City, people travel here for a change of pace, oh, and for Songkran, which sees the population double during this 5-day festival.
We were in Chiang Mai for Songkran and obviously visited the usual touristy parts, but we also did a few different things while enjoying this change of scene.
So, as the famous Thai saying goes, this post is “same-same but different”.
I want to start by talking a little about Thailand’s history. Up until 1939 (and between 1945-1949), Thailand was called Siam. If you are a fan of the Hollywood actor Yul Brynner, you may remember his movie “The King and I” or the later movie “Anna and the King”, both based on King Mongkut of Siam which were never shown in Thailand because they were considered derogatory to the King. How serious are they about their King? Thailand has the lese majeste rule, meaning that if you commit disrespectful acts toward the King, you could be imprisoned for treason.
The name “Thailand” means “Land of the free” which is appropriate, as its the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonised by a foreign power. Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, means “City of Angels” and its full name is Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. Doesn't that just roll off the tongue?
If you are familiar with Siamese cats, did you know they are native to Thailand and there are 6 types (there used to be 23). Giving a pair of Siamese cats to a bride on her wedding day in Thai culture is considered good luck.
The nick-name “Siamese Twins” came from Thai Brothers Eng & Chang Bunker who were joined at the chest (the correct name for Siamese Twins is conjoined twins). This was their circus “stage name” and they toured America and Europe for many years. Their story is quite fascinating, they worked hard for the circus, made themselves money and went into business. They married two sisters and fathered 21 children between them. They died within a few hours of one another in 1873 aged 64. If you want to know more about their very interesting life, read here.
With over 300 Wats in Chiang Mai to visit, an Old City Temple Tour seemed the natural thing to do. No other province in Thailand has as many as Chiang Mai, so how do you choose which to visit? Most travel books have a section dedicated to this route so you can do this yourself, alternatively, you can take one of the many walking or cycling tours that are on offer around the City.
Forgive me for starting with temple etiquette, but it’s very important to me. When visiting Temples, please be respectful of the Monks’ religion, beliefs and way of life. As tourists, we should remember that we are visitors and to dress and act in a way that does not offend. A Temple is not a place to show off your body, it is a place of worship and if you visit, please be culturally respectful. When you are on holiday and it’s hot, yes you will wear less clothes but, when visiting Temples, please just carry a sarong with you so you can cover up during that small period of time.
Wat Pra Singh (20 baht entrance fee)
Wat Phra Singh was built in 1345 and, as the main Temple in Chiang Mai Old City, it’s a point of reference for most people. Pilgrims come here to view the famous “Lion Buddha” which is housed in a small chapel, and during Songkran this statue is carried through the streets as part of the procession. It is considered to be the holiest statue in Chiang Mai as it came from the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India where Buddha gained enlightenment. When inside the gold-adorned room, for a few baht, you can be blessed by a monk.
Wat Suan Dok isn’t visited by many tourists and this confused me! Not only is it an instrumental part of the story which founded Doi Suthep (one of the most important temples in Thailand), you can come here to have a conversation with monks – I mean, that is just awesome!
If you time your visit right, you can wander around the grounds whilst the sun is still in the sky, hang around for sunset, have a chat with some of the monks and come out when it’s dark for some night time viewing.
Monk Chats are a hugely important part of a monk’s social duties and they value their time with us; it helps their spoken English and they learn more about a life they do not lead. Our time with the monks started as an interview with pre-written questions but ended up being a chat with a couple of friends and we were surprised how open and honest they were. If you want to know what questions we asked, read our blog post “It’s a Monk’s Life”.
Doi Suthep Temple was built in 1383 and, as one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Thailand, it’s a major pilgrimage destination, especially during Buddhist holidays on 13 February and 11 May. As it’s considered to be the most sacred and most important, this means a lot of people visit and it can be noisy and crowded.
Located 15km out of Chiang Mai, it’s super easy to find if you want to travel by scooter (please read the section at the end on “hiring a scooter”). The winding mountain road is a lovely smooth ride and, on a hot, humid April day, the cool breeze on our faces was a welcome relief. If you don’t want to take a scooter, from Chiang Mai centre you can grab a red taxi (songthaew) and, providing it is full with 10 people per taxi, you can expect to pay around 100 baht per person for the return trip (if you don’t want to wait for the taxi to be full, you can haggle and pay a bit more).
It is believed this temple was founded when a wandering Monk found the shoulder bone of Buddha, one half was left at Wat Suan Dock (where we had the monk chat), the other half was placed by the King onto the back of a sacred white elephant who wandered the jungle until it died at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain. It was decided that Doi Suthep would be the place the Buddha’s relic would be housed and it lays within the gold Chedi at this temple.
You can wander around the grounds below the Temple, but save some energy for the 306 steps you need to climb to reach the main entrance! If you don’t fancy the walk up, you can take the cable car and pay 50 baht which includes the entrance fee.
Two elaborately carved Naga serpent mosaic statues run the entire length of the steps to the top, but the beauty doesn’t stop there! Painted Murals, the magnificent architecture, gold statues, gold shrines– goodness me, just so much gold. There is a stunning look out point and, on a clear day, the view is beautiful however it was humid when we visited and all we could see was haze.
You are fully clothed, no oils or lotions are used and you shouldn’t be alarmed if the masseuse remains close to you (sometimes on top of you) for the entire session, this is normal as they use their body to leverage you into elongated stretches. Most massage centres have mattresses on the floor in a large room and there will be others receiving a massage at the same time.
When it was all over, Sy believed the experience to therapeutic and invigorating. Many people say they feel loose and relaxed afterwards, some even say the actually feel taller!
If you want to have a traditional Thai massage, then definitely consider visiting a blind masseuse instead of a attending fancy spa.
Songkran – the world’s largest water fight!
Our main purpose for visiting Chiang Mai was for their annual New Year known as Songkran, a festival considered to be the world’s biggest water fight! Thousands of people flock to Thailand each year to participate, if there is any festival to regress you to your childhood … this is the one!
All you can eat Korean
Thailand is renowned for its excellent food and yes, we tried the delicious local dishes, but we also discovered the “All you can eat Korean” restaurant!
Situated next to Chiang Mai Muay Thai Boxing Club, we filled our tummies with as much meat, rice and salad as it could take. It’s a simple idea, we paid our 169 baht each (£3.78 or US $5.11), grabbed a plate and piled it high with various sautéed meats from the buffet counter such as black pepper beef, spicy Korean pork and teriyaki chicken.
No visit to Chiang Mai is complete without visiting one of the night markets, but, due to Songkran, most were closed for the duration of our trip. Thankfully Songkran finished on Saturday so we had the option to visit the “Sunday Walking Market” at Thapae Gate which, apparently, is the most popular with locals and considered to be one of the best. There was a good mixture of visitors and locals with a plethora of stalls selling handicrafts, paintings, cushions, soaps, flip-flops, clothes, and various other strange and wonderful souvenirs.
The market opens at 6pm but by 7pm it can become quite crowded making it difficult to walk around the narrow stalls, so if you want to visit, I would advise you get here early.
Watching Muay Thai at Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium
(Entrance fee: 400 baht/£8.96/US $12.09)
We have a lot of respect for Muay Thai and so a Thai boxing match was something we wanted to watch. Songkran is a national holiday so some of the stadiums were closed, including Chiang Muay Thai Boxing Club which is very popular and just around the corner from where we were staying. However, we discovered Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium which was open Monday night; fantastic, here was our chance to watch Thai Boxing! Drinks were a little on the expensive side with a small beer costing 80 baht when usually there were 60 baht for a large.
Muay Thai is known as “the art of eight limbs” as it uses punches, kicks, elbows and knees. Traditional rituals are followed before each match, regardless of whether it’s a big or small fight and there were two rituals I noticed in particular. The first was when the fighters entered the ring; they wore a Mongkon or Mongkol which is a sacred headpiece presented to them by their trainer and is a symbol of their gym, their trainer and their family. It’s worn to show that the fight isn’t just about them; it’s about the people around them who have helped them reach this point. The second ritual is the Wai Kru performed at the start of the match; the fighter would pray three times in each corner to “seal” the ring, clearing it of evil spirits.
Grand Canyon (Entrance fee: 325 baht/£7.28/US $9.82)
I read a blog about visiting the Grand Canyon; an old quarry where crazy individuals can go cliff jumping. Sy is one of those crazy people so, with our friends from the UK, we hired a scooter and drove for 40 minutes. Imagine my surprise when we arrived and saw a huge caricature panda advertising the Grand Canyon Water Park.
We spent a couple of hours here but found the local entertainment a little too loud and we had no idea what they were saying. There were very few Westerners here but there were plenty of adults having fun, clambering all over the slides and attempting to climb aboard the giant inflatable duck! For the brave, there were huge inflatable mountains for you to conquer then either slide or jump down, we spent a bit of time just watching people fall in an ungainly like manner … it was great!
If you are a regular follower of this blog, you will know how much we love a cat café, well imagine our surprise when we discovered our accommodation had a cat café in reception (no Siamese cats though!)
If you want to explore more of Chiang Mai’s mountainous region and temples, the cheapest and most convenient way is to hire a scooter so, for 250 baht per day (£5.60 or US $7.56) that is what we did! I had always said I would never ride a scooter in Thailand after hearing all the horror stories of accidents and dodgy hire companies, however we put our faith in the ladies at our Homestay who arranged the scooter for us and, thankfully, everything turned out OK.
You do not need an International Driving Licence in Thailand provided your licence displays a photograph and is in English. We are from the UK so our licence complies but if you are unsure, check this website for regulations.
It’s always best to give your scooter a once-over before setting off; check the tyres, brakes and ensure that any scratches/dents are photographed and pointed out to ensure you aren’t later blamed for them.
Don’t forget to wear a helmet, you would be a fool if you don’t!
If you have been to Chiang Mai, how many of these activities have you done? What would you like to do? Please tell us in the comments section below – we always love knowing your thoughts!
Travel information and facts
- The official currency is Thai Baht
- It’s official language is Thai
- A 30 day visa is given on arrival (this does keep changing so check this website first)
- There are 6 international airports in Thailand; 2 in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hat Yai and Phuket
- Best time to visit is November – May
- Phuket, an island in the south west, runs the annual “Phuket Vegetarian Festival” in October where painful sacred rituals are performed.
- The national flower of Thailand is the orchid and 1,500 species can be found there
- Logging is completely banned in Thailand and there is now only a quarter of it left (nearly all of north Thailand used to be covered in hardwood forest)
- Red Bull, the world-famous energy drink since 1976, is based on the popular Thai drink Krating Daeng
- It is illegal to leave your house without underwear on!
- Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice
- Around 90% of the population are Buddhist
Flying: All major airlines fly to Bangkok, then take a short internal flight, Air Asia are the cheapest and most popular.
Sleeper Train from Bangkok: If you are picturing a rickety old train with awful sleeping conditions next to chickens and old men, think again! They are modern, clean and super efficient. We used agent 12 Go which are located across the road from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station; buying and picking up the tickets couldn’t have been easier and I would thoroughly recommend them! If you want to know more about the trains check out Seat 61 website.
Where to stay
We stayed outside of the old town, about a 20 minute walk/10 minute bike ride away at Banilah Boutique Guest House (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). We would thoroughly recommend them, they are friendly, efficient and provide very thorough information and maps for the area. To book click here.
You can book your Chiang Mai, Thailand or any short break/holiday hotel through our website as we have an affiliate partnership with Booking.com. Click here to visit our Hotel Booking Page then search as normal. There is no extra cost to you but you will be helping us!
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