A mountainous region with all the conveniences of a City, people travel to Chiang Mai for a change of pace, and for Songkran, which sees the population double during this 5-day festival in April. Songkran was the reason we visited, and although we did the usual tourist activities, we also did a few unique and different things whilst in Chiang Mai.
So, as the famous Thai saying goes, this post is “same-same but different”. This is my Chiang Mai – 10 awesome things to do in north Thailand.
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 to visit in Chiang Mai, an Old City Temple Tour is one of the top things to do. No other province in Thailand has as many Temples as Chiang Mai, but how do you choose which to visit?
Most travel books have a section dedicated to this route so you can go on a self-guided tour. Alternatively, you can take one of the many walking or cycling tours which are available around the City. We will share our favourite three in this post.
I have to mention temple etiquette because not only is it culturally respectful, it’s very important to me. When visiting Temples, please respect the Monks’ religion, beliefs and way of life which includes covering your knees and shoulders.
As tourists, we should remember we are visitors and should 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. When you are on holiday and it’s hot, yes you will wear less clothes but, when visiting Temples, please just carry a sarong so you can cover up.
For more Temples to Visit read: Temple Tour of Chiang Mai
Entrance fee: 20 baht
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.
During Songkran the LIon Buddha statue is carried through the streets as part of the procession. It is considered to be the holiest statue in Chiang Mai because it came from the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India where Buddha gained enlightenment.
This temple is impressive at night as well as during the day so if you can, visit twice (it’s close to the Sunday Market which I have talked about later on, so you could stop here on the way).
Entrance fee: FREE
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.
What questions did we ask? read our post: It's a Monk's Life
Entrance fee: 30 baht
Doi Suthep Temple was built in 1383, is one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Thailand, and 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.
It is believed this temple was founded when a wandering Monk found the shoulder bone of Buddha. Half of the shoulder bone 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.
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).
When you arrive, if you are hungry and feeling brave, how about a yummy snack of fried insects? There are many stalls selling a selection of fried crickets, grasshoppers and silkworm.
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.
Thai massages are sometimes referred to as “Thai Yoga Massage” or “Lazy yoga” which uses acupressure, and your therapist will move you into a variety of assisted yoga positions.
It will stretch you, limber your joints and stimulate the body’s energy pathways. 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.
The masseuse will use their hands, fingers, elbows, knees and feet to reach deeper muscles. As a young naïve backpacker visiting Koh Samui, I had an authentic Thai massage believing it to be relaxing. Oh how wrong I was.
I was glad I only paid for 30 minutes as I personally found it too painful, but that could be because I wasn’t expecting my toes to be cracked … and I’m a big baby!
It’s not a grand place, Sy simply walked through the door without a booking, stated how long he wanted, was assigned a masseuse and ushered to one of the 10 mattresses on the floor.
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.
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!
You find you are soaked with super soakers, hose pipes and Hello Kitty water pistols to name a few and all types of water are used – the brown, murky moat water which is also home to the city rats and huge barrels of water are filled with chunks of thick ice – wow!
The squeals of shock can be heard all around when the cold splash hits your face! Friends were quickly made … as were playful enemies as you picked your opponent and it became a battle of wits who would squirt each other first, all in good nature of course.
Is Songkran on your bucket list? Check out Songkran - "Soaking" up the Atmosphere
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.
On our table was a gas hot plate to cook the meat to our liking and we couldn’t resist but make a couple of journeys to the buffet tables. The restaurant was filled with local people; it was clear this was a good place to hang out on a Saturday night.
No visit to Chiang Mai is complete without visiting a Chiang Rai night market, 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.
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.
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.
Having watched the standard of the other fights, the Italian who won didn’t have the same style, finesse or class as the others and we were sincerely shocked when he was declared the winner.
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.
The Grand Canyon is no longer a secret to be discovered, but a commercialised Water Park filled with giant inflatables and an option to zip-line across the canyon for that added slice of adventure.
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. Although there were very few Westerners here, there were plenty of adults having fun. People clambered all over the slides and attempted 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!
This 35 feet high jump is definitely not for the faint-hearted and even Sy didn’t realise how high it was until he walked down the platform and stood on the edge looking down! He couldn’t chicken-out now, with a crowd of people watching, everyone waited with baited breath for him to be the first person of the day to make this jump, the first person to show how fearless they were … little did they know there was a lot more fear than fearless going on inside his head!
Ten minutes we waited, followed by an almighty “splash” as he hit the water. “I’m not doing that again” was all he could say! Do you think you would be brave enough?
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!)
All cats were on leads which I had mixed feelings about, but the leads were ridiculously long giving them a lot of freedom to move around and they certainly seemed happy enough. The ladies at Banilah clearly loved them, as did we and there were plenty of opportunities to watch them every day.
We ordered coffee and used their wi-fi to do a spot of blogging but it was obvious that the cats had other ideas choosing to lie diagonally across our table. Clearly we were mistaken when we thought the table was to be used, no! This was their bed and you best remember that buster.
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, UK licences comply.
We had read the laws before we hired a scooter so knew our rights and, when we were stopped, we were fully prepared. As mentioned, we were here during Songkran so it was the busiest time of year, however, it turned out the police just wanted to check that our licence was a valid and, more importantly the second time we were stopped, it was to ask if we had been drinking! (obviously we hadn’t, we value our lives).
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 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
- Driving - left side of the road
- 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 checked the schedules online and booked in advance via the 12GoAsia website. The office is 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!
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. We would thoroughly recommend them, they are friendly, efficient and provide very thorough information and maps for the area.
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Pin this post for future reference!
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