We had high expectations for our visit to Chiang Mai, the biggest city in the northern part of Thailand. We have read about many people that have fallen in love with the city and chosen to move there, so we anticipated that we would have the same feelings during our five-day visit along with Della’s parents. But did we??
Where We Stayed
Choosing a place to stay in town proved to be tough, not because there weren’t enough choices but rather because there were too many. There were quite a few fairly highly rated places in town, with none standing out above the rest. So we shifted our strategy and only pre-booked two nights at Nonni Guesthouse. This turned out to be a nice and friendly place, although it was on a fairly busy and noisy street and our room was tiny (and had a shared bathroom). So, on our first evening in town we scouted out other locations in the old city area and found the Anoma BB 2 on a quiet side street. It was only a few dollars more and had a private bathroom and included breakfast, so we spent the last three nights there.
What We Did
Chaing Mai’s importance stems from its history. It was founded in the 13th century AD as a new capital for the Lanna kingdom which covered what is now northern Thailand. Chiang Mai had its own independent monarchy up until merging with what is now Thailand in the early 20th century. Many of the sights around town date from the era when it was the capital of the flourishing kingdom. The “old city” in town was originally the center of the Lanna government. Today it is still surrounded by a moat and a few crumbling walls and gates.
Elephant Experience – There are a plethora of opportunities to play with elephants around Chiang Mai. We were pretty happy with our choice!
Cooking Class – We also took advantage of a fun cooking class in town!
Wats in the Old City –Within the walls are a large number of wats (Buddhist temples), since the Lanna kingdom was Buddhist. We visited the two biggest wats: Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. Wat Phra Singh is the home of the Phra Singh Buddha image, although we got a little confused because we expected the image to actually be a lion (Phra Singh means Lion Buddha), but instead it was just a Lanna-style Buddha.
The main attraction of Wat Chedi Luang is the remains of a large chedi (the same thing as a stupa, a large conical structure that holds relics). We also found the wihan (the main hall) to be pleasing.
Over the course of our wandering we also found a temple made of teak (Wat Phan Tao), a temple made of silver (Wat Sisuphan) and a few other scenic ones scattered about.
We also got to observe some fun events surrounding a celebration at the wat near the Nonni Guesthouse. In honor of its anniversary, there were many events, including one evening where there were multiple processions with dancing, music and monks. The dancing was pretty interesting to watch: there were some groups dancing a traditional Lanna dance with long metal nails on their fingers and then one small group of Hmong women doing their own style at the same time.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – One of the most famous wats in Chiang Mai is not in the city itself but rather in the hills to the west overlooking the city. One evening we shared a taxi with some travel friends from the slow boat and headed up the curving road to the base of the wat. From the parking lot, we took the 300 steps straight up the hill to the site of the impressive wat. The main attraction is a large gold chedi which looked especially splendid as the sun began to set. There was also a nice viewing platform overlooking the city, but the air was so hazy from the farmers burning their fields that we could hardly see anything.
History and Culture Museums – Chiang Mai has three museums in the center of the city that one can visit using a combination ticket. We ended up visiting all three. The Chiang Mai Historical Centre told the story of the city from its founding to modern times with some nice modern displays, although it was a little hard to follow some of the translations. The Lanna Folklife Museum had various informative displays on the customs and artwork of the Lanna people. The Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre was a bit of a combination of the previous two, with some history and some cultural information, although it felt a bit more dated than either of them.
Museum of World Insects & Natural Wonders – A friend back home recommended that we visit this quirky museum set up by a husband and wife team that have dedicated their lives to the study of mosquitoes and malaria. It’s kind of hard to describe what we found here as a museum; it is more like the personal collection of the couple of any natural object they found interesting, including rocks and many different types of beetles. Also scattered through the displays were some of their paintings and some information about mosquitoes, their history and advice on life.
Thai Massage – After a successful first massage for Eric in Bali, we decided we had to check out the Thai massage to compare. After a little bit of research, we discovered that some of the most popular and cheapest places to get massages in Chiang Mai share one thing in common: they are staffed by female convicts or ex-convicts who have gotten trained as part of a rehabilitation program (seems like it might even incentivize someone to go to jail so they could get a job!). We went with the company staffed by ex-convicts. Beyond the interesting story about the personnel, we did notice quite a bit of difference between the Thai and the Balinese massage. This time we were wearing a provided outfit, no oil was used, and the massage felt like much more of a workout than the relaxing Balinese one. They bent us into a few shapes that were pretty extreme!
Where We Ate
We continued to enjoy the relative cheapness and good variety of Thai food to be found on the street and in small restaurants. For the most part, we ate at small restaurants because it was pretty hot and humid outside, and a little relief with shade and fans was appreciated. One notable exception was a meal of street food we picked up at the Saturday Walking Street, a large night market on Saturdays that was just around the corner from the Nonni Guesthouse (a little too crowded for our taste though). None of the restaurants stood out over the others: all had a good selection of fried noodles and curries. We did have an annoying trend for a few days where one person’s dish would take way longer to arrive than anyone else’s.
We obviously found a lot of fun things to do in the city – we spent five nights and didn’t have much downtime. The people were friendly and the food was affordable. Nevertheless, we’re a little sorry to say that we only just liked Chiang Mai, not loved it. The heat and the haze from the fires outside the city were pretty oppressive, the narrow streets made the pace a little hectic at times, and it was a little hard to get around without having to call a cab. Maybe it is an issue of expectations: if we had come in not expecting to love it, we may have decided that it was a fun place to visit with an interesting history. Or, maybe it was an issue of timing; if we had come at a time when it wasn’t as hot and hazy, we might have enjoyed exploring more of the city. But since we had heard such great things, we instead just had to say it didn’t quite live up to it.