For so many foreigners in Thailand, the northern burg of Chiang Mai is gilded as a sort of heaven on earth. It’s a favorite stop for grungey backpackers swapping stories and travel advice over cups of steaming coffee in bustling cafes. It’s the California of Thailand, with enclaves of hippies sipping chilled shots of wheatgrass and musing over the benefits and merits of slow living. It’s a party town. It’s a culturally significant city as the location of Southeast Asia’s historic Lanna Kingdom.
And for those of us living in the south, the allure of the north lies somewhere tucked between the chilly, undulating hills, the fresh mountain air, the cool and cozy cafes stuffed with permanent ex-pats, mountain-top temples, and the numerous culture variations of the nearby hill tribes.
Without the blindingly white sand beaches and throngs of flip-flop tourists, the north promises travelers a different experience of Thailand.
The two week summer trip started with a rainy afternoon just off the train. After two nights on the sleeper car, the first stop was the Art Cafe for the largest latte I’ve ever wrapped my mitts around. And a salad! The first salad I’ve had in months, featuring: apples, carrots, pineapple, bananas, cashews, raisins and a yogurt dressing–a real treat. (Lettuce doesn’t grow well in the blistering heat of the south–most vegetables in my town are limited to the heartiest gourds and cabbages. Seeing leafy greens was quite a pleasant surprise.)
After the vegetable feast, we decided to explore the Old Town. Chiang Mai’s Old Town is easily navigable since it occupies a complete square and is surrounded on all sides by the old brick City Wall. The outer edge of the city wall is lined by a mote, a ribbon of deep blue water, with “Gates” at the cardinal directions. Each gate bridges the Old Town to the rest of the modern city beyond the wall. Most of the interesting historical temples are located inside the walls as well as a fair share of the quirky, cozy cafes.
We slinked around the popular and most famous of the gates, the eastern-facing Thapae Gate. The gate was restored to its original construction and turned completely pedestrian, which makes it a central location for most touristy goings-on and a great starting point for a walking tour of the town’s temples.
Old Town temples are scattered aplenty through narrow streets. A two-minute walk from our hostel revealed some of the most famous temples–Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh. Fortunately, the afternoon sprinkled just enough rain to scare the throngs of snap-happy tourists.
We slogged through rain to visit the temple, Wat Chedi Luang, whose massive chedi was damaged in an earthquake in 1545. The brick chedi dome stands in the center of a courtyard flanked by the city pillar and other gorgeous auxiliary buildings.
We wandered around, marveling at the different styles of northern temples. Compared to the technicolor temples of the south, near my home, the northern temples of the old Lanna Kingdom feature elaborately-carved dark wooden trim, colorful Naga or serpent heads, and gorgeous temple gardens with pathways of hanging orchids and signs of inspiration.
But outside the historic northern Thai temples the city is modern and thriving. Parked in a temple lot, we passed a VW van-turned-coffee-cart, the perfect place to perch during a late afternoon thunderstorm. We walked by various city walls slathered in graffiti art, linking the city of the present to the city of the past. Unlike our small, southern town, cafes and restaurants are abundant throughout the city, all unique. And, of course, there’s always a little shop with knickknacks just around the corner.
After the last temple of the afternoon, we headed into a tight little cafe for some bone-warming tea just as a thunderstorm plundered what was left of the evening light.
Day Two, Sunny. We decided to trek through the town on bicycle, pedaling around the tight square of Old Town a few times, stumbling on some choice temples.
We wandered into Wat Chiang Man near the northern edge of the wall, slowly walking the gorgeous sprawling temple grounds and gardens. Behind the main temple stands the towering chedi flanked on all sides by giant elephants and protected at the stairways by emerald-eyed Nagas.
The temples were nearly deserted, only a few solo travelers meandered through the temple grounds during the walk. The temples of the south are often bustling with activity and events, worshipers in white like little bees in the gardens of the temple. The northern temples seemed more like a place of quiet contemplation.
From Wat Chiang Man we headed farther north, beyond the city wall, to the Wororot Market. Sprawling at least two or three blocks long and two or three blocks wide, the market was stuffed with vendors selling everything from baskets and purses, to dried mushrooms and herbal teas, to wrist watches and gold chains.
With mangoes in season, we couldn’t resist an afternoon snack of syrupy sweet mangoes and sticky rice before heading back to our side of town. As the city wound down for the evening, we worked on lining up our next adventure in the north: cooking school.
For more pictures of the temples of Chiang Mai, check out my Picasa site here.