Oh, Chiang Mai – you beautiful. Thailand's second-largest city has risen and risen in recent decades to become a staple on the travel itineraries of thousands of backpackers making for the wondrous Land of Smiles. Nested at the foot of the jungle-dressed northern mountains, it's a place steeped in history, in Lanna legends, topped with glimmering temples plated with gold, scented in incense and alive with the energy of purring motorbikes, lively locals and more digital nomads than you can shake a Chang beer at. It's all about the Chiang Mai days…
The familiar thrum of a tuk-tuk bouncing throughout the tight-knit lanes of the Old Town like a tin-can pinball echoes outside my window. It's undercut by the click of a bicycle and the clink of coffee cups, the bark of a distant dog and the mellifluous tones of northern Thai. That's the backing track to the historic heart of Chiang Mai in the morning, a fusion of movement and laziness, animals and humans, that peaks and troughs, purrs and clicks as the sun rises above the amphitheater of mountains on the horizon.
I wake and stretch, listening to the din of Chiang Mai behind me. Every morning in this happening, mysterious city is the start of a new adventure. I wonder what the day holds. Perhaps more gold-tipped stupas? Perhaps more monk-chanting temples? Perhaps more swinging reggae bars? Perhaps more beer-fueled chats with backpackers in free-love bars? Perhaps more treks up dragon-flanked staircases to hidden shrines on the Thai mountains? Perhaps more taste-bud-tingling pad Thais in the night market? Who knows. I wonder as I strut downstairs and hit the street.
First port of call: Breakfast. It's a choice of countless little cafes and eateries that awaits in Chiang Mai's Old Town. Veggie burritos here, vegan acai pots there, I never know where to pick but it's just part of the fun as I navigate the crisscrossing lanes, dodge the sleeping doggies and offer my morning "sa-wad-dees" to the local Thai folk reclining on their decks.
I finally settle for a boho little café where the scents of freshly-roasted coffee beans twist and turn from behind the bar. It's leafy and ramshackle, spilling out onto a roadside where I can sit, eat and watch the clockwork routine of Chiang Mai roll by. Eggs, sunny side, an iced coffee (a morning blessing in the hot season up north) and a plate of mango and papaya puts me in good stead for the day. I chomp the lot down as tuk-tuks whiz past, as backpackers fluster with maps and as suited children strut like an army of ants towards the local school.
Then I'm up and wandering again. I move down narrow alleys and quiet side streets – they are a specialty of the Old Town of Chiang Mai. I whisk past temples where flurries of saffron-robed figures illuminate the alcoves. I hear Buddhist chants echoing around the blocks. Sometimes, I emerge onto buzzing strips of shops and spas, awash with people and scooters all vying for attention in the Chiang Mai fray. It's a joy to just wander and get lost in this city, an adventure in itself.
But I do have a destination. I'm looking for the half-crumbled ruins of mighty Wat Chedi Luang. I've been told that it's one of the most striking temples in the city – nay, in Thailand as whole. Steeped in history, its past goes all the way back to the 1300s, when it was raised by King Saen Muang Ma to house the ashes of his father. But he wouldn't get to see it – the place took nearly a century to complete. It's now a centerpiece of the Chiang Mai Old Town, rising like a spire of rock and carvings in the middle of the timber-built homes, bars, spas and shopping walks.
I head to the very heart of the neighborhood. Pots and pans clink and clang in the Thai kitchens as I pass, the scents of broiling noodle broths and sizzling eggs forever drifting out to mingle with the petrol-dust haze of the street. Then I find it, marked by a signpost that directs me down a leafy alleyway. I can just about make out the golden gables of a Thai shrine as I duck and dive under the daffodil-colored blooms of golden shower trees. And the smells of burning incense let me know: I'm approaching a temple.
Inside is a serene little enclave in the midst of the city. As the scooters toot and the cars whirr outside, this is a place of drifting tail pot palms and contemplation. The temple comes in two parts. There's a carved timber hall fronted with gilded, gold-leaf filigrees and grand colonnades that could easily be plucked from a temple of ancient Greece. Behind that, there's the striking outline of the 600-year-old Wat Chedi Luang itself.
Earthquakes and the years have taken their toll on this majestic shrine. With a top that's cropped short like a mohawk, it juts skywards in levels of redbrick, punctuated by pockets of tenacious tropical shrubs that crawl out from every crack in the stonework. Below its summit are terraces that rise and rise atop one another. They provide the plinth for the age-old Chedi, adorned with a row of gorgeous elephant effigies that protect their sacred shrine with curled trunks and poking tusks.
As I leave, I remind myself just how many times this sort of thing has happened to me in Chiang Mai. Sometimes even by accident, I've turned a corner and found myself gazing up at an enchanting temple. They sit in the midst of bustling boulevards and body-packed food courts, an anchor in the grand past of the city, a steppingstone between the old and the new. It seems fitting, too – Chiang Mai is proud of the fact that it was once the epicenter of a great kingdom, the La Na (or Lanna).
Lunchtime takes me to another hip foodie spot. Gourmet burgers, quinoa salads, health cocktails – the lot. It's the menu of choice for Chiang Mai's digital nomads, and boy are there some of those. In fact, thousands of people make Thailand's second city their choice of base in the Land of Smiles. An abundance of cool cafes, great coffee, cheap living, luxurious flats and – of course – amazing temples is what draws them. The loveable vibes, the great food and the happy locals is what keeps them coming back.
I opt to chillax to the max in the afternoon. Spas are everywhere in the city and I'm soon convinced by the menu of one place which sits hidden down a small walkway off one of the main central streets. The scents of cocoa butter and jasmine greet me as I duck under the draped doorway. Candles flicker in little teacups between the massage tables and before I know it I'm being clicked and bent in all sorts of angles. Then I'm splashed with lavender oil, muscles soothed and stretched and the stresses of a life on the road rise and drift away like a spirit into the Chiang Mai air. It's all part and parcel to travel days in wonder-packed Chiang Mai.
As I emerge from my pampering session and back into the fray of the old Chiang Mai, I instantly realize it's gotten much darker. The sun is drooping low on the horizon and has started to cast beams of ochre-hued light across the timber tops of the city. Evening has arrived in northern Thailand.
But it's not just the dying light and the ethereal colors that herald the twilight. It's also the change on the street. Flickering halogen lamps burst on sporadically across the blocks. They shimmer a UFO-like white over the roadside stalls that have emerged like nocturnal animals from nowhere. Smoke starts to rise from the BBQ grills and the bubbling pots of curry sauce. Noodles fizz and sizzle in the woks Masterful cooks toss and turn frying eggs and spring rolls and hand them out in exchange for wads of baht.
On one of the main streets, bars are starting to stir. The sounds of frothing Chang and clinking Leo beers sets the tone. The echo of thumping chart tunes heralds the hedonistic side of Chiang Mai. Promoters spill out from the darkened beer dives and reggaeton aficionados manage the playlists in the happening Jamaica-themed live music joints. Travelers and backpackers are everywhere; searching out places to settle for a beer; a spot to dine on spicy Thai curry; a perch to people watch in the darkened alcoves of ancient Chiang Mai.
I make for the night market; the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. It spreads along a bustling roadway just outside of the Old Town. It's a picture of raucous backpacker-driven commerce. Knock-off tees and "branded" fashion wear clumps on rails overhead as I dodge the crowds and hop from shop to stall to shop there. I'm offered everything from teacups to silk scarves to handwoven baskets to jade elephant statues to tattoos. It's a cacophony of life and energy that won't sleep until much later.
After purchasing far too many souvenirs I don't really need, I wander back to the relative calm of the Chiang Mai Old Town. It's totally dark now and shadows move like ghosts in the once-bright and leafy streets. Rustles in the palm branches keep me moving fast, through the maze of timber homes and cafes, past the beer bars and pool halls, back to the safety of my pad. That's where I'll rest, to rise ready for another amazing day in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is just one of the truly awesome cities we visit on our Treasures of Thailand tour. Lasting a whopping 40 days, it takes you through the whole of the Land of Smiles, packing in sparkling tropical islands, buzzing metropolises, misty mountains and amazing temples. If you'd prefer to focus your travels on the enthralling north of the country only, you could also opt for our Northern Thai Discovery trip. That visits Chiang Mai but also heads deeper into the mountains to find rustic Pai and the earthy homestays of Singburi.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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