Thoroughly soaked in Koh Lanta with no end to the rain in sight, we boarded a plane to Northern Thailand, to Chiang Mai. It is the provincial capital of the La Na Kingdom, chosen as their capital in 1296, and the ancient, the old and the new blend together seamlessly to effortlessly charm its visitors into wanting to stay forever in this adorable city.
The old town of Chiang Mai is a perfect square, surrounded by canals that run just outside the old city walls, with four gates giving access to the city – one in each of the cardinal directions. Soothingly sleek Lanna architecture — white stucco bottoms topped with sloping teak roofs, and wide porches that run around the circumference of the buildings — grace the Old Town, and give Chiang Mai a small town feel despite being Thailand’s second city.
The streets of Chaing Mai fhave been taken up with cafes, coffee shops, lively little bars and shops — all open to the beautiful weather outside, and most definitely a hipster’s paradise.
Chiang Mai oozes culture and charm, history and hipsters. There are over 300 wats (Buddhist temples) in Chiang Mai, each one unique in its ornate decoration and imposing Buddhas within, and some dating back to the 13th century. Not all of the wats are located inside the city walls, but many of them are. The wats have distinctive steeply pitched roofs that curl up on the ends and slope down in tiers of colourful ceramic tiles to decorative finials at the points – often dragons. Bright dragons guard the front steps to many of the wats, and the pillars that make up the porches are intricately carved and painted in bright primary colours.
Inside, the temples are often long open halls with a principal Buddha at one end, flanked by other Buddhas on either side. There are 28 named Buddhas, each with a different history and “personality” for lack of a better word, and different wats celebrate different Buddhas. Most of them were gleaming in gold leaf, but some were bright green glass replicas of the famous jade Buddha that now sits in Thailand.
We set out from our cute little hotel and within a minute came to our first wat, a modest temple with a smaller temple set to the side, and a gleaming Chedi almost hidden in the back. What struck me first wasn’t the decorative details or the distinct architecture – it was the bells.
Little bells were hung from the eaves of the wat and tinkled in the wind so that their music drowned out the sounds of the city just a few feet away, and the grounds of the wat felt like a refuge from the hustle and bustle of life. I’d notice the same effect on most of the other smaller wats — the bigger, more famous ones were crawling with so many people, they were more a tourist attraction than a working temple.
As we walked through the old town, we came upon wat after wat after wat. You couldn’t walk more than half a block without stumbling on a wat, and that’s just what we did….we stumbled upon wats and went in to investigate, discovering what wonders they held within…and we made a lot of bad wat puns along the way.
The day had become wat day, and we watted all over the city. Some big, some small….some elaborate, some simpler, old, modern, shiny, dull, colourful or monotone — each wat was a bit different, and despite seeing something like 15 wats in the space of a few hours, we never got the sense of “seen one wat, seen them all”. Okay, maybe I didn’t, but by the end of the day, Mark and Austin were watted out.
My favourite wat was the Wat Phan Tao. Constructed entirely of teak, it was once a former palace for the King. It stood out from the rest because it was so different in its simplicity. The wood was carved into beautiful and delicate patterns, but it remained unpainted. The tall wooden pillars inside, holding up the massive unadorned beams that supported the roof, had the dark patina of time and loving care. It is an important wat in the history of Chiang Mai, but its ungilded state made it stand out from the rest.
Outside of town, we visited Wat Umong, built within a series of tunnels underground, with little enclaves of Buddhas at various places, and it’s imposing stone Chedi above ground. It was pretty cool because it’s tunnels through the cave were so very different to the ornate structures we had seen all over the city. It’s located within an active working monastery and meditation centre, so you’re able to chat with monks to learn more about the wat, or have a philosophical discussion on life and the universe if you’d like.
But the crowning glory wat of Chiang Mai is Phrathat Doi Suthep, situated on a tall hill on the outskirts of the city. This wat is a tourist attraction in itself, and on a Saturday morning it was crawling with people. There are over 350 steps from the base up to the top of the hill where the wat is situated, and the welcome dragons flank the sides of the staircase the entire way up.
As you reach the top, pay your foreigner’s fee and add your shoes to the hundreds of pairs piled up outside the grounds, you become part of a madhouse of people rushing to turn over their bhat (money) for a sprig of orchid or stalks of lotus flowers, candles and incense to pay homage to the Buddha. The price is a donation of course, but everywhere you turn, there is a donation box asking for more money. It seems televangelists don’t hold a monopoly on extorting their followers for money!
But if you look through all of the people, and get past the subtle requests for cold hard cash at every turn, you are blinded by the the central feature of this wat, a gleaming golden Chedi, reflecting the bright sun in every direction. It was hard to look at, but also hard to look away. The pilgrims circling the Chedi – always clockwise – holding their flowers and prayer sheets created a sense of perpetual motion, and you can almost see the air whirling itself around the base of the Chedi, and rising in a spiral up to the heavens.
The golden Chedi was flanked on all sides by small temples that were oases of peace in the assault on the senses from the outsides. They were dark, cool and quiet, and your eyes had to first adjust to the lighting to be able to see what was inside. Throughout the throngs of pilgrims, monks of all ages quietly went about their business in their saffron coloured robes.
Heart of the city
But Chiang Mai isn’t just about the wats. It’s also a market town, where the streets come alive selling everything from edible crickets to clothing, handcrafts and beyond.
There is a different market for every night of the week in Chiang Mai, and the Saturday night market is the granddaddy of them all. It takes over the west side of the Old Town, spilling over the ancient city walls and across the canals into the surrounding city. On one side is busy food market jam packed with vendors selling chicken and pork on a stick, roasted above hot coals right before your eyes, noodle dishes fried up in a hot wok on the street, and mountains of barbecued seafood – despite being hundreds of kilometres from any sea.
The handcraft part of the market follows a long (very long) canyon of buildings just outside the city walls, and is packed elbow to elbow with browsing shoppers, and people just out for a Saturday night stroll. There is one way in and one way out of this part of the market, and the exit is a LONG way down the road….a fact we only found out once we were about a third of the way down the street. So we threw Austin on my shoulders and went back the way we came.
The Night Bazaar fires up every evening on the outskirts of the Old Town, and it was here that we found a 7 piece band of Thai cowboys, dressed in hats, boots and jeans, and playing their hearts out on fiddles, banjos, guitars and the rest for a captivated crowd sitting on hay bales in the middle of a food market.
They were good…very good, and you couldn’t help but tap your feet and get up and dance. John Denver must have made it big in Thailand because we heard “Country Road” at least 6 times across Thailand, and it was of course part of the set list here. We also heard it all over Malaysia and in Cambodia too, and this song that I had long ago forgotten, now won’t leave my head!
Being the Texas girl that I am, I got up to dance with Austin, just like I’ve done since he was a tiny baby in my kitchen. I’m not a big country music fan, but when I’m homesick, I put it on, hug my baby close, and dance around in my bare feet. Being the six year old Tasmanian Terror that he is, all he wanted to do was spin around and around and around. So eventually I just left him there, spinning in circles, arms outstretched like a Whirling Dervish. What does a girl have to do to find a two-stepping partner in Thailand?
We absolutely loved Chiang Mai – the hospitality of our hosts at our brilliant guest house, the Baan Klang Vien (highly recommend), the life of the markets, the sense of history, monks just wandering the streets, and the magic of not knowing what fantastic treasure you might find around the next corner — gave the entire city such a charming character, that you don’t ever want to leave. If we were to come back to Thailand to settle in for a while, I might choose Chiang Mai.
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