When you think of Thailand, you see white sand beaches and islands and luxurious resorts. Places like Phuket and Krabi are well-known with travelers and tourists. But Thailand has another side too. Adorned with hills and countless temples, exceedingly distinct from the south is Chiang Mai.
Like a lot of people I was literally clueless about this city and was naturally curious to learn more about the place. It is the largest city up north and was the seat of the Lanna kingdom in its glory years. At one point it extended into Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. The locals call it the “Rose of the North”. And now I know why.
As of today, this historical city is filled with ornate Buddhist temples at every nook and corner. A religious center for Buddhism, both then and now. The skyline stays clear from tall buildings and skyscrapers which add more beauty and charm to the city.
Getting to Chiang Mai
I love flying, and each time I board a flight, I feel like a small child waiting for his first flight experience. I boarded a midnight flight from Kochi to Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport and a connecting flight from there to Chiang Mai.
AirAsia is the latest flight carrier to bridge the gap between the shores of India and South East Asia. With throw-away prices to exotic destinations, it has now become easy for Indians like me to take a break and head to the Orient. For AirAsia that’s living up to their motto “Now Everyone Can Fly”.
Thailand offers visa-on-arrival (VOA) for a bunch of nationalities and visa exemption for a lucky few passports. The VOA costs 2000 Thai Baht.
- There is a visa waiver going on now until the 31st of August 2017 which you could avail, so you pay only a 1000 Thai Baht upon arrival. That’s a good 50% saved for something else before you even step outside the airport.
Anyway, the immigration lines at Don Mueang Airport were a bit long at my arrival but since I had the VOA form downloaded, filled and ready before landing I could zoom past the lines real quick. Trust me! Just download the form.
For the two nights I spent there, I checked into a chic hotel just 5km from the Chiang Mai International Airport. Hotel des Artist Ping Silhouette is a boutique hotel beside the Ping River that flows through the city. It is located in a lovely neighborhood called Wat Gate. If you are an artsy person you would love the space and the fusion of the olde worlde with the new age at this hotel. I had a wonderful stay at this hotel and would definitely recommend it.
It was lunch time and after checking into the hotel and freshening up, I got outside to get some food at The Salad Concept Restaurant. A very trendy European style resto where they serve a healthy selection of salads, shakes and raw pressed juices and all this with a customizable menu to tweak to your liking.
- A meal would cost around 200-300 Baht.
Wat Phra Doi Suthep
Once fueled up, I headed out to the city’s most famous temple situated atop a hill that overlooks the entire city
Located 15kms from the city and winding roads that take you to the Doi Suthep mountain is the Wat Phra Doi Suthep temple. Once you reach the entrance, the highlight is probably the 309 steps that need to be climbed to reach the temple. But if you feel dizzy already just reading about it, you could just skip the flight of stairs and use the cable car which will make the task really easy.
Up at the top, you would get to see the gold ornate pagoda, the temple courtyards, and plenty of statues of the Buddha. There is a spot up here where you can witness a landscape view of the entire city.
- If you are culturally oriented, the temple is a good place to start your excursion of Chiang Mai.
- Entry is 30 Thai Baht.
- The cable car costs 20 Thai Baht.
Get a world-class spa treatment
Before you start any trip, I think it’s really important to unwind and get into the whole travel mood. After the flight of stairs up and down the temple. Oh! and the flights I took to get there, it was time to relax. And a really good place to start with is The Oasis Spa in Chiang Mai.
Imagine walking into a rainforest like garden, with stone steps and wooden walkways, private outdoor showers, and courteous, professional service. You could stay here and get pampered here for the whole day if you want to. They have a great spa menu which you can go through upon your arrival. I opted for a 2-hour Oasis signature “King of Oasis” massage after which I felt like I was ready for my next trek up the Himalayas.
This was not just a spa “experience” but beyond!
- The “King of Oasis” costs a 3,900++ Thai Baht, which I feel is totally worth the price.
With the spa and all that done, I was more than hungry. It was time to taste some local cuisine.
Enter Khum Khantoke. A sprawling open air and covered restaurant cum performance theater built-in traditional Lanna architecture. This place not only serves excellent food but also entertains its guests with elaborate dramatic classical dances from Thailand. The place serves the signature Northern Thailand platter tray called the Khantoke or Toke containing small dishes of fried chicken, minced pork, mixed vegetables, Thai sticky rice, a few good varieties of spicy sauces, clear soup, crispy noodles and banana fritters (so similar to the ones in Kerala). They also serve a halal menu for Muslims and a vegetarian menu for the vegans. So no excuses to miss this!
- Don’t forget to let them click your photo which will be printed for you on the spot for a 100 Thai Baht.
- Soak into the local culture and enjoy the food at Khum Khantoke for about 800 Thai Baht per head.
P.S: You’ll need to remove your shoes while you enter. This is so very Indian!
Visit the Dumbo Elephant Spa
Rather than riding elephants, like in a lot of places around the world (which is frowned upon), here you can actually get up close, feed and even give a soaking mud bath to elephants. The sanctuary/spa offers half day, full day and evening programs to suit your time and budget. It is located about 1.5 hours from Chiang Mai in a serene countryside of the northern district. The program also included a basic farm style lunch with fresh fruits and snacks.
The elephants are treated with the utmost care by the mahouts with no chains, hooks and absolutely no riding. This is a great place for both adults and kids to spend some quality time together with the large mammals. You leave happy and the elephants are happy too! Especially the small one called Dumbo. 😀
I was there on a rainy day, but that made the trip all the more exciting and the elephants enjoyed it.
- Do check out the Dumbo Elephant Spa website for more details and reservations.
Learn to cook some Thai food
First a spa now a cookery school! You must be kidding me right??
After eating all that Thai food, you will definitely want to know a little bit of how the food is cooked. A visit to Thailand is not complete without a cooking lesson or two on Thai cooking. So this is a brilliant place to do just that. I got down to the nitty-gritty of cooking the world-famous Thai Tom Yum Soup and Green curry. I’ve never done this before and so was so impressed by the whole thing that I will now start searching for such cooking schools in India on my trips. If you have some free time in Chiang Mai, morning or evening, I would suggest you sign up for a class with Basil Cookery School. And of course, you can have what you cooked at the end of it all.
- Costs only a 1000 Thai Baht per person.
If you miss Indian food when in Chiang Mai, the Whole Earth Restaurant offers some unique Indian and Thai cuisine. I was surprised with the variety of Indian food they had. But when in Thailand do as the Thai people do. I ordered a Thai chicken curry with some steamed Thai rice as suggested by my Thai friend and that hit the spot. It tasted almost like home food. The interior decor of the whole place will want you to spend some extra time there. A good place for large groups or if you are on a lovely date. If it’s raining you’ll find the attendants escort you with their huge umbrellas while you enter and exit. I found that gesture very warming!
- Approximately 500+ Thai Baht per head.
Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai
While in Chiang Mai do not miss the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar which is the main attraction for shopping i.e., if you would love some Chiang Mai souvenirs like me. You could find most of the stuff they sell in Bangkok too but it is a good stroll from footpath to footpath after a heavy dinner meal. You can bargain as much as you want and maybe find something really unique to buy. But if you want to hit the sack after your heavy dinner, I’m ok with that too. Just saying!
- You can spend and buy as much as you like.
Chiang Mai has good transportation options. You could use a Rot daang (a red covered pick-up truck) available all around the city which will cost from 20-40 Thai Baht depending on your distance. It is always good to check with the driver before you board. There are also tuk-tuks like in Bangkok and many other Asian cities but would cost you a lot more than the Rot daangs.
- But hey, like in most places these days you could ride Chiang Mai with Uber and Grab as well.
- If you feel like driving, there are also a bunch of rent-a-car companies you could opt for right from the airport.
The climate in Chiang Mai is tropical but cooler compared to Bangkok or other southern provinces due to the surrounding greenery and mountains. The monsoon starts from May-June and ends around September-October after which it relatively stays cool.
So Why Chiang Mai?
My stay in Chiang Mai came to a close but the city redefined my opinion of the Thai people, culture, traditions, food, and hospitality and was the best way to begin my Thailand tour. Something to look forward to on my next trip because I’m going to find a way to go back and explore more of this enchanting city in the north.
Been to Chiang Mai? What were your experiences like? Do share them in the comments. If you haven’t, add this to your itinerary and get going.
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*All views expressed here are my own.
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