Travel Destinations

Monday, November 4, 2013

Exploring Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s largest cities.  However, we stayed just outside the Old City and, to be honest, it didn’t feel all that big, especially having come from Bangkok.  One thing Chiang Mai does not have a shortage of is temples.  There are over 700 temples in Chiang Mai, the largest number outside of Bangkok, with over 30 within the city walls alone, an area less than one square mile. 

City Walls and Moat Surrounding Chiang Mai Thailand
City walls and moat surrounding the Old City of Chiang Mai.
We took a short flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and arrived in the late morning.  As we would still have the afternoon to explore, I booked a private half-day tour with Oriental Escape to visit Bhubing Palace and Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.  Bhubing Palace is the winter residence of the royal family and has extensive gardens. 

While the gardens are beautiful, if you aren’t really into gardens, I would actually recommend skipping the palace, as you aren’t able to enter any of the buildings on the grounds.  Oriental Escape also offers a half-day tour to just Doi Suthep, which is less expensive than the combined visit.

Bhubing Palace Chiang Mai Thailand
Bhubing Palace Gardens
After the palace, we visited Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which is on the top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, an approximately 40 minute drive from the city.  The Wat can be reached either by climbing the 306 steps or by riding the funicular.  The legend of the Wat is that a relic of the Buddha was strapped to a sacred white elephant and when the elephant was released it traveled through the mountain forest, stopped at the summit of Doi Suthep, and died.  That was how they decided where to build the Wat.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep Chiang Mai Thailand
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Our guide San was much quieter than our Bang Pa-In Summer Palace and Ayutthaya guide Rabbit.  But when we talked about Buddhism, you could see this was a subject for which he had a great passion.  We learned from San that the monks in Bangkok who have bright orange robes have store-bought robes, while the monks in Chiang Mai have dark reddish-brown robes because they have dyed the robes themselves using natural ingredients found in the surrounding wooded area.  It was almost like hearing someone talk about why their sports team is better than another.  We also learned from San about the stones that remain when some monks are cremated.  This was a special subject for him and he had many pictures on his phone that he shared with us.  When monks are cremated, it is believed if stones remain, which can be of varying colors and smoothness, they are proof of the monk’s holiness and that the monk has reached the next level.

On our first full day in Chiang Mai we spent the entire day (before heading to Yeepeng Lanna International) exploring inside the city walls.  We started our self-guided walking tour at Wat Chiang Man, believed to be Chiang Mai’s oldest temple.  Baskets of birds to release are sold outside the temple.  Our next stop was the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre, which offers a Chiang Mai history lesson.  I love museums, but I would suggest skipping this one.  What should not be skipped, however, is viewing the outside of this colonial building and the Three Kings Monument in front. 

We next visited Wat Phan Tao which features a beautiful teak wood assembly hall.  The inside of the wooden hall has colorful banners swaying in the breeze and a large table of offering bowls.  Close by is Wat Chedi Luang, a stunning temple with a gold front, dragon banisters, and a chedi in partial ruins.  The massive chedi is a beautiful structure with Buddhas within the niches of all four sides and statues of elephants circling the base.

Wat Chedi Luang Chiang Mai Thailand
Wat Chedi Luang's golden temple and chedi ruins.
Wat Phra Singh is probably the most impressive temple complex in Chiang Mai.  It is home to the city’s most revered Buddha, the Lion Buddha.  There are many small buildings to visit, which also means taking off and putting on your shoes over and over again.  The Wat also has an extensive collection of monk stones and a number of incredibly realistic wax monk figures.  

Wax Monk and Monk Stones at Wat Phra Singh Chiang Mai Thailand
Monk stones and wax monk figure at Wat Phra Singh.
Seriously, he looks freakishly real.
Our last stop of the day was at Mengrai Kilns for a little shopping.  I had read that Chiang Mai has some of the best celadon factories.  Traditional celadon pottery is a beautiful and distinctive pale green.  Mengrai Kilns is on a small side street within the city walls and sells a number of celadon items along with other pottery.  We brought home a small piece of celadon pottery along with some cute elephant Christmas ornaments.

Celadon Pottery at Mengrai Kilns Chiang Mai Thailand
Celadon pottery at Mengrai Kilns.
Chiang Mai’s walled Old City offers quite a lot for being smaller than a square mile.  While many visit Chiang Mai more for the activities outside of the city, such as visiting elephant parks or hill tribes, the Old City certainly deserves some attention as well.

Bike Riding Dog in Chiang Mai Thailand
There really is no reason for this picture. 
But how cute is this dog riding a bike through Chiang Mai?!
I used Lonely Planet Discover Thailand to plan our Thailand trip.

Travel the World: Things to do in Chiang Mai Thailand.

Did you enjoy this article? Want more travel stories and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox?
Get an email when we publish our next one! Just enter your email address below.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.