Thailand can feel rather overwhelming when you first arrive, especially if your first stop is Bangkok like ours was. The bustle of thousands of people, motorbikes, cars and tuk tuks is never-ending and it can feel daunting losing yourself down the maze of streets armed with a half helpful tourist map and a compass – fearing that you may never find your way back to your guesthouse! After a few frantic days in Bangkok, arriving in Chiang Mai – Thailand’s “Rose of the North” – felt like a real breath of fresh air. We found ourselves quickly adjust to a chilled routine here and I have often referred to Chiang Mai as “home” accidentally while traipsing around the rest of Thailand!
Chiang Mai is northern Thailand’s largest city, surrounded by towering mountains and dense jungle forests. The ancient walled city is enclosed with a square moat and crumbling remains of the old brick wall, which provide a great point of navigation after exploring the criss-cross of little side streets within the city walls.
There are over 300 Buddhist temples (“Wat” in Thai) to discover in Chiang Mai, with around 35 of these being within the city walls. Depending on how energetic you are feeling, you can rent a bicycle for 50 Baht (approx. £1.15) or a motorbike for 200 Baht (about £4.60) for 24 hours – a pretty good deal I’d say! Spend a day or two wheeling around, exploring far and wide, and take the time to stop at the temples and admire their fascinating architecture and vibrant colours.
Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang are two of the most well know temples in the city of Chiang Mai. But we also found Wat Phan Tao with its stunning wooden structures and Wat Rajamontean with its giant Buddha and numerous intricate spires to be equally as impressive (and without the entrance fee!).
At Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Jet Lin (both in the city centre), you can also engage in the monk chats – these tend to be held for an hour every Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, I missed out on this opportunity but I imagine it would be quite awesome!
It has to be said that Wat Doi Suthep is without a doubt the most impressive temple I have seen during my time in Thailand so far. Some say that you have not truly arrived in Chiang Mai until you have paid a visit to this incredible temple which tops Doi Suthep mountain. It will cost you 30 Baht (about 60p) to get in – totally worth it! It is not just the scale of the temple grounds, the panoramic views of Chiang Mai, or the extravagant gold decor that makes this temples a site of such significance for the Thai people (and such a huge tourist attraction) but also the history of how and why the temple came to be.
According to legend, King Nu Naone placed an ancient relic on the back of a white elephant and released the elephant into the jungle. It is said that the elephant climbed Doi Suthep mountain until one day it stopped, trumpeted 3 times and dropped dead. The King took this as an omen and immediately ordered the building of a temple at the site where the elephant collapsed. There is now a white elephant statue in the temple as a reminder of the old tale.
Originally, it took a 5 hour hike through the jungle, following the route “mapped” out by the monks using strips of their orange “chougu” tied to the trunks of the trees. However, now thanks to the efforts of 1,000 volunteers, there is a road which can get you there in about 40 minutes from the centre of Chiang Mai. You can take a Songthaew (Red Taxi) which will cost you about 50 Baht to get from town to the base of the mountain and then another 50 Baht to climb the winding road to the temple. We found it cheaper to rent a motorbike for the 2 of us to ride and also a lot more fun! It was only our second time driving a motorbike but the road is reasonably quiet and as it climbs the mountain there are beautiful views of the city which makes for a stunning ride. If you are pretty fit you could have a go at cycling up as well but be prepared to a steep incline and a fast descent!
When visiting any of the more popular temples around Chiang Mai (especially Wat Doi Suthep) I would definitely recommend getting there as early as possible before the throngs of tourists descend upon them. These temples have the potential to be so calming and peaceful but it can be hard to appreciate this with people constantly jostling past you.
Visiting all of the beautiful temples around Chiang Mai, and Thailand more broadly, is a great way to spend a couple of days, soaking up the Thai culture and religion.