The famous temple on Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai is recognized as the capital of Northern Thailand. The city itself has a lot to offer but it is also a major hub for a variety of trips that include hiking in the mountains, visiting hilltribe people, elephant and bamboo raft rides and handicraft villages. The city is about 700 kms north of Bangkok and if you drive straight here it will take you at least 10 hours. This is now my fourth visit to Chiang Mai in the last 12 years. The first time I came by overnight sleeper train which was both convenient and comfortable. The second time I flew here as the prices of domestic air flight have become very reasonable. The last two occasions I drove to Chiang Mai. I didn’t do this because it is cheaper than flying. In fact, the cost of petrol has gone up so much now that that the price of an airline ticket is cheaper. However, I really love the experience of driving on the open road and the convenience of being able to pack in the car just about everything, excluding the kitchen sink. And with a car you never need to worry where you will stay each night as you can just drive around until you find a hotel with a vacancy. (More on driving in Thailand later)
The main part of the city is defined by the moat and the remnants of the old city wall. Most of the guesthouses are towards the east side of the city and between the eastern moat and the Ping River. It is not that easy driving around the city. Apart from narrow lanes there are also one way roads. When I was driving around I was always worried about turning left down a one way road. They don’t always put up signs and they just presume you should know. Chiang Mai also has pedestrian crossings with traffic lights. I didn’t realize this at first and I kept running the lights and nearly knocked down a few tourists. (I am so used to Bangkok driving where you ignore pedestrians crossing the road.) After a while it started to makes sense. The road on the outside of the moat takes you around the city clockwise. Every now and then you will come across a u-turn which puts you on the road that takes you counter-clockwise around the city on the inside of the moat. Tourists without their own transport can flag down the red songtaews which roam the city. Unlike the songtaews back home, if you pay them enough they will become your personal taxis. Otherwise they pick up other passengers going the same way. Just tell the driver where you want to go. These cost about 10–15 baht when shared. When I came here the first time I rented a tuk tuk for the morning and used this to see the city sights.
The number one attraction is undoubtedly Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on a nearby mountainside. On my last trip this gave some splendid views of the city and surrounding countryside. However, this time I couldn’t even see the mountain from the city. The steep winding road to the top is about 10 kms long and is exhausting even if you are driving. However, we passed a few people along the way who were cycling and even some who were walking! But, the rewards at the top are rewarding with its golden chedi sparkling in the bright sunshine. Within the city moat there are about a dozen or so temples. But only a handful are considered highlights and are visited by people on the city tour. These are Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man and two just outside which are Wat Suan Dok and Wat Chedi Chet Yot. However, I think you will find other temples within the city that are not only just as interesting but certainly more beautiful. It is delightful when you discover these hidden gems for yourself.
Umbrella Village at Bo-Sang
There is more to Chiang Mai than the temples. Shopping, of course, is a major part of any tourists schedule to this city. The most famous center for shopping is the Night Bazaar. Both sides of Changklan Road, near the Ping River, are lined with hundreds of mobile vendors. During the daytime, you can also get good prices at the nearby Warorot Market. If you are in the city at the weekend then it is well worth visiting the Sunday Walking Street Market along Ratchadamnern Road. If you can find a guesthouse down a soi off this main road then you would be in a perfect place. The nearer to Thapae Gate you can get means the nearer you will be to the Night Bazaar. Chiang Mai is also the center for handicrafts. You can join tours where they will take you to factories to see things like the making of the colourful umbrellas and silk clothes. If you are driving yourself, just head east towards Bo-Sang Village for the umbrellas or south to Thawai Village for woodcarving.
On my last trip to Chiang Mai I visited Doi Inthanon which is the highest peak in Thailand (if you didn’t know by now, “doi” means mountain in northern dialect). It is 2,565 metres above sea level and even in summer it can be quite cool compared to Chiang Mai which is only 100 kms away. During winter it can go below freezing and is one of the few places in Thailand where you will see ice. You can join overnight trekking tours to this national park (don’t forget foreigners have to pay 200 baht entrance fee) or do it yourself. There are many trails which are clearly marked. It is also worth visiting the twin pagodas which celebrate the 60th birthdays of their Majesties the King and Queen. The flowers here are very beautiful. There are a number of waterfalls you can also visit.
On my first visit to Chiang Mai I joined the hilltribe trek which many backpackers do. You can book these at any tour agency in town. They usually last for two nights and three days. Most of them have the same schedule but they visit different areas. For example, Mae Taeng, Doi Inthanon or Pai. The latter town is fast becoming the place for backpackers to hang out and they often go straight there from Khao San Road. When I did the trek over ten years ago, the agency guaranteed that we wouldn’t meet any other tourists during the trek. I wonder if they can still give such guarantees. On the first day they took us to a waterfall where we had lunch and then in the afternoon we walked for several hours to reach a Karen village. This is where we spent the first night in a wooden hut. I remember our tour guide giving us a demonstration of how to smoke opium. The next day we walked for about three hours before we reached an elephant camp. Here we rode an elephant for about two hours which I assure you was more than enough time. We ended up at a Lahu tribe village where we spent the night. The last day we walked a short way to the river where climbed aboard some very rickety bamboo rafts. We then drifted downstream for about two hours. At the point where the river met the main road we were picked up by minivan and whisked back to Chiang Mai. You can also do this trek for two days.
If you have limited time or don’t fancy staying overnight in a hilltribe village, you can join one day tours. This is what I did on my second visit to Chiang Mai when I flew there with my sister. We joined a tour that took us north to Chiang Dao Elephant Training Camp. We actually passed there this afternoon and we stopped briefly to take some pictures. We arrived too late for the elephant bathing show which started at 10 a.m. However, we saw most of the elephant show. The guy at the ticket office felt sorry for us and only charged us 30 baht each instead of 60 baht. The show was actually quite good as it gave demonstrations on how the elephants used to work in the forests shifting logs and stacking them in piles. Most of the people watching this were on package tours. Afterwards they went on an elephant trek into the jungle for about an hour. We didn’t join them but I guess we could have done. The full price of 60 baht was pretty good when these one day tours cost about 800 baht. It is easy to catch a bus this way and they will drop you off at the front gate. When I went on this one day tour before, they took us on a short bamboo raft ride as well in the afternoon. Then on the way back we stopped at an orchid and butterfly farm.
During our last trip to Chiang Mai we drove the loop west through Pai and on towards Mae Hong Son. Here we visited the long necked hilltribe. Then on the return leg we stopped at Doi Inthanon. This time we are driving the loop the other way. We have already spent one week in Chiang Mai and it is time to move on. But really.you would need a month here to see and experience everything properly. The route we are on at present is taking us north-east to Thaton, Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung (Mae Fa Luang), Mae Sai, and then down to the Golden Triangle, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Phrae and back across to Lampang. We won’t be going back to Chiang Mai but instead we will then head back home via Tak. More about this part of the trip in a few days. As I am writing this it is pouring with rain so hopefully this won’t disrupt our sightseeing tomorrow.
For this trip I took along with me only two guidebooks. (Usually I take at least half a dozen guidebooks.) These were “Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand” written by Joe Cummings for Lonely Planet and the very informative “Exploring Chiang Mai” written by Oliver Hargrave. For road maps to drive here I used “Thailand Road Atlas” published by Lotus Image and “A2Z Atlas of Northern Thailand” published by PN Map. The two city maps I bought were the Nancy Chandler Map of Chiang Mai and the Personal Compact Guide for Chiang Mai. However, once in Chiang Mai it is possible to pick up a variety of free street maps as well as tourist information at the Tourism Authority of Thailand office.