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Exploring Thailand - 4 Days in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was my second stop during my travels around South East Asia, and a wonderful contrast to the chaos of Bangkok. Although it's referred to the capital of the North, Chiang Mai's atmosphere is more laid-back and a perfect place to relax and 'go with the flow'. Although it still has the hustle and bustle of the city (it's the largest city in North Thailand), it's easy to retreat to the surrounding national parks and countryside for a breath of fresh air. Whilst arriving from Bangkok, I was instantly captivated by the beautiful scenery surrounding the city; I was lucky enough to land at sunset and was spoiled with a spectacular approach from my window seat as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.

Here's my guide to a few days relaxing and exploring the 'Rose of the North', Chiang Mai!

Walking With Elephants

Everywhere you look in Chiang Mai, there are advertisements for elephant attractions, rides and circus performances, plastered over every Tuk-Tuk, hotel, and billboard in town. However, there are currently no laws in Thailand that protect elephants in captivity, and many tourists aren't aware of the abuse that elephants face. It's a complicated subject, and I was initially overwhelmed with the ethics behind elephant camps and how tourism affects the treatment of elephants in South East Asia. After some research, I decided to spend a day with an elephant walking by its side, relaxing in the shade, and cooling down in the river. I eventually chose to visit Baan Chaang Elephant Park in the North of Chiang Mai, and had a fantastic experience caring for the gentle giants, without riding on their backs. I'll write more about my experience in a further post as it's such a huge, thought provoking topic, and if you have plans for an experience with wild animals whilst travelling South East Asia, I hope you'll spend some time online researching the best, most ethical way to do so.

Which Wat?

If you're wanting to have the chance to explore Buddhist temples during your time in Thailand, Chiang Mai certainly has plenty to choose from. I visited the grand Wat Chedi Luang, which was once the largest building in the city. There's also an opportunity to spend an hour or two chatting with a Monk under a tree nearby, which gives the Monks an opportunity to practice their English, and for tourists to further understand Thai culture and ask any questions that they may have. 

If you have time to travel outside of Chaing Mai, the impressive Wat Phra That Doi Suthep overlooks the city from the nearby mountains. Legend states that the temple was founded as a shrine to a piece of Buddha's shoulder bone, which possessed magical powers. This relic broke into two pieces at the base of the mountain, with the second piece being placed on a white elephant's back and released into the jungle. It is believed that the elephant wandered the jungle until it eventually reached Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and then dropped down dead, selecting the spot where the temple was founded. The Wat holds a shrine to the white elephant, along with spectacular views over Chiang Mai. 
Return tours run from the city daily costing around 500 Thai baht, or if you're brave enough you can hike from the University. 

When visiting any temples in Thailand, remember you're in a place of worship. Removing your shoes before entering is a sign of respect, and ensure you bring something with you to cover up with as women's shoulders and knees should be covered. Avoid pointing the bottom of your feet at images of Buddha, and if you sit down always sit with your feet tucked behind you. 
In Buddhism, women should never touch a Monk or hand a Monk an item directly. Don't sit next to a Monk on public transport, and step out of the way on paths. 

Exploring the North

After the chaos and craziness of Bangkok, I initially decided to stay outside of Chaing Mai in the North near the mountains. I stayed 20km outside of the city, in Suansawan Resort, where I spent a day recharging my batteries after the long journey to Thailand and the madness of the first day in the Capital. Watching the sunrise over the mountains was beautiful, and a highlight of my time in Thailand was leisurely riding a bicycle around the countryside, past local farms and listening to the exotic wildlife in amongst the trees. For the more adventurous, the famous Flight of the Gibbon zipline is also nearby! 

Saturday Walking Market

I mentioned in my Bangkok post that I missed out on the weekend market, but Chiang Mai more than made up for it! Wui Lai Road in the Old City hosts a fantastic local market, with stalls selling beautiful homemade crafts such as bags, artwork, clothing, books, lanterns, candles and wood carvings. I treated myself to a handmade elephant made from teak wood as a memento of my day spent in the North, and I would have bought even more if my suitcase could have handled it. Lots of the products are made locally, and the stall owners are more than happy to tell you how something is made or where it came from. Bring your best bartering attitude and plenty cash, and you'll definitely find a unique souvenir to take home!

Bear Hug Café

This café is too cute not to mention! I found this place by chance after walking halfway across town in the midday heat and needed a break from the sunshine. The Bear Hug Café celebrates everything teddy bear themed, from the decor to their delicious waffles, pancakes, and coffee. The owners obviously have a special eye for detail and a lot of love for all the things teddy bears -  even the taps in the bathroom have little bears on them! The theme doesn't take away from the amazing food either, I had the waffles with chocolate ice cream and they were delicious. Prices are a little more expensive than your standard coffee shop in town, but I was more than happy to pay 165 Thai baht (€4.50) for bear themed coffee and waffles!

Thai Massage 

Honestly, Thai massage wasn't for me. I know people swear by it, and say that after the pain you'll feel incredibly relaxed... But I didn't find anything relaxing about a masseuse pulling my body into all sorts of shapes that would make a contortionist proud, or the feeling of an elbow pressed into my back! However, it was certainly an experience that I'm glad I tried, and there is something satisfying about the crack of a joint after 10 minutes of prodding and massaging! 
If you want to give it a go, there are an endless amount of places in and around Chiang Mai to suit every budget. For those wanting to spend less, plenty local markets offer quick and cheap massages, with plastic mats and chairs laid out in the streets for passers by wanting a quick fix. Luxury spas provide transport from your hotel, and offer a range of European massages as well as the traditional Thai variety from a private room. 
If you want something in between the two, almost everyone I spoke to recommended Green Bamboo for a good massage. Unfortunately, they were fully booked when I tried to visit, but you should expect to pay around 300 baht (8 euros!) for an hour massage. 

Chiang Mai Flower Festival 

If you're lucky enough to be visiting Chiang Mai at the right time, you'll find the city filled with flowers and blooms from local farmers, markets selling every type of flower you can imagine, and a parade of floats adorned with competitors for the Miss Chaing Mai competition. I wrote more about my experience in a previous blog post here!

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