Christmas and New Year’s Celebrations in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains.

Chiang Mai is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains.

With temples on almost every corner and saffron-robed monks almost as numerous as camera-toting travellers, Chiang Mai is a travel photographer’s Nirvana. It is a city of manageable size, nestled in a valley surrounded by jungle covered mountains, with cooler temperatures, easier to breathe air and a more laid-back vibe than it’s more sophisticated big sister, Bangkok. But let’s not romanticize it too much. Chiang Mai is a city. The beautiful tranquil temples are a backdrop for streets choked with traffic at rush hour, temple bells are drowned out by horns honking and trucks advertising Muay Thai boxing matches over loudspeakers and markets are teeming with people from all walks of life. It is exactly this juxtaposition of spirituality in the bustle of the city that makes Chiang Mai unique and has so many visitors flocking to it year after year.

The drums, bells and cymbals at the temples are meant to bring blessings to noise-makers.

The drums, bells and cymbals at the temples are meant to bring blessings to noise-makers.

So many temples to choose from, we visited a different one each day.

So many temples to choose from, we visited a different one each day.

One of the Ancient Gates to the Old City

One of the Ancient Gates to the Old City

As we wandered the streets of the Old City (best done on foot) and stopped in at temples that we stumbled upon, we felt Chiang Mai’s charm as less about specific sites and photo ops and more about just soaking up the feel of the place. Altogether, we spent 9 days in Chiang Mai over the Christmas holidays and we still felt like we barely scatched the surface of this wonderful city. During our stay, we did many of the quintessential Chiang Mai activities. We shopped at both the Saturday and Sunday Walking Markets as well as the Night Bazaar. We experienced amazing food and drinks from many local street food carts and market stalls, as well as on rooftop balconies with great views, in quiet beer gardens surrounded by expats, at busy street corners, along the river’s edge (while spotting a python swimming by), and even while teetering on bicycle seats welded to a makeshift bar that was originally a metal farm trailer (you had to see it to believe it)! We also took a Thai cooking class at Asia Scenic (highly recommended) and took the customary pilgrimage to the the mountain temple on Doi Suthep and then visited the Hilltribe village at the top of the mountain. Along with snapping more photos of beautiful, Buddhas, temples and chedis than we will ever need, our spiritual experience of Chiang Mai also included participating in the Monk Chat and learning about meditation, receiving a blessing for New Year’s and watching the monks collect alms in the early morning. And we spent a gloriously serene day at Elephant Nature Park which is also highly recommended. We will write more about our elephant experience in a future post.

Wat Phrathat, the temple on Doi Suthep - Situated near the top of the mountain, legend has it that a blessed elephant was tasked to wander the mountainside to determine the site of this temple and this is where the elephant laid down to die.

Wat Phrathat, Doi Suthep:
Situated near the top of the mountain, legend has it that a blessed elephant was tasked to wander the mountainside to determine the site of this temple and this is where the elephant laid down to die.

Monks make their rounds in the early morning to receive food and other items from the people.

Monks make their rounds in the early morning to receive food and other items from the people.

Our very informative host at the Monk Chat gave us a lesson on meditation and mindfulness.

Our very informative host at the Monk Chat gave us a lesson on meditation and mindfulness.

Many of the temple gardens are filled with signs of Buddhist teachings on which to meditate

Many of the temple gardens are filled with signs of Buddhist teachings on which to meditate

Learning the tastes of Thailand

Learning the tastes of Thailand at Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School. Click picture to go to their website.

Our dinner at a swanky riverside restaurant included an unexpected guest.  We were told that seeing a snake in the water will give us a year of good luck, especially as we head into the Year of the Snake.

Our dinner at a swanky riverside restaurant included an unexpected guest. We were told that seeing a snake in the water will give us a year of good luck, especially as we head into the Year of the Snake.

Eating beside the river while listening to live traditional Thai music and sipping wine - a budget-busting must do!

Eating beside the river while listening to live traditional Thai music and sipping wine – a budget-busting must do!

New Year's Blessing

Receiving a New Year’s Blessing

New Year's Blessing

Receiving a New Year’s Blessing

Spending the day with these gentle giants was a highlight of our trip.

Spending the day with these gentle giants was a highlight of our trip. Click picture to go to their website.

As travellers on our first trip away from family and friends for the whole holiday season, we wondered how it would feel to celebrate our Christian/Western holidays of Christmas and New Year’s Eve in a city that clearly celebrates all things Buddhist. But never fear, Thai hospitality to the rescue! The city was alive with Christmas spirit from people riding motorcycles in Santa costumes to huge Christmas tree displays decked out with plenty of fake snow and thousands of Christmas lights. As we wandered the night market on Christmas Eve, we were serenaded with Christmas music and wished a Merry Christmas by the street vendors. It felt very Christmas-y after all.

Even though Thai culture celebrates the Lunar New Year’s more so than our calendar New Year’s, the December 31 celebrations in Chiang Mai certainly did not disappoint either. The area around Tha Pae Gate and along the moat that surrounds the Old City was crowded with both Thai and Farang revellers alike, lighting off lanterns, eating street food and shopping in the market from the early evening on until the sky exploded with so many fireworks at midnight and beyond that, at times, it looked like daylight. After taking in the fireworks and street partying for a while, we ended up at a bar filled way beyond fire safety capacity with a live reggae band playing and danced our hearts out until we finally had to say goodbye to some newly met friends and go to bed.  We needed to try to get some sleep before our scheduled elephant excursion at 8 am. This was definitely the most memorable New Year’s Eve celebration yet!

Street Food: All manner of Asian food was available at the New Year's Eve celebration in Chiang Mai, including sushi and dim sum!

Street Food: All manner of Asian food was available at the New Year’s Eve celebration in Chiang Mai, including sushi and dim sum!

Preparing our New Year's Lantern for flight.  May it bring us Good Luck and Happiness in 2013!

Preparing our New Year’s Lantern for flight. May it bring us Good Luck and Happiness in 2013!

Thousands of burning paper lanterns floated through the night sky above Chiang Mai.  Lighting a lantern is supposed to bring good luck for 2013!

Adding one more to the thousands of burning paper lanterns floating in the night sky above Chiang Mai.

Rest assured, if you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai over the holiday season, you will experience no shortage of holiday cheer to keep homesickness at bay!

PS. Blogging is an activity done in isolation so your comments, questions and messages are very welcomed and appreciated!