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.
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.
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!
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!