Our first night in the northern city of Chiang Mai began at around 6pm. We stayed just south of the Saen Pung gate, at Cloud Hotel. The bright painted walls and wicker hammocks of the guesthouse were just an introduction to how aesthetic and cinematic this town could be.
The city at night is a different kind of vibrant, buzzing with night markets and bazaars. Wat Phan Tao sparkles with lanterns and the bells around the water add to the magic.
We arrived just in time for the busy Saturday walking street, a small market along the Wua Lai road in the south selling food, clothes and a few unique products. Craving any carbs apart from rice, I took a Turkish flatbread and the crisp sweet pineapple skewers I had seen all over Bangkok street stalls.
One of Alessio’s big excitements was the Chiang Mai monk chats. They are free exchanges with monks who wish to learn English, where you can discuss anything you want and vice versa. We chose Wat Chedi Luang for our chat – the hours are daily and from 9-6. The Wat itself is very majestic, grand lions guarding temple ruins and ornate red and gold dragons around the newer shrines.
The monks sit in a verandah near the on site university, to the right of the temple ruin. They welcome you over, and chat as you wish. I asked about being kinder, being good and accepting oneself. On the latter topic, our monk, Somnang said “You just accept yourself!” But HOW, man? “You just accept! I mean, this is the body you have, the eyes you have, nose, ears… why wouldn’t you accept that? There is only one you and you have one body. You have to know yourself.” as if it were the simplest, least complex concept ever. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I guess.”
The conversation wraps up whenever you want. We chatted casually about for 45 minutes. As they are learning English, they are not entirely fluent and learn new words with you and will also teach you Thai words and Buddhist concepts. You don’t have to be Buddhist to chat, I’m not, and I overheard a Nihilist girl challenge two monks as to why we were here, why bother living, if we all die eventually. The only prerequisites are to be open minded and friendly.
We went for walk, feeling calm and intrigued by Somnang’s ideas. On this walk, we came across Wat Buppharam, a 20bht entry wat. Although Alessio was not convinced – I could see it was beautiful and the fee was absolutely worth it. It became my favourite wat in Chiang Mai.
The East side of the city is where a lot of hostels and guesthouses are but I didn’t like it a lot. It was a bit skeevy and not quite as magical as the centre or the West where we stayed. The Sunday Walking Street however was much better than the Saturday walking street or any of the Bangkok markets. It was enormous, the entire length of the Ratchadamnoen Road. What made it special was in between the usual food stalls and vendors selling things you see everywhere, were many unique sellers. Sunglasses, artworks, souvenirs – all unique to the market. It was pretty linear and easy to navigate unlike Bangkok’s Chatuchak, also.
The only thing I didn’t like was that quite a few of the performers were blind or otherwise disabled and it felt a bit exploitative, but I don’t have enough knowledge to comment too much.
The following day, we planned to visit Doi Inthanon with a songthaew. Then I became sick. Food poisoning sick. It took only five days to take me down. I rode it out pretty easily, and by the afternoon we walked to the bear hug cafe, a kitschy teddybear themed cafe in the East.
This lazy theme followed to the next and final day in Chiang Mai, a completely rained out day. Undeterred, we woke late and hired a scooter for half the day, where we explored the city, took a dinner and rode at speed around Chiang Mai.
It was a great way to end our time in the magical city and if we had more time, Chiang Rai, Doi Inthanon and perhaps the elephant sanctuary would be on the list but I was happy anyway to explore and discover in our own way, ending up well within budget.
– A few people told me Chiang Mai was a bit seedy – I experienced none of that. I stayed in the south on Tippanet Road, by Saen Pung Gate. It was very calm, beautiful and not at all dingy.
– I recommend hiring a bike, we did it for 150 baht for a half day. Take the bike on the smooth roads of the town or head out of town for some scenery or the popular Doi Suthep
– If you can only see one market, definitely go to the Sunday Walking Street! It feels much more authentic than many other markets.
– Monk Chats are free, aside from the cost of the entry to the wat. We chose Wat Chedi Luang and didn’t feel rushed.