A number of my friends have been to Chiang Mai and they sing praises of this city which made me feel excited about my trip but at the same time, a little concerned that I might have too high expectations of the city. Chiang Mai is known as the “Rose of the North” in Thailand and during the short drive from the airport to the hotel, I instinctively knew that this “rose” was going to be pretty.
My initial reaction was how small the city was. Forgive my ignorance, I knew Chiang Mai was a smaller city than Bangkok but never knew that it’s the fifth largest city in Thailand with a population of only 1 million. As such, the city is more laidback and has sort of quaintness to it. Despite its small-city status, Chiang Mai has lots to offer for its visitors. I was amazed by the variety of things to see and do but because I was there just for a long weekend, my list of activities had to be narrowed down to a few.
If you haven’t been to Chiang Mai but planning to do so albeit for a limited number of days, then here’s a quick guide for you on what you can do and see in this city:
Wander Inside the Old City
The main attractions of the Old City are Buddhist temples and night markets. I didn’t want to dive into the usual sightseeing activity because I wanted to get a feel of the historic walled city by walking around and getting my bearings right.
If you didn’t get enough sleep from your flight, I would suggest getting some fresh air by wandering down charming lanes at your leisure or relaxing in a café with a cup of strong, brewed coffee. I did just that, and to my pleasant surprise, I found the other side of the city’s personality, that is, the 3Cs – cute and colourful, convenience and coffee culture.
Pray and Venerate At Temples
Did you know that Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples? To avoid having temple-fatigue, I limited my visits to only four temples, two of which are in the Old City while another two are located just a few kilometres outside the Old City.
The temple that is held in the highest esteem is Wat Phra Singh. Devotees come here to venerate the famous Buddha image known as Phra Buddha Sihing housed in a small chapel, located at the rear of the temple grounds.
Opening Hours: 5am – 8.30pm
Entrance Fee to main hall: THB 20
Exploration of the temple is enlightening especially at the gardens where there are famous Buddhist quotes and wise sayings attached to trees.
Located across the road from my hotel is Wat Chedi Luang, famous for its towering ruined Lanna-styled chedi. The chedi cannot be seen from the street entrance but once you enter the sprawling compound, you will be awed by its towering heights. The chedi was built in 1441 and might have been the largest structure in ancient Chiang Mai but the top of the chedi was destroyed by an earthquake or cannon fire. Apparently historians aren’t sure of the exact cause.
Opening Hours: 6am – 6pm
Entrance Fee: None but donations are appreciated.
Tip: Best time to visit Wat Chedi Luang is 4-5pm when the afternoon sunlight shines on the chedi ruins provides fantastic light for photographers. Also, there’s lesser number of people visiting the temple during this hour.
If you want to visit a temple that no tour buses go but only the locals, then go to Wat Umong, situated on the foothills of Doi Suthep mountains and is still heavily forested. The word Umong means tunnels which are the main feature of the temple whereby its maze-like tunnels were built in the late 14th century, supposedly to keep a famous but mad monk from wandering off.
Interestingly, there is a replica of an Ashoka pillar on the temple grounds, similar to the ones in India. The Ashoka pillar is a pillar inscribed with details about the spread of Buddhism commissioned by the Indian King Ashoka in the 3rd century, and atop are four lions and a Dhamma wheel.
Overlooking Chiang Mai from the mountains is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or commonly referred to as Doi Suthep which in actual fact is the name of the mountain where the temple is located. Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand’s sacred temples, and is reached via a 300-step staircase flanked by mosaic naga (serpents).
Upon entering the inner terrace of the temple, I was struck by the glimmering golden chedi and Buddha statues.
Opening Hours: 6am-6pm
Entrance Fee: THB30
Tip: Best time to visit the temple is during lunch hour or just before sunset. It is also the best place to see a panoramic view of Chiang Mai city.
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