Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand. It is 700 km north of Bangkok and you can reach there by a 10 to 12 hour bus journey from the capital. Northern Thailand is mountainous and filled with thick forests and river valleys. And Chiang Mai is located near the highest mountains in the country. So when you reach here you will understand right away what a lush green region you have come to.
After the chaotic city life of Bangkok how good it was to be in the calm and laid-back vibe of Chiang Mai. It was the perfect place to rest, relax and discover Thailand in its authentic atmosphere. Yes it is a touristic destination but despite the impacts of tourism it still preserves traditional way of living of Thai people.
Historical old city (walled city) is the heart of Chiang Mai full of guesthouses, shops, cafes, restaurants. It is so vibrant but at the same time feels so residential and peaceful. I stayed in one of the hostels here and explored the city in four directions starting from this center.
Old city also hosts many Thai cooking schools and tattoo studios that offer traditional bamboo and Thai Sak Yant tattoos. Chiang Mai is famous for its Thai massage schools that offer month-long courses. There are many massage parlours in the city which offer anything from quick and simple face, foot massages to fullbody massages. If you are looking for more reasonable prices for massage you can check some monasteries that host lounges with highly talented masseurs.
Bicycle is the best way to explore Chiang Mai as it is a flat city and the traffic is well organized and not so busy. Almost everyday I was cycling here and there, discovering the old city, monasteries and neighbourhoods. I was also spending some of my time in the beautiful lush green parks (above) that are not just peaceful environments to relax but also they are the meeting points of travellers and like minded people. North Gate Jazz Bar was another spot to meet people and listen to really good live music.
In Chiang Mai there are over 300 Wats (Buddhist monasteries or temples) scattered throughout the city and surrounding countryside. And no other province in the whole of Thailand is home to more. These wats are a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles. But most of them are of the Lanna style, dating between the 13th and 18th centuries and characterised by curved wooden roofs pointing up at the top (above).
To me the most visually impressive temples are in Chiang Mai. Shining Buddha statues in different sizes, the stupas, intricately decorated facades, shiny coats glisten brightly in the sunlight. These are not just stunning architectures that serve as an attraction to visit but they are all in function that spread the light of Buddha. Along with the wide range of wats, monastic life of monks and nuns are clearly visible in the daily life. All these monasteries whether city or forest, live on donation base. In the early times of the day you see many monks with bowls in their hands collecting food or donations for their monasteries.
Wat Umong Tunnel Pagoda Temple (above) is a beautiful example to the forest monasteries. It is located in the outskirts of the city in a dense forest. The temple is still standing after 700 years but it certainly shows its age. It is also famous for the series of ancient tunnels inside it.
Chiang Mai is home to huge night bazaars for local arts, handicrafts and food. They extend across several city blocks, inside buildings, temple grounds and in open squares. The most famous one is the Saturday market which was the most colourful, rich and diversed market I’ve ever seen. It was a colourful show of wide variety of food, drinks, fruits, vegetables, design clothes, jeweleries, creative souvenirs, musical instruments, herbal remedies and many other things.
In the previous years I did farming so I was mostly interested in vegetables and fruits. I was totally entranced in between many varieties some of which were so new to me. So I lost myself in the tastes that were the magnificent gifts to my body and soul.
Coming here I understood why Thai food is one of the most unique and tasty cuisine in the globe. It is not only incredibly delicious but also a visual feast. Coconut oil, red or green curries, coriander, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, peanuts, cashew nuts, tofu are commonly used in most of the recipes. Noodle soups, stir fried vegetables with soya sauce, papaya salad, mango with sticky rice, Pad Thai (fried noddles), Khao Soi (noodle curry dish), Khao Pad (fried rice), Tom Yam (sour soup with lemongrass and galangal) were my favourite ones.
Chiang Mai also hosts many nice restaurants that serve organic vegetarian or vegan food. Pun pun market and restaurant was my favourite with its rich menu. They cultivate most of their food in their organic garden by this way food travels only about 10 meters to come to your plate. In the upcoming weeks I would be going to volunteer at the Pun Pun farm which is a pinoeer in Thailand regarding seed saving and sustainability. If you are interested, you can read my experiences of those days in Volunteering at Farms essay.
If you are interested in clean organic vegetarian food, I can recommend you one other place, the Vegetarian Society located in the southwest side of the old city. It has a small market and a humble restaurant with many different traditional recipes.
Then time had come for me to go to a little bit more north, close to Myanmar border, to the beautiful town Pai.