{chiang mai} things to love about chiang mai

6:20 AM sians 0 Comments

"nestled within the northern highlands of thailand is the pristine chiang mai province. embraced by mountains, the ping river pays homage, flowing gently at her feet. ancient walls surround her. temples kiss the sky, within the welcoming arms of chiang mai, history and modern life merge."

- the akyra

i couldn't have described the beauty of chiang mai any better. 

every travelogue has its own story and my travels to the northern province of thailand took me to a different kind of adventure that left a lasting impression and found a very special spot in my heart.  

the escapade was at the end of march - the beginning of the warm summer days in chiang mai. in fact, the schools were out for the summer holidays since because the days were going to be scorchingly warm as our cab driver shared on the first day, confirming my suspicions after checking a whole week of weather forecast pre-vacation with temperatures peaking at 39 C just few days prior. 

that placed a small grey cloud hanging over our heads.  

despite the predictions/forecasts of warm weather for the next six days, the temperature hovered towards the high 20s and low 30s except for perhaps the last day in chiang mai - the weather was absolutely kind to us with sunny days but moderate temperatures. 

such temperate days meant perfection for exploration and adventure -

"i rode behind on a motorcycle for the first time ever and it was exhilarating mixed with a hint of fear. i loved it" 

it also meant finding several things i loved about this beautiful city of chiang mai.

{ one. wondrous wats }

chiang mai is overflowing with ancient buddhist temples or better known as wats where the intricacy and the stunning hand painted murals are aplenty to be studied and appreciated. the mastery of the original builders and dedication of artisans in preserving these beautiful temples were attested by the many magnificent wats.

we planned for a sunset viewing at wat phrathat doi suthep, the temple named after the mountain where it is located (thb 30 for entrance fee). two ways to reach the pagodas - take a tram (thb 20) or walk up 309 steps from the base.

my pick - the latter. to make it a whole fulfilment package.

at the top, i was awestruck by the entrance of the temple with the detailed carvings, too distracted to notice the shoes strewn at the entrance as shoes must be removed before entering the inner temple area.

[#protip] : dressing appropriately is a must. long pants and covered shoulders. shoes to be removed before entering the inner temple.

several emotions washed over me as the breathtaking view of the majestic golden pagoda that kissed the bright blue sky that eventually gleamed as the sun made its appearance. the emotions raced from awestruck and admiration to a relaxed calmness as i breathed in the experience. buddhist statues made of gold and jade, the intricate details down to even the bells that edged the rooftop, the buddhists fervent in their prayers.

wat phra singh. one of the revered and famous temples within the city. the structures had its own character but exuded the same commitment in attention to detail. impressive were the monks meditating in the wat, unflinching and full of calmness about them. search for the hand painted murals to unveil its depicted stories and explore the temples to find the sleeping buddha. (thb 40 donation for main temple's entrance)

{ two. take the songthaew }

hop on the 'red trucks' anywhere around the old city. flag them down, name your location and if you get the nod, jump right in. typically thb 20 per person but if you are going further out of the city, expect to pay a little more, depending the time of the day. once you get to your destination, press the stop button, get off the truck and pay the driver.

my first time onto the truck was with reluctance due to uncertainty but after successfully taking it for the first time, this is my favorite and probably the best way to get around the city, if not by foot - with the wind blowing through your hair as the truck speeds through the traffic.

[#protip] : songthaew may not always get you to your exact location. either have a map in hand or  perhaps name the nearest famous landmarks as your destination and walk the rest of the way.  don't ask how much the fare is or you will be charged more than the usual thb 20.

threemarket hopping }

the ideal locations to indulge in the local's way of life. from warorot (or waroros) market (9am - 6pm), which is the oldest and most famous market that excels in the day market, souviner shopping, people-watching and snacking. locally known as gaht loo-ang that translates to "great market", this hub buzzing with activity is orbited by fruit and vegetable vendors. the bottom floors are dedicated to food and the upper floors are filled mostly with clothes. the indoor section is open only during the day but in the evening, food vendors fill the road just outside the market - best for snacking and for takeaways between 6pm to 10pm. 

one thing to look out for is the famous food stall for thai sausages "sai ua" and fried pork - i can't read thai to find dam rong stall (the one with the blue sign) but the long queue was all i needed to pick out the right stall. the thai sausage (thb 35) was spicy both in temperature and heat with a prominent kaffir lime leaf fragrance and dried chili. the fried pork chop  (thb 30) was moist with familiar flavors of garlic and onion powder. cool down the spices with fresh sweet coconut (thb 10) located just outside of waroros market connecting to ton lam yai market.

the ambiance differs when comparing it to the night market scene where my favorite was the sunday walking street. this famous night market starts at the tha phae gate and extends roughly 1km down the full length of ratchadamnoen road from 4 pm till midnight. it showcases the arts and craftsmanship of the northern thai people and comes alive after dark when all the street performers start to perform. on top of that, the night market is colored by the many souvenirs stalls and induces constant food cravings with the myriad of food vendors that filled the streets. and when you get a little tired from all the walking, there are also foot massage services within the market itself to soothe your aching feet.

an experience not-to-be-missed is popping into one of the temple courts that occasionally branches out from either side of the street to eat in an al fresco eating area for the evening, munching on the local fares. enjoy your food choices from your selected dishes from food stalls while immersing in the majestic temple décor in awe as you sit on mats for a shared meal. 

{ four. splash of trendy within the old city. nimmanhaemin }

nimmanhaemin road. a breath of trendy - chic, modern and romantic in the cultural traditional richness of chiang mai. also known as "coffee street", nimmanhaemin thrives with cozy cafes, farm-to-table restaurants and rustic bakeries, petite boutiques and galleries. i loved exploring the mix of artsy, quirky and the modern contemporary against the old and traditional even under the hot sun.

this was also where i found ristr8to and rustic & blue. find a great restaurant/cafe and savor some quality time to relax and enjoy the ambiance.

{ five. eat khao soi }

a must: tasting the real deal in situ to really understand the importance and nuances of flavors.

a northern thailand's de facto signature dish, the khao soi features flat wheat noodles contrasting the deep fried crispy noodles soaked in a spicy coconut curry, where its base starts with wet curry paste of pounded spices and herbs simmered in coconut cream. the use of coconut cream/milk is not typical of the northern thai cuisine. best served with a slice of lime, roast chill paste and pickled cabbage. an exotic mix of spicy, creamy, slightly sweet, hint of spicy heat balanced by the tartness coated the noodles that engaged in a textural play. a definite must try while in the city.

six. learn how to cook a northern thai meal }

i love the complexity in thai cuisine- the contrasting flavors of sweet, salty, sour and umami complement each other in a lovely balance. chiang mai is bursting at the seams with cooking schools and what better way to understand the nuances of northern thai cuisine and its reasons.

full day class itinerary (thb 900): learning & tasting herbs from the little garden at the cooking class + visit to sompet market to learn about the other ingredients + a menu of six dishes + meeting new people & making new friends + cooking book.

my customized menu: pad thai + tom yum kung + som tum salad + green curry paste and its associated green curry chicken + spring roll + thai mango with coconut sticky rice "khao need mamuang"

the difference in flavors is attributed by the use of the rounded sweetness from palm sugar, oyster sauce, and fish sauce as salt substitute for the cuisine's flavor foundation. despite the complexity in flavor balance, the cooking techniques were unexpectedly simple. everything was yummy but if i had to pick out the favorites it would be the tom yum, curry and the dessert. while i loved the learning, the better part of the class was where i get to eat non-stop.

{ seven. ziplining across the jungle }

for the slightly adventurous. chiang mai is surrounded by mountains and forests, which makes it the perfect set up for zip lining from one tree to another. out of the few companies, i tried out the silver package from eagle track zipline. a half hour drive to the outskirts of the city later, i finally met our two funny and awesome guides for the group of 8, nu and je.

the first zipline is always the toughest. it took me several seconds before i gathered courage to jump off the first platform (it wasn't even high!) but after a couple of times, i was happily flying across the jungle, screaming in delightful excitement. the semi-obstacle course also had a couple of abseiling which was  a challenge for those with fear of heights. think a beginner's training ground for tarzan - a fun semi work out. an escape from the bustling of the old city into the calming beauty that nature has to offer.

{ eight. khantoke dinner }

a traditional practice dating many centuries back, my lanna khantoke experience (thb 650) begins with dinner in an open dining space, either seated on the floor or at tables which was followed by music and traditional dances of the region and tribes. our session was at the old chiang mai cultural center.

khantoke refers to the pedestal tray used as a small dining table where bowls of food are served on, featuring mostly deep fried dishes starting with the chicken, which was cooked beautifully with its crispy skin encasing the moist meat, strips of addictive sweet potato fries despite is semi-crunchy state, the crunchy pork rinds and mee krob (deep fried rice vermicelli in sweet and spicy sauce). additionally throw in some variety with chinese stir fry mix vegetable, pork curry with a hint of heat and the tasty but non-spicy meaty chili paste with tomato.

the highlights were the renditions of high quality rice in the forms of the regular fluffy white and thai's signature sticky rice cooked to perfection of separated grains. i loved pairing the slightly sweetened chili paste with the sticky rice. dishes were refillable and you can eat till your hearts content. but remember to leave some space for some local fruits for dessert and another sticky rice feature, deep fried and drizzled with sweet palm sugar for a starchy sweet ending - think rice krispies chips.

after our hungry were bellies satiated by a spread of traditional thai dishes, our cultural cravings were treated to an hour performances in the form of music and dance.

[#protip] : remember not to miss out on learning the final dance of the night from the dancers and joining in on the fun on stage!

{ nine. coffee sipping + people watching }

pick a favorite cafe, take it easy and spend a couple of hours unwinding sipping your desired beverage, just watching the world go by as the smell of freshly brewed coffee emanates throughout the cafe while the espresso machines screech against the jazz that played in the background. in my opinion, this is a must in a traveller's itinerary.

i picked a coffee shop very close to wat phra singh and it was such a lovely experience, just savoring a bittersweet cuppa in a rustic ambiance while watching locals, tourists and the occasional monks walking past, going about their day under the scorchingly hot sun. it was inexplicable how calming and soothing this session was while it recharged me emotionally and mentally.

{ ten. the essential local street eats }

the heart of a city is its street food! the local culture and its influence are depicted in every deliberate nuance of flavors as the locals put their northern thai spin on the beloved classic dishes.

chiang mai has a plethora of street food stalls focusing on local fares, international favorites and the fusions in between for those who are open to trying something new. be adventurous because there are so many street stalls and hole-in-the-walls waiting to be explored and savored at almost every nook and cranny of the city. so get ready to stuff yourself silly with yummy northern thai dishes at very reasonable price. even though i have so many restaurants that i'd love to try including the vegetarian ones, i missed out on those since i was spoilt for choice just about anywhere i was go.

chiang mai grown on me fondly that i'd love to return to once again experience the warmth of its friendly people. i fell in love with the mix of pace of the traditional and modern from the bustling of old city to the easy-going of the new -- the eager anticipation for the new experiences and its deliicous foods waiting to be explored.

disclaimer this is written based on personal experience and opionion. experiences and taste buds may vary for others.