In the north of Thailand is the city of Chiangmai. Formerly the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (13-17th century AD), Chiangmai is everything that Bangkok is not. Located in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range, the city enjoys cooler weather, although the summer is just as hot as in Bangkok. You don’t see huge shopping malls or congested streets filled with people and traffic. With a population of around 1 million residents, you won’t feel crowded in and there is a relaxed atmosphere here. I have visited Chiangmai a couple of times, but never had a real opportunity to explore it completely.
You can get to Chiangmai by road from Bangkok or by air. Travelling by road is a 700km bus ride that takes more than 12 hours. So if you have an iron butt then this could be an interesting option. Otherwise, you can catch many budget domestic flights from Bangkok. Air ticket prices are usually quite cheap if you book early. The flight takes slightly more than an hour. I find this a better option for me.
My first time as a tourist was in 2004 when I was working on a contract job in Bangkok. I decided to visit Chiangmai during the week long Songkran (water festival and Thai new year) holiday. Being the cultural city of Thailand, Songkran is celebrated here in a big way. I arrived a couple of days before the start of Songkran and the city was already preparing for the festival with fervor. Despite a drought, water tankers were filling the old city moat with water. The water level in the moat was at the halfway mark when I arrived, but filled to the brim on the first day of Songkran and ready for the mass water fights. I guess they must have emptied the nearby rivers and lakes to do that.
Another thing about Songkran is that it takes places during the hot season (April), and daytime temperatures were 40°C or more.
With the hot weather, it actually felt good to have cold water being thrown on me wherever I went about. The roads came to a standstill with Hilux pickup trucks loaded with huge barrels of water and squads of people throwing or squirting water from water guns. I bought myself a super soaker and joined in the fun. If you are in Thailand during Songkran, then be prepared to get wet everywhere you go.
I also booked a local tour to see a hill tribe and also do some elephant trekking and river rafting. The hill tribe visit was disappointing as the whole village looks like it’s recreated for tourists. You get to see patches of poppies and marijuana plants which were what the villagers were planting before they got resettled here. Chiangmai is one corner of the Golden Triangle and the narcotics trade is a very lucrative business. So getting the local tribes to move away from growing poppies and marijuana is big job for the authorities.
Next stop was the elephant trekking and river rafting. This is where you get to sit atop an elephant and trek through the jungle. The starting off point is the elephant camp, where elephants are trained for logging duties. But with tourism, the elephants are now trained to perform for tourists most of the time.
There are many temples in Chiangmai, but the most famous one is Doi Suthep located on a hill outside the city. You can get there by tuk tuk or taxi. Make sure you negotiate the price first before getting on the tuk tuk. The temple can be accessed by a Naga lined staircase of more than 300 steps. Definitely not for the lazy or couch potatoes.
Of course there are other smaller temples and sights in Chiangmai including a night market. However, I felt that the night market was too touristy and the ones in Bangkok were better. I got to watch the transgender Tiffany show during this visit.
My next trip to Chiangmai was not to happen until 2013 when I was there for a business trip. As this was a business visit, there was only a short time to see Doi Suthep and some other small temples. I had more time to try out the northern Thai food instead.
On my second visit to Doi Suthep, I found that there was now a cable car that ascends to the temple. You don’t have to climb the more than 300 steps anymore, but devotees are expected to climb the steps. Of course the cable car is not free and you have to pay a fee to use it. It was a rainy day when I visited again, and I couldn’t see the city from the top of the hill.
I got to visit another small temple which was more or less along our route to visit a customer.
I guess one of the advantages of having a local Thai partner is that they know where the good food is to be found. Just don’t expect local hygiene standards to be the same as in Singapore.
With these 2 visits, I feel that I have only scratched the surface of this fascinating city. There is certainly more to be experienced, and I will no doubt be back again.