Chiang Mai - A gem on the North of Thailand
Chiang Mai, in the north of the country, was our first stop in the trip we made in Thailand . I have no doubt it was the best decision on starting it there, leaving chaotic New York - at Christmas time - looking for peace and balance . CM is the second largest city in the country - though its doesn't look like, cause there are no tall buildings - and most important culturally on the north, auto titled creative city .
It is strategically located in the middle of a mountainous region, chosen to be the capital of the Lanna kingdom. The entrance to the historic center is made through the gates that remain of the original wall built in the 1400s in order to protect the city. It is also the venue of one of the most beautiful religious spectacles in the world, the lantern festival, which happens in November or December - according to the lunar calendar . For sure you've seen screen savers from it!
There are about 300 buddhist temples in town most in the center and few meters away from each other.
The most important thing when planning a visit to temples in Thailand, is how to dress. Knees and shoulders must be covered, both for men and women.
The heat/ humidity are killing, that said, it's not an easy task to cover all yourself. Prioritize light fabrics, light colors and easy-to-wear shoes - such as havaianas - cause you will remove them countless times to enter each temple. For women the tip is to take a handkerchief, as some temples also do not accept low-cut shirts.
- Wat Phan On:
Its golden pagoda ( chedi ) already attracts attention and invites us from outside. This temple has a handicraft and food market outside as well.
Inside, note the beauty of decorated columns and golden Buddha sitting in the background. It was built in 1500, still very well maintained, result of the work and devotion of the monks who lives just behind the temple.
What Phan Tao:
Made almost all of Teka wood - one of the toughest in the world - this is a very beautiful temple, somewhat rustic , has been a palace in the past and deserves your visit. Notice the wood carved details in your entry , the money offer tickets hanging from the ceiling; and in the garden , flags and lanterns, the bronze bells and the chedi (tower) in the back.
- Wat Chedi Luang:
Immediately next door is the oldest temple of the city, also built in the 14th century , the structure was inspired by the Khmer temples of Cambodia to house the ashes of a king. Completed 80 meters high , but partially destroyed by an earthquake . Its ruins - well preserved - were the tallest structure in Chiang Mai for many centuries
It was considered so important that became the "guardian" of the most important sacral object of Thailand, the Emerald Buddha which today is properly protected at the main temple in Bangkok.
Walking around find the wooden temple with decorated dragons on the doors and the one with a reclining Buddha.
* Monk Talk: There is a designated place for a chat with the monks under the shade of a tree, in order for them to practice English answering foreigners questions about their lifestyle/religion. PS : Women should be careful not to touch them and not pass them on objects.
In the biggest temple of the complex stands one of the most beloved images of Budha in the city.
The Presiding Budha - standing with a raised hand - transmits world peace and a message for not fighting with relatives , referring to a story when groups coming from the same family almost went to war because of a water shortage.
-Wat Phra Singh:
Another one of the most venerated images is located few meters from there. In mid-April , when the Songrak festival takes place this statue is carried out and receives water jets when passing by the streets of town.
Here we also saw many people actually praying, including this cutie, being taught by her mother with her little hands together and inclining herself in respect of the statue!! I could not resist "stealing" a picture of that moment!!
In one morning we visited the main temples of the historic center and in the afternoon we went to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which sits atop one of the mountains around the city .
The best way to get there is taking the red minibus that leaves the gate Chang Puak on the north , or Thae Phae gate on the east. It takes about 40 minutes zigzagging in endless curves and costs 100baht per person. Once there, you need to climb the 309 steps - or catch a tram - to get to the fact temple.
Trust me, all worth it!!
Before taking your shoes off to see the inside, scroll through the bloomy area which are statues of elephants, the bells and a beautiful terrace decorated with carved wood and a view of the whole city.
Once inside, enjoy the beauty of the golden stupa , the Buddha in green glass and other decorative details . Be aware , the place is quite crowded with both tourists and local visitors who have huge respect for the site and there make their prayers.
We arrived back in town around 5 pm, when the preparation for the famous sunday street market was just begining. Originally located on Ratchadamnoen street - the main street in historic center - today the market has been expanded to its perpendicular streets, forming a huge fair with craft stalls offering different types of souvenirs, clothes and food for all tastes .
Comparing to all markets we visited in thai cities, this was by far the best and most original.
It was here that we understood why Chiang Mai is called creative city.
Among so many delicacies, you must have a natural tropical fruit juice, the mango sticky rice and the Khao Soi, a traditional soup from the north - that you CAN'T find in the rest of the country (believe me, I tried!) - with influences from Burma, made with curry, coconut milk, chicken and noodles - also crispy on top !!!
I'm mouthwatering just by remembering my favorite meal of the entire trip!!!
The mango sticky rice, most famous dessert of the country, is nothing more than a rice pudding made with coconut milk accompanied by slices of a super-sweet-mango-that-melts-on-the-mouth!
For those who are adventurous, there's also grilled octopus, sushi by the piece - cheaper than a water bottle in New York - and even crunchy insects , why not?!!
Goes dark, and the streets get more and more crowded, adding groups playing music and the atmosphere gets even more excited. Note that 6 pm the street LITERALLY freezes when the national anthem is played. Thailandes stop anything and everything they are doing!!!
I got so confused!!!
Satisfied with so much food and some shopping, we decided to have a Spa ostentation! My gringo started with an unusual pedicure where small doctor-fish (without teeth) "grab" the feet of the visitor, removing all dead skin. If it's hygienic, is questionable, he died of tickling indeed!! He went in with claws and came out with a baby-foot!!!
From there we went to Lila Thai Massage, which offers a rehabilitation program for ex-prisoners women, giving them job opportunities .
Needless to say, after a long day and all hours of travel around the world, whe slept drownling on the massage, which in thailand also costs like a new yorker bottle of water.
We had planned to go to the White Temple in Chiang Rai , or the Doi National Park Inthanon , two great attractions that are more than 2 hours from Chiang Mai. As we have already booked a cooking class in the afternoon, unfortunately we had no time for such a trip during the day.
Alternatively, we end up falling into a tourist drama, the Tiger Kingdom.
Despite the fact that the place states that preserves and takes care of the tigers - the free population in the country has declined considerably - and they have a very great care to pass the "rules" to tourists , we still felt like in a zoo with a theme park twist. Huge animals are kept in small cages. There are over 100 there and even if we are aware that maybe they are no longer able to adapt to life in the jungle , there are so many !! Too much !!
There is a theory that circulates on the internet that the animals are sedated. Seeing them super active and after interacting with the smaller, it is necessary to say that I don't believe so.
Who never dreamed of in life to get close and pet the belly of a baby tiger ?
There are different sizes and according to them, the price for the 15 minutes of "contact", varies. The activity generates many jobs too, but it is undeniable that made at the expense of innocent animals so in the end we feel sorry. I confess that I left feeling guilty .
Anyway, its our consciousness responsibility to go/contribute or not.
Returning to the city we decided to explore the outside of the walls, the modern and young area on the outskirts of the Ping River.
There are several hipster cafes/restaurants, shops and art galleries, as Woo Cafe, which involve those three activities.
Their plates, sandwiches and iced-coffes (or matcha latte) - including the famous rice salad dish that was sold out - are not only delicious but also beautifully presented.
On our way back to the center, we passed by Art In Paradise, an interactive illusionist museum. Without much idea of what it was, we decided to enter.
I would not say that was one of the most cultural programs that we did but certainly we had fun making these pictures!!!
Asia Scenic Cooking Class :
While still in New York searching for things to do in Thailand we found many recommendations of cooking courses . Thai food is one of our favorite, so we loved the idea of learning more about this rich cuisine!!
Among many companies located outside the city where the course lasts all day, this is one in which the course takes place in the center beginning late afternoon with its own organic garden in the backyard!! The group is a maximum of 12 people, normally from all over the world. After being informed about the menu and choosing what we wanted to cook we tasted the Thai welcome delicacy called Miang Kham, which is used to " open the palate " for different tastes and textures.
The tradition consists on making a bundle on a leave - I do not remember which, yey! - and put a piece of scallion, lemon, ginger, finely grated coconut, roasted peanuts , chilli ( pepper) and a pinch of sweet and sour jelly.
I know it looks weird, but I promiss it's yummy!!
From there we went to the backyard where the instructor spoke about the many ingredients that unfortunately are not that easy to find in the rest of the world. Did you know that they use three types of basil? A sweet (like ours), a hot (spicy) and a lemon basil? Speaking of which, there exists a wrinkled lemon that I had never seen in my life!! Besides the small ball-shaped eggplant!!
I also learned that in fact the evil chilli - pepper - I mean strongest is actually the green, fresh , not the dry red!!! Only I did not know this ???
No fancy utensils, a wooden board and multi-task knife for all.
Here comes the spring roll!!
Have you ever made curry paste??? I had never done and had no idea how much work it is!!! Now I have much more respect for that green curry of every other week!!! what an arm work out to grind milimetrically all ingredients in a stone pestle!!!
Final result after some fun hours interacting with other tourists and the teacher. The famous Tom Yum and Tham Khai Ka soups, green curry and Khao Soi, renowned dish of the region!!!!
Yep, you better be hungry for this class!!
They also gaves a book with all the recipes very well explained!
Our last day in the city we spent on the elephant camp Chai Lai Orchid.
Such a special day that deserves a post of its own!! Coming soon! ;-)
I left Chiang Mai feeling grateful, delighted with what it offered us in culture and creativity. Cosmopolitan in a good level, where the calm and easygoing atmosphere give us the feeling that we have stopped in time.