The Saturday City: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Northern ThailandChiang Mai is Thailand’s northern version of Bangkok. It’s the second largest city in Thailand, and is the gateway to the jungles and cities of the north. Once a quiet little village, the city has morphed into a major business and tourist center in the last 10 years. Large amounts of Westerners began flocking here for jungle treks and a quiet mountain setting, but the crowds kept increasing and the locals soon followed to make money off them. Chiang Mai now has a population of 500,000.

While the city has lost some of the charm that originally made it so popular, it is still a vibrant place to be, and there is a lot to do here despite the growth, smog, and package tourists.

The city’s historic grandeur is evident in the ruins of the old city wall. These thick stone sections give an indication of the power that Chiang Mai once wielded, though they’re now left crumbling. Now, modern buildings surround the wall, and the only real evidence of Chiang Mai’s ancient past are the temples. The city is dotted with amazing and numerous Buddhist temples. The city has over 300 temples, but the main historic ones are: Wat Chiang Man (the oldest temple in Chiang Mai), Wat Phra Singh (built in 1345 and offers meditation classes), Wat Chedi Luang (founded 1401), Wat Chet Yot (founded 1451), Wiang Kum Kam, Wat U-Mong, and Wat Suan Dok (all 14th century).

Chiang Mai Northern Thailand

The main attraction is Wat Doi Suthep, located outside the city on a mountain with the same name. According to legend, a monk from Sukhothai had a dream that told him to find an ancient Buddhist relic. He found the relic and brought it to King Nu Naone. The relic was split into two pieces. The smaller piece went to a temple in Suandok. The other piece, and this is the important part of the legend, was placed on the back of a white elephant and released into the jungle. Supposedly, the elephant climbed up Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and then died. His death was supposed to be a sign that a temple was to be built on this site. The temple is designed with two large Naga snakes guarding the long walk up the staircase to the temple. The temple also has many Buddhist reliefs and, of course, a statue of a white elephant. Moreover, you get stunning views of the city:

But you don’t come to Chiang Mai just to see temples. They’re just a bonus. You really come here because of all the activities you can do. Not only is Chiang Mai a major jumping-off point for the more rugged northern cities like Pai and Chiang Rai, but it is a starting point for numerous jungle treks. Though tours can be more rustic and less touristy if you leave from places like Chiang Rai, most people leave from here and there are plenty of tours to choose from. You can sign up for one, two, three, or five day jungle treks. The longer you go for, the further into the jungle you get and the less like a Disney attraction the tour seems. The one-day treks are very rushed and pretty generic. You need a minimum of two days. Spending a night in the jungle is a great way to escape civilization and stare up at an infinite number of stars.

Chiang Mai Northern Thailand

Another reason to go to Chiang Mai is the night market. This market is famous around the world, and people come here to buy cheap goods. The outdoor night market covers several city blocks. You can buy anything and everything here for much cheaper prices than you can in Bangkok. Clothes are especially cheap, as they are usually made in the surrounding area. Buyers and sellers haggle over prices through calculators. It’s interesting watching two people conduct a transaction without speaking a word – just pointing and typing in prices. Getting the cheapest price takes patience, persistence, and the ability to walk away. The bargains are there, though, and it’s the best place to get your goods in Thailand. I’m not a shopper, but I can never walk away from there without something in-hand.

Chiang Mai also draws people with its cooking classes and massage classes.

Chiang Mai has plenty to offer any traveler, and a few days here can keep you busier than anywhere else in the country. I’ve been three times, and I still find new things to do when I am there. I never feel bored. It’s not the quite jungle place it used to be, but it is still a good spot from which to explore the Thai north or get some serious shopping in.

  1. Eric

    Hi Matt! Thanks for swinging by. Just read you’re latest post – I really miss Thailand (especially Chiang Mai) and you’re not helping! :) As far as temples are concerned, Doi Suthep was definitely one of my 3 favorites (along with Wat Arun in Bangkok, and Wat Sri Chum in the ancient city ruins of Sukhothai). It was specifically the stone balcony overlooking Chiang Mai below that I remember liking the most about Doi Suthep – in some way reminded me of a European monument (my friend and I actually nicknamed Chiang Mai “Paris” while were were there). Where are you headed next?


  2. Cris

    When people talk about Thailand, they normally tell stories about white sand and clear water beaches.
    I had heard only one person saying “go to the North” before. It was my brother, who lives in India.
    Nice post, Matt, I want to go to Chiang Mai! Maybe next time…

    • Rick Z

      So true. So true. Beaches are great, but the North of Thailand is where it gets real. The night market is awesome and I had the best Indian food outside of India there. The elephant camps are so much fun and I do dig checking out the temples. It is also cooler due to elevation which really makes a difference if you plan on spending any time.
      I live in south India so I guess I have a similar bias as your brother.
      Matt, another great posting.

  3. Wow! What a find! My parents and sister lived in Thailand for many years so I was fascinated by what you had to say…thank you for making it come alive for me.

    I’ll be back for more:)

  4. Chiang Mai is one of my favourite places. It’s laid back and scenic. Temples, monks, the old city: It’s a unique place, much more real and grounded than the commercialism of Bangkok. I hope to go back soon.

  5. From my short time in China I’ve learned one important thing about numbers: know them well. Now I can count in Chinese, all the up to 99 :) but it’s a whole different ball game when a native speaker says them.

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