Surrounded by national parks, the lush mountain city of Chiang Mai is the crown jewel of Northern Thailand, and holds within its treasures many gems, each more sparkling than the last!
By JAPLEEN KAUR KOHLI
IT WAS AT AROUND 6AM THAT OUR overnight bus from Bangkok reached the Chiang Mai bus station, where my friend and I were welcomed by hues of pastel pinks painting the sky and a pleasant breeze. Honestly, after the humidity of the capital city, this was a happy change. The first of many as we made our way to our accommodation and felt the hustle of Bangkok fade, replaced by the slow rhythm of versatile Chiang Mai and its mountainous backdrop, colourful tuk-tuks, and ancient fort walls standing strong. Built in the 13th century, as I was told by a chirpy taxi driver, these walls or gates form the boundary of the square-shaped Old City (in Chiang Mai’s city centre) on all four sides.
Truth be told, when planning our trip to Thailand, we had kept Chiang Mai on our itinerary out of sheer curiosity. And coming from a place of not really knowing what to expect, I can now say we were in for a bagful of surprises. Frankly, there’s something to engage
FOR ART AFICIONADOS
There’s art in every corner of this vibrant city. Whether in the shape of bold murals or at minimalist galleries, it was inspiring to see how creative beauty is celebrated in every form here. A map search for a scrapbooking store led me to the Baan Kang Wat artist village. Located right outside the Old City area, this community-living space houses various craftspeople and their shops— each unique, with DIY art stations and workshops offering fun sessions. From making cutesy soy candles and mini papier mâché huts to designing your very own vintage journals— this place is truly a haven for art enthusiasts. There are a couple of eateries inside the premises, including a homemade ice cream shop, where I devoured a creamy coconut flavour in a cone. For us, even an entire day here was not enough!
Fortunately, the night came with its own set of gifts. I have a habit of picking up a special souvenir on my travels. This time, it was a personal quote carved on a wooden postcard made by the maestros at Darian Wood Crafts. I was fortunate to come across their stall at a lively night market. The bright-yellow outlet of NHD (Never Hate Drawing) Studio in the middle of the Old City is a great stop, too.
If you’re into quirky stickers like me, drop in there on your walk around the central canals.
FOR ARDENT ADVENTURERS
Expansive, green national parks abound in this city, so going on a hike here is as easy as going to the market to buy groceries! After considering our many choices, we decided to head out a little further for the famous Bua Tong Sticky Waterfall hike, about 45 minutes from Chiang Mai. And it was amazing! With crystal-clear waters cascading through verdant environs, this natural wonder gets its odd name from the presence of dense limestone deposits on the rocks that make the ground ‘sticky’. We made the mistake of not carrying a dry bag so I could come back and tell you to not forget yours!
The spectacular Mae Wang National Park is home to another exciting experience—bamboo rafting on the Mae Wang River! Make your way through dense jungles and spot elephants splashing about. Don’t miss the mighty cliffs of the Pha Chor Canyon here, which, I am told, is a great spot for a late afternoon picnic.
FOR SPIRITUALITY SEEKERS
Chiang Mai has an overall calming vibe, and peace is in abundance here, if you’re seeking it. The serene Thai temples make for a good starting point. Amongst the many, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a bucket-list spot attracting hundreds of tourists daily. Perched atop the Doi Suthep mountain, the shrine is believed to be the resting place for one of Lord Buddha’s shoulder bones, and is the holiest temple in Thailand. Post a visit to the temple, you can relax and rejuvenate at one of the city’s many hot springs. The San Kamphaeng Hot Springs, about a 40-minute drive from Chiang Mai, are very popular. Here, you can dip in the natural pool or opt for a private space. And because the water is at a temperature of 40–50° C, eggs are sold on the site so that you can boil and enjoy them on the spot. A weird experience in my opinion but a fun one to try anyway!
FOR NIGHT NINJAS
The city comes alive at night! The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, a huge weekend market, has an energetic mood on Saturday nights that spills over to the Sunday Walking Street, as well. Located in the Old City, this is an experience you absolutely cannot miss. There are more local artisans displaying their work here than in Bangkok and the prices are significantly cheaper. And many stalls were selling ceramics we haven’t ever seen in India! You will need to buy an extra suitcase, like I did, to be able to shop till you drop here.
If you’ve had your fill of shopping, then try catching a Muay Thai boxing match, scheduled across the city every night. And if you’re here for a month, consider enrolling for a course to learn the basics of this boxing form. If the match wraps up early, head for a drink at Nophaburi Bar, a small but enchanting speakeasy. Ending the night with a tasty cocktail is always a great idea, in my humble opinion.
FOR GOURMET GEEKS
I’d be unfair to the coffee snob in me if I didn’t talk about the numerous coffee shops in Chiang Mai. If you search for ‘coffee’ on your phone’s map, your screen will light up with more red marks than you can count! My favourite here was A Day In Chiang Mai Coffee Brew. This tiny space in a vintage thrift shop is one of the city’s oldest cafés. Do note that most coffee shops shut by 5PM.
When it comes to food, Northern Thailand cuisine is influenced by its neighbour, Myanmar. And a loved dish here is Khao Soi, a version of the Burmese Khao Suey. In Chiang Mai, it’s made up of a tender chicken leg served in a rich broth with noodles and fried garlic on top. I was also served a watermelon slice that seemed out of place but made sense as it balanced off the spices. The dish is available in high demand everywhere.
Basically, Chiang Mai will capture your heart with its many charms, and leave you seeking more!