During the six weeks we spent travelling around Thailand, we spent fifteen days in the stunning, mountainous north. Northern Thailand is, while just as beautiful, vastly different to the beach-filled south and if you have some time to spend travelling around Thailand, here’s why I think you should definitely not miss out travelling up north.
Chiang Mai is a haven for food, temples, and chilling out
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, I felt as if I already understood all the hype that surrounds this backpacker-filled, hipster-esque city. Chiang Mai’s city centre, or “the old city”, is surrounded by a moat and ruins of a wall which has four “gates” or entrances into the old city, which is pretty cool in itself. Upon entering the city centre from the Tha Pae gate, you can see the mountains way off in the distance which adds to the serene vibe surrounding this city.
In Chiang Mai, you will find countless cafes, restaurants serving pretty much whatever kind of food you’re after, bustling markets and many temples that you’re welcome to explore. We used our visit in Chiang Mai to slow things down a bit and explore the city at our own pace – we stayed for seven nights and upon return from our visit to Pai, we stayed another four nights.
Chiang Mai is known for its cuisine, which can differ a lot from the food you will find in the south. While you’re in Chiang Mai, make sure you give Khao Soi – a curry based noodle soup dish – a try, which is a well known northern dish. Chiang Mai is also famous for its incredible night markets; there is Chiang Mai night bazaar in which you can find delicious Thai street food, clothes and shoes, reasonably priced souvenirs and even a few bars. The night bazaar is huge, and opens daily from 6:00pm until midnight. There are also the Saturday and Sunday walking street markets, which are always absolutely packed with people but are so much fun to go and visit to immerse yourself in the crowds. Gaze at the artwork and handmade souvenirs on each side of the streets, smell the delicious street food cooking all around you (and of course go and taste the food; I guarantee you will find something you absolutely love), and embrace the buzz of the weekend atmosphere. The Saturday night market is located just outside Chiang Mai gate, one of the four gates of the walls surrounding the old city, on Wua Lai and Rat Chiengasen Road. The Sunday night market, on the other hand, is located within the old city just after Tha Pae Gate on Ratchadamnoen Road.
Chiang Mai is home to around a staggering 300 Buddhist temples, many of which are open to tourists to come and explore and to gain a small insight into the Buddhist religion. While visiting these temples, it’s important to show respect and dress appropriately. This means that you cannot have your shoulders, knees, cleavage or midriff showing; most temples will have someone standing outside with shawls and scarves you can use for free (or sometimes pay a small fee to rent) to cover up with if you didn’t come prepared, but it’s best to pack a scarf or wear the appropriate clothing if you know you are going to be visiting a temple on your day out.
In Chiang Mai’s old town, it’s super easy to spend a day temple-hopping as most of the temples within the city square are very close to each other. Wat Chedi Luang is one of the main temple complexes inside the old city square and includes the biggest temple in the old city. It cost us just 40 THB each to enter the complex. Women beware – this temple complex includes a small “city shrine” which females are not permitted to enter. It’s clearly sign posted saying that women should NOT enter this shrine… because the fact that we menstruate “desanctifies and humiliates” it. I found this belief to be a little discriminatory and outdated, but I was a guest in another country – a predominantly Buddhist country – who was I to disrespect their values? So I remained outside of the shrine. Totally didn’t look that exciting anyway… Definitely not bitter. *Ahem*. Inside the complex, along with some other smaller shrines, statues and a Buddhist school, there is also a beautiful Viharn – an assembly hall – which features a pretty impressive interior with a standing Buddha. You can visit many other temples here in the old city, such as the Pra Singh temple, and it’s definitely worth spending a couple of hours touring round them. You can also go to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep which is a bit of a drive out of the city centre – you can go by songthaew, tuktuk or taxi – and is located on top of Doi Suthep mountain overlooking the city. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is the most sacred temple to the people of Chiang Mai, is guarded by seven-headed snake statues leading up to a golden pagoda, and you can get some pretty awesome views from the top. It costs 20 THB for Thai nationals to enter and 50 THB for foreigners.
You can help take care of elephants in a natural environment, just two hours’ drive from the city
An absolute highlight of our trip so far was paying a visit to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, where we helped look after some elephants in a completely ethical, natural environment. We opted to do the half-day morning tour, although you can also choose to do a full day and even an overnight stay if that takes your fancy. Our guide, Yaya, made it pretty clear that the elephants are very well respected by the guides here as she told us, “I am not the elephants’ boss. They are my boss.” I was relieved that upon meeting the elephants, they were not chained up as they are in other elephant parks that claim to be ethical, and no riding whatsoever was permitted. The elephants are allowed to walk around at their own free will and have all been rescued from circus camps and riding camps.
First, we got changed into traditional Karen clothing and then got to feed the elephants bananas – they sure can eat a lot – and just be around them to make them feel comfortable with our presence. We got some opportunities to take some awesome photos of them and it was amazing to see the elephants so close in a natural setting. We then got to walk down to a mud pool with them to play with the elephants and help them cool off – they really loved the mud bath; it was so lovely to see them rolling around and playing! After that, we walked down to a river with them to wash off the mud. They were spraying us with water from their trunks and we were splashing them back, so it was really awesome to be full-on interacting with these beautiful creatures.
One of the elephants in our group was actually pregnant at our time of visit so it was amazing to feel her baby kicking. After that, we had our included lunch and then headed back to Chiang Mai. This is definitely something you should do in Northern Thailand – do NOT go to a riding camp as the elephants there are so poorly treated and your money is doing nothing but encouraging this cruel mistreatment of the animals. I would highly recommend Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for anyone looking to interact with elephants in an ethical setting; prices and more about their company is detailed on their website: http://www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com/
Relax and adventure in Pai, northern Thailand’s gorgeous “hippy” town
Pai is a beautiful little town way in the mountains of northern Thailand, and it’s definitely worth a visit for at least a few nights if you’re over that way. You should find a cute little bungalow to stay in that’s a little bit out of town, and enjoy the sounds of nature as you fall asleep after being out exploring all day. We stayed at Thai Adventure Cottages, which I would highly recommend.
In Pai, there is a wide range of things you can do from white water rafting to exploring bat caves to just chilling out in a reggae bar. Pai canyon makes for some incredible views at sunset, and on your way back you can stop by at the night market for some delicious grub. You can also take a hike up to the white Buddha – climb around 350+ steps up to the top of this mountain for some amazing views of Pai. When we were there, the Buddha itself was under construction and was covered in scaffolding, but the hike was definitely still worth the views we got.
If you feel like chilling out, just outside of Pai town there is an outdoor public pool you can go to for free, if you purchase a drink from their bar. It’s called Sunset Bar, and the views of the lush green fields and the mountains in the background are an added bonus to this great chill-out spot.
Spot some unique temples in Chiang Rai
From Chiang Mai, we took a day trip up to Chiang Rai to, most importantly, see the White Temple which was on my Thailand bucket list for months before we even started our trip. While we were there we also got to see two other awesome temples (well, one technically wasn’t a temple), which definitely made the full day tour even more worth it.
First and foremost: the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is spectacular and so incredibly unique that you should definitely go out of your way to see it if you’re in the north of Thailand. Even if you’ve been in Thailand for a while and are therefore all “templed out”, the White Temple will take your breath away. As the name suggests, it is painted in radiant white and sections are covered in mirrored pieces of glass. Our tour guide for the day explained to us that everything about this temple has a hidden meaning implied by its artist and designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat. In front of the main entrance to this temple, you’ll see hundreds of hands reaching up from the ground, which is said to represent Hell – which you must go through in order to reach Heaven (the temple).
The inside of the temple houses a huge mural by Kositpipat, which on first glance may seem like typical Buddhist artwork of a large, golden dragon. However, if you look deeper into this painting you’ll see that within the dragon’s pupils are George Bush and Osama Bin Laden. Surrounding the eyes are subtle paintings of guns and weaponry. At the bottom of this massive mural, you’ll also see some cartoon characters such as Kung Fu Panda and Spiderman, as well as figures like Jack Sparrow and Michael Jackson – all surrounding a painting of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers. Many of Kositpipat’s paintings have political undertones and personally I loved the fact that he brought this into his design of Wat Rong Khun. Unfortunately you cannot take pictures inside the temple, so you’ll just have to take the trip to Chiang Rai yourself to be fascinated by this mural. Outside of the temple, there is a gallery of Kositpipat’s other paintings, which are just as incredible and a lot of them also have surrealist qualities as well as being (sometimes not so subtly) political. Kositpipat obviously has an incredible mind and I was fascinated by his work so much that I bought a book about his paintings from the gift shop.
While you’re at the White Temple, you’ll see a large golden temple-like building near by. You’ll think it’s stunning and you’ll probably even take some photographs of it. Venture closer to it, however, and you’ll see that it’s just the toilets! Another of the artist’s hidden meanings within the temple – “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
To enter the temple, it’s 50 THB for foreigners and it’s well worth paying the price to support Kositpipat’s work. Wat Rong Khun still isn’t complete, and is supposed to be finished by 2070.
Another temple we visited during our day trip was the Blue Temple – Wat Rong Suea Ten. This temple was pretty stunning too, and one of the smaller ones we had seen. As the name might imply, it was literally bright blue and it boasts some incredibly intricate designs on the outside. Inside is a giant white Buddha as well as some amazing Buddhist artwork. This temple was pretty unique compared to a lot of the temples we had seen throughout Thailand, too, but in my opinion it’s absolutely no contest that the White Temple is much more impressive overall.
We also paid a visit to the Baan Dam, otherwise known as the Black House. This isn’t a temple, although the main building does look like it could be from the outside. Baan Dam is a collection of wooden houses all painted, yep you guessed it, black. It’s something I hadn’t heard of before taking the trip to Chiang Rai, but it was definitely worth stopping by. The artist, Thawan Duchanee, obviously had a very dark and creative mind and it was so interesting to be able to go and ponder upon each of the displays in Baan Dam – truly a one of a kind experience while in Thailand.
Within the main building of the Black House, there are multiple paintings and pieces of artwork amongst animal bones, buffalo horns, snake skin and ornate wooden carvings both on the walls and larger sculptures of furniture. The Black House should be a “must-do” if you’re in Chiang Rai, as you’ll get an insight into the unique mind of Duchanee while experiencing artwork unlike anything else you’ll see in Thailand or even anywhere else in the world. It costs 80 THB to enter, but with 100 acres of (pretty creepy) artwork to explore, it’s totally worth it.
For us, northern Thailand was definitely a highlight of our travels round the country. Whether you want to eat your way from temple to temple in Chiang Mai, do some adventuring around Pai or see some amazing artwork in Chiang Rai, I hope I have convinced you to make some space in your Thailand schedule to see at least a little bit of the north!