Some cities demand your attention and won’t give it up. The frenetic pace of Bangkok immediately draws you in, the beauty of Ko Phi Phi is instantly stunning; Chiang Mai is more of a slow burner.
It may be Thailand’s second-largest city but there’s none of Bangkok’s lung-bursting pollution or its soaring skyscrapers. The one area where it can boast parity is culture.
Chiang Mai attracts a regular throng of visitors, keen to soak up the atmosphere in this friendly, sophisticated city.
Neatly divided by a moat that envelopes the old city, it houses a goodly number of temples for those seeking mental satisfaction, and a whole host of treks and tours that prefer to be physically sated.
I arrived on Christmas Day, though that isn’t particularly significant in Thailand. People still go to work, it’s 100 degrees in the shade and the only fairy lights are the ones outside the karaoke bars.
Still, this was Christmas Day and some traditions had to be maintained. The Sacred Heart Cathedral seemed a good place to stop by, and I walked in half way through Silent Night, performed by a Filipino choir complete with cymbals and keyboard.
Aside from some simple stained glass window (featuring an elephant around a crib, something not often found in the Holy Lands), the cathedral was plain. Wood paneled walls and a certain drabness made it seem like a giant library.
Still, there wasn’t an alternative so I went along with the service, which was led by an English-speaking Spanish priest.
Chiang Mai’s large expat and Muslim community means there’s a fair sprinkling of churches and mosques, but the temples remain the main draw.
Wat Phra Singh, meaning ‘Lion Temple’, is one of the most-visited. Built in 1345 by King Pha Yoo to house the remains of his father, it’s home to the city’s most sacred image, Phra Singh.
The gold stenciling work in the main temple is exquisite, while the impressive, eponymous statue is in the Lai Kam chapel to the rear.
A giant white chedi offers believers a chance to get a little closer to Nirvana as they can fill a vessel with holy water and then winch it up towards the chedi’s peak. Once near the top it tips over, releasing the water over the chedi.
Among Chiang Mai’s other temples is Wat Phan Tao, a beautiful teak temple festooned with hundreds of yellow royal flags outside. Inside, worshipers buy 108 one-baht coins and drop them into a corresponding number of silver bowls, each carefully aligned, thus providing a constant backdrop of noise as the coins swirl around each bowl.
Rather less simple is the neighbouring Wat Chedi Luang. The main ‘bot’ is palatial, with high roofs and imposing pillars, each with black and gold lacquer. A grandfather clock stands to one side, its mother-of-pearl inlay seeming rather incongruous. It ticks quietly as people kneel down to pray before the Buddha image.
The only other sound comes from a series of 30cm-high monks. Once a coin is deposited, one of the statues utters a prediction, like a Buddhist version of the end-of-the-pier Rosie Lee show.
Money is not lacking here, as significant restoration work has taken place with differing degrees of success. The spire that may have been wrecked by cannon fire or an earthquake, depending on which legend you believe, has never been replaced as nobody can be sure what it looked like.
The temple is also home to student-monks, who are happy to sit and practice their English with passing tourists. I chatted to Wangchai, a member of the Karen hilltribe who had mastered Thai and was now moving on to English.
Having left Wangchai behind, I did a little studying of my own at the city’s cultural centre. The cultural centre is the perfect place for this as it has a detailed collection of interactive displays.
For instance, when the city was founded it was considered to be a living entity that needed to be cared for and nurtured. Everything to the north-and therefore the head of the city- was sacred and protected while objects in the south were items linked to death and bad luck. Every so often longevity celebrations were held to ensure the city remained in good health, and it seemed to work as Chiang Mai was for many years the country’s trading and political centre. Tranquility and quiet contemplation may be the norm in most of Chiang Mai’s temples, but not at Doi Suthep. Perched high above the city, the mini-market vibe around the eponymous temple takes some adjusting to.
Birds tweet in cages waiting to be released in return for good fortune, giant bells are struck for much the same reason, and blind singers are led past hoping for a few baht to be dropped in the plastic cup they hold. Make it past these and touts are waiting to offer photos of visitors standing by the central chedi (they also promise to magically remove the scaffolding around the structure).
At the top of 306 steps is the temple (a 20-baht cable car also takes visitors up). Either way, you’re in for a noisy experience. Those seeking spiritual salvation join a karma caravan and walk around the central chedi three times while praying.
In addition to Chiang Mai’s temples, its handicrafts are among the best in the country. Around 15kms out of town is Bo San, home to simple workshops where locals weave, chisel and knit a range of products. Umbrellas factories, kilns and artists’ retreats are dotted around the village and they welcome visitors.
Keep on for another 10kms past Bo San and you’ll find yourself in hot water-literally. The hot thermal springs of San Kamphen were once earmarked as a source for natural energy. The plan proved too expensive, so its natural features are today open to visitors. The grounds are well kept with bright-purple blossoms and meandering pathways leading down to the signature attraction. Water runs along a stone passageway and Thais sit with their feet dangling in the warm stream.
I walked on a little and found a spare spot to sit. Rolling up my shorts I sat and plunged my feet into the water. My feet shot straight out just as quickly as they started to turn lobster-red. The reason for the spare seat was clear – the water gets an awful lot hotter closer to the springs. Here it was about 50 degrees Celsius but at the springs it bubbles away at over 100 degrees. Eggs in small wicker baskets are dangled into a pool (a sign recommends 5 mins for soft-boiled and 15 mins for hard-boiled). A smelly sulpher cloud hangs over the pool and just behind two springs shoot jets of water up 40ft.
After 15 minutes my eggs seemed ready, so I cracked them open and poured a little soy sauce on. You’d be hard pressed to call them hard-boiled, but the yokes were rather tasty.
Back in town, evidence of Chiang Mai’s diversity was in evidence at the Sunday night market. The city buzzes with life as hundreds of stalls and traders gathered to sell everything from candles and cakes to lanterns and lentils.
Snacks and drinks are easy to find and many-like the 20B glass of strawberry wine- are irresistible.
Getting there – Air
Thai Airways (02 280 0060; www.thaiairways.com) and Air Asia (02 515 9999; www.airasia.com) both have daily, one-hour flights to Chiang Mai.
Getting there – Road
Take Highway 1 from Bangkok and turn onto Highway 32 (the Asian Highway), followed by Highway 11. From Bangkok it will take 12 hours.
Getting there – Rail
For journeys from Bangkok, call 02 220 4334. The trip can take up to 15 hours from Bangkok, depending on which class of train you pick.
Getting there – Bus
Buses run from Bangkok and many other provincial towns. Most tour companies also run services to Chiang Mai, including Tanjit Tour (02 936 3355).
Sleeping – Budget
(650 baht) The Na Inn, a guesthouse within the city’s inner walls, is perfectly located for temple trips. Rooms are large and spotless, and there’s free wi-fi and coffee.
Sleeping – Fancy
Manathai (05 328 1666; www.manathai.com) Rooms range from 7,000-15,000B and come with elegant teak furniture, a central pool and a range of amenities.
For English pub food, the Red Lion, in a soi just off from the Nigh Bazaar, takes some beating.
For Thai dishes, check out the food court, also near the Night Bazaar.
And for something completely different, the Jerusalem Falafel has great hummus and feta cheese dishes.