Chiang Mai moat

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Chiang Mai, meaning ‘New City’ in Thai has always held a significant presence, acting as the gateway to the culturally rich Northern provinces of Thailand. It is a city that is on almost every travellers Thai itinerary and if it isn’t on yours it probably should be.

A city blend of old and new, full of historical and cultural artifacts and excellent street food and in my case a city that holds a lot of memories.

The top of Wat Phra Tht Doi Suthep
The top of Wat Phra Tht Doi Suthep. Photo by Ben Hallam

The Northern City

Located in the Northern Mueang Chiang Mai District of Thailand, Chiang Mai is arguably Thailand’s second most famous city. As a gateway to Northern Thailand, many travellers arrive here from Bangkok, most with plans to head to Pai, a laid-back backpacker town further up in the mountains.

It is a city steeped in history. The old town still retains parts of its wall that,  along with its moat, separates it from the rest of the city. You can walk around parts of the moat and next to the walls. Some sections are original and are in a more ruined state while other sections have been rebuilt for the tourists.

Within the walls and in the surrounding city are several Buddhist temples and holy sites. The many interesting and historical sites in Chiang Mai ensure plenty to fill your cultural appetite during your stay.

Sun Shining through Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Sun Shining through Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Photo by Ben Hallam

Following Memories

Chiang Mai holds a special place in my heart. Many of my childhood memories were made by exploring the markets and wandering the streets of the city. I remember as a child sitting on the front of my dad’s motorbike as we looped around the old city, following the old wall and moat.

I recall wandering through the night markets and asking my parents for a few baht so I could get a Thai pancake topped with condensed milk. Even now as an adult, my love of Thai Roti is still very strong.

It had been many years since I was last in Chiang Mai and returning as an adult on my own adventure was a strange feeling. I would find myself following memories as I traced them throughout the city, trying to spot the old hotels we would stay at, the suppliers of fabrics that my parents would do business at, and even the old pancake vendors. Most of the faces and places had changed and yet the memories were still there.

A Golden Buddha
A Golden Buddha. Photo by Ben Hallam

A Backpackers Food Haven

As any backpacker travelling through Southeast Asia can tell you, sometimes finding decent food is a pain and can be a real struggle, especially in the more remote parts. In Chiang Mai, however, this is not a problem. It is home to some of the best night markets that provide an excellent and tasty selection of local foods for incredibly affordable prices.

As I had ridden up through central Thailand, where my last plate of street food, made me sick for a good 24 hours, and the numerous 7/11s had become my savior, arriving in Chiang Mai was bliss.

From where my hostel was in the North just over the river, I would wander down the road to Chang Phuak Gate night market. Here I could find plenty of street food stalls offering the best of Thai cuisine like Pad Thai, Pad Kra Pao and all types of other dishes in plentiful supply. Due to its location just down the road from a series of roads full of hostels, this night market is frequented by backpackers.

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Because of its popularity with backpackers, this night market is also superb at catering to vegetarians.

When in Chiang Mai, it would almost be considered a crime to leave without trying Northern Thailand’s signature dish, the famous khao soi, a glass noodle curry dish that can be slightly spicy. However, most places understand that Westerners aren’t so tolerant when it comes to our ability to handle spice and will tone it down for us weaklings.

Khao Soi is a highlight of many a traveller so do try it out and thank me later.

Chiang Mai Night Market
Night Market Stall. Photo By Ben Hallam

Night Markets

There are many other markets throughout Chiang Mai that are well worth visiting, to discover new foods, find souvenirs or just for their great atmosphere.

Warorot Market is a great place to hunt for souvenirs and look through the vast amount of hand-crafted goods. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is a great place to both find food and for souvenir shopping.

My favourite market in Chiang Mai was the weekend market. Hosted near the Three Kings Monument in the centre of Old Town, this market has an amazing atmosphere with local artists selling their meticulously hand-crafted works. Plus, singers and street performers fill the air with music and there are plenty of small bars to sit and drink at.

I was lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai over the weekend and wandering through this market was a lovely experience. Finding a place to sit and observe the people and let life go by is up there as one of my most valued moments of my trip.

Mosaic Dragon of Wat Phra That doi Suthep
Mosaic Dragon of Wat Phra That doi Suthep. Photo by Ben Hallam

So Many Temples

Like many places in Thailand, Chiang Mai has its share of temples and historical sights dotted around the city.

Wat Lok Moli, situated just North of Chiang Mai’s old town is relatively small and retains a sense of the ancient nature of the city.

Similarly, Wat Phra Sing Woramahawihan, a Buddhist temple in the centre of old town is amazing with its golden Pagoda and stunning architecture.

Of all the temples I visited in Chiang Mai however, Wat Phra Thai Doi Suthep was probably the most gorgeous, owing to its location on one of the mountain peaks overlooking the city.

The steep steps up to the temple complex are flanked by two dragons constructed of mosaic tile. Climbing to the top serves as a good workout. The effort is well worth it as the view of the surrounding mountain ranges and over the city put into perspective how high up this temple is and the effort it would have taken to construct it.

The wooden architecture of the temples’ buildings is astounding. When you take a closer look you really appreciate the craftsmanship and effort put into constructing these buildings of worship.

Upon entering the main temple and running my hands along the white marble floors and walls, I was left in awe by the central Pagoda. From what I could gather it was completely gold plated and the way it shone in the sunlight left little doubt as to just how amazing this entire temple complex was.

It quickly made its way onto the list of most beautiful places I had been fortunate enough to visit. 

Accommodation When Visiting Chiang Mai

There are great places to stay in Chiang Mai for travellers on any budget. For those who have more funds there are a multitude of different Hotels and guesthouses, for those on a tighter backpacker budget there are plenty of options to choose from scattered all over the city.

Here are some good options:

Visiting Chiang Mai at Night
Chiang Mai at Night. Photo by Ben Hallam

Getting Around Chiang Mai

While Chiang Mai lacks the easy-to-use public transport system of Bangkok, most places are easily accessible, either by taxi or Grab (a lifesaving app that is a must-have for travellers in Southeast Asia). Bicycle rentals are also an option.

Renting a scooter is an option as well, just be aware of the risks involved. During my time in Chiang Mai, I noticed more than a few backpackers sporting their own ‘Thai Tattoos’. However, so long as you are careful, having a scooter will give you a lot of freedom. Plus, if one is brave enough to go further afield, Chiang Mai is the starting point for the famous Motorcycle loop, the Mae Hong Song loop.

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Author Bio: Ben Hallam is from New Zealand and is currently based in Bali, Indonesia. He is an experienced backpacker and adventure motorcyclist awaiting his next adventure.

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