Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, is a kind of second city (after Bangkok, of course), a cultural hub, tourist destination, and the unofficial capital of the north. Like so many places, Chiang Mai is a town better described in photos than in words. But I’ll try to bridge the difference, and both show and tell you about our experience in this 700-year-old historic city. What you’ll see below is a photo story that shows the beauty of the city.
Before we look at the photos, I have to preface everything with a story. We often extensively research the places we visit beforehand, but with Chiang Mai, we accepted the recommendations of trusted friends and arrived more or less unprepared beyond the directions to the place we were staying. These directions, it turned out, weren’t sufficient for our tuktuk driver to get us any closer than the street itself. We stepped out of the small vehicle and were stranded in a downpour. Inches of water flooded the streets and we were stuck with our bags and no idea where to go. It was a low moment in our travels in terms of both our preparation, and our faith, as so many travelers have, that things often just work out. We must have looked as we felt, lost and forlorn. A local, kind man, stepped out of his home into the rain to help two stranded travelers find their hotel. I mention this exchange because it is characteristic of the hospitality we found in the city, and was the first of many amazing exchanges we had with other tourists and local residents. So when you view the photos below, place them in the context of a city that’s filled with wonderfully helpful and kind people, and you’ll begin to understand why Chiang Mai is among the top cities I recommend you visit.
Muay Thai Fight Night.
Brad heard about these fight nights at a local gym where he’d taken Muay Thai classes (another recommended activity for those not afraid of bruises and sore muscles). There were a few popular spots to watch the sport, but this one was close to the central area of town, surrounded by restaurants and shops that catered far more to the tourist population than the locals. The venue was something from a gritty movie, but had a wait staff that delivered drinks to our seats and spoke English. The fighters were mostly young, newer to the sport, and earning their way to landing fights at the more “local” and respected arenas. As a result, these bouts were reportedly less violent and bloody than matches between older, more experienced fighters in other venues. Despite that, the brutishness of the sport was still on full display. One young girl, maybe 15 years old, took a barrage of blows from a far taller and more aggressive opponent. Intimidated and dispirited, she couldn’t bring herself to fight in the second round. The referee stopped the match and the girl left the ring crying. Another fight between even younger boys resulted in one of them being knocked out cold for a short time. After regaining consciousness, the boy tried to continue but his coaches ultimately stopped the fight. While we found ourselves concerned for the kids’ welfare, it was good to see that the coaches and referees did stop the fights as soon as someone was injured. We had to remind ourselves that the difference is cultural, and that the resulting trauma to the head or body can be found in all sports, from football to sports where concussions don’t get much attention. In all, and despite our concerns, it was a fun and exciting evening filled with music, some dancing, drinks, and, yes, the occasional roundhouse kick to the head.
Another aspect of Chiang Mai that was especially appealing to me as a photographer were the intricate and amazing temples dotting the landscape. The city boasts over 300 Buddhist temples. Each one is so ornate with such specific attention to detail that you could easily photograph the same small interior a thousand different ways. The exoticness wears off quickly and it is possible simply to stand there and really appreciate the craftsmanship for what it is. One of the most notable in the city was a temple made entirely of silver, Wat Sri Suphan. It was very much off the beaten path and we heard about it from a fellow traveler who had been taken there by a local. Even with clear directions, it was difficult to find and we had to veer off a main street on what appeared to be a wrong road. Most temples contain the iconic and beautiful contrasting reds and yellows that are common in this tradition. But this temple’s entire structure glistened with monochromatic silver. There was not a drop of color to be seen on the exterior of the building and because of this it boasted a visual impact unlike any other place of worship I have visited. Unfortunately, women are not allowed to enter the temple (a lack of signage and English speaking locals meant I would never fully know the reasoning for this) but luckily I didn’t need to enter to be glad we took the long walk to visit.
It was the first city of our trip where we had sufficient time to seek out delectable restaurants based solely on reputation. While we had many great meals across the city, one place stood out in particular. We decided to visit a place called Huen Phen after hearing high praise. It took some work to find the establishment, and was a long walk from the cluster of tourist-catering businesses. When we arrived, the place was packed wall to wall, but it was well worth the wait. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, Brad recommends the Kao-Soy, a signature dish of northern Thai cuisine. We also ordered the Tom Yum soup, but it was served with a spiciness level that the Thai are famous for. It was so hot that it burned when you smelled it. Brad managed a single spoonful before agony set in!
The Bahn Thai cooking school.
More a residence-turned-business than a school, Bahn Thai relied on well-worn cooking utensils, an enthusiastic staff, and a beautiful location to draw its customers. (It also had a requirement that no shoes were to be worn. Nothing screams ‘sanitary’ like 20 barefoot strangers in a kitchen!) While there are many cooking schools to choose from in the city, this one had some extra features, including a trip to buy the ingredients at the local market. So after a mid-morning pickup from our hostel, we were greeted by the staff and escorted as a conspicuous group of foreigners to a local market. A magical and overwhelming place, the market was a bustling nest of activities, with vibrant colors and unfamiliar scents. Our guide brought us to different vendors’ stalls to select the ingredients we would be using to cook our lunches. He diligently explained what each item was, from the exotic to the ubiquitous. Everything was fresh and of the “whole” food varietal, which appealed greatly to me. Our ingredients in hand, we returned to the school to begin cooking, a process that even included a step-by-step walkthrough of how to make coconut milk (surprisingly less complicated than I expected). We spent the morning preparing several different dishes for lunch (one chose from a set menu based on preference) and then enjoyed a perfectly timed break between lunch entrees and a dessert just long enough for a cat nap on the same pillows that served as our dining seats. Even for those not especially interested in cooking (like Brad), the jovial staff made for a fun day and the opportunity to meet other travelers was priceless. We both consider this one of the best day-long activities we chose to do in all our travels.
There are plenty of activities to keep you busy in the town, but there are also plenty of day trips from the city, some with questionable levels of socially responsible tourism. Elephant experiences, photo opportunities with tigers and visits to the Karen Long Neck village are all advertised on glossy pamphlets in hotel lobbies. I encourage those who consider these activities to do some research and decide if their tourism dollars will end up improving the lives of these people and animals or if they are perpetuating an already serious problem. In our experience, there were varying levels of responsibility.
In all, one can jam-pack a week full of activities in Chiang Mai, or one could simply sit at the many restaurants, cafes, and bars and simply enjoy the atmosphere of the historic city. Whatever you choose to do in Chiang Mai, you won’t be disappointed.
Photography by Kira Morris
Bradley Geer contributed to this article