The walled city of Chiang Mai is a subtle balance of quiet tree-lined streets dotted with temples and tiny shops selling hot meals and massages, and the hustle and bustle of night markets almost every evening of the week and the flower sellers at Warowat Market.
The city walls of Chiang Mai
While Chiang Rai attracts many tourists who want to see the Golden Triangle and learn of the opium trade in the area, Chiang Mai is a lovely quieter alternative with its charming ‘Gates’ leading in and out of the walled city centre. I stayed just outside the Chiang Mai gate and spent my first night in Chiang Mai at the Chiang Mai Gate night market where street vendors sell colourful woven bags and clothes, trinkets like bracelets and dream catchers, and hot food and fruit shakes. The market extends all the way down the street and it’s impossible to see the end of it which can be overwhelming at first.
Eating a giant waterbug
Feeling adventurous I decided to try some fried insects which were 10 baht for a bag of each type. Not really inclined to eat an entire bag of fried waterbugs or bamboo worms, I asked if I could get a selection of each one for 10 baht and tried a waterbug, couple of bamboo worms, and a couple of other insects. I asked a Spanish couple nearby to take a photo of me eating them and the girl asked if she could try one since she’d watched me stomach them without batting an eyelid. She promptly gagged and ran into a nearby alleyway to throw up and I felt terrible but ran into them at another market the next day and we became fast friends.
I bought a pair of these shorts for 100 Baht which was roughly $8 AUD at the time
Lady Boy shows
I later met up with the group I was travelling with on a G Adventures Tour and we went to dinner at another market where there was a mix of relaxed bars and restaurants and stalls selling food. I had a delicious laksa and then explored the market where locals were selling beautiful hand-crafted wooden toys and homeware. Beware that if you show interest in an item and pick it up, persistent stall owners will keep trying to haggle with you and reach a price that will convince you to buy it even if you say you’re not interested. I had a few yelling after me even after I walked 20 metres away and tried to lose myself in a crowd. The night markets are also a good chance to sit in a Fish Spa but be warned its extremely ticklish. I have seen grown men laughing uncontrollably with tears in their eyes which was pretty entertaining.
Afterwards we went to a Lady Boy show that was very reasonably priced with the ticket including a free drink. It wasn’t as explicit as I imagined it would be but the performers were all beautifully done up with jewelled sequins, tassels and winged with bright lurid green feather wings like in Carnival or the Mardi Gras. Favourite performances of the night were probably One Man. One Woman, Lady Marmalade and Don’t cry for me Argentina.
There is a lot to do in Chiang Mai and many temples are within walkable distance. You can easily spend a day taking in the culture and history from the three museums in close vicinity of each other and temples that are so common on the streets of Chiang Mai they soon fail to stir that first sense of wonder at the architecture and beauty of their design. In fact, you will soon get ‘templed out’. To avoid this I would suggest exploring the Northern and Eastern gates which offer a different flavour of the city. It’s almost like leaving the walled city of Minas Tirith and finding that the rest of Middle Earth looks similar, but still different.
Culture and Massages
Another popular way to experience local culture is attending the Kantoke dance performance with traditional northern Thailand food. The performances are varied and sometimes interactive…don’t be surprised if the dancers grab members of the audience and encourage them to dance with them on stage!
For those of you wishing to explore other areas of the city, you can walk through Thai Pae gate down the main road just in front of it to Warowat market where there is a huge indoor market with clothes, shoes, and other artifacts and outdoor market with flowers and food by the river. You can also get very reasonably priced foot massages, thai full body massages and oil massages which was interesting. The price of massages is a lot cheaper in Chiang Mai than it is in Bangkok so this is a good chance to get one. I got a Thai massage the first time and I have never been in so much pain. It amazes me that such a tiny woman could bend me backwards over her and crack my back, putting all her weight on the exact part of my hip that would make me cry…yet somehow it’s kinda good. Extremely masochistic form of relaxing the body if you ask me. The oil massages are much more enjoyable but be prepared to get fully naked.
Flowers at Warowat market
Other nearby sites
There are many interesting places close to Chiang Mai such as the Doi Suthep Temple which is called Wat Phra That. Its one of Thailand’s most sacred cities and overlooks the city from a great height. One of the interesting things you can do there is shake a box that has numbered sticks in it. The first stick to fall out dictates your future based on the number on the stick according to Buddhist belief. Each number has a prescribed future that relates to it. It is said that a white elephant bearing the bones/ relic of Buddha climbed to the top of Doi Suthep and then dropped dead, resulting in the site being declared holy and the temple was built. While at Doi Suthep, watch out for the adorable little Thai girls in traditional costumes eager to take photos with you. The adults watching they will charge you for the photos and the girls have recently been suspected to be young pick pockets.
Little girls taking photos with tourists at the base of Wat Phra That
On the way to Doi Suthep you can stop at a café and rest stop called Cabbages and Condoms which sells junk food, water, necessities and condoms. The restaurant has beautiful gardens and the entire place is condom themed. It was started to encourage people to talk about sex, contraception and other issues that are taboo in Asian culture like STIs. The idea is that condoms should be as readily available as vegetables like cabbages and there should be no stigma attached. It’s a great concept and the restaurant itself is a must see with lampshades, lights, wedding dresses and costumes, all made out of condoms. Once you notice them you will see them everywhere!
And if you’re travelling back to Bangkok you can get the overnight train from Chiang Mai and experience regional travel like a local! You will arrive at Hua Lampong in the early morning and save the daytime for more sightseeing. If you’re looking for things to do in Bangkok check out my post on One day in Bangkok.
On the night train to Bangkok