I knew before we ever arrived in Thailand that we weren’t going to have as much time as I would have liked in Chiang Mai. With only two weeks to see the entire country and the desire to spend some time in Bangkok and visit islands on both coasts, as well as stay overnight at Elephant Nature Park, something had to give in our itinerary and unfortunately it was Chiang Mai. What I did not anticipate, however, was just how quickly I would fall for this charming university town in Northern Thailand or that our all-too-brief stay here would become one of my favorite parts of the trip.
We only had two evenings and one morning here, but, thanks to Chiang Mai’s manageable size, we were able to cover quite a bit of ground. Our first night in town, we headed immediately to the city’s main after-dark attraction, the Night Bazaar. A visit to a night market is a must-do in Thailand, and Chiang Mai’s version is the granddaddy of them all. The market, which spans many city blocks of stalls selling everything from silk elephant print pants to wooden carvings to deep-fried insects (no, I did not partake), was a perfect way to dip a toe into Thailand’s nightlife scene without diving head-first into its sometimes seedy underbelly. I loved the energy and vibrant colors of the market, and enjoyed bargaining with the friendly vendors for the goods I wanted to buy (over my husband’s protests that “it’s so cheap already!”)
By day, we did our best to cover as much of Chiang Mai’s Old City and its temples as we could. Thankfully, the Old City is a small (approximately one mile by one mile) area that was close to our hotel, Le Méridien, so it wasn’t hard to see it in just a few hours.
We set out to visit Wat Phra Singh, which our guidebook described as Chiang Mai’s most important wat. Along the way, we stumbled upon Wat Chai Phra Kiat, a small but charming temple with a beautiful gilded gold roof, a golden Buddha shrine and some fierce-looking lions out front.
At first glance, Wat Phra Singh looked a lot like Wat Chai Phra Kiat, with its tiered gold-trimmed roofs, but it’s a much more expansive temple, and you should budget at least an hour or so to see it thoroughly.
One of the highlights of Wat Phra Singh is its towering gold Buddha surrounded by lots of mini-Buddhas.
Like Wat Chai Phra Kiat, Wat Phra Singh is guarded by lions, but rather than being carved out of wood, these are made out of gold. In an example of the kind of incredible attention to detail that goes into these temples, the same dragon figure also appears over and over again along the edges of the roof.
Around the back of the temple, there are some beautiful golden chedis.
When we there (relatively early in the morning, but by no means the crack of dawn), the place was absolutely deserted. After fighting massive crowds at the Bangkok temples, the peace and quiet here was blissful. It was a relief not to have to carefully frame my shots to (only semi-successfully) avoid heads and parasols, and it was interesting to observe (from a respectful distance, of course) the monks going about their day.
I don’t have serious regrets about our itinerary, because even on our compressed schedule we were able to hit some of Chiang Mai’s major highlights, and there was a lot of other stuff we wanted to do in Thailand that we would have had to sacrifice to spend more time here. But if I ever find myself back in this country, a longer stay in Chiang Mai will be near the top on my to-do list.