With hundreds of temples, a bustling population of 170,000, and countless natural landscapes, Chiang Mai is a magical city. It was my first time visiting Asia and the first thing that struck me was how different the driving scene was. In America, the roads are mostly filled with cars and the occasional motorcycle. The streets of Chiang Mai however teemed with not only cars, but tons of motor scooters, tuk tuks, and open air trucks where you sometimes saw a dozen people packed in. Safety first wasn’t a rule that applied in Thailand. I was shocked to see 2 person motor scooters with entire families and their dog riding. It was city driving on another level.
Despite heavy traffic jams that would elicit a barrage of horn honking and curses in America, the Thai never displayed any signs of discontentment. We didn’t hear any horn blaring or angry shouts, in fact, we never saw any unhappy Thai people at all during our visit- a testament to the country’s reputation as the land of smiles. This stems from the country’s etiquette system which should be a model for all nations. As a Buddhist, non confrontational society, in which public disputes or criticism is to be avoided at all costs, Thailand encourages its citizens to be polite at all times. To show anger or impatience, or to raise your voice is s sign of weakness and lack of mental control. A huge difference from New York City!
One of the best things about traveling in Thailand is how budget friendly it is. I couldn’t believe how cheap everything was in comparison to New York City where prices were at least three times more expensive. A private room at our hostel, the Dutch Guest House was $15 a night and a dormitory bed was only $5. As a major tourist hub and the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is filled with tons of hostels and cheap lodging options. The hard part is deciding where to stay! I would recommend booking a night or two at a hostel before arriving in Chiang Mai then exploring the city to find the best deal. Our guest house was on the cheaper side, but later on we discovered other housing options that included a pool for only a few dollars more a night. The weather in Chiang Mai is hot and humid except in the cool season, so access to a pool makes a big difference.
I took advantage of the low prices in Thailand to go fabric shopping in Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market where I found beautiful sparkly fabric to use in the 2017 Fringe & Epaulette collection. While there weren’t many sequin options, most of the stores had beautiful textiles with traditional Thai prints. With prices three times lower than what I found in NYC fabric stores, it was hard to exercise self-control.
Food was another thing that was hard to be moderate with in Chiang Mai. Filled with tons of Thai restaurants, street vendors, as well as Western style restaurants, Chiang Mai is a foodie’s paradise. As a curry addict, I was in food heaven sampling all the different styles of curry. If you travel to Northern Thailand you must try Khao Soi- a rich coconut curry soup served with yellow egg noodles, chicken, beef, or pork, and crispy noodles on top. As a dish which is native to Northern Thailand, it’s rarely served in other regions. It was hard to find a version that was vegetarian since it’s traditionally made with meat, but I finally found one at Dada Kafe- a tiny restaurant that serves delicious healthy vegetarian meals. The menu, which featured pages of fresh juices, smoothies, traditional Thai dishes, and Western meals, was so extensive that I felt overwhelmed trying to decide what to eat. We ended up coming here several times throughout the week because the food was so good.
Another standout restaurant was Rustic & Blue where they make Western food better than I’ve eaten it in America. Thanks to the large expat community in Chiang Mai, there are lots of restaurants that cater to Westerners. Rustic & Blue seemed like a restaurant that you’d find in a hipster neighborhood in Williamsburg rather than in Chiang Mai. Each unique menu option with unusual combinations like beer and cheddar soup was accompanied with a photo. I ended up going with the Awesome French Toast which had a peanut butter nutella spread, local Thai fruit, and passionfruit glaze. Best French Toast of my life!
Although Western food in Chiang Mai is cheaper than in Europe or America, it was markedly more expensive than traditional Thai food. By far the most budget friendly method of eating is stopping to try the numerous food vendors found by the street markets. I was amazed not just at the variety of food, but at how cheap everything was! For 40 baht (less than $2), you could choose from a range of meals such as pad thai, Chiang Mai sausages, seafood kebabs,and fried fish balls.
Set amid a peaceful landscape where you heard nothing but the sounds of birds chirping, Chiang Dao Nest was a serene getaway 90 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. The beautiful property boasts two resorts (Nest 1 and Nest 2) in a mountainous jungle setting. Both resorts are surrounded by vertiginous mountains and feature rustic bamboo cabins and a restaurant. We literally chose to drive 90 minutes to Chiang Dao Nest based off the restaurant reviews I read on a Tieland to Thailand blog post. Both restaurants are world renowned, however Nest 1 serves Western dishes while Nest 2 serves traditional Thai cuisine. This was by far the most gourmet Thai meal that we ate in Thailand. The presentation was beautiful, and the flavors of each dish were rich and savory. We ended up going overboard ordering so much food that we could barely finish our plates.
A word of advice when eating in Thailand: don’t underestimate the spice level. At Nest 2 in Chiang Dao, Gilles ordered the Chiang Mai sausages with a level of medium spicy. Medium spicy Thai version was more like extra extra spicy in the Western world. Our waitress was cracking up at his discomfort, saying that this was nothing to Thai people, they normally ate two spice levels above that.
If you have a day or two to spare while visiting Northern Thailand, I recommend renting a car and making a day trip to Chiang Dao where you can enjoy the beautiful Chiang Dao resorts and visit the Chiang Dao district. The district is home to the third highest mountain in Thailand, the Chiang Dao caves, a national park with hot springs, waterfalls, and numerous hiking trails where you can see incredible vistas of the jungle.
Since we had planned a day trip to Chiang Dao, we only had time to visit the caves. The entire cave system consists of 100 different caves which stretch 12 kilometers under the earth. However only 5 caves are open to the public and you have to pay a 40 baht fee for access. There were signs at the entrance signaling that guests are also required to hire a tour guide or pay a 10,000 baht fine. Thinking that this was just a ploy to get more money from tourists, Gilles and I ignored the warning signs and decided to go exploring on our own, Indiana Jones style.
There are numerous natural formations of limestone and crystals in the caves, along with stalactites and stalagmites. The strange formations, unlike anything I had seen before, ranged from creepy to eerily beautiful. After exploring the main cavern area which was well lit by brightly colored lights, we decided to explore the smaller cave system that required a guide. After walking 10 minutes in pitch dark blackness with our iPhone flashlights, we decided that venturing any further was a bad idea. Turns out that the warning signs at the entrance were no joke…the caves really were dangerous without a guide. The ground was slippery and wet, and the cavern was so dark that we could easily have lost our way if our phones died. Given that there wasn’t cell phone service and we wouldn’t be able to call for help if we got lost or hurt, we decided to call it quits and returned to the main cavern.
We returned to Chiang Mai that night dead tired. Our afternoon pig out at Nest 2, cave exploration, and 3 hours on a scooter had wiped us out, mostly because I had miscalculated how difficult bike riding to Chiang Dao would be. If visiting Chiang Dao or another region more than an hour away, I recommend renting a car unless you’re an experienced motorcycle rider. While riding within the city is convenient and lots of fun, 90 minutes of driving to Chiang Dao on a highway with wind that dried our eyes out was exhausting. Once we left the highway, the road to Chiang Dao became a winding route that passed through a chilly jungle. The weather quickly went from dry and windy to freezing cold. By the time we got back to our hostel in Chiang Mai, I felt as if I’d done a week at Burning Man.
Since our plan for the next day was to visit the White Temple which was three hours away, we decided to rent a car for the journey to Chiang Rai. Knowing that it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand, we left Chiang Mai at 5am hoping to get to the temple before hordes of tourists arrived. On the way there, we looked to the right and noticed a spectacular scene: the sun rising over a field of rice. There was so much fog that all you could see was a mystical pink glow and the shadowy forms of trees in the distance. Gilles saw a photogasm opportunity and asked me to walk among the wet rice stalks so he could some pictures.
Given that I was wearing a white High Priestess dress that I had designed to match the White Temple, I wasn’t keen to walk in a wet, muddy field. However trusting Gilles’ eye and figuring he could always photoshop out any dirt stains, I overcame my apprehension and tried to look like walking in rice fields was something I did everyday. Considering the amazing shots that resulted, it was well worth it!
Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple, is actually an art exhibit. Built in the style of a Buddhist temple, it was built by Chalermchai Kositpipat as an offering to Buddha in the hope that he will be rewarded with immortal life. He spent more than 40 million baht building this monumental work of art and construction isn’t expected to be completed until 2070. To avoid being influenced by rich donors, Kosisipat has refused all donations greater than $300. In addition to the temple buildings, the grounds also hosts a museum filled with intricate art by Kosipipat whose work is absolutely mindblowing and beyond comparison. If it even could fit into a category, the closest would be psychedelic Buddhist art.
Although we arrived at our destination exactly as it opened, I was dismayed to find that there were already three Chinese tour buses on site and the temple grounds were far from empty. Gilles and I had planned to do a photoshoot at Wat Rong Khun, however I didn’t see how that would be possible given how many tourists had already arrived. Moreover, as an introvert who gets anxiety before large groups , I was already freaking out about the number of people staring as I walked by. My sparkly high priestess dress attracted a lot of attention from the Chinese tourists who didn’t try to hide that they were taking my photo.
In what was a testament to his photography skills, Gilles was able to photograph the White Temple from perspectives that made it appear as if we had the entire place to ourselves. Considering that there were at least 200 people in the background as he worked, I’m amazed he was able to get such incredible shots. Stay tuned for a separate blog post about the White Temple and these spectacular photos.
The next morning, we woke up even earlier for a photoshoot at the Royal Twin Pagodas with my friend Shuang. I had seen photos posted in a Facebook travel group of this mystical temple at sunrise that looked too beautiful to be real. Gilles had unfortunately come down with a fever from the strenuous drive to Chiang Dao, but was a trooper and got out of bed at 3:30am to drive us 2 hours up a pitch black, foggy mountain. Doi Inthanon National Park, also known as “The Roof of Thailand,” is located in the Himalayan mountains and is the highest point of Thailand. Entrance to the park was 300 baht ($10) per person, but was well worth the fee considering the park contains several attractions.
Even though it was still dark, there were already several tour buses and dozens of cars parked on the side of the road, while groups of tourists huddled together at viewing points waiting for the sun to rise.We almost didn’t make it to the Pagodas in time for sunrise since we drove too far up the mountain and ended up going to the wrong pagodas. Luckily a guard pointed us in the right direction, and we reached the Twin Pagados just as the sun began to rise. Ideally we would have began shooting 20 minutes before, so Gilles, Shuang and I hustled up the stairs with Gilles’ studio lighting equipment and our sparkly outfits. Given the amount of people at the viewing points, I expected the Twin Pagodas to be a repeat of the White Temple, filled with hundreds of tourists. Thankfully, it seemed that everyone was focused on catching the sunrise from the viewing points and no one had thought of photographing it from the Pagodas. We literally had the whole place to ourselves!
The fantastic scenery at the Twin Pagodas is out of this world. The gardens were immaculate and filled with an array of beautiful flowers in shades of purple, orange, blue, red, and yellow. The entire site seemed to be a fairytale palace that floated in the clouds above the rest of Thailand.
The Thai Army built these pagodas as a present to the King and Queen in commemoration of their 60th birthdays. The brown Pagoda was built in honor of the king while the purple was built for the Queen. Both Pagodas were covered in beautiful artwork and topped with golden spires that twinkled as the sun continued it’s ascent in the sky. Inside the pagodas were carved panels and paintings that depicted important events in Buddhist history.
After the photoshoot, we drove down the mountain to explore the rest of the national park which stretched a whopping 300 miles across the mountain range. Originally we had planned to spend the whole day in the park exploring the several waterfalls, hiking trails, limestone cave, and hot springs. However since Gilles wasn’t feeling well, we decided to limit our visit to the biggest waterfall. With over 8 waterfalls and numerous other activities, Doi Inthanon is so huge that it’s impossible to see everything in one day. For those who wish to spend multiple days exploring, it’s possible to rent camping equipment or bungalows at the campsite by the park headquarters. Make sure to check the list of park activities here before visiting.
As we drove down the mountain, we passed the Maeo Hill Tribe market where local villagers sold fruit, vegetables, silverware, traditional Thai clothing, and other souvenirs. There were lots of cute traditional hats that were unfortunately too small for my head, and beautiful dresses made from colorful patterned woven cloth. There was a more varied selection than at the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai and prices here were a lot lower. The local produce sold at the market was some of the tastiest I’ve ever eaten. The vendors gave out free samples and we ended up buying bags of amazingly sweet strawberries to snack on at the waterfall.
A gigantic cascading waterfall that plunged from several tiers over 800 feet, Mae Ya waterfall is the biggest waterfall in Thailand. Surprisingly, we got lucky again and barely saw anyone else while we hung out there for the day.
As a bustling city, there’s always a cool cultural activity going on in Chiang Mai. Before traveling, always check the Chiang Mai City Now calendar to see upcoming events. We were lucky to visit during the Chiang Mai Flower Festival which occurs every February at the end of the cool season. This annual three day festival showcases beautiful displays of flowers and flora native to Thailand.
On the Saturday of the Flower Festival, city streets are closed down for the Flower Parade- 40 exquisitely decorated and visually stunning flower floats intermingle with jubilant marching bands, brightly costumed hilltribe folk, graceful Thai dancers in traditional dress, and classic vintage cars. Later that day, the Chiang Mai Flower Festival Queen is chosen from one of the pretty girls who accompany the floats.
Shuang, Gilles, and I missed the procession during the Flower Parade, but were able to see the amazing floats parked in the street by the Saturday Walking Street Market in Old Town. We were stunned by the creativity and the amount of detail that went into each float. In the days leading up to the parade, teams of artists must have spent hours and hours gluing and sticking fresh flowers and seeds into the styrofoam base of each float.
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai that reflect the glory of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. One of the things I loved about Chiang Mai was finding random temples scattered around the city. A testament to the city’s mix of old and new, it was common to find a beautiful temple sandwiched between a bookstore and a restaurant.
Each temple, or “Wat” was completely different from the other, however they all exuded a sense of peace and displayed beautiful Buddhist art pieces. Buddhism is definitely the religion of sparkle! Compared to Christian religious structures, temples are much more ornately decorated and aesthetically pleasing. While monks dressed simply in orange robes, no such frugality was spared on the scintillating Buddhist temples which are covered in gold, silver, mosaic mirrors, or brightly colored paint.
After the Flower Parade, we visited Wat Sri Suphan, also known as Silver Temple, located in in the Silversmith District of Chiang Mai. Built between 1495-1515, the entire temple is covered with hammered silver and aluminum designs made by local craftsmen. The silver represents Yin energy which is linked to the moon’s ancient wisdom. Apparently the interior of the temple is also beautifully decorated with mirrors and silver, but Shuang and I were unable to visit since there was a sign that said women were forbidden fro entering:
“Beneath the base of Ubosotha in the monastic boundary, many precious things, incantations, amulets and other holy objects were buried 500 years ago. Entering inside the place may deteriorated the place or otherwise the lady herself. According to this Lanna Belief, ladies are not allowed to enter the Ubosotha.”
The site also offers the opportunity to visit a studio where you can witness the artisans at work and even take a workshop on silversmithing. The amount of perseverance and dedication it required to finish one inch of a silver panel was astounding, I couldn’t imagine how much work was involved in creating an entire scene of engraved silver.
We arrived at Wat Chedi Luang as the sun was setting, illuminating the ancient walls with a golden glow and casting shadows along the paved ground. In the center of the courtyard was a gigantic chedi (pagoda) which was built in the 14th century to house the ashes of King Saen Muang Ma’s father.
There were several other intricately decorated buildings on the temple grounds that displayed carved wooden facades, a giant reclining Buddha, and patterned golden walls.
The next day, Gilles and I embarked on what was one of my most anticipated activities: a day volunteering with elephants! Chiang Mai has more than 70 elephant camps where you can spend the day with these gentle beasts. However many of them are tourist traps that abuse elephants to make a profit. Elephants might not be well fed, are smuggled into the country, or are brutally trained with hooks to perform for tourists, It’s important to do research beforehand, and make sure that you don’t book a tour with a company that takes advantage of the elephants.
With so many different elephant tours to choose from, it’s hard to know which ones practice ethical tourism. Never book a tour with a company that offers riding elephants as an activity. Even though it may seem that an elephant can easily bear a heavy load, their spines are actually not strong enough to support the weight of several people. Always look at reviews on Tripadvisor rather than a company website to verify that a tour is ethically responsible.
We chose to spend our Sunday at Dumbo Elephant Spa– an ethical elephant sanctuary that had been recommended by our hostel owner and had excellent reviews on Tripadvisor. At $70 per person for the full day option, it was the priciest activity we chose to do in Thailand. However the entire experience was so rewarding that I would gladly have paid double the price. At 8:30am, a van picked us up from our hostel and drove as an hour and a half up a winding route into the mountains to a secluded farm where the elephants lived.
The sanctuary cared for 4 elephants and a baby elephant Dumbo, who was the focus of everyone’s attention. The adult elephants were beautiful and moved with a noble grace that Dumbo lacked. Just like a toddler, he stumbled awkwardly around following his family, occasionally falling down with a confused expression on his face. Cuteness overload!
Our guide was a local who had grown up taking care of elephants. After educating us about their background and habits, he gave us a traditional Karen shift to wear during the tour, and bags of food to feed the elephants. Elephants eat so much food! At first I was concerned that the elephants were being overfed since another tour group left as we arrived, but our host informed us that each elephant eats several hundred pounds of food each day, so it’s nearly impossible to overfeed them.
The elephants enjoyed interacting with humans and had fun stealing food from our bags when we weren’t looking. Once lunchtime was over, we trekked through the forest behind the elephants and observed their natural behavior as they pulled down branches and trees to get to their sleeping area. While they took a nap, we were treated to a simple but delicious Thai meal of steamed rice, spiced curry veggies, and fruit. During our meal, we got to know the other members of our group which was made up of travelers from France, Chile, and the Netherlands.
Once the elephants were finished with their nap, it was time for their bath time which involved throwing mud on the elephants. Because of their thick skin, the elephants were prone to overheating. The mud helped them to cool down and acted as natural sun screen. Gilles chose to opt out of this portion of the tour, saying he preferred to photograph everyone. I was squeamish about jumping into a giant pit of mud, but forced myself to endure the experience even though it felt like swimming in slimy poop. Our tour guides had fun throwing mud on some of the other volunteers and one of them even fell face down into the mud. I was mostly concerned with not getting stepped on by the elephants who didn’t seem to realize where people stood when they backed up.
After the mud bath, we walked with the elephants to the river where they were splashed with buckets of cold water. It was also bath time for us, and everyone took the opportunity to scrub themselves with brushes and wash the mud off. We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the calm atmosphere of the farm which was a peaceful respite after busy Chiang Mai. Later on, Gilles confided that the elephant mud bath didn’t just include mud…he witnessed the elephants pooping and peeing in the so called “mud” that our volunteer group was wading in. I felt bad for the poor guy who had fallen face first into the mud….ignorance is bliss. Even knowing that I had swam in elephant pee and poop, my day at Dumbo Elephant Spa with these happy, peaceful, animals was one of the most remarkable I spent in Thailand.
We returned to Chiang Mai in the evening with enough time to eat at an amazing Burmese restaurant and visit the city’s Sunday Night Market with Shuang and a group of Gilles’ friends from France. There are so many shopping opportunities at the markets in Chiang Mai that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It was my first week in Thailand but I had already spent most of the money that was supposed to last for the duration of our trip.
There are several different markets to shop at in Chiang Mai, some pricier than others. Located along Chang Klan Road, the Night Bazaar draws thousands of tourists each night. The numerous vendors sell items such as hippie clothing, flip flops, beaded jewelry, fake Rolexes, and souvenirs. Although the prices are cheap in comparison to Western prices, don’t be fooled- the items sold here are usually hiked to at least 3x their market value. The same pair of harem pants I bought at the Hill Tribe Market in Doi Inthanon was 200 baht pricier at the Night Bazaar. When buying products in Thailand, instead of thinking about prices in comparison to Western prices, keep in mind that the minimum daily wage in Thailand is $10 (300 baht).
Tipped off by a local, Gilles and I also visited the University Market which was located across the street from Chiang Mai University. The market’s rows of booths was overwhelming to say the least. This is where Chiang Mai locals came to do their shopping and prices were significantly lower than at the Night Bazaar. The everyday items sold included things like phone cases, flash tattoos, makeup, sneakers, work uniforms, and lingerie. Clothing styles were more suited to what Thai people would wear in everyday life, rather than the hippie clothes and souvenirs sold by vendors who targeted tourists.
Out of all the markets I visited, the Sunday Night Market was my favorite. Here, you found authentic artisanal products made by local craftspeople rather than the mass produced harem pants and flip-flops that abounded at the Night Bazaar. Vendors lined the street selling everything from handmade tiger balm and medicinal remedies to beautiful carved wooden lanterns. I went crazy over a vendor selling brightly colored Thai silk scarves woven with metallic gold threads. As someone who hates to bargain, I usually avoid haggling with salespeople . However a week in Thailand made me realize how much vendors rip tourists off, and by the end of our stay in Chiang Mai, I had become a seasoned haggler. Even though my cash state was pitiful, I was proud that I had gotten the vendor to lower the price of the scarves to five times below what she originally quoted me. The vendor was happy to have sold 10 scarves and I was happy to have some beautiful unique material to craft into new garments.
After a week of running around Northern Thailand in 80 degree weather, we were dying to relax somewhere and have a luxury day. Chiang Mai is more of a backpacker tourist city that offers cheap lodging to backpackers so finding peaceful luxury accommodations isn’t the easiest. After doing some research I came across the Veranda Resort, a stunning luxury retreat that was nestled 7km away from the city on the slopes of Doi Suthep mountain. A night at the hotel was more than what we paid for a week in our hostel, but the resort offers non-guests the chance to use the facility’s rooftop infinity pool for only $12.
The resort boasts a spa and an amazing infinity pool where you can watch the sun setting over the jungle and the valley below. As much as I loved my day with the elephants, after bathing in elephant poop I never appreciated luxury more. While a day at the Veranda Resort isn’t budget friendly, compared to what you would normally pay in the Western world it’s a deal!
Shuang, Gilles, and I spent the day relaxing by the pool and enjoying the delicious 2 for 1 Happy Hour cocktails and desserts the pool restaurant offered. Sunset at the pool was simply magical. The sun turned the sky pinkish purple and descended behind an unfinished temple that loomed in the distance looking like a Walt Disney castle. Before we left the resort, we wandered around the property taking photos of Shuang performing with her LED dragon stick. It was the perfect way to end our last night in Chiang Mai.
Next chapter in our Thailand adventures: Krabi!
PHOTOS BY: Gilles Bonugli Kali (www.gbk.photos)
WRITTEN BY: Yoshi Churnac
Featured Fringe & Epaulette Fashion
A Recap of Our Itinerary
- Temple exploration: Silver Temple, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Suan Dok
- Chiang Dao Caves
- Chiang Rai- Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)
- Doi Inthanon National Park
- Dumbo Elephant Spa
- Chiang Mai Markets (in order of preference): Sunday Night Market, Saturday Walking Market, Hill Tribe Market, University Market, Night Bazaar
- Veranda Resort Infinity Pool
Restaurant Recommendations for Foodgasms: