For our winter migration this year we strapped on our KLM wings and flew from Bristol to Amsterdam and then on to Bangkok. After a short rest we took a ‘Thai Smile’ to Chiang Mai. Jane was suffering with the effects of a cold and a sinus infection so it wasn’t the easiest of journeys but we got there with all our baggage intact which I always consider a bonus.
Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand and we were last here back in 2008 so we knew there would be a lot of changes. Back then it was a very busy city full of traffic and people but it has grown considerably and is even more busy and traffic filled. There are certainly more Asian tourists here than 20 odd years ago, which is not surprising, but also fewer Western tourists, at least as far as we can tell. You can easily get around not only by the old ways of Tuk-Tuk and songthaew but now with a Grab taxi app on your phone you can whistle up a car at a moments notice.
Mind you, we had a bit of fun and games with the phone. We went to a local 7/11 store to buy a local sim card and first off the guy serving us couldn’t speak any English so I had to choose a card more or less at random and hope it would work. In order to buy a card you have to hand over your passport for the seller to photograph and notify the authorities that you’re not a potential criminal, fraudster or whatever. I can’t say that I like the idea of a photo of my passport being on someone else’s phone but you can’t get a local sim without one so don’t even try. The only problem was my brand spanking new UK passport has holograms on the photo page, presumably designed to stop people photographing it and it took the guy about five attempts to get a photo which he deemed good enough.
So, having got the card I swap out the old one, fire the phone up and find that all of the info relating to the card is in Thai. Now, Thai script is very beautiful, looking more like calligraphy rather than written language, but it’s also unreadable to me. So the following day we had to make a journey out to the Airport Plaza and find the True telecom shop where a very nice girl snatched the phone off me, pressed several keys at breakneck speed and handed it back with messages from True now showing up in English. Though only for about 30 seconds before they revert to Thai so you have to be pretty damn quick to read it. The young lady then showed me to a machine where I could at last buy some credit and so enable us to go grab that taxi.
Chiang Mai a very old, royal city and the remnants of the walls which once surrounded it can still be seen alongside the moat which defines the extent of the old city. It apparently contains more than 300 temples or Wat, all of which still seem to be in regular use. During our time there we only managed to visit a fraction of them but here is a short tour.
Wat Phan On
This is a small Wat full of streamers and lanterns which make a colourful sight swaying in the breeze.
A small buddha statue made for a nice reflection in the pool
Wat Chedi Luang
Chedi Luang was built around 1400 AD and was originally 60 mtrs wide by 80 mtrs tall. An earthquake reduced its height by 50% but it is still very impressive and easy to see on the Chiang Mai skyline. An etched glass panel attempts to show how it might have looked though it was very hard to line up against the actual building and avoid reflections.
Each niche in the chedi holds a statue of buddha and there is also a rather elegant reclining buddha dressed in what appears to be a diaphanous shift.
The shrine hall (Wihan) is sumptuously decorated
Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang
The hall in this Wat is far less rich in colour but it seems to make up for that in the amount of cash offerings strung up from wires.
Perhaps to our western way of thinking, hanging up money in the hope of receiving good fortune may seem a little odd but it certainly makes their religious places vibrant.
The buddha figures at this Wat sat amongst a carpet of silk and paper flowers.
Probably the most visually impressive Wat in the old city is Phrasingh which shines with gold in the sunlight. The gorgeous wing shaped roofs of the halls and shrines adds to the attraction and make this one of the must see wats in Chiang Mai.
The elephants adorning the base of the chedi really are quite adorable.
Inside the meeting hall many devotees come to kneel and pray and ask for blessings in front of incredibly lifelike wax figures of previous abbots.
Out of respect, you should sit or kneel on the floor with your feet facing away from the statue of buddha and there is certainly a sense of calm serenity in these halls as you are gazed upon by a long dead monk who seems to be searching into your soul.
Wat Phra That
The major tourist attraction of Chiang Mai isn’t in the city at all. It’s high up on the side of Doi Suthep overlooking the plain in which the city sits. On a good day you get fantastic views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding mountains. But much of the year the valley is covered in a dense smog so you can only make out a misty outline.
Built in 1383 Phra That is still a working monastery. It is reached by climbing more than 300 steps, although they have now installed an elevator up the hillside for those who don’t feel the need to accrue buddhist merit by making the climb. The steps are flanked by wonderful ‘naga’ or serpents.
The temple complex was built to house an apparent relic of Buddha, in this case a bone from his shoulder. It is one of the most important religious sites in Thailand so it is not surprising that it gets hordes of visitors.
For the devout buddhist it is a place to come and make ‘puja’, a ritual which involves walking clockwise around the central chedi whilst reciting prayers. Devotees also come to be blessed by the monks after making offerings to them.
But for the likes of us tourists it is a place to come and marvel at the buildings, the gildings, the paintings and the whole atmosphere of the place. Despite being very crowded at all times of the day it is still a place where you can find a certain calm, especially if you sit quietly in one of the shrines just taking it all in.
The central chedi is a magnificent creation and you can only but stand and admire the workmanship which went into making it all those centuries ago.
We were almost watted out by the time we had walked around Phra That but there was still one temple which we thought we must go and see. Wat Umong is on the outskirts of Chiang Mai in a forested area and it is renowned as a centre of meditation.
The Wat is now partially ruined but built into the hillside were a series of tunnels where monks would come to shut themselves away and meditate. The tunnels have drawings of elephants and temples on their roofs dating back to the 13th or 14 century.
Although there is still a monastery here with resident monks they don’t use the tunnels anymore because of the numbers of visitors. However, exploring these fascinating ruins gives you a sense of peace and calmness somehow.
Even the grounds outside also seem to have absorbed the centuries of quiet contemplation and reflect it back at you. It was a wonderful place to finish our few days in the city.