August 12 is the Queen’s birthday and this is Mother’s Day in Thailand. Mother’s Day is a public holiday, so we had a long weekend that we used to visit Chiang Mai. With Bangkok’s central location in Thailand, we are able to reach any city with air service in under 90 minutes. Our flight left Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport at a few minutes past 8 on Friday morning and we were in Chiang Mai by 9:30 a.m.
Chiang Mai province is located about 400 miles north of Bangkok in Northern Thailand. The highest mountains in the country — Doi Inthanon, Koi Mae Pan, Doi Pha Luang, Doi Luang Chiang Dao, Doi Pong Sa Yaen, and Doi Lang Ka — are all in Chiang Mai and each has an elevation of at least 2 km (6,500 feet) above sea level. The province is about 250 miles long and about 60 miles wide, and, as can be seen in the picture above, it stretches from Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar to almost the western border with Myanmar.
Mueang Chiang Mai (the city of Chiang Mai and the capital of the province) is located on a plain at an elevation of about 1,000 feet. Two miles to the west of the city are the foothills of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, two mountains that rise to a height of over 6,000 feet. The Ping River, a tributary of the Chao Phraya that ultimately flows through Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand, is on the east side of the city.
Chiang Mai replaced Chiang Rai as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom in 1296 and it remained the capital for nearly 500 years. The city was designed by King Mengrai in conjunction with King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai (the kingdom to the south and east) and King Ngam Muang of Phayao (the kingdom to the east). The three kings had formed an alliance to defend themselves against the Mongols. Hence, Chiang Mai was constructed in a square (see map below) with high walls, just a few gates, and a wide moat that encircled it. The defensive nature of the original city design remains apparent even today.
After we met our driver at the airport, we headed straight into the mountains to visit Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. When you travel in Thailand, Buddhist temples (Wats) are must-see attractions for several reasons. First, there are simply so many of them; Chiang Mai alone has over 300. Second, they are often extremely old, frequently dating back 600 hundred years or more. Third, they are culturally important to the nation. Fourth, they are beautiful. Trying to avoid visiting temples in Thailand would be like trying to avoid visiting cathedrals and Catholic churches in Italy.
Although Wat Doi Suthep is high in the mountains, its large, glistening, golden chedi can be seen from the city below. I will put together another posting in the next couple of weeks with more details and pictures on the temples that we visited in Chiang Mai.
After touring Doi Suthep, we met our driver and headed back into the city for lunch. He took us to a small, local restaurant that specialized in Northern Thai food. We had khao soi, spicy sausage, fried chicken, and sticky rice.
Khao soi is a real treat. It is made with either beef or chicken (Theresa and I ordered one of each) and contains both regularly prepared egg noodles and crispy, fried egg noodles. It is almost soup-like and while I have no idea what spices and ingredients are used, it tasted fabulous. If you ever see it at a Thai restaurant, order it — you won’t be disappointed.
After lunch, we visited three more temples — Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Suan Dok. All three temples date back to the 14th century and each is awe-inspiring in its own way. I have included a picture of each below; there will be more in a future post.
We are currently in the middle of Thailand’s rainy season, and we knew that it was likely we would get hit by a storm or two during our trip. While we were visiting Wat Suan Dok, the clouds (see picture above) broke open and the rain came down in sheets. The rain was so heavy that the street outside the temple soon looked like a small river. You cannot wear your shoes in the temples, and normally you simply leave them outside. However, with the heavy rain, we carried ours while we waited inside for the rain to end.
For anyone contemplating a trip to Thailand, we have been told that the best time to come is between November and February. March and April are the summer months with temperatures regularly in the upper 90s and frequently over 100. May through October constitute the rainy season when temperatures are generally in the high 80s, most days are cloudy, and it rains two days out of three. November through February are supposed to be the best — temperatures stay relatively cool and the rain just stops. (I’ve been told by many Thais, however, that the three seasons are unbearably hot, hot and wet, and just hot, so you can safely leave your parkas in the states.)
Once the rain stopped, we headed to our hotel to check-in. We stayed at the Khum Phaya Resort and Spa, a boutique hotel constructed in the Lanna style. The resort is about two to three miles northeast of the Old City. After unpacking and cleaning up, we took a quick swim and relaxed. That evening, we took a taxi into Chiang Mai for dinner.
On Saturday, we began our adventures at 10 a.m. with a trip to two silk factories. Chiang Mai is known for making silk, parasols, silverware, jewelry, wood carvings, and other handcrafted goods. I find manufacturing in general very interesting but particularly so when the production is mainly by hand. The skill of the craftspeople is truly impressive. As with the Chiang Mai temples, I am planning a forthcoming posting on silk production.
A couple of hours and many thousands of baht later, we headed back toward the city to have lunch at the Raming Tea House. The house is owned by a Chiang Mai family that owns and operates a 1,200 acre tea plantation as well as a pottery business called Siam Celadon. Products from both companies are available at the Tea House. The structure was originally built by a Thai nobleman of Chinese descent back in 1915. The house was renovated and restored eight years ago and the restoration won awards for historical preservation.
Siam Celadon makes beautiful stoneware using an ancient technique where wood ash glaze is applied to the pottery. After firing, the products have a stunning green or blue finish. As with so much in Chiang Mai, the pottery is all handmade. During our next trip to Chiang Mai, I hope to be able to tour both the tea plantation and the Celadon factory. Siam Celadon’s products are sold at stores throughout the world and it will ship products bought on its website anywhere. If you are interested, here are both companies’ websites — Raming Tea and Siam Celadon.
After lunch we headed back to the mountains, this time to the Hmong Hill Tribe village on Doi Pui. This village had plenty of stalls where the Hmong were selling products. As we walked through the village to go see a nearby waterfall, we met four young Asian men, one of whom had rented a native costume (for $1!) from one of the stalls. It turns out that he was in college in Boston and spoke English very well. When we got to the waterfall, there were two young children in native dress who would pose for pictures with you. The children, of course, expected a small tip, and the visitors readily gave one.
The highlight of my visit to this village was being able to shoot handmade arrows from a handmade cross-bow and actually hitting the target five times out of eight. I was astounded by how much power this bow had and by how fast and true the darts flew. Had I actually been hunting, there would have been meat (or at least a shot-up fruit) on the table that evening!
On Saturday evening, we went to Khum Khantoke with some people we know from Chiang Mai for dinner followed by dancers performing native Thai dances. For dinner, we sat on cushions on the floor at a very low table. There was space under the table (a leg well) where we could put our legs while still having the experience of dining at a low table.
After dinner, the show began with dozens of dancers performing dances from the various regions of Thailand. The dances from Northern Thailand were very stylized and the performers moved very slowly. The dances from some of the other regions of Thailand were more fast-paced. The performance ended with a circle dance in which the audience is invited to participate. Our hosts volunteered me, so I joined in. By that time our camera battery was exhausted, so I luckily do not have any pictures to share with you.
At the end of the evening, we lit the flame inside a Kome Loy lantern, a large tubular hot air balloon that ultimately rose into the sky. These lanterns are about two to three feet in diameter and about four to five feet tall. The belief is that these lanterns will carry your worries and troubles away. Since our camera was out of power, we could not get a picture of our own, but I have included one from wikipedia.
The Yi Peng festival is held each year in Chiang Mai on the night of the November full moon. At this festival, thousands of these lanterns are sent skyward. Some November, we will return to Chiang Mai to see this festival first-hand.
Sunday was walking day. We took an afternoon shuttle from our hotel to Nimmanhemin Road, a street on the west side of Chiang Mai that is about halfway between the Old City and Chiang Mai University. Nimmanhemin Road is perhaps that most upscale area in Chiang Mai with many stores, boutiques, coffee shops, and galleries as well as bars and restaurants for nightlife. Nimmanhemin Road is more urban and more urbane than the Khum Phaya resort where we stayed.
On late Sunday afternoon, we met up with a friend to take in Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street. From five p.m. until midnight, Ratchadamnoen Road in the Old City is closed to traffic and vendors set up stalls on both curbs and in the middle of the street. Ratchadamnoen Road runs east-to-west for about one mile through the Old City between Wat Phra Singh and the Phae Gate. Many merchants also set up in various other locations along the street, e.g., temples and other large venues, as well as on some of the cross streets.
Vendors sell all types of original handcrafted products made from wood, fabric, metals, and ceramics; artists sell their works; and there are copious amounts of food, drink, and desserts. The quantity, quality, and range of goods is astounding and the prices are unbelievably low. The atmosphere is truly electric with hundreds of vendors, artists and craftsmen, throngs of people making their way up and down the street, and entertainers playing music, singing, and dancing.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.