This month, through Suitcases & Souvenirs, I take you through the perfect city break that has something for everyone in the family: temples, culture and history to keep my husband happy, animal adventures for my toddler, and loads of cheap shopping for me. Our search for such an all-in-one took us to the culturally rich, and beautiful, city of Chiang Mai; high in the hills of Northern Thailand, where each of us got exactly what we wanted!
As everyone knows, family vacations can be hard to organize and plan, with every family member having different priorities. The solution is simple: choose a destination that offers everything on your family’s combined vacation wish list!
Commonly known as the ‘culture capital of Thailand’, Chiang Mai has a rich and colorful history, evident in its architecture, which includes more than 300 wats (temples). The city is centred on a square moat of water, and a defensive wall built in the nineteenth century. One can still see remnants of the reasonably well-preserved wall, which act as a useful reference point for navigating around the city.As we arrived in Chiang Mai, the first thing we did was breathe a sigh of relief; we were in Thailand’s second largest city but it didn’t seem anywhere near as chaotic as Bangkok. Chiang Mai is laid-back, creative, brimming with sacred temples, mountains, hill tribes, very green and surprisingly child-friendly. The air seemed cleaner than the country’s capital, the people and the pace gentler.
For Culture Vultures:
With their dazzling colors, larger-than-life Buddha statues and a peaceful, serene atmosphere both inside and out, temple-hopping in Chiang Mai was a relaxed and enjoyable cultural experience. With a husband hungry to start exploring the rich culture of Chiang Mai, our first day was devoted to exploring the historic (and very walkable) Old Quarter of the city, meandering through its various wats and temples. Every now and then, we would spot a chain of Buddhist monks dressed in their traditional saffron robes move from one wat to another, bowing as they passed.
Each wat was more beautiful than the next! Among my favourites were Wat Phra Singh (Temple of the Lion Buddha), which contains a number of beautiful buildings decorated in fine wood carvings. These include the Lai Kham Viharn, which houses the venerated Phra Buddha Singh image, the Wat Phan On which was constructed in AD 1501, a time when Lanna arts and culture was flourishing in Chiang Mai, and Wat Chiang Man, the oldest wat in the city, built by King Mengrai soon after he chose Chiang Mai as his new capital in 1296.
It is recommended to schedule temple-hopping early in the morning, when the heat is tolerable and the crowds thinner, and one can truly enjoy the serene atmosphere and appreciate the beauty and rich history of these temples.
Shop Till you Drop
I’ll be honest; shopping (and CHEAP shopping) was topmost on my Thailand to-do list, and I was excited to sample Chiang Mai’s legendary bazaars. Even though during the day, Chiang Mai exudes the serene tranquillity of a small town (not without the ubiquitous honking of the traffic, however), it is after sunset that the streets come alive. Anywhere we looked, from the open squares in front of the city gates to the narrow back alleys of the old city, markets sprang up all around, selling everything from street food to clothes, and handicraft to jewellery.
The famous Night Bazaar dominates the eastern, more modern part of the city, and is yet in easy reach of the old city. If you happen to come to Chiang Mai on the weekend, as we did, then the Sunday Walking Market in the old city is not to be missed, as it not only lures with cheap bargains and an invitation to haggle, but it is THE social event of the week, giving a great opportunity to observe locals and tourist mingling on Rachdamern and Phra Pokklao Road, which is closed off to traffic.
With the smell of exotic spices in the air, I made my way through the scores of stalls selling souvenirs, jewellery, handicrafts, clothes, home accessories, gadgets and so much more! It was impossible not to stop every few minutes to admire a beautiful Thai silk scarf, bargain over a comfortable pair of harem pants, or buy funky-looking table mats for my home. It was no wonder that halfway through, my husband had to find the nearest ATM to withdraw more cash! So, ladies, take enough cash with you when you go because I guarantee you will be tempted at every corner. After all, who can resist a good bargain, right?
It’s All About The Elephants:
With my husband and I having crossed our items off of the family’s consolidated wish-list, it was time to entertain our toddler with a promised elephant trek in the hills of Chiang Mai! Encircled by hills and mountains covered in pristine jungle, it comes as no surprise that the Chiang Mai region is home to many Thai elephants.
Every hotel lobby and tourist information centre was teeming with brochures of elephant parks and elephant safari options; but the sad truth is that many of the places are poorly run and are simply making a profit off these majestic creatures. This is why we researched all options thoroughly before opting to visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, an hour’s drive south of Chiang Mai. Being a government institution for the preservation of endangered Thai elephants, the centre does not function for profits, but rather to invite visitors to observe the animals and learn about their amazing intelligence and skills, such as being able to play a musical instrument or even draw a picture. Of course, elephant rides, elephant feeding sessions, and witnessing a bunch of elephants taking a bath in a muddy jungle pool are all part of the program, much to the delight or our 2-year-old daughter. While certain activities were scheduled for specific times, the Centre does allow visitors the much-needed flexibility to come and go at their convenience, and spend as much or as little time as wanted.
The drive through the forested hills, with the occasional golden Buddha gleaming through the treetops, gave us a taste of the Thai countryside and an appreciation for the relatively unspoilt nature. It is strongly recommended to head out early, around 7 am, to make sure to avoid the midday heat and enjoy the elephant activities in the morning (we hired a driver through our hotel for THB 2400 return).
The highlight of the day was the excitement on my toddler’s face as the elephants came marching out of the jungle, straight out of a scene from The Jungle Book. Not only did she get to ride on an elephant, she got to feed them, play with them, watch them take baths, and see them paint and draw too! Special perks included visiting the elephant hospital to bond with sick elephants, and the elephant nursery where we squealed with delight as we watched a baby elephant kick a football.
When our 2-year-old started insisting that we take the baby elephant home with us, we knew it was time to go, but we did so with a truly newfound appreciation of these gentle giants. If there is one experience you cannot miss in Chiang Mai, it is this!