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Chiang Mai, Thailand

Historic Ancient Walled City That’s Still a Vibrant Busy City!


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One Day In Chiang Mai or Chiang Mai in One Day!

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You can get a good feel for Chiang Mai, even if you just have one day there.
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We had both spent a few days in Chiang Mai together on our first trip to Thailand in 2005. That time, everything about Thailand and it’s culture felt new and exotic. On that trip we went on memorable small group minivan day trips to Doi Sothep, still one of my favorite temples in all of Thailand, and to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain area 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. I’ve been back to Chiang Mai a few times since then. I often wondered how we missed the historic ancient Temples right in Chiang Mai’s old walled city on that first trip, so that was our agenda for our one afternoon in Chiang Mai.

First we had to get from Pai to Chiang Mai. Highway 1095 from the high mountains is steep and winding and very slow. The narrow two lane road had 762 switchbacks, hairpin curves not wide enough for two vehicles.
We avoid the minivan travel now. The minivans don’t stop for anything. If you have motion sickness or need a bathroom stop, well that’s just too bad. And other travelers usually have some smelly just cooked street food along with them, stinking up the entire van.
It’s not that expensive and it is far more comfortable to hire a private driver. I booked my driver at AVA one evening on the walking street in Pai. As is our usual experience “Wood”, a nice young man, was at our hotel a few minutes early on/at the appointed day and time. We were happy that his car had good seatbelts!
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The ride rewarded us with more stunning mountain views. We stopped stopped at Coffee Hill - which has a guesthouse operation, pretty gardens, nice coffee shop and is exactly 66 km from Pai towards Chiang Mai. When you have your own driver you can do that. We made fairly good time and Wood delivered us safely to our Chiang Mai Hotel, the V@Suan Paak, (see “Tip” below) which is next door to the Airport Central Mall.

We were again upgraded to a one bedroom condo. I love this place! We left our stuff in the apartment. The hotel reception ordered us a GetTaxi (it’s like Uber in Thailand but I didn’t set that app up) and off we went! The first order of business was finding lunch! Remembering a particularly fun lunch in a garden restaurant with Ellen in 2009, we traipsed off to find a garden restaurant. We made a square loop from Wat Chedi Luang, first on our list, and we found a guesthouse and restaurant that did the trick.
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Once sated, we completed the loop on the way back to the Temple and passed stores, massage shops, restaurants and a busy schoolyard. Chiang Mai’s “Old City” (and modern it is not) is a vibrant city where people live and work and regularly worship in the 14th century temples that abound there. Mark and I opined that the entire city should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But after visiting Bagan in Myanmar and learning that newer modifications to ancient buildings, even to preserve them for current worship and shrine use, largely disqualifies areas for UNESCO status, so I could see how hard that would be here. I think about the charming town of Melaka, Malaysia which I visited in 2013. It has that designation. Chiang Mai’s Old City has many splendid treasures but it’s not easily accessible and consequently many tourists just see it from the window of a huge tour bus which takes up the entire narrow street leaving safe no place for pedestrians like us.

The Temples are well maintained but the city infrastructure has deteriorated with every subsequent visit I’ve made since 2005. The streets are crumbling, the drainage is poor, the toilets are well, Thai toilets if you can find one, and you’d better have a nose clip and bring your own tissue. Seeing these historic Temples (for me once again) is always an adventure and it’s worth an afternoon of discomfort.

We started at Wat Chedi Luang where I had to rent a pashmina scarf, because it was a hot day and I didn’t wear sleeves. That was the easy part. But then, I still was not allowed into the best small chapel on the grounds. Women might be impure, because it might be their “time of the month” so no women are allowed inside, even those in their mid-60’s who don’t have monthly times like me.
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For all of us women, I’m sharing some of Mark’s photos of the inside murals!
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Built in the early 1400s, Wat Chedi Luang reigned as one of the tallest buildings in Chiang Mai. The Big Stupa at Wat Chedi Luang was once 82 m high, with a base diameter of 54 m, and at the time of completion, it was the largest building of Lanna until modern times. But a severe earthquake in 1545 toppled the top tiers and it wasn’t reconstructed until the 1990s. Wat Chedi Luang was home to the famous Emerald Buddha (1468) before it was moved to Luang Prabang in Laos and later to the Royal Place in Bangkok, housed in the famous Wat Phra Kaew, named for this holy emerald green jade Buddha.
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Next we went to Wat Phan Tao (Temple of a Thousand Kilns). This ancient temple sits directly next to Wat Chedi Luang, and it is known for its Lanna-style ordination hall made entirely of teak. It was built in the late 14th century and is the oldest remaining wooden Temple within the walled city. It has stunning teak pillars and panelling inside, along with decorative mosaics and accents, as well as an enshrined gold Buddha statue. The temple itself was originally built as a royal palace building (ho kham) for the ruler of Chiang Mai, Chao Mahawong, who used the structure from 1846 to 1854. Scholars speculate that the site was also used for the casting of Buddha images intended for Wat Chedi Luang, which is adjacent to the monastery, explaining its name and the presence of the kilns.
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On this day, the Temple was being prepared for a ceremony and was closed to visitors. But the grounds were humming with activity as young Monks were working on this and that. This is a Chiang Mai Old City scene that I adore surreptitiously photographing.
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We then walked a bit, looking for a garden hotel I’d heard about, but we couldn’t find it.

So we took a red Chiang Mai taxi to The Elephant Temple. The oldest temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man dates to 1296, the same year the city was founded. But, what makes it one of the top temples to visit in Chiang Mai are the two Buddhas it houses – an 1800 year old crystal Buddha and a 2500 year old marble Buddha. Also at the complex is the Sacred Elephant Encircled Stupa (or chedi), which was at one time the royal residence where the king lived while the temple and the city of Chiang Mai were being constructed. It is said that the stupa houses a Sacred Hair Relic from the Buddha. The Sacred Elephant Chedi looks very similar to the one we saw in Sukhothai from about the same time period. It makes me wonder about the mobility of people in the 11th century - I can imagine that a trip from Chiang Mai to Sukhothai could have taken months!
At the back of the complex is a quaint temple that sits on stilts in the middle of a small square pond, reachable only by a bridge that was retracted. Now that’s a place to sit and meditate!
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Once we closed the Wat, well it closed for the evening around us, we watched the sunset over the Elephant Chedi before hiring a red taxi to take us over to Nimmanhaemin Rd.
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Nimman Road and the surrounding side streets are at the heart of the trendiest part of Chiang Mai. Occasionally known by its full name of Nimmanhaemin Road, the place is alive with fashionable restaurants, cafés, bars, shops and boutique hotels. I thought we would find some art galleries to wander in and out of. But as we walked a large square loop taking in the busiest Soi’s ( little streets) off the main road, we found only shopping, restaurants and bars. I was looking for a particular shop from a 2009 trip there with Lynn, David, and Faye. Lynn had a favorite elephant expresso cup- I was with her when she bought it. She wanted more...and often the search for something makes for a good adventure. It looked to me that the shop is long gone, replaced by a complex with a Starbucks that even has a drive-through window. I did finally find a ceramics shop - it had a similar item. It appeared to be a pop up of a Siam Celadon shop whose factory is our on the crafts road outside of Chiang Mai. The shop was open but no one was inside. We waited about 1/2 an hour and even asked the neighboring shop owners where the “person” was. Eventually a guy showed up. I bought the 2 cups he had as I like them...but we never did find the match to Lynn’s.
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Meanwhile, Mark found me a “Free WiFi Toilet With Parking.”
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Why Not?
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The “shopping evening” ended well as we stumbled into the back entrance of “Why Not?” It turned out to be a very fun garden Italian restaurant popular with ex-pats. We had a yummy meal, met some retirees who live in a Chiang Mai condo for several months a year, and listened to the airplanes landing and taking off every few minutes over a leisurely glass of wine. Ok, we get it, now we’ve been to Nimman!

We got another red taxi. Other than the Get Taxi app, The Red Taxi is the taxi option in a Chiang Mai. These are open trucks with benches in the back. Why Not, we can see more that way, and bounce around without seatbelt. We were happy to get back to our comfortable condo at V@Suan Paak, and get ready for another day of travel, this time through Bangkok to Rayong Beach.

Stay tuned to the blog. There’s still more coming!
Love,
Nancie

Travel Tip:
How do you choose lodging for Chiang Mai. Over 450 possibilities show up on the hotel booking sites, not including home stays or Airbnb’s. Most tourists want to stay near the famous night market but I didn’t want to deal with the hawker harassment. Or they pick a hotel in the historic old walled city. There must be more than a hundred options there. That’s a great location for temple sightseeing and tasty eating, but I know from prior visits that it’s a high density, high traffic area with little sewage infrastructure and lots of pungent odors. The neighborhoods across the Ping River, are definitely quieter. My Pai friends still like the Sathorn Residence over there, and the newer X2 Chiang Mai a little farther upriver is bound to be both quiet and hip. The exquisite 5 plus star spa resorts ( think 4 Seasons and Dhara Devi) are destination locations not near anything. Nimmanhaman Rd, the hip, artsy expat area, has some good options, in particular the charming Yesterday that some of my friends like, but this neighborhood is right in the flyover of the busy airport and there’s a plane flying in or taking off overhead every few minutes.

So many choices, so little time in Chiang Mai, I decided not to agonize over it, and just pick something.
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I booked V@Suan Paak hotel and serviced apartments on Agoda. The reviews on both Agoda and Trip Advisor were good and our stays, we were there twice, were even better! Located literally 5 minutes from the airport, the complimentary as needed shuttle service sealed the deal for us. We arrived after a long day touring Mandalay Myanmar at night, reinstalled my Thai SIM card into my iPhone, called them up and in a flash we were at the hotel. On our first stay, we were flying out to Mae Hong Son first thing in the morning so we couldn’t take full advantage of the lovely upgrade to a one bedroom apartment (that even had a washing machine). But the pool, the gardens, the uncharacteristic quiet next door to the airport, and the location adjacent to a Central Mall (think food and pharmacy...) made it a no brainer to plan a return stay on our way back to Bangkok from the north. The breakfast buffet was just ok and the restaurant location on the busy road was the weak spot for a longer stay. But for a clean comfortable spacious quiet hotel room or apartment, ten minutes either to the old city, night market, or Nimman area, V@Suan Paak worked out great! The staff couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming. We were again upgraded to the same lovely apartment when we arrived midday from Pai! You can find photos on the Agoda listing for this hotel. We had such a busy day that I never got a chance to take any!

Posted by Nsevers 17:33 Archived in Thailand Tagged temples hotels chiang mai buddhas

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