It was a three day weekend in Thailand and Chiang Mai is as popular a holiday destination for Thais as for anyone else, so our trip on Saturday to see some of the local sights ensured we’d spend time with a lot of other visitors.
One of the nicest things about Chiang Mai – undoubtedly the reason why so many Thais were here for their long weekend – is the cooler weather. Some of you will scoff when I say this, as the daytime highs are only a few degrees cooler than in Khrungthep, but the overnight temperatures drop off considerably – 15-16 C / 59-62 F. It was nice to wake up in the morning, feel a bit of a chill, and realize that it wasn’t because of the air conditioner!
Sitting out on the lanai and eating breakfast, one could almost desire a sweater. Until the hot coffee arrived, that is, after which the temperature was completely bearable.
Above: The crowds at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is a peak just 16 km northwest of the city featuring a splendid view of the greater Chiang Mai area as well as a 625-year old temple that is one of the most sacred temples in this part of Thailand. The copper-plated stupa glistens brilliantly in the sun and is nicely framed by the clear blue skies. We were not alone on this trip – thousands and thousands of Thais were along for the ride, too.
Along both sides of the main ordination hall are rows of large bells that you can ring, ostensibly for good luck. The clamor and clanging of these bells – some of which have no tune at all – sets the atmosphere for the temple, a continual din that sits somewhere between serene and nerve-wracking!
Right: the young son of one of the temple’s workers was playing around the area where people light candles and incense. Bathed in afternoon sunlight, the boy was playing with some unused candles and incense, utterly disregarding the flow of hundreds of visitors to the temple.
At the base of the 306 steps to the wat sits a jade “factory” – they actually do some of the carving here – where we elected to watch an introductory video about jade and then to shop the showroom. There were some beautiful pieces and Sandy purchased a pair of earrings that she felt were a reasonable price. I’m always wary of these places because I know they know more than I do, so I’m at a pricing disadvantage. Not that there’s much I’m in the market for, although my three-and-a-half year old niece sees the jade I wear and has told me several times that she wants a jade, too, but yellow color. (That would be her favorite color.)
Other Doi Suthep pictures:
Clockwise from upper left: Mom, Dad and I in front of the copper chedi; Dad ringing the bells for good fortune; the five-tiered umbrellas that surround the main chedi; two boys pose with a half-fish, half-dragon creature called a “Tuamom” in Thai.
After having done all the tourist souvenir shopping we could, we headed down the hill back into Chiang Mai and on to the second destination of the day, the Night Safari. This is probably the right time to mention that we didn’t begin our day until about 1:00, so it was past sunset by the time we reached the Night Safari.
One of only three night safari parks in the world (according to the guide, the others being in Singapore and Guangzhou, China) this zoo is designed to operate only at the night time. There is a self-guided walk through about 1.5 km of trails leading to all sorts of enclosures, most of which are well-designed and give the animals a lot of space to roam freely. Then there are two tram tours which actually go through animal enclosures featuring many nocturnal creatures – one of the tours is based on the savannah and as you drive through, all these different types of deer, antelope, ostriches, etc. are walking along right next to the tram.
The enclosures are lit to simulate moonlight and the trams have extra low-intensity lights that they can project to help you see the animals. All in all, it was a fun experience although I’m inclined to think that some of these nocturnal animals aren’t that much more active at night than they are during the day!
There is also a large lake at the entrance to the park, which features a light and water show in the evenings. From halfway along the self-guided walk, there was a good view of both the show as well as the fireworks display from the neighboring Flora Expo.
Just how tall is the highest point in Thailand? Sunday was an all-day excursion to find out. Unlike our previous days, which had been leisurely pick-ups around lunchtime, Sunday morning Arm picked us up at an awfully unbearable 8:30. Which wasn’t so bad, really, but drama makes for good reading.
The drive to the Doi Inthanon National Park usually only takes about 90 minutes from Chiang Mai. As I mentioned earlier, this was a holiday weekend and we were not the only people with the idea of going to see the highest spot in the Kingdom. Shortly before entering the main gates, with 47 km to go to the summit, we encountered stopped traffic. For about ten minutes, nobody moved. Eventually, though, things cleared up a bit although traffic was heavy all the way up.
The top of Doi Inthanon is 2565.3341 meters (8416 feet) above sea level. While not a Rocky Mountain by any stretch of the imagination, it is nonetheless a tall peak. The upper slopes are often shrouded in clouds and it was very cool to watch how the vegetation changed as we wound our way up the mountain. On the top we saw many flowers that would never survive the warmer climates at lower elevations.
Not surprisingly it was a bit of a mad house at the summit – everyone wanted their picture taken at the highest point itself, a very helpful “you are here” sign erected so you can prove to friends and loved ones alike that you, too, have been to the highest point in Thailand.
It was so busy that you pretty much had to join in on larger groups’ pictures in order to get yours taken. Dick and Sandy took theirs standing at the back of a very large tour group, towering over them like giants.
Left: Notice I’m not wearing a jacket, unlike so many Thais.
One of the funniest aspects of the whole thing was the “cold” weather. Near the summit is a thermometer. You’ll see that it was really cold – 10 C / 50 F – and the time was 12:00 noon. But the real humor came in how the Thais were bundled up at the gift shop and concessions near the summit – you’d think we were in Tahoe!
Children were wearing multiple layers, many people had hats on, scarves were wrapped around many necks, and almost no Thai was without at least a jacket. See below pictures for more detail:
It was so cold, the coffee shop even offered “hot shots” of tequila, gin or vodka for 60 baht to fortify your lattes!
From the summit, we headed back down a short distance to a pair of stupas built by the Royal Thai Air Force in honor of the King’s 60th birthday in 1989. The stupas are on adjacent rises with grand staircases leading up to both from a central garden and plaza. One stupa is dedicated to the King, the other to the Queen. Inside each is a small hall with a contemporary Buddha statue.
To get to the stupas we had to park in a remote lot and take the free song thaew shuttle. This was a wild ride, with Ken, Arm, my father and I all standing on the back tail gate and hanging on for dear life as we went up and down some steep roads.
Left: Looking down at Ken as he holds on to the thin rails on the back of the song thaew.
Above: The stupa dedicated to the Queen, as seen from the King’s stupa. Below left: Inside the King’s stupa, an austere interior; Right: Inside the Queen’s stupa, a more colorful interior.
Left to right: Dick and Sandy; my father, mother and uncle Ken; me.
On the way down from Doi Inthanon we stopped at a weekend market that is operated by many of the hill tribespeople. There are some 4,000 people who live in the national park, mostly of Karen and Hmong ancestry, people who have lived along the modern-day Thai-Myanmar border for centuries.
At the market we tried some khao niaw dam ping – dark sticky rice that is pounded into a mochi-like consistency and then grilled in patties over a fire.
It achieves a crispy exterior and a chewy, taffy-like interior that can be dipped in condensed milk. Tasty.
Left: Posing Anthony Bourdain-style with the man who is turning out hundreds of these hamburger-looking treats in a day.
On our way out of the park we stopped at Vachirathorn Waterfall, one of the most spectacular in Thailand for the size and breadth of its drop. There is a scenic outlook quite close to the fall, perpetually covered in spray. The road curving down to this outlook cuts through layers of limestone and after many days without rain, the vibrant green plants along this stretch of jungle are coated in white limestone dust, looking like an exhibit long since forgotten at the back of a natural history museum.
At the falls there was this Thai couple traveling with their little lap dog who was bundled up in a little doggie coat. They were taking turns taking each other’s picture so I offered to take a picture of the both of them. Unfortunately, it was with their camera so I can’t show you the cute doggie coat.
Sunday evening we ended up having dinner at a riverside restaurant back in Chiang Mai called “Good View” which was horrendously disorganized and featured a house band that played at too loud a volume, even though we were sitting outside by the river, to allow for comfortable conversation. Looking back at my Lonely Planet guide (which I left in Khrungthep) I see that they do warn about this. Tod said later that the Gallery restaurant down the street offers a quieter atmosphere.
Monday – Off to Lampang
Our final full day in the North was spent heading to Lampang province, two provinces east of Chiang Mai and about a 90-minute drive. The Bangkok Post travel section had recently done a review of the province and it looked like an interesting diversion from the usual tourist sites around Chiang Mai.
We started out very early to head to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. Elephant shows and elephant rides are all-too-common a site in Thailand, particularly in the north, but the plight of the elephants in neither fully understood nor apreciated by most tourists. This facility is unique in that it promotes the role of the Asian elephant both in a historical context (used by Thais as labor animals, especially in the harvesting of teak trees) and in a current, ecotourism context. It also offers the only free elephant hospital in the Kingdom, providing free medical treatment to ill and injured elephants. Right: Dad feeds an elephant.
There is a show that demonstrates the elephants’ skills, strength and agility – pretty impressive watching four elephants work together to stack a pile of 15 meter-long trees – and an opportunity to feed the elephants afterwards.
One highlight was an hour-long elephant ride we took back into the canyon and jungle areas in the center. The land is beautiful and several of the elephants are free to roam in that area. It was a fun ride, although quite difficult to get pictures when both you and the people on the other elephants are swaying too and fro.
After the elephant show we went into the main town of Lampang, much smaller than Chiang Mai and much quieter, too. Lampang is known for its cermaics and the ubiquitous noodle bowls used throughout Thailand with the red rooster painted in the pattern is made in Lampang province. Thus, the rooster motif features prominently throughout the town.
For lunch we stopped and tried a northern specialty – khao soi – the curried rice noodles served with chicken. The restaurant we went to was designed to cater to busloads of tourists (I regret that I didn’t insist to our guide that we should go to the restaurant the Post recommnded instead of the one his tourism professor had suggested) and the flavors were a bit watery, even though these were generally busloads of Thais.
When the guide was settling the bill, the restaurant’s owner said to me, “very cheap” as if he had been confronted too many times by farang about the price of his noodles.
Lampang is also known for its horse-drawn carriages so we took a brief spin through town in these. The drivers were outfitted in strangely Western (as in “Western United States cowboy”) gear that was more suited to Lubbock, Texas than Lampang, Thailand.
We stopped at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, the temple where the Emerald Buddha was housed between 1436 and 1468, before it was moved to Ayuthaya and, eventually, the Grand Palace in Khrungthep. The temple features some lovely Burmese style architecture, pictured below.
While there, a group of three young ladies who are studying tourism at a local techincal college asked to interview us. They had a list of questions and their assignment was to meet foreigners and practice speaking English using these questions as a starting point. They also had an audio recorder and took pictures so they could report back to their class.
After a quick visit to a disappointing local ceramics fair – more like a clearance sale on plates and teacups – we headed back to Chiang Mai. For our last dinner there we had a very nice meal at a relaxing Thai and Indian restaurant called Whole Earth, which specializes in vegetarian food although also offers some nice meat dishes. Actually, the fish tikka was one of the most moist and flavorful I’ve had.
Tuesday morning we had a mid-morning pick up for the airport. We settled our bills, said good-bye to the friendly staff, and boarded a van. Without a doubt, we all would have enjoyed just a few more days in Chiang Mai.