Tag Archives: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Round Up

What photo takes you right back to Chiang Mai?

Our day as elephant owners was one of the most memorable of the trip so far.


Summarise Chiang Mai in three words.

  • Elephants – are everywhere; tour agencies offer experience days similar to the one we did, the commonest kind of beer is Chang (the word for elephant in Thai), souvenirs, T-shirts and other clothes are printed with elephants, and statues and shrines represent them.
  • Wats – So many to visit in and around the city.
  • Massage – is common across Thailand but there seems to be a particular concentration of shops in Chiang Mai and we got quite a taste for a regular pummelling.

You really know you’re in Chiang Mai when…

…you’re walking along the street and from one side the ladies of the massage shop call out “hello, massaaage?” while from the road tuk-tuks and songteeows slow down and beep at you as they pass to check if you need a lift. There’s no public transport in Chiang Mai so that function is fulfilled by vans called songteeows which operate as shared taxis, or tuk-tuks which work as private taxis.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Chiang Mai?

Shoes which are easy to take off repeatedly for going into all the prayer halls of those wats. And if you visit during December and January a jumper would be a good idea as it gets quite chilly in the evening (don’t go mad though, there’s really no need for a coat!).

What Wat to visit in Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand boasts over 200 buddhist temples. That’s a lot and while we have been here for 2 months we didn’t set out to see them all, and nor have we. This is a rundown of the ones we have seen and what we liked about them.

But before we begin, what is a wat?

A wat is a monastery temple in Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos. The word wat means “school”.

Strictly speaking a wat is a Buddhist sacred precinct with monks’ quarters, the temple proper, an edifice housing a large image of Buddha, and a structure for lessons. A Buddhist site without a minimum of three resident monks cannot correctly be described as a wat, although the term is frequently used more loosely, even for ruins of ancient temples.

A typical Buddhist wat consists of [many] buildings, including a
chaidei or chedi – usually conical or bell-shaped buildings, often containing relics of Buddha

Wat Chedi Luang

Where: Central Chiang Mai
Good for: Location, huge brick chedi

Wat Chedi Luang: The one with the giant brick Chedi

Wat Chedi Luang: The one with the giant brick Chedi

Wat Chedi Luang is the Grand-daddy of Chiang Mai’s wats. Almost dead-centre of the square walled city, its giant decaying brick chedi can be seen for miles around – even from the top of nearby Doi Suthep mountain!
The large main temple with its beautiful gold columns sets the expectations for this expansive wat. Everything about it is oversized which created a feeling of being really small as we wandered around.

Wat Phan Tao

Where: Central Chiang Mai
Good for: Location, small wicker chedi, turtle pond

Wat Phan Tao: The small one with the bright yellow flags

Wat Phan Tao: The small one with the bright yellow flags

Wat Phan Tao is next door to the mighty Wat Chedi Luang and it knows it. In no way does it try to upstage, instead playing the contrast card with its much smaller, more intimate setting. We loved the bright yellow flags that adorn the side of the main temple, the ornate gateway from the street, the heavy prayer-bells and the pond full of turtles.

Wat Phra Singh

Where: Central Chiang Mai, near the Central West Gate (Suandok Gate – Suthep Road)
Good for: Location, tranquility, up-keep, spooky lifelike monk statues

Wat Phra Singh: The immaculately kept one with lots to see

Wat Phra Singh: The immaculately kept one with lots to see

Still within the city walls, Wat Phra Singh is the Pepsi to the Wat Chedi Luang’s Coke. Located at the eastern end of the Sunday night walking street market that runs the width of the city, and with easier access for coaches, Wat Phra Singh gets more visitors. Like Wat Chedi Luang it’s also immaculately kept, and while it feels more compact, there are more temples that can be visited inside its grounds. Each of the temples has its own distinct character, and speaking of characters, some wats have very lifelike fibreglass models of their most venerated monks, and we counted 4 here. They’re almost a little too lifelike, and it’s a bit spooky having a fake monk staring at you!

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep

Where: Doi Suthep National Park, in the hills to the West of the city
Good for: The views, the gold, the grandeur

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: The one with the golden Chedi, on the hill overlooking Chiang Mai

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep: The one with the golden Chedi, on the hill overlooking Chiang Mai

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (or simply Wat Doi Suthep) is the wat that everyone tries to visit when in Chiang Mai, and for very good reasons. First of all it’s a lovely ride into the hills of the Doi Suthep National Park, with plenty of viewpoints, waterfalls and small hikes if you want a break from the wide twisty roads, and secondly, if you’re on a scooter, you’ll love those wide twisty roads ;o)
Wat Doi Suthep is compact, very busy and very, very bright because almost everything is covered in gold. We were there on a typical Chiang Mai sunny day and the gold-covered chedi was almost too painful to look at!
There are small temples at the cardinals of the chedi where over half of the worshipping floor space is taken by offerings, and all welcome photography. We loved the glistering spectacle of the chedi and its inner hilltop courtyard, and the views over Chiang Mai – see if you can spot Wat Chedi Luang!

Wat Umong

Where: West of the city
Good for: Tunnels, chickens, tranquility

Wat Umong: The one in the forest with the tunnels

Wat Umong: The one in the forest with the tunnels

Sticking to the western side of the city, Wat Umong is in a quiet forest setting and boasts something unique – tunnels! Said to have been built to keep a deranged monk from wandering off, the tunnels were to provide solace and peace to aid the monk’s condition. That’s the official version, but it sounds to us like they were made to keep him locked up..
The wat is also home to a large, vocal family of hens and roosters who kept an eye on us as we wandered through the grounds. Also worth mentioning is the excellent Wattana Art Gallery which is nearby – down a side street on the left as you approach the entrance to the wat.

Wat Ched Yod

Where: West of the city
Good for: Stucco, spire-topped temple, many chedis

Wat Ched Yod: The one with the seven peaks

Wat Ched Yod: The one with the seven peaks

Wat Ched Yod is probably one of the least visited of the major temples in Chiang Mai. Ched Yod translates to “seven peaks” and refers to the seven slim spires which top a temple in the centre of this expansive complex. As well as the spires, the outside of the temple is covered in beautiful stucco and is still used as a temple of worship.
We also liked the giant Bothi tree behind the temple, it’s large old branches supported by green metal crutches, and its trunk surrounded by symbolic white wooden crutches. And the phonetic translation of its Animisa Chedi as “Animis Jedi” – the place “where the Buddha attained the divine eye after leaving his edit action state” – obviously a reference to The Force.

Wat Ket Karam

Where: East of the city, just the other side of the Ping river
Good for: Dogs, statues of dogs, free museum of local curiosities

Wat Ket Karam: The one full of dogs and bric-a-brac

Wat Ket Karam: The one full of dogs and bric-a-brac

Wat Ket Karam is a delightfully small wat on the eastern side of Chiang Mai dedicated to the dog. Most (if not all?) wats are associated with animals from the zodiac, and while you can worship at any temple, it is considered particularly auspicious to do so at the wat of your birth animal, especially on your birthday. The main temple is narrow but long, and due to a conservation effort to save the wat’s buildings, it’s also home to a museum of locally donated artefacts. I use the term ‘museum’ in a very loose sense, as it’s more like the contents of a car-boot sale. Without the cars. Or the boots.

Annual Alms for 10,000 Monks

Where: Chang Klan Road, east of the city
Good for: The spectacle, seeing lots of monks, taking photos

Annual Alms for 10,000 Monks

Annual Alms for 10,000 Monks

On the 28th of December, the main eastern artery of Chiang Mai is closed for the annual alms for 10,000 monks. We were there just before the 7:00am starting time and found a good vantage point to watch the local Thai population give alms. It was very well organised with 4 rows of monks walking slowly up and down the lower half of Chang Klan road, holding out their offering bowls for the givers to fill up.
It was at this point that I started to question the point of this exercise, as, once a monk’s bowl was full, he would turn to an inner track of young uniformed helpers that held up clear plastic bags whereupon the bowl was emptied and the monk advanced along the line. The clear bags didn’t follow the monks, so how are the offerings divvied up at the end? And then there were the offerings themselves – it was mostly ‘junk’ food; packets of instant noodles, bags of sweets, individual bags of rice – essentially the worst components of Monk Baskets. The efficiency of the operation was overshadowed by the inefficiency of the transfer of alms – boxes of instant noodles were gifted, one packet at a time to be deposited into clear bin bags, and the original packaging was thrown away.
I couldn’t help thinking that in scaling up this act of generosity, the essence or the spirit has somehow been lost to spectacle.

UrbExing in Chiang Mai – Space Roller

I’ve always felt a strong curiosity towards buildings and secret places; an “I wonder what’s in there, or behind that door, or down that hallway” and yes, I realise that means I’ll meet an horrific end if I’m ever cast in a horror movie.

Dilapidated buildings, especially functional ones like old factories, banks, warehouses and bunkers get my imagination and intrigue going – I start thinking about how they’re laid out inside, picturing what they would have looked like when they were in use and what kind of people would have been there. I imagine myself being there in that time too, watching the machinery in action and the people going about their business.

It was not until I read the twitter profile of a friend at work, that I found out my propensity to explore man-made structures was not only shared, but it has a name: Urban Exploring, or UrbExing for short. When I next saw my friend and asked him about it, his eyes lit up with excitement like someone sharing a heretofore secret passion (like making up strange sandwich combinations – bacon & banana anyone?), and he told me that not only is UrbExing a “thing”, but there’s also an organisation called SubBrit – Subterranea Britannica – that organises exploration of underground sites (usually WW2 bunkers) for its members. Fantastic – how hadn’t I heard about this before?

Legitimised, I now make a point of stopping to explore urban structures when I can, and on the way to the main Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai is, or rather, was, the Space Roller..


Space Roller – extreme sports & techno games. Time for some extreme UrbExing!

In the building that probably gave the Arcade Bus Station its name, this long-since closed arcade of shops and restaurants is now in a very sorry state of repair.


I guess this was the old arcade, Chiang Mai

The ground floor is completely gutted, with bare concrete floor and no obvious sign of its former purpose. The furthest left hand-side looks to have been taken over by squatters, and there are scooters and cars parked outside. I stepped over an old electrical cable that was strung over the foot of the right-hand staircase, and made my way up the main entrance.
The futuristic styling is straight out of 70’s and 80’s sci-fi, or more recently the cartoon series Futurama, with silver curved supports set against electric blue and cigarette-butt yellow curved or conical walls. The future is reflective and curvy.

Inside, it’s clear this has been deserted for a long time. Holes in the roof have led to the almost complete collapse of the interior false roof, which has destroyed the once smooth wooden rollerskating surface below.


The rollerskating track. Looks pretty extreme to me – big concave central oval with an outside banked racing loop and enclosed downhill tunnel on the right that looks like a lot of fun


The old counter where they rented rollerskates. The wall behind is floor to ceiling boxes for skates and shoe storage, just like in bowling alleys


The upstairs bar; The lockers; The curvy grand staircase to the viewing gallery, bar, and small private rooms (what could they be for?); Cobwebs on the dirty floor

It was fun exploring the shell of this once exciting rollerskating venue, sadly now a remnant of a bygone era given today’s ubiquitous electronic and hi-tech entertainment.

Elephant owners for a day

The Asian elephant is the national animal of Thailand, and they have been used for years as working animals, hauling logs in the forest. Nowadays mechanisation is taking over from this work but Thais have realised the appeal to tourists of the elephant and there are camps all over the country where you can go to meet and interact with these beautiful creatures. There seems to be a particular concentration of these camps around Chiang Mai and although we wavered for a while about whether it was something we wanted to do (in particular as there are reports of bad treatment of the elephants at some of the camps), eventually after a lot of research we contacted Patara Elephant Farm and booked onto their ‘Elephant Owner For A Day’ program.

The day started very early with pick up at 7.30am (how on earth did I ever get myself to work before 8am five days a week…?). And after collecting a few others around the city we were driven 29km south west of Chiang Mai to the farm. The first activity was meeting the baby elephants. Over the last few years the farm has averaged about four new babies a year and when we visited there were two who were just a few months old. They were extremely cute, quite playful and like small, very solid trains if they decided to walk into you!

20140208-143710.jpgMum and baby

20140211-160357.jpgSo cute…but don’t get in their way!

After saying goodbye to the babies, the group of about twenty visitors was split into two and taken to separate areas where each person was allocated an elephant. Our group’s leader, Atip, was responsible for teaching us about the elephants, and answering any questions that the elephant handlers (who generally only spoke basic English) couldn’t help with.

Firstly we had to make friends with our elephant. This took the form of bribery by feeding them bananas and chunks of sugar cane, and we learnt our first two elephant commands, ‘Buun’ which tells the elephant to lift their trunk and open their mouth, and ‘Deedee’ which means well done. Andrew’s elephant was Merjensai, a 23 year old female with a mischievous 2 year old baby, Yuli. My elephant was Bunjun, a 17 year old male, the only bull elephant in the group and absolutely enormous although very gentle.

20140208-144405.jpgAndrew and Merjensai

20140208-144418.jpgJulie and Bunjun

If you really owned an elephant, you’d need to know how to check she was healthy. There are four things to check.

  1. Her ears should flap and she should swish her tail approximately once per minute. This keeps flying insects off, not doing it might indicate a more serious underlying illness.
  2. Healthy elephants sleep lying down – check for patches of dirt on the side of the face and down the side of the body – both sides should be dirty as the elephant needs to turn over roughly once an hour
  3. Elephants only sweat between their toenails – sweating means she is properly hydrated
  4. Dung inspection – elephants eat almost constantly, by checking their poop you can make sure that their digestion is working properly
    • She should make at least five pieces of dung every 2-3 hours
    • Squeeze a piece, water should come out – the elephant is well hydrated
    • It should consist of small fibres – if you find whole or partial leaves the elephant might have a problem with its teeth (also happens with older elephants when they start to lose their teeth)
    • Smell it – it should smell OK, not unpleasant, this means it hasn’t been hanging around the elephant’s digestive system for ages

20140208-155415.jpgHealth check: ears are definitely flapping, sweaty between the toes, Andrew checking the dung

Having made sure that the elephant was suitably dirty from sleeping on the ground last night, we brushed them down with a bunch of twigs (the elephant used for demonstration made us laugh by eating the brush after being cleaned!), washed them off with a hose and gave them a drink – Bunjun liked to have his trunk filled from the hose which he then transferred to his mouth, Merjensai was a bit more direct and just took the hose directly into her mouth!

20140208-155407.jpgJulie brushing Bunjun’s back, and hosing him down

There are a few different ways of getting onto the elephant – by stepping onto the centre of the trunk and having them lift you up onto their head, by commanding the elephant to lie down and then scrambling up, or by stepping onto their right foreleg and hauling yourself from there onto their back. Most people chose the latter method, some managing it more gracefully than others! The correct place to sit is on the elephant’s neck, almost on top of their head with your knees supported by the ears. We were surprised by how much hair the elephants have, and how stiff and bristly it is.

Once we were all up, we set off for the hour long ride through the jungle to the river. The group was well spread out and as the elephants walk with a very slow and steady gait it was very peaceful. Merjensai’s baby, Yuli, was very wilful during the walk, often stopping dead in the path or trying to pull bark off trees.

20140208-151228.jpgPausing during the ride through the jungle

On reaching the river, everyone changed into their swimming gear and got ready to scrub the elephants. Atip explained that this was like elephant skincare and was an important part of keeping the elephant healthy by removing parasites.

20140208-153509.jpgThe splashing about in the river ended with a group photo and elephants spraying us with water

After a tasty lunch of barbecued meat, sticky rice and fresh fruit, the day ended with a short ride back to the roadside where the vans were parked ready to take us back to our hotels.

We were really pleased that we chose Patara, not only is the program extremely well run and all of the elephants we saw seemed well cared for, but they take heaps of photos and videos (and they’re very good at making sure they get everyone) which you then receive on DVD at the end of the day. The elephant handlers are also great at taking your own camera and snapping you with your elephant so you’re pretty much guaranteed to come away with some fantastic pictures to help you relive the memories.

Slowing down, or why we paused in Chiang Mai for 2 months

Before we started out on this two year adventure, the first and most common question we were asked about intending to travel for so long was “where are you going?” Our typical answer was to reel off a bucket list of destinations that went something like this:

Visas necessitated the planning up to the end of the Trans-Siberian as we wanted more than a month to travel across Russia, but beyond its borders our plan was pretty vague at the outset.

Sitting at the end of 2 months recuperation in Chiang Mai, we’ve had plenty of time to reflect on why we felt we needed to stay put for a while after 8 months of continuous travel. Now, I’m in no way trying to garner any form of sympathy here.. “oh, you poor things – travelling the world must be so exhausting!” I hear you cry.

And yes, I know you said that sarcastically.

Catching up on the blog writing, with a glass of wine in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Catching up on the blog writing, with a glass of wine in Chiang Mai, Thailand

When we were in the beautiful, ancient walled city of Pingyao in China, we got chatting to a couple from the UK who had moved to County Donegal a few years prior. During the conversation Steve said that his philosophy of travel is when he starts thinking of the next meal (instead of appreciating where he currently is), he knows it’s time to go home. We can honestly say that in the now 10 months since we left home, we haven’t reached that stage, but we were getting a little too accustomed to the ‘new-ness’ of everywhere.

A huge reason for travelling is to appreciate the differences. The differences in the people, their customs, their dress, their language, their beliefs, and their food. In the architecture, the infrastructure, the systems, the government, and the history – I know these words have many connotations but I use them here in their purest, neutral sense, without bias – to travel for me is to observe, experience, immerse and interact with the world. To revel in the differences. To make a connection with fellow man and to see the world anew.

For 8 months straight, we’ve typically spent no longer than 4 nights in a single place, every day doing something new, something different.

It’s been amazing, and we’ve experienced so much, but it’s also been exhausting. The cumulative and constant difference weighed on me like a 3rd rucksack and it started to dull my wonder and excitement for where we were.

We knew we needed some time to recharge, we needed the familiarity of the routine. We needed somewhere to completely unpack.

A flower in the swimming pool at our apartment in Chiang Mai

A flower in the swimming pool at our apartment in Chiang Mai

And so, for the past two months we made a little home-from-home in a very pleasant apartment in Chiang Mai. We’ve shopped regularly in the markets and supermarkets, cooked for ourselves and counted our laps of the swimming pool in Thai. We can navigate the city without a map, and we’re on first name terms with both our Thai masseuses and the staff at our local pub.

We’ve rested, we’ve recuperated, and now we’re ready to continue the adventure. We just hope it all fits back into the rucksacks!

Vive la différence!