When people ask us, “If you could live in any city in the world, where would it be?” In Africa we’d say Cape Town, in South America…Buenos Aires, in Europe…San Sebastian, Spain, and in Asia it would be Chiang Mai, Thailand. There is something so loveable and liveable about this little northern city. It’s got a very strong cultural identity (the area was its own kingdom until 1939) but it’s also got a healthy dose of western influence. We visited two different groups of American friends that were happily living here which allowed us to experience the city as a traveler, expat, and local view into a town we could happily call home. Here’s a little Chiang Mai guide to get you started!
Chiang Mai was built in the 13th century as the capital city of the Lanna Kingdom with a moat and a massive wall to protect it. Inside is still a maze of small streets with dozens of ancient temples and traditional markets now mixed with trendy restaurants, boutiques, cooking schools, bike shops, and everything a local or westerner could want.
Most of the city’s temples have been restored to perfection and are fully operational with monks and locals coming to worship. Wat Lok Molee was one of the least ornate, believe it or not, with little gilding but still plenty of carvings, mirror inlay, and swooping lines. The Chiang Mai style is a mash-up of Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Lanna motifs and it’s some of the most beautiful in the country. Head over to our friend Noel’s sight for more must-see temples and things to do in Chiang Mai!
Despite the incredible restorations across this city, the dilapidated Wat Chedi Luang may have been our favorite temple. Built in the 1300s and destroyed in an earthquake in 1600s, it’s nice to see something in its original form.
It’s not often we have friends (much less Americans) to meet up with in these far-flung places, but in Chiang Mai we had quite the social calendar. These two lovely Texans and world travelers, Ashlie and Adrian, somehow stumbled upon HoneyTrek, reached out to commend our journey and invited us to visit them in Chiang Mai. They also made the around-the-world leap for over a year and started with a multi-month residence outside the walls of Chiang Mai. When we went to their apartment, we instantly clicked with them, swapping crazy stories for hours and planning our second date before the night was close to over.
In other fortuitous meetings, a college buddy put us in touch with her friend Dave who was leading a volunteer teaching program at a school for Buddhist monks. We exchanged emails for a while discussing how we could join the program, but when timing didn’t work out he said, “Hey, just come hang out with us in Chiang Mai.” He invited us to little get-together and to make things really interesting it was being held in his girlfriend’s costume shop. A few Chang beers later we were trying on wigs, then boas, and then tutus for a day of hysterical laughter and fast friends.
Nearly everyone at the party was either working or volunteering long-term in Chiang Mai (love this crew!) and their favorite weekly ritual is to go to the Sunday Night Market on Ratchadamnoen Road. The street shuts down and the whole town seems to come to stroll, graze, shop, and socialize.
The next day we ventured ten miles out of old town to the area’s most famous temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Three-hundred stairs lead up the mountain to this pilgrimage site (or if you’re feeling lazy there is a cable car for under a buck) but the schlep is well worth it with views to the city, beautiful architecture, and great people watching.
Like a hive of religious energy, devotees at Phrathat Doi Suthep are banging gongs, lighting votives, offering gifts, and doing plenty of prostrations (what looks like bowing) to honor this holy site. The temple alone is very impressive but observing the intensity of the rituals is really what struck us.
We could have happily stayed at our cute $10 guest house for a few more nights…but to do this special city justice, we had to try the luxury side of this Chiang Mai honeymoon. In scouting the area for romantic hotels we wanted to feature on Honeymoons.com, Rachamankha was the clear winner with a great location, stunning grounds, chic rooms, and a style that kept a sense of place. What a treat!
Chiang Mai has an incredible vibe about it. Perhaps it was the wonderful friends we made, but I think these new friends are representative of the good that is here. As adventurous and immersive travelers, we think the more remote, rugged, untouched, the better…but as Americans who dabble with the idea of living abroad, we’ll be keeping Chiang Mai on our short list.