Colouring the mind in Chiang Mai

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January 18th 2020
Published: June 11th 2020
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It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop… ~ Thai Proverb

Today we were continuing to explore the tranquil city of Chiang Mai.

I woke early and used the quiet morning stillness to proofread and edit a work-related quotation request we’d received hours before leaving Australia, and one that I so desperately wanted to finish.

We left our hotel (the People Place Hotel) at 8:30am in search of a breakfast café that had been recommended in our Lonely Planet guide, but alas, couldn’t find it. We received some very helpful directions from a young local boy on his way to school, although I should point out that he had no choice in the matter. We’d actually approached his friendly mother for directions, and she told him to help us. He looked up the restaurant on Goggle Maps, then described how we should get there. We weren’t convinced, so we gave up on the restaurant and went for our second choice (L’Opera), which was very close to our hotel, but had been closed the day before.

We settled at an outside table and ordered Thai milk teas on ice and a pistachio and almond croissant each. It was a perfect breakfast! The tea was incredibly refreshing, and the croissant was other-worldly. The French have had such an influence (in terms of bakery products) in Indochina.

We decided to dedicate the entire day to exploring Chiang Mai’s Old City, so we set off from the café in the direction of the Old City walls. On the way we stumbled upon the street the young school boy had directed us to earlier, and lo and behold – there was the restaurant we’d been looking for. He’d been right all along. Of course he had! He was local and knew his way around. It shouldn’t have made any difference that he was only eight years old! I felt ageism and guilt weighing heavily on my old conventional shoulders. I remember him waving goodbye to us and calling out ‘Good luck’. Maybe he knew we’d have trouble finding the place, and that we’d end up having to settle for our second choice. In the end it worked out well for us, because L’Opera was an amazing bakery.

We continued on until we arrived at the Old City walls, then followed the moat until we could cross. We entered the Old City and wandered aimlessly for a while. We stumbled upon an odd temple with gaudy Chucky-like statues everywhere, then followed a few narrow laneways to the impressive Wat Chedi Luang. Despite visiting this temple nine years earlier, its grandeur hadn’t waned with time. It was (and is) an amazing place.

On our way to the old chedi (a towering ruin behind the modern temple), we met two young students from the University of Chiang Mai who were both studying a Bachelor of Education. They were on assignment, and they needed to interview foreigners to practice their English. They asked for ten minutes of our time, and we were more than happy to accommodate them. I was interviewed by May Tee, and Ren was interviewed by Ying. They asked a set of standard questions, such as ‘Where are you from’; ‘What do you like the most about Chiang Mai’; What is your favourite Thai food’; and ‘What is the best tourist attraction in your country’. Some of these were easy to answer, while others were not easy at all. What is Australia’s best tourist attraction? I initially said Maria Island off the eastern coast of Tasmania, but poor May Tee looked confused, so I relented and said the Sydney Opera House, which made him smile immediately. He agreed with (and recorded) my second answer! I hope he gets a chance to study objective research methods. 😊

As we wandered around the base of the chedi, we noticed a bustle or activity amongst the monks. We surmised that a festival of sorts was about the start, and then I noticed tents in the distance with signs saying: ‘Free food and drinks’. It was the Celebration of the Master, and volunteers were feeding the masses. We enjoyed an amazing bowl of kway teow ruea (noodles with broth, pork and fish balls – commonly known as boat noodles), along with endless glasses of cold Thai milk tea, macha tea, and lemon and tamarind juice – that latter of which was an absolute revelation. We also enjoyed a few cones of coconut ice cream. It was an incredible atmosphere, and the volunteers were not discriminating between the tourists (of which there were many) and the locals. At times I felt we shouldn’t be enjoying this hospitality. There were so many others within the Old City walls that needed this food. However, it is hard to escape the altruism and enthusiasm of Buddha’s friendly followers. And while tourists seemed to be the main beneficiaries of the temple’s generosity, locals were also benefiting from the free food and drinks.

We left Wat Chedi Luang and wandered a few familiar streets on our way to the Anusawari Sam Kasat (Three King’s Monument), then walked a short distance southwards to the serene Wat Phan Tao. This was an incredibly calm place, and I could have stayed for quite a while in the shadows of the ribbons and flags that shielded us from the hot rays of the sun.

We dropped into a few more temples on the way to our pre-destined lunch stop – Khao Soi Islam. Khao soi is Chiang Mai’s unofficial city dish (according to the Lonely Planet), and I can see why. Wheat and egg noodles in a curry and coconut broth, served with pickled vegetables and fresh lime. It was simply amazing, and quite a revelation. I don’t remember trying the dish on our previous visit to Chiang Mai, so I’m glad I sampled it this time around. I think it will become my favourite Thai dish! Even better than pad thai 😊

Apart from a young-ish English guy sitting beside us, the place was packed with locals. This was not a tourist restaurant. It was basic – plastic stools to sit on, plastic bowls to eat from. But when the food is this good, who cares about the surrounds. It was hearty home-cooked fare, and it was sensational.

Feeling completely refreshed, we decided it was time to make our way back to the hotel. On the way we stumbled upon the Lanna Silver Cafe, and the display window caught Ren’s eye. Once inside, Ren was mesmerised by the quality and design of the silverware. She opted for some stunning earrings, and it was a wise choice – they looked fantastic.

We left the Old City, crossed the Mae Ping River via the Nawarat Bridge, walked a short distance southwards along the river bank, and then re-crossed the river via the Iron Bridge. The afternoon sun was gaining heat, so we settled at the River Market Restaurant for a beer (me) and coconut smoothie (Ren). It may have been a little expensive, but it was a relief to escape the searing sun and refresh with something cold as we gazed over the murky Mae Ping.

Unbeknown to us, we were less than a kilometre from our hotel. We navigated the deserted Anusarn Night Market and arrived back at the People Place Hotel at 3:30pm. We had been walking for seven hours, and it had been an exceptional day. I absolutely loved Chiang Mai the last time I visited, and my opinion hasn’t changed. This laid back city is very inviting, very welcoming and very relaxing. Nine years ago I thought I could easily live here, and I don’t think my mind has changed all that much.

I settled in our room and finalised the work quotation I’d been working on since arriving in Thailand. It was such a relief to press send on the email. I was now entirely free to enjoy the remainder of our holiday. We prepared our packs for an early start the following day (we were leaving Chiang Mai and heading northeast to Chiang Khong via Chiang Rai), then relaxed in our room as we caught up on our travel notes. I celebrated our fantastic travel day with a cold Chang beer.

I began to fade around 10pm. After seven hours on our feet in Chiang Mai’s bustling Old City, it was time to retire…

It was our first full day in Chiang Mai, and even though we woke before 7am, we had to attend to some work and didn’t leave our hotel until 8:30am. We tried to look for a local bakery mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, but on failing to find it (despite getting directions from a lovely Mum and her young son), we backtracked to the French bakery we’d tried to eat at the day before – and happily it was open. We settled in at L’Opera for almond croissants and cha yen (Thai iced teas). Both were excellent and exactly the breakfast we needed.

Suitably fed and watered, we started walking towards the Old City. The part of Chiang Mai we were staying in had a slightly polished feel as well as hints of cool hipster touches. I particularly loved the bright yellow Kombi that had been converted to a mobile cafe. At the first intersection we came to, we saw the local bakery we’d been looking for! It’s the second time this trip that our map reading skills have been thwarted by being one street over in the wrong direction!

The walk to the Old City was straightforward and enjoyable. We soon reached the moat that guarded a section of the Old City’ brick wall. Instead of faithfully following the LP guide walking tour, we decided to handpick only the highlights. This would allow us time to stop at other random temples, shops and sights that caught our fancy – such as our first stop at the small Wat Pha Khao. One of the first things we noticed at this temple was it seemed to have a weird collection of small statues that would have given the dolls from the Chucky horror films a run for their money. I’m sure they had some significance, but they amused us very much.

I didn’t find Wat Pha Khao that noteworthy, but I was very drawn to the temple-shaped spirit house under a large bodhi tree. I can’t explain why, but I really liked it. I began to wish that we’d come across this temple at the end of our day, so that I could have taken up the foot reflexology massages they were offering. I absolutely love a good reflexology foot massage, but on second thought it’s probably not a great idea to have one when we have many days of walking ahead of us.

We then walked to Wat Chedi Luang. This had been our favorite of the main temples we visited last time, and roaming the vast temple grounds was still as enjoyable as I remembered it. As we entered the temple we were approached by two students from Chiang Mai University who were interviewing tourists for an assignment. They were second year students studying a Bachelor of Education. After we’d answered their questions (on Australia and on our general impressions about Chiang Mai), we had our photos taken with them as proof of the interviews. They would be presenting their findings at a presentation at the end of term.

After the interviews, we continued chatting informally with them for a little while. I asked them about the people they’d interviewed and the general gist of what they’d said. Interestingly ‘food’ was a popular answer to what people loved the most about Chiang Mai, followed closely by ‘temples’. They said Australian and British tourists were the most polite and helpful with the interviews, and their least favourite tourists were the Chinese. I asked if it was a language issue (they both spoke English but not Mandarin or Cantonese), to which the girl said ‘no’ and was about to share more, but was cautioned in Thai by the other student. Fair enough I suppose. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon theme we’ve come across on this trip – it’s increasing implied that there are too many Chinese tourists in Thailand.

In the last nine years, the tourist demographic in Thailand has truly changed. When we asked for a map at our hotel in Bangkok, the only tourist maps they had were in Chinese, and we had to look far and wide to get one in English (or any language we could decipher). I’ve also noticed that street and shop signs are now in three languages – Thai, Chinese and English. Naa (our group leader) has also made a few disparaging comments, especially in relation to the fact that it would be Chinese New Year soon and the country will be ‘flooded with them’.

We’ve encountered the big (and loud) tours in Australia and other countries. I detest how they use their massive group size to bulldoze their way through the places they visit, with no consideration for anyone or anything else. But it hadn’t occurred to me that these Asian countries close to China were far more popular than Australia. I’m all for encouraging everyone to broaden their views on life and the world by travelling, but certainly not to an extent that it drastically alters the destination and creates resentment in the locals! Will local governments ever prioritise the wellbeing of their people and the land over short term profit? 😞

Generally speaking, Thai people have always been very warm, polite and welcoming of us to their country, so it’s sad that they feel their country is being overrun by tourists. I should note that they’ve put up with masses of drunken and badly behaved Australians on the southern beaches for decades… but I suppose those particular bogans are mostly contained in the tourist resort towns and don’t move around en masse through cities, getting in the way of everyday Thai people going about their lives.

Anyway, back to Wat Chedi Luang. As eye catching as the main prayer hall with its large standing Buddha is, my most favourite part of this complex is the ruins of the ancient chedi behind it. As we walked through the complex, I couldn’t tell if they’d restored anymore of the brickwork on the old chedi since our last visit, or if it just felt different because of the addition of more shrines around the base than there used to be. We checked out the beautiful Bhuridatto Viharn and a few of the other smaller prayer halls, and watched the young monks from the resident university setting up for a ceremony.

On an architectural note, I know precious little about Thai temple architecture, but I much prefer the northern Lanna style of temples, because even though they are incredibly ornate on the outside, the inside is far more minimalist and allows me to fittingly focus my attention on the main feature – the Buddha statue/s. So many temples are so full of so many features that the main altar feels lost in all the clutter.

As we were making our way around the ruins, Andrew saw a row of large tents set up with banners offering free food and drinks to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the temple’s Abbot. The dozen or so food stalls were run by an army of amazingly happy volunteers. They weren’t happy if we walked passed them without trying their food, and one stall actually jokingly heckled us until we apologised profusely because we were too full to try their dish. We had an amazingly fabulous kway teow ruea (Thai boat noodles), after which I really didn’t have any space to taste the pork and rice dish, the pork crackling and chilli dish, or the Chiang Mai sausages. The boat noodles were seriously delicious – thin rice vermicelli noodles, bean shoots, thin sliced pork, pork balls, spring onion and herbs with a luscious dark brown spiced broth poured over it. I later realised that the broth had blood in it, but it certainly didn’t taste weird, nor did I have a psychosomatic reaction to it! Did I say it was amazingly delicious?

From the drinks stall we got an excellent tamarind and lime drink, a good Thai iced tea and an iced matcha tea (made with green tea powder) that I wasn’t a fan of. We were so thirsty, we lined up a couple of times to get more of the tamarind and lime drink. And I also had two serves of coconut ice cream in small cones… even though it meant lining up with all the little kids. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for good ice cream! 😊

Our visit to Wat Chedi Luang was made all the more lovely by experiencing this generous and happy feeding of the masses. We’d been hesitant to take part at first, as we thought it was an alms giving for the less fortunate – but I’m so glad we were asked to join in. I only wish we’d been hungrier to try all the stalls. At the very least, it would have made the volunteers happy! On the downside, because of the celebrations taking place, the daily ‘Monk Chat’ program wasn’t running. As part of the program, you can sit at a table and wait for a free monk to come over and chat to you. They get to practice their English, and we get to ask questions about Buddhism and their monk life. We really enjoyed this last time, and we had been looking forward to it again. Oh well.

Eventually leaving the temple, we explored more of the old city. We walked down sois (lanes), side streets and large traffic filled roads. The laid back vibe of the Old City I so loved the last time is still pretty evident, but it seems to have lost a lot of its bohemian culture.

We walked to the slightly underwhelming Three Kings Monument, which apart from being in a pleasant setting on a square, probably wasn’t worth the walk to see. Although I have to admit, the more I looked at the three ‘manly’ bronze statues, the more oddly attractive they became… Andrew didn’t agree with that assessment. 😉

We back-tracked to visit Wat Phan Tao. Unfortunately the beautiful old teak prayer hall was being renovated, so we walked through the rest of the temple grounds. It was very serene and peaceful, and we were glad for the shady courtyard where we planned our next activity.

We also briefly visited Wat Sum Pow – a small temple that was a bit too gilded for my taste. The temple grounds were randomly decorated with small plaques that had short Buddhist sayings inscribed on them, and my favourite was ‘the worth of a thing is best known by the want of it’.

We were starting to get weary and decided to end our walking tour of the Old City and head out to look for the famous khao soi noodle stalls recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. We started walking towards the old brick Thai Pae gate on the eastern side of the city, and on the way I stumbled upon Lanna Silver Cafe, a small shop full of beautiful silver jewellery that was handmade by a local designer. I fell in love with so many pieces, but limited myself (with much difficulty) to just one pair of earrings.

The Thai Pae gate leads to a large square which should be inviting and lovely, but has always felt quite dodgy to me. We followed the road east to the Ping River, via the small Chinatown area. We knew the khao soi eateries were between the river and the Matsayit Ban Haw mosque. However, we were missing a crucial bit of information that required us to turn into a tiny lane! A friendly tuk-tuk driver helped us find it, and even drove alongside us at walking speed to point out the lane entrance. We felt bad that we couldn’t help him out with a fare.

We found the two most recommended khao soi stalls, but the one we wanted to try (Khao Soi Fueng Fah) didn’t have a single customer in it, whereas our second choice (Khao Soi Islam) was packed to the rafters with locals – so it was an easy choice to go there. Khao soi is a fragrant spice-laden coconut milk-based broth served with fresh yellow egg noodles as well as crispy fried noodles. It’s very popular in Northern Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, and has similarities with a Singaporean / Malaysian curry laksa.

We sat on the end of one of the many long share tables, and Andrew ordered the lighter vegetarian version, while I had the normal chicken coconut curry-based noodle dish. We weren’t disappointed! Both dishes were seriously tasty, and we can see why the place was so packed even in the late afternoon. The noodle soup came with a side of pickled cabbage, fresh shallots and plenty of lime wedges, which lifted the dish a few more notches. The spice level was quite manageable, but my iced cold guava juice was still a welcome relief from the chilli. Andrew enjoyed his Thai iced tea… I think he’s even more addicted to them than I am!

A British expat was sharing our table, and we got talking to him after he got the hiccups from the chilli overload in his dish (poor bloke was very embarrassed by it!). He’d been living in Thailand for 10 years, and this place was his weekend indulgence. He rated it as the best khao soi in town. If we had more time in Chiang Mai, we would have definitely gone back to try the other dishes he was raving about… and for more khao soi! 😊

We walked back to our hotel via the Iron Bridge, but decided to stop for a cold drink at River Market Restaurant – a posh looking restaurant set in lovely lawns right on the banks of the river. I had a refreshing coconut smoothie that was served in a huge coconut with a cocktail umbrella in proper kitsch ‘80s style. Andrew’s Singha beer looked quite ordinary by comparison. As nice as it was to stop and have cold drinks, we were paying for the location and ambiance… the two drinks cost more than two meals and two drinks we’d just had at Khao Soi Islam!

We returned to our hotel, picked up our laundry from the very lovely laundry woman, and barely had time to cool down in our room before we had to attend a group meeting to fill in our forms for our Laos visas. I thought we’d be done in a few minutes, but the forms were weirdly complicated and took ages to get through. Luckily Naa was familiar with the forms and could interpret the oddly worded questions. We also needed scissors as none of our passport sized photos would fit into the tiny photo space on the forms.

Most of the group was heading to the Saturday Night Walking Street, but we opted to retire to our room and have a quiet evening. We had spent seven hours on our feet that day, and seriously enjoyed the quiet downtime. The work project proposal that that been hanging over our heads for the last few days was finally finished and emailed to the client! Yey! We then leisurely packed and caught up on our travel notes.

We’d been itching to come back to Chiang Mai since our last trip, and it was so lovely to have finally done so. Back then, we’d even said that we could consider living in Chiang Mai for a while. However, after this visit it had slipped down my list of potential places. For one, I was quite surprised by the fact that yet again we were challenged by the harsh sun, and it was only January. And secondly, the laidback bohemian vibe I had fallen in love with had been somewhat overtaken by mainstream commerce. At this point I feel another visit to Chiang Mai is probably unlikely, but then again… that khao soi was so bloody delicious! 😄

Next we travel northeast on a long travel day to Chiang Khong via Chaing Rai.


11th June 2020
coconut smoothie

Cool and Refreshing
Loving the life in Thailand.
11th June 2020
coconut smoothie

Re: Cool and Refreshing
That huge coconut smoothie was the perfect antidote for that incredibly hot afternoon! :)
11th June 2020
thai boat noodles

Nice noodle shot
I like shooting from above. I like the perspective.
11th June 2020
thai boat noodles

Re: Nice noodle shot
Thanks Merry. I’m partial to the flat lay shot for noodle soups too... gets tricky if there are two bowls of different heights though, or when my arms aren’t long enough :)
11th June 2020
buddhist saying

This is so true it hurts. Being locked up and denied normal life has made us realise what we really want. High five to that!
11th June 2020
buddhist saying

Re: Truth!
I agree Josie. Downtime and reflection is never a bad thing :)
12th June 2020
khao soi

Have you been weaned off pad thai?
Oh my, two photos of khao soi! One of the reasons why I hate getting dragged into discussions about Thai food with Americans is that they seem to think pad thai is eaten at every meal and with curry. Ugh. And when I eat out with friends I almost always face a rebellion if I steer them away from pad thai to other dishes. Rant aside, I hope you experienced the Lao version of khao soi after you made your way over the border. Back when I visited Laos in 2017, I certainly was surprised when the bowl came!
12th June 2020
khao soi

Re: Have you been weaned off pad thai?
Haha pad thai is a firm favourite and always will be! And we've found that it's not a bad idea to have steaming hot / just cooked noodles in the first few days in Thailand... until our tummies adjust to things. Khao soi is close to one of my most favourite northern Thai dishes! I'd really struggle to pick between that and a jungle curry.
12th June 2020

Relaxing Chiang Mai
Good to reconnect with Chiang Mai as it is a great town. Its great to read about your explorations. Glad the work is done and you had proper answer for the survey. LOL.
12th June 2020

Re: Relaxing Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a great town! We were very tired but very happy after spending time reacquainting ourselves with it. However I don’t know if our tolerance for heat has waned or if Chiang Mai has got hotter - but the heat seemed worse than on the last trip (which was in a warmer time of year)!
12th June 2020

Khao Soi
The Khao Soi dish sounds wonderful! And I'm with Andrew as far as the beer goes - I'm remembering all the beer we enjoyed on our SE Asia trip. It was so hot and cold beer was so refreshing. We started the trip in Bangkok then headed to Cambodia so we'd like to go back to Thailand some time to see other parts of the country. Chiang Mai sounds very nice :)
12th June 2020

Re: Khao Soi
It’s an awesome dish! I can easily live on noodle soups in winter and khao soi is in my top five picks. Andrew loves beer in hot weather and I wish I did too... but I just don’t have a taste for it. I re-read your Thailand blogs after your last comment here and remembered that it may have been when we first started communicating :)
14th June 2020

Down memory lane
The cobwebs in my mind have been brushed aside. A pleasure and a blessing walking those streets again some decades later. Although my memory fails me regarding the weather, much remains. What a pleasure and a blessing indeed.
15th June 2020

Re: Down memory lane
Hi Chris. So happy you could reminisce about your time in Chiang Mai. Thanks for commenting :)
28th June 2020

Chiang Mai
Wow, Chiang Mai seems to be at the top of the list for so many people and I can see why! It would be difficult to top a day with great sights as well as great food! Cool to be interviewed for your thoughts on Chiang Mai/Thailand while also learning their thoughts about other Asian tourists! You both must have breathed a sigh of relief when you sent your work proposal project on its merry way!!
29th June 2020

Re: Chiang Mai
Hi Sylvia. Chiang Mai is a very charming city, and the great food definitely makes it more attractive. It's a pity that mass tourism had somewhat changed its laid-back vibe... but hopefully this new reality will allow cities to regenerate a bit before tourism takes hold again. Sending that work proposal off was such a relief :)
14th September 2020
wat phan tao

Chiang Mai - next time hopefully
We've been to Thailand twice but so far we haven't made it to Chiang Mai. We'd love to go there so hopefully we'll be able to go back to Thailand again some day. Then hopefully we'll be able to go there. /Ake.
15th September 2020
wat phan tao

Re: Chiang Mai - next time hopefully
I would definitely recommend a trip to Chiang Mai Ake. Not only is it extremely interesting, but the people and the culture are quite different from southern and central Thailand. It's still a favourite after our third visit :)

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