Chiang Mai: Exploring Temples and Bringing in a New Year

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January 11th 2013
Published: January 11th 2013
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From Kanchanaburi we took a short 3 hour bus to the Northern Bangkok bus station where we caught an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. It wasn't a sleeper bus with beds but they provided blankets and the chairs reclined enough to get some sleep. Since we hadn't booked the tickets to Chiang Mai in advance we had to take seats on the one bus that had 3 seats left. That meant arriving to Chiang Mai at 5:00am. We were very lucky to meet a couple who owned a guesthouse in Chiang Mai on our bus. They helped us get a cheap tuk-tuk to the city centre and also allowed us to sleep the rest of the morning free of charge (as long as we stayed the following night and paid for it).

When we woke up from our naps and got cleaned up we wanted to explore the city a little. Our main goal was to find new accommodations for the following day but we also wanted to get better acquainted with the area. Unfortunately we didn't pay attention to what part of town our guesthouse was in and got completely lost. We had a map so we knew where we were, but we didn't know where we were going. Tyler thought the guesthouse was in the south-east part of town, but it wasn't there. We only knew that it was on a Soi 3. A Soi is an alley and every main street has a number of Soi's that lead into a smaller neighbourhoods. Within the old town, there were about 5 Soi 3's all in different areas. At one point we recognized the store fronts but at that time were determined that our guesthouse was in the south-east; that meant going in the completely wrong direction. After a few hours of really getting to know Chiang Mai we found our way back to our guesthouse. Unfortunately we didn't find another place to stay. It was getting close to New Years Eve at this point and a lot of accommodations were booked up or couldn't promise 4 nights in a row due to upcoming reservations.

Our second day we went temple hopping! We set out to see three different temples that varied in size, age and architecture.

WAT PHRA SIGNH – Established in 1345; this temple houses Phra Singh, the city's revered Buddha image which is the focal point for the Thai New Year in mid-April. As soon as you walk in the main temple, you can see just how important it is to the locals. There were money flags hanging all over the place that are donated from locals, there are also money flowers as well as many other forms of donation and offerings of food or every day supplies (including whitening cream). There were also many chairs lining the walls of the temple that are wide enough for monks to sit cross-legged in – these were off limits to visitors but a few monks were sitting in their seats praying with locals. There was one monk sitting at the front of the temple that must have been meditating; he just sat there looking like a statue starring off with the most content expression on his face. As we walked around the grounds of this iconic temple, we came to a garden full of Buddhist sayings. Many of them commented on merit. Merit is similar to karma; one accumulates merit throughout a lifetime as a result of good deeds, thoughts and actions. Merit is carried from one life to the next and helps get you to Nirvana. The garden had such a serene ambiance we probably could have sat there all day contemplating the many sayings. One of our favourites was “Today is better than two tomorrows”. There are some smaller temples on the grounds as well that we explored a little. One had perfect replicas of monks that had passed on. We aren't 100% sure but they were likely made of wax and looked like real people sitting in a meditative state. Every detail to the smallest wrinkle, pair of glasses and minimal hair on their heads was added in to make us do a double take before realizing they weren't alive.

After exploring nearly every square inch of the property, we moved on to our second temple.

WAT CHEDI LUANG – The chedi (or stupa) ruins at this temple date back to 1441; at the time it was likely the tallest structure in Chiang Mai. The temple at Wat Chedi Luang was not nearly as impressive as the Wat Phra Singh but the intricate paintings and sculptures were just as stunning. However, the temple isn't really the main event. The chedi around back is beautiful. All that remains are the ruins (there are mixed stories to explain the destruction); depending on which angle you look at it, it could look like a mound of red dirt or you can picture what would have been a magnificent structure in its prime. On one side of the partially restored chedi there are still carved elephants guarding the entrance. It was breathtaking and we are so happy we took the time to see it.

Right next door was our third and smallest temple of the day.

WAT PHAN TAO – This temple is neither huge nor nearly as old as the others, yet it has its own unique beauty. The entire temple is made from teak. It is a large wooden structure with floorboards that creak, intricate carvings in the 28 massive pillars that hold it up and doorways with softened bases from so many bare feet passing through. The smell of incense and the quiet chatter of monks only adds to the atmosphere making it a warm, welcoming and spiritual place. There is a tree beside this temple with colourful prayer flags that completed the picture and was a wonderful end to our sightseeing for the afternoon.

With a full day of temples behind us we still needed to find a different accommodation. We already told our current guesthouse that we would stay one more night but were determined to find a different location with a more social atmosphere for the next three nights. None of the guesthouses we visited were sure what rooms they would have available so we wrote down phone numbers of our favourites with plans to call them first thing in the morning.

Our next morning started off with a mission. We called around to see if anyone had room and it turned out that Chok Dee (our first choice) had two rooms available for the next three nights. Tyler walked over to see what they were like and came back with good news that we had a new home at a friendly guesthouse that included a garden to chill out in and a hammock to swing or take a nap in. We thanked the couple for being so hospitable and helping us out in the middle of the night and then carried our bags from the south end of to the north end of the old town to find our new home.

Since the last couple days had been so busy we all decided to have a quiet day. We caught up on reading, posted some blogs and hung around the guesthouse most of the day. In the evening we went out again, this time to a temple up on the mountain. First we headed to the bus station where we thought we could catch a ride to the mountain. The lady at the bus station info desk told us we would have to catch it at the north gate so we retraced our steps and it didn't take long to find a ride to our destination. The reason we left our visit to so late in the day was to see the sunset from above the city.

WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP – is one of Northern Thailand's most sacred temples. We had read that there were over 500 steps to the top but Rebecca counted just over 300 so someone is exaggerating a little bit. The temple was packed! If we thought there were lots of people/donations/offerings at Wat Phra Singh this place had at least double the people in half the space. However, we were some of the only westerners and felt out of place watching the hundreds of people worshipping the beautiful temple and pagoda, the many gold Buddha's and other significant sculptures. After wandering around the temple for a little while we followed the crowds out to a view point that overlooked all of Chiang Mai. The panorama was gorgeous! We could see the mote surrounding Chiang Mai, the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang and all the mountains that surround the area. However, the view point looked south-east and we needed to be looking west for the sunset. We missed it; while the view overlooking Chiang Mai was amazing, we couldn't figure out how to see the sunset. There must be another lookout somewhere but we couldn't find it. As we hopped in a pick-up truck to take us back down the hill we saw a bunch of people coming down a different set of stairs and figured that was probably where the sunset viewpoint was. We weren't disappointed though, the view of Chiang Mai and seeing how important this temple is to the locals was reward enough. Another piece of Thailand's cultural puzzle was put into place.

It may seem like we spent all of our time in temples (which is also true) but the other main highlight for Chiang Mai was the night food market! The east gate of the old town came alive just after sunset. Vendors selling anything you could want were set up to feed you or sell you a handicraft. We walked around and through this market every night. Leading up to New Year Eve it seemed to get busier not only for tourists but also more vendors came out every night. There is also a Night Bazaar that takes up a few blocks even more east of the east gate that is great to walk around but they sell mostly clothes, jewlery, sunglasses, trinkets, souvenirs etc over there. For food, the night market was our buffet. Each night we had something different. Udon soup, delicious fresh sushi, fried chicken, fresh spring rolls, pad thai, thai sausages (not quite like home but close enough – same same but different), BBQ skewers etc. And that's only what we ate! The possibilities were endless. We also indulged in banana chocolate crepes a few times from other street vendors around town as well as wraps similar to a gyros at home. Chiang Mai is another great city for street food and we certainly ate our share.

We filled our days with temples and food and were quite content with the ratio of cultural sightseeing to local dining. Chiang Mai was the right place for us to settle a few days and we finished off our Thai experience with a fun-filled New Year Eve party.

Chiang Mai wanted to keep the New Years festivities family friendly so drinking was prohibited around the east gate night market every night including NYE. It just so happened that it was our Guesthouse's anniversary at the same time so they had a bunch of games and free food that we took part in for the evening. The games had to be rigged, not only did all three of us lose but an employee won both games. Since we aren't competitive in the slightest we were totally okay with that (haha). We had an awesome time partying with the guesthouse employees, making new friends with other people staying at the guesthouse and filling up on BBQ, pad thai and tom yum soup.

As it got closer to midnight we wanted to start heading into the action. Before that we had to let off a few lanterns. We had bought three Chinese lanterns to let off for good luck in the new year. Since we didn't want to do it with thousands of people around we let them off on our own right in front of our guesthouse. As our lanterns floated into the sky they joined the hundreds of other lanterns disappearing into the darkness. It was such an amazing sight. The sky on NYE was filled with lanterns and fireworks, we created our own milky way of lights all hoping for great things in 2013.

It was an exciting and memorable New Years Eve that the three of us will never forget. We are so happy Paul was here to share it with us!

Xoxo Ty+Becs

Additional photos below
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Dragon Bannister at Phra SignhDragon Bannister at Phra Signh
Dragon Bannister at Phra Signh

also referred to as "naga"

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