Chiang Mai has always been in my travel list but never really pushed through with it. This year, my MBA classmates invited me to see the lantern festival and I said yes! Aside from this amazing experience, I was able to insert some temple visits and a trip to the elephant sanctuary. Read all about it below.
Total Travel Days: 4 days, 3 Nights
About Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai which means the “New City” is the largest in northern Thailand and resides along the famous Ping River, which flows through Thailand’s major river, the Chao Phraya River. Chiang Mai used to be the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and was well hidden in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, so long ago, visitors can only access it through the main river or through an elephant trek.
What to do in Chiang Mai?
Visit the Old City
The historical center is the old city center where you can find more than 30 temples (it used to be the center of Buddhism), night markets, nightlife, restaurants and local stores. It would be best to book your hotel in this area. The famous Chiang Mai night bazaar is located in Chang Klan Road. Over the years, Nimmanhaemin Road has gained popularity because of its arts and crafts stores and hip cafes and restaurants. There are 4 gates in the old city but the main entrance is the Thapae Gate facing the Ping River. Locals will advise you to start your walking tour in this landmark.
There are a few night markets within the old city. Just ask the locals and they will gladly point you to one. The most famous is the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar located in Chang Klan Road. You will see souvenirs, clothes, and lots and lots of local food.
Temples near and in the Old City
I wasn’t able to visit all the temples but these two made my list:
Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok is a Buddhist temple located about a kilometer from the Old city and you can reach it by Tuktuk. It houses the Buddha’s relics and ashes of some of the late Chiang Mai rulers. It was built in the 14th century. There is an entrance fee and you will have to observe proper attire to enter the temple.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is one of the temples inside the old city and is one of the most visited because of its unique architecture. It used to house the Emerald Buddha, one of the most important relics of Thailand which was later transferred to Bangkok.
Temple Tip: When you see the bells ring all of them and say a prayer or a wish!
The Lantern Festival, Yi Peng
To be honest, I hesitated at first to participate in this event because of the environmental controversies surrounding the release of candles on the water and lanterns to the air. This might even need to be a separate article but I have come to terms that participating in such traditions are accepted as long as these activities are mitigated to take into account the social cost and the respect for culture and tradition.
The Lantern Festival is celebrated in the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai Lunar Calendar which is usually around November. I thought it was just called the Lantern Festival but after researching I found out that there is some confusion between its two names, Loy Krathong and Yi Peng.
These are two different festivals but celebrated at the same time. Loy Krathong is observed all over the country by releasing floats decorated with flowers and candles, made out of banana trees or bread in the water (known as Krathong) as a way of worshiping the Goddess of the River. Yi Peng, on the other hand, is mostly celebrated in Northern Thailand like Chiang Mai. The locals release lanterns made of bamboo paper that look like hot-air balloons in the air to help alleviate troubles and to send out wishes. During this time, there are also parades, public performances, and fireworks around the city!
You can buy lanterns along the street and the most advisable location to release it is near the river in the old city. After releasing the lantern, you can also send out a krathong in the river by the bridge.
There are a few elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai that you can trust and one of them is Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, known for its sustainable and ethical treatment of the elephants. The sanctuary is almost a 2 hour drive away from city and you have the option to choose either a morning or afternoon or a whole day visit. We took the afternoon trip which costs 1,700 Baht per person. This includes the pick up, the trek, tour guide, and drop off.
I appreciated the briefing of the elephant caretaker (who also owns some of the elephants) as he shared the history of the sanctuary as well as the challenges they are facing in this type of eco-tourism project. He mentioned about how they carefully train and guide the elephants in the sanctuary and how over the years, this type of project helped create more jobs for the locals while giving home to these gentle giants. I do urge you to listen to the briefing and do some initial research before joining the tour.
A Half Day Afternoon Itinerary looks like this:
- Pick up from your place of accommodation
- 5 to 2 hour drive to the sanctuary. There will be a stop-over for pee break and some snacks.
- When you arrive at the sanctuary, there will be a 5-10 minute trek to the briefing area.
- You will change into a traditional Karen clothing and will be briefed about the sanctuary and how to care for the elephants.
- You will be given some bananas that you can feed to the free-roaming elephants. The caretakers will also give the elephants sugar canes to eat if they are still up for it! In between you can take photos, just be careful you don’t get smashed in between two giant elephants. They can get excited just by smelling all those bananas!
- After feeding the elephants, you will trek down to give them a mud bath so don’t forget to wear your swimsuit. While you’re at it, do give yourself some mud massage as well. Caution, the elephants ate a lot so the tendency is they poop afterwards. Yes, they will poop while you’re giving them a mud bath. No worries, they’re vegetarian?
- Lastly, you will take them to the nearby river and give them a final wash. They will also play with you too!
- Once everyone is clean, you’ll go back to the briefing area and get some snacks for yourself!
I did not go here but my friends did and they had so much fun! The Grand Canyon is a man-made watering hole created when the land was used to extend the international airport. You have the option to do cliff diving as high as 15 meters, try a small zipline, play on the inflatable obstacle course, and maybe even wakeboarding (if it’s still available). Roughly, it costs around 450 Baht to enter. There is a restaurant in the area but locals suggest to bring your own to save on costs. You can reach the waterpark by taxi or tuktuk and is around 20 to 30 minutes away from the city. Check this link for more information!
Thailand Food and Khao Soi of Chiang Mai
Thailand food is one of my favorite cuisines. Here’s a list of the food that you should try: Pad Thai (noodle), Khao Pad (Fried rice), Pad Krapow Moo Saap (Fried Basil and Pork, they also have a chicken version), and Gaeng Keow Wan Kai (Green Chicken Curry).
But when you are in Chiang Mai, the absolute must try is the local food called, Khao Soi. It’s a soup dish made from smoky, yellow (turmeric) curry and coconut milk with loads of boiled noodles and topped with crunchy fried noodles. It has chicken and beef flavor because of its Burmese Muslim roots; however, lots of new restaurants and local stores are adding new flavors like seafood and pork! I tried the shrimp flavor and it was spicy and good!
If I had more time, I will definitely visit the long neck tribe and the White Temple in Chiang Rai.
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Till the next trip! Ciao!