Every Sunday at sunset, Chiang Mai is transformed.
This is when the streets of the old city are closed to traffic, countless tourists and Thais conquer the space and the atmosphere becomes very festive: it is market day.
And it’s not because there aren’t many of them in Chiang Mai every day, no way. In fact, we can say quite clearly that this is a paradise for market lovers. But Sundays, what can we say… are special.
As soon as we enter the long avenue of Ratchadamnoen, once we pass through one of the old city gates, stalls with all kinds of handicrafts and knick-knacks take over the streets. Here the prices are announced, shouted, haggled over and, once agreed, paid. The best way to return home loaded with memories. This is pure local immersion.
Music is also present, of course: street artists and musicians enliven the cotarro. But there is something even more important : the food. In addition to the noise of the market, there are the street stalls, which follow one another by the dozens. Exotic smells permeate everything. Unspeakable proposals made with ingredients never seen before make hunger take hold of us and we inevitably taste everything we want. There is no doubt: Thailand is the paradise of street food.
Considered the second most important city in Thailand, Chiang Mai was founded by King Mengrai in the 13th century as the capital of the Lanna kingdom. And when it came to choosing a location, he couldn’t have been more careful: the surrounding landscape, formed by the mountains of northern Thailand – between Mount Doi Suthep and the Ping River – is simply spectacular.
But if there is one thing that convinces this city about anything else – apart from its markets – it is its overwhelming monumental offer. And when we use this adjective, believe us, we do so with all our might: Chiang Mai has more than 300 sacred temples scattered along its streets and is considered the center of Buddhism in northern Thailand. There is nothing there.
And it’s not like we’re going to visit the 300, don’t worry. But if we are willing to tour the city to soak up its essence, why not start on its most mystical side? Many of the temples are located in its historical center, a square delimited by the ancient walls and the city’s moat. One of them is the Wat Phra Singh, where the most venerated Buddha of all Chiang Mai is located.
The smoke from the incense of the offerings, the prayers whispered aloud, the atmosphere of respect shown by all the faithful… Everything helps us to connect with the place immediately. The surprise – or scare, that is… – we will take away with us when we come across such realistic life-size figures of deceased monks that we will always doubt whether they are real people or not.
In the surroundings of the temple, the gardens invite to take a walk. It will probably surprise us, but it will be normal that some group of novices will approach us eager for conversation: their purpose is to practice English and we are a very easy target. It is a golden opportunity to discover the open and hospitable character of the Thai people and why not take advantage of it and get interested in what life in a monastery is like.
And from temple to temple, that’s what it’s all about! We visit one of our favorites: Wat Chedi Luang. We don’t know if it’s because of its grandiosity or its beauty, but what we do know is that this place has something special.
Although today it is half in ruins – it is believed to have been caused by an earthquake – contemplating the immense and imposing Chedi, probably the tallest building in ancient Chiang Mai, leaves one speechless.
Also wonderful is the Wat Phan Tao, an old royal residence converted into one of Chiang Mai’s treasures: a temple built entirely of teak wood. And, once outside the ancient city, the Wat Sri Suphan, whose prayer hall built entirely of silver is the only one of its kind in the whole country. A curiosity? There, they organize talks with monks and meditation classes.
But if there is one temple that is a must see in Chiang Mai, it is the one that takes us to the top of Mount Doi Suthep: the Wat Doi Suthep. Getting there involves a trip in a tuc-tuc combined with another in a songthaew -vans used for public transport-. Once up, you have to climb again: this time the 306 steps flanked by two dragon-shaped railings.
Many of the faithful arrive here attracted by the Buddha’s relic that is kept inside their chedi. But we are left with the peace of their courtyards and the incredible view of Chiang Mai from them. Fabulous!
And once we’ve paid our respects to all the Buddha figures we’ve had the chance to see, it’s time to do the same with our appetites, which are already getting hungry! The ethnic diversity of these places is also reflected in their gastronomy, and the restaurants where you can taste traditional dishes from all over the country are proliferating in every corner of the city.
A great idea is to go to Nimmanhaemin Road, one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in Chiang Mai. In addition to restaurants with cuisines from all over the world, here you will also find art galleries, cafes, original shops, and the most intriguing corners.
We, however, have a classic: in the Lemongrass Thai Restaurant we taste the best of the best Thai cuisine. It doesn’t hurt to arrive early to this cozy place, always full of people, or to be patient: the waiting list is usually long. Pulling up the traditional pad thai or one of their delicious spicy soups will be a good idea. Finally, one more detail: we cannot leave without leaving our signature on the walls of the restaurant. A real custom.
Another more elegant culinary option is David’s Kitchen . At the base of this business, there are three names: David, a London businessman living in Thailand, Prom, a Thai cook -and David’s wife-, and Chef O, who has worked in the best kitchens in the country and is capable of preparing the most exquisite veal-based recipes. The restaurant, located in a beautiful country house 10 minutes from the center of Chiang Mai, brings the rest of the charm to this beautiful project.
But if there is one really nice project in Chiang Mai, it is the one at the Women’s Prison Massage Center. In a small wooden building surrounded by gardens next to the prison, the inmates, who have previously been trained in this blessed Thai art, offer body and foot massages at a more than competitive price.
This is a reintegration plan so that those women who are about to serve their sentence will have a profession when they are released. The massage rooms are common, with elegant stretchers and a very relaxed atmosphere. An experience -we promise- of 10.
But Chiang Mai is a lively, enthusiastic and happy city. And you can tell that just by walking through its streets, yes, but if it is in one of its night markets and with a Singha -read, one of the most popular beers in the country- in hand, better than better.
And, at this point, two proposals that cannot be left out. On the one hand, a walk to the traditional Night Market: a building with several floors where souvenir shops and boutiques, antique dealers and craftsmen share space and offer their products together with a variety of restaurants. If we were not lucky enough to find souvenirs to take home at the Sunday market, don’t worry, this is the perfect place!
On the other hand, the Ploen Ruedee Night Market , a very attractive open-air space that represents the coolest atmosphere in town. Here, food trucks of all kinds surround a central plaza with tables and benches made from piles of hay. An original and transgressive corner where you can enjoy live music and share the best experience with other travelers and locals.
After the visit, we have no doubt: Chiang Mai is special. And the best farewell we could have had of it, is celebrated here.
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