Chiang Mai and Doi Suthep
The two friends I was traveling with had to head back to work this week so my solo trip was finally getting started! First stop: Koh Tao to get my PADI diving license. Unfortunately, it appeared that the bus plus ferry trip there from Bangkok needed to be booked 3 days in advance so I had some time to kill. I decided to take a quick trip to Chiang Mai as I have a friend that lives up there who graciously agreed to allow me to drop off some of my grotesquely overstuffed backpack. Yes, it’s an 11 hour train ride to get there and I’ll only be spending a single full day, but the prospect of a light travel bag was too good to pass up. Let that be a lesson to you all – don’t overpack! You don’t need that hoodie, you don’t need that sweater and, as far as I’ve seen, rains are heavy but fleeting, rarely lasting over 15minutes, so you don’t even need a raincoat. Travel was significantly easier once I dropped all that stuff off!
While making my Chiang Mai plans, still in the hostel where I had spent my last night with my hometown friends, I met a number of backpackers heading in that same direction. Looks like my solo trip ended as quickly as it had begun, but that’s one of the best parts about solo travel! We went out to get our train tickets, spent one more night out on the backpacker friendly Khao San Road, and headed north to Chiang Mai that next morning.
After the 11 hour train ride, we finally arrived. My friend’s dad was living only about ten minutes by car from the city center, but that was far enough to ensure that very few restaurants were still open at 9pm, when we went scavenging for food. The one we did find looked very surprised to see clients at this hour but they happily served us some amazing northern food. [Interestingly, that same restaurant was not open the following night at that same time and we had to settle for some frozen snacks from a local corner store.]
Chiang Mai is set at the foot of the mountainous Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Trekking up it on some more rented motorbikes provided all the cultural exploration needed to fill my only full day there. There are a number of belvederes, waterfalls, temples, and a village, all worth exploring. Unfortunately, we all had errands to run in the morning before heading up, so we started quite late and couldn’t make it all the way up. That being said, this trip was about lightening my travel load so the fact that it came with this adventure, featuring amazing views from various viewpoints up the mountain and the ability to explore one of the temples, was a solid bonus. I plan on coming back and seeing it all in a few weeks.
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the one temple we were able to visit, was absolutely spectacular and worth the trip alone. It is said to have been built in 1383 and is apparently the most impressive one on the mountain. You have the option of taking a tram from the road up to the temple, but I strongly recommend the stairs. They’re definitely doable, and it really adds to the experience, putting you more into the monks’ shoes, climbing it as they would have done so many times to get to their sacred site. Not to mention that the stairway in and of itself is a majestic structure. Counting just over 300 steps, it is bordered on both sides by a Naga, a mythical creature resembling a serpent found in many religions in the area (maybe an influence to Voldemort’s snake Nagiri, in Harry Potter).
Once at the top, as a foreigner, you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee. As is traditional in many Thai restaurants and temples, we left our shoes at the entrance and headed in. It really was a beautiful site. The most impressive feature was a golden stupa in the middle of the courtyard. It shone so brilliantly in the sun that I couldn’t get a picture that didn’t overwhelm my phone camera with light. There’s definitely a traveler tip in here somewhere.
While there, a monk tied a Sai Sin around my wrist while saying a prayer. The sai sin is a cotton thread and is supposed to provide protection and good health to the person wearing it. It is blessed ahead of time by the monks in spiritual rituals which involve chats, Sanskrit chants, candles and holy water.
We left before sundown to make sure we made it down safely but the road is very well paved and marked and I wouldn’t hesitate a night time descent next time if it means seeing more of the temples.
Despite our early departure, our attempt to visit the Monthathap Waterfall on the way down was thwarted as the path leading to it closes at 4:30pm, another thing to keep in mind if you’re looking to make the trip. That being said, we did discover a vibrant campsite at the fork leading to it. You could easily make a day out of this park adventure by camping out here.
Despite missing many landmarks in Chiang Mai, it peaked my interested and I definitely plan on coming back for an actual visit and not just a pitstop to unload my luggage. Not only were the sights and temples some of the most beautiful you’ll find in Thailand, but the city itself is cheaper than any I have been to so far (Thai massages still a must, and for B170, how could you not), and seemed more authentic in many ways. Before calling it a night, the city treated us to one more spectacular sight: the moat that surrounding the city center, fuelling fountains all along it and surrounding the crumbling city walls was nice during the day, but came alive with lights at night. Cannot wait to come back!