Post 2 of the South East Asian Adventure series. View the rest of the series so far here.
Following our introduction to Chiang Mai the previous day, we were ready to see much more of the city today. We picked out a few must-see sights – Wat Phra Singh, Wat Suan Dok, Doi Suthep and Sunday Walking Street – and after a simple breakfast of fried eggs on toast at our guesthouse, set off for another hot day of sightseeing.
We began at Wat Phra Singh, mere minutes from our guesthouse. It featured glorious, elephant-adorned, golden chedis (spire-like towers), lots of bells and a lush leafy garden, whose trees hosted pithy Buddhist sayings. Some were very wise, some were funny, and some were both – a particular favourite of mine was, “There is no glory for a lazy person, however good looking”. The garden’s avenue of palm trees was especially beautiful.
Wat Suan Dok
Next we walked to Wat Suan Dok, located quite a distance along Suthep Road, west of the Old City. A task easier said than done, thanks to the roads at the Old City’s west gate being almost impossible to cross. But the temple complex was worth the effort. Its defining feature was a large, ethereal cemetery of snow-white chedis, allegedly containing the ashes of members of Chiang Mai’s royal family. Behind it lay a golden spire and a grand airy temple, its carnival-coloured interior featuring beautiful wood carvings, a high arched ceiling and the largest Buddha I saw in all of Asia.
Our first songthaew
We knew that songthaews – small, van-like vehicles comprising a small driving cab and an open cabin containing benches – could be used to get from place to place, but weren’t sure of how they worked. Were they like taxis or local buses? Vaguely remembering something I’d read, I succeeded in hailing one down from the roadside. I asked the driver if we could go to the mountain-top temple Doi Suthep and he seemed to indicate for us to get in – albeit while saying he was going to the zoo. We climbed into the back of the contraption, slid onto the laminated green benches and watched through the back as we sped off.
Alighting at the entrance to the zoo, we walked further up the road and spotted a row of bright red songthaews that we realised would probably take us the rest of the way. Before going up though we decided to satisfy our curiosity by following a trail of signs pointing towards a waterfall. Just minutes later we were hopping across rocks in a pretty tropical forest – although the waterfall itself was rather small!
Back at the row of songthaews, we agreed a price to be taken up to Doi Suthep and back (200 baht, or about £4.40, each). Thanks to the almost empty roads and the beautiful natural setting of Doi Suthep National Park, this journey was much more enjoyable than our first. We climbed the mountain at a swift pace, the road twisting steeply through picturesque forest, while the open windows and back gave us great views of the scenery and a blissfully refreshing breeze. Our driver stopped halfway up the mountain so that we could get out and look out over the city, already so far behind and below us.
Reaching the top of the mountain, we agreed on a time to reconvene with our driver (he didn’t ask for any payment at this point, which we thought was extremely trusting) and walked off in search of lunch. There was a small market preceding the temple staircase, and among its stalls was a tent serving sit-down meals. My eyes lit up when I looked at the menu and saw khao soi – the traditional Chiang Mai dish I’d been wanting to try. Minutes later a steaming bowl of curry noodle soup, topped with deep-fried noodles and a chicken drumstick, arrived. The soup was richly flavoured with coconut and warming curry spices, and the chicken falling apart – I knew I’d found my new favourite Thai dish. Afterwards we bought ice creams from the stall opposite before ascending the 300 steps up to Doi Suthep’s gate. Bordered by long, undulating dragons, this is the longest ‘Naga staircase’ in Thailand.
Doi Suthep was undoubtedly the grandest temple complex we saw, helped in no small part by the panoramic views from its edges. The central temple was an opulent palace of gold, red and white. We padded barefoot over its patterned tiles, watching as people bowed their heads to Buddha statues of every shape, size and colour. The surrounding plaza held numerous bell towers, shrines and other monuments, as well as a beautiful patio filled with flowers.
Old City limits
Back down at the roadside, we found our driver and sped back down the hill. At the bottom we switched to another songthaew to return to the Old City, deciding to go to the northern edge that we hadn’t yet seen. We were dropped off at Wat Lok Molee, comprising a dark wood temple surrounded by small red animal figures and another tall brick tower with a water pulley.
We continued to walk along the Old City moat, our final destination being Sunday Walking Street at the eastern gate. The long path took us past yet more temples, as well as some fountains transforming the sun’s bright rays into rainbows. By the time we reached the city’s eastern wall we were very hot and tired and stopped for some much-needed rest and refreshment at Loco Elvis: an unashamedly touristy bar, which drew us in with its ceiling fans and cheap cocktails. I couldn’t resist getting a ‘mugarita’ – a very large, very cheap, very sweet margarita that was delicious and, most importantly, freezing cold!
Splashing and splurging
Sunday Walking Street was very much like Saturday Night Market, only with more shops and restaurants behind the stalls. We were halfway along when a torrential rain storm started, sending everyone running for cover under shop entrances. Mere seconds in that downpour soaked us to the skin!
For a considerable time we sat in the doorway of a pharmacy, watching the stall holders rushing to pack up or to hang plastic covers over their wares. When the rain eventually calmed down we continued down the street to a casual restaurant called 92 Rachadamneon. Here I had a deliciously fresh and zingy chicken green curry soup with rice (shaped into a heart!), while Steve had a tasty beef stir-fry.
The restaurant didn’t do dessert, so to satisfy our sweet tooth we headed back down Sunday Walking Street to Kalapela: an upmarket tea lounge. It was empty when we arrived and the garden was closed, but they were more than happy to stay open just for us. Kalapela had an aged baroque vibe, defined by gold plates, marble tables and slightly shabby velvet seating. We were brought cold towels on arrival, which in our already cool and damp state was nice but rather unnecessary!
Steve ordered a salted caramel cupcake and a coffee, while I plumped for the intriguing mango sticky rice croissant and the cheapest of the sake cocktails. The croissant was a fantastic blend of cuisines – the flaky pastry contrasting sharply against the juicy mango sorbet and chewy rice. Compared to other places we’d eaten, Kalapela’s prices were extortionate: the cupcake alone cost more than a full meal elsewhere! We justified the splurge by working out the approximate cost in pounds, in which case we found it cost no more than going to a coffee shop back home.
Tomorrow would come the day we’d been eagerly awaiting for months: our chance to spend time with some non-golden, real elephants at Elephant Nature Park. That amazing day will be detailed in the next blog post – subscribe to this blog or follow Roam with Juliet on Facebook to be told when it’s ready!
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2016. All rights reserved.