Captivated by Chiang Mai

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The interior of Wat Chedi Luang

THE first thing I noticed upon arriving in Chiang Mai is a kind of lightness, softness even, in the air. It was not immediately recognizable; in fact, it is the kind of thing that slowly dawns on you, like a realization and an eventual submission.

I boarded a taxi outside the airport and grew a bit apprehensive since my hotel is located in a secluded area. The driver, however, assured me that it is safe to roam around even at night.

I’ve managed to deal with my initial anxiety upon reaching my hotel, Chiang Mai Chang Thai House, which looked homely and very well put together. My accommodation includes free breakfast and usage of all facilities, including a swimming pool. My room was spacious.

Having arrived at night, I was told by the concierge that nearby restaurants were most likely closed and instead suggested food stalls on the main road, just five minutes away from the hotel. I did what I was told and found a small stall operated by an elderly man. I chose a table against the wall, facing the street, and waited patiently for my food – a bowl of hot noodles with mixed seafood and vegetables, which was surprisingly appetizing. And for THB40 (HKD9), it was indeed a steal.

A haven of temples

It was relatively colder in Chiang Mai – aptly named the jewel of northern Thailand – compared to Bangkok so remember to always bring a shawl, which is easy enough to store in case it gets warmer.

My first stop was the renowned Wat Chedi Luang, often referred to as the largest structure in ancient Chiang Mai. Chedi means a Buddhist monument or shrine.

This historic temple has survived centuries, including an earthquake in 1545, which caused the upper 30 meters of the structure to collapse. In the early ‘90s, a reconstruction program financed by UNESCO and Japan was launched to preserve the structure. Magnificent is a word I would use to describe the temple.

While the name Wat Chedi Luang refers to the main temple, it is also the name of the whole complex, which houses other structures. Also in my itinerary was Wat Phan Tao, which used to be the living quarters for monks of Wat Chedi Luang. This smaller temple has a unique charm.

Truly Thai

Traveling to Thailand is never complete without trying the famous Thai massage. I’ve read about the Chiang Mai Woman Correctional Institution Vocation Training Center where ex-women prisoners work as masseuses to help them reintegrate into society. The philosophy behind this establishment was what attracted me the most so it was naturally in my itinerary, next to the Chiang Mai National Museum and the Chiang Mai Cultural Center.

The museum trips took a bit longer than expected so by the time I arrived at the massage center, it was already closed. The caretaker, however, kindly pointed me to a similar but smaller institution – Women’s Massage Center – just a few minutes away. After a reinvigorating foot massage, I headed to Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and spent a good two hours shopping for Thai goods.

Another must-try in Thailand is the food, and while the first thing that comes to mind is tom yum, Chiang Mai offers tourists a feisty little bowl of noodles The famous Khao Soi Noodles with vegetables, seafood called Khao Soi, which is essentially coconut curry with chicken, topped with crispy noodles. If I have to rate its level of spiciness on a scale of 10, 10 being the spiciest, this is a solid eight. I got my fix at a place called Lam Duan Faham.

After a body massage at the Peak Spa, which is a bit expensive but worth every penny, I ended my day with a stroll along the main street, admiring the view and taking in Chiang Mai’s crisp, delicate air.