“You should head to Koh Tao”, “Have you thought about Koh Samui?”, “Koh Phi Phi is incredible, definitely go there” are often the cries you hear from friends when you tell them you’re going to Thailand. Of course, the islands and the south have their appeal: the diving, the beaches, the Full Moon parties, but that’s only scratching the surface of a country laden with history, culture and tradition. Take it back to basics, before the skyscrapers of Bangkok and the oxygen tanks for deep sea-diving, and venture north to Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai. Discover a land of temples, jungles, ruins and mountains, of festivals and celebrations – and, of course, markets. The former capital of the Lan Na kingdom, Chiang Mai has stayed true to its heritage whilst embracing the modernism of today.
Songkran: The biggest festival in Thailand, Songkran is the celebration of Thai New Year, held in April. Of course, numerous celebrations are held throughout the country, but it’s definitely worth heading up to Chiang Mai for Songkran. Why? Well, why not start with the water fights at Tapae Gate, one of the oldest gates to the Old City, or watch the large Buddha procession, where statues and relics are bought out of the temples and paraded down the streets in honour of the new year? The festival is centred around water, so prepare to get wet – it’s a high-energy, fevered set-up around the city, with parties and dancing going on well into the night (as well as pistols and buckets of water at every twist and turn). Songkran is being held between 11 and 13 April 2020.
Yi Peng: One of the most famous festivals in Thailand, Yi Peng is usually celebrated in November, when the moon reaches its twelfth lunar cycle. It is a time when (supposedly) the rivers are at their highest, and the moon is at its brightest, where Thais and locals alike gather to release lanterns into the midnight sky. The lanterns themselves are symbolic of letting go the ills and misfortunes of the previous year; some even make a wish as they release their paper lantern, hoping it’ll come true in the year that follows. It’s a dazzling sight to behold, and there are numerous organised celebrations across Chiang Mai. The lanterns are released a little further out of the main city, where you can make an evening of it with food from the pop-up markets and a couple of beers, meeting fellow travellers as you do. There’s an incredible amount of lanterns released each year, with as many as up to 4,000 in one night illuminating the sky.
Loy Krathong: Celebrated around the same time as Yi Peng, you’ll often find Chiang Mai is buzzing with excitement in November: there are parades, performances and fireworks most nights and then, of course, you have Loy Krathong. A Krathong is an offering made from banana trunk and decorated with flowers, banana leaves, incense sticks and candles, each representing an element of the Bhuddist faith. On the night of the full moon, Krathongs are released into the water to float – loy, in Thai. As with the lanterns, the krathongs are considered a way of letting go of the past, as well as worshipping Pra Mae Khongkha, the river goddess. Loy Krathong is also celebrated in Bangkok and Sukhothai, but when you pair Yi Peng with Loy Krathong, it’s a no-brainer where you’d want to visit in November – think of the candles along the river burning as bright as the lanterns above. Loy Krathong will be held on 1 November 2020.
Wat Chedi Luang, Old Town: One of the most distinctive temples from the Chiang Mai skyline, Wat Chedi Luang has been standing for over 700 years. Up close, you can see its smattering of animal sculptures carved ornately into the red and beige bricks. While impressive, the temple standing today is just over half its original size – an earthquake in the 16th century destroyed a large part of it. Chedi Luang is the go-to temple in Chiang Mai’s Old City, so prepare to head there early to avoid queues and crowds.
Wat Phan Tao: Chedi Luang’s little sister, Phan Tao sits a little down the road from Chiang Mai’s biggest temple in the Old City. The wooden temple is smaller, more ornate, and surrounded by flower gardens with a small pond and Buddha statue behind it. This temple is often overlooked in favour of bigger landmarks, but the inside of the temple is well worth a visit: the walls are lined with teak and gold, as teak was a popular offering to Bhudda at the time Phan Tao was built.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: Gleaming like a second sun high in the mountains to the north, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep astonishes with its golden Chedi (monument) and breathtaking views of both Chiang Mai and Doi Suthep National Park. Its stunning location – surrounded by jungle, waterfalls and rocky outcrops – makes it a popular destination during holy pilgrimages, notably the Buddhist holidays of Visakha Bucha and Makha Bucha.
Wiang Kum Kam: If you’re after a countryside jaunt, then visiting the ruins of the once-mighty Wiang Kum Kam city should be on your list. Wiang Kum Kam was once the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, until it met its demise when the Ping River changed its course and flooded it entirely. Rediscovered and beautifully restored (in part) in 1984, tourists flock here to see the impressive temples and structures that are left behind, including Wat Chedi Liam and What Chang Kham.
Ratchadamnoen Road: From the colourful tapestries, handmade artefacts and fragrant incense in the spice stalls, Ratchadamnoen Road is the epitome of a typical Thai market. Stretching all the way down the road to Pae Gate, there are countless souvenir opportunities, from elephant-patterned sarongs to hand-carved bowls and statues. There’s plenty of food stalls around, from noodles and soups to pork skewers and even crepes. The market is only open on Sundays from 5-10pm.
Chiang Mai Night Bazaar: Sprawling over two blocks in a patchwork of stalls and shops, this thriving night market is open until 10.30pm each night. Expect the usual bric-a-brac, such as wooden trinkets, jade elephants and jewelry spilling out in every direction. Weave your way in and out of the market, taking time to try one of Chiang Mai’s specialty dishes, Khao Soi. The market is open every day from 5pm till midnight.
Khad Luang: Khad Luang, or Warorot Market, is one of the oldest in Chiang Mai and a haven for foodies. On the outskirts of Old Town, you’re slightly away from the main hustle and can take your time browsing over the offerings. You might find more Thai locals here, shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables outside, as well as for rarer herbs and spices. Housed in a multi-storey building, you’ll find extensive Thai snacks and northern specialties on the ground floor, then clothing and ornaments on the first floor. Khad Lung is open from 4am-6pm daily.
Chang Puak Gate Market: Many Thai markets are all about the sensational food, and Chang Puak Gate is no different. At night, this market is teeming with life and numerous food stalls selling Thai, Chinese and Japanese dishes, from papaya salads and grilled pork with sticky rice, to Thai ice cream sandwiches and banana crepes. Eating out is notoriously cheap in Thailand, even for locals, so you’ll often find a mixed crowd here. The market is open every day from 5pm till midnight.