Alright, Ok, I was lying about the lions. But Northern Thailand is well known for its tigers and sun bears, and while many of these tigers are now in captivity and heavily drugged for the stereotypical tourist photo opportunities, it is still an unnerving experience to prance around the Thai jungle and its remote villages in the knowledge that deadly tigers are occasionally spotted here in the wild.
About an hours flight from Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the most important city in the north of Thailand and receives its fair share of backpackers all year round, even during the wet season. While not as renowned for its partying as the beach towns of the south, Chiang Mai nonetheless caters for the young crowd with bars and clubs as well as more traditional tourist attractions such as jungle treks and white water rafting, as well as containing many ancient temples at which to marvel.
Being Thailand, you won’t be on your own here in Chiang Mai. People of all ages (but I found more young people than adults) will be sharing hostels and guesthouses, and competing for tuktuk rides to the nearest market! The cost of living in Chiang Mai is so cheap, that it’s easy to see why so many backpackers make this place their home (or at least visit for a little while) when they’re travelling in Thailand.
The traditional Chiang Mai festival is called Loy Krathong (Festival of Lights). This is a festival celebrated annually throughout Thailand (and Laos, and a few states in Malaysia). The name could be translated as “to float a basket”, and comes from the tradition of making buoyant (krathong) decorated baskets, which are then floated on a river. Loi Krathong takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar; hence, the exact date of the festival changes every year. In 2016, it will occur on November 15!
Many visitors to Chiang Mai will enjoy an elephant ride through the jungle and across ravines and rivers. This was a fantastic experience from a usually docile creature, and I would recommend this to everybody – so long as you can use your common sense to determine whether these elephants are being kept in a healthy environment. If they aren’t, don’t pay, but if they are, then enjoy yourself and get as many photos as you can, as it’s not something you can do every day of the week back home!
While not as spectacular as some of the temples in neighbouring Myanmar or Cambodia, Chiang Mai has its fair share of cool Buddhist temples and monasteries to visit. When you remember that Chiang Mai was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, you must agree that a trip to the northern part of Thailand would not be complete without taking in the sights at a few of these temples. The most spectacular temple here is unquestionably the 14th century Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which remains to this day a working Buddhist monastery and houses a copy of the Emerald Buddha (the real one sits in Bangkok’s Grand Palace). Wat Chedi Luang, which was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake in the 16th century, and the dark and mysterious Wat Umong are also highlights of Chiang Mai. Please check my following post for some other insights into Chiang Mai’s best temples.
Food in Chiang Mai is well-known, as the city is the culinary centre of Thailand. Even more so than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a mecca for local Thai dishes and sumptuous (and cheap!) street food. The best locations for street food are Chiang Mai Gate, Chiang Pheuak Gate, and the Saturday Walking Street. It is there where you will find the tastiest and freshest dishes (make sure you try the Kaeng Pa “Jungle Curry”, the Sai Ua “Chiang Mai Sausages, and the Som Tam “Papaya Salad”), and you may also get the chance to sit down and enjoy it with the locals – so brush up on that Thai language, won’t you!