Chiang Mai: jewel of Thailand's north

7 October 2014
Shrine at Wat Pha Lat. Credit: Thomas Dutton
Shrine at Wat Pha Lat. Credit: Thomas Dutton

Chiang Mai is so laid-back that sometimes it feels more like a big village yet it is the largest city in the north of Thailand and the capital of the province that bears the same name. 

The modern of city of Chiang Mai is relatively free from skyscrapers and is home to around 200,000 people; a tiny population compared to the 8.5 million population of Bangkok.

Despite this, and due to Chiang Mai receiving over 5 million visitors each year, the hustle and bustle of the inner-city can have you craving the open air.

Luckily, it does not take long to put the urban sprawl behind you. You don't have to go far to find serenity in Chiang Mai as it is surrounded by lush mountains.

In under an hour you can be free of the city streets, winding your way along well-maintained roads that are enveloped on either side by jungle that casts dancing shadows across the road.

There are many hidden gems within and around the city just waiting to be discovered. Here are three places in and around Chiang Mai city that are worth a visit.

1. Wat Pha Lat: the hidden jungle temple

This petite and easy-to-miss temple is perched about halfway up Doi Suthep, the closest mountain to the city, and is one of 1,253 temples in the province. It is my favourite place to go when I need to escape, clear my mind and refresh.

Set amongst the jungle and next to a lovely stream, the temple does not impose itself on nature but exists in harmony with it. It is hidden away and often overlooked by the masses of crowds that pass it by to visit the more popular and famous Wat Phratat further up the mountain.

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Photography: Thomas Dutton

 
Wat Pha Lat will take 30-45 minutes to get to on a scooter from the centre of the city depending on traffic and how confident a rider you are. Sorngteaws, the red pick-ups trucks with passenger seating in the back and which can be found everywhere in Chiang Mai can also be hired to take you there. The trip to Wat Pha Lat can be made a day trip with visits to other sights such as Wat Phratat, the national park and hill-tribe villages that are further up the mountain. The link to a map at the bottom of this article has Wat Pha Lat's location marked.
 
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Photography: Thomas Dutton

 

2. Huai Tueng Thao: the Thai version of a picnic?

This large lake is home to many restaurants that hug its edges with bamboo rafts and huts to protect you from the heat. It is situated not far out of town heading north on the 107 past the 700 year stadium. It takes about 30 minutes to get there by scooter and there is a 20 baht entrance fee per person. Huai Tueng Thao gets very busy on the weekends.
 
Huai Tueng Thao

 Local Thais enjoy the lake. Credit: Thomas Dutton

 
The lake is surrounded by a road and many restaurants that have no names just numbers. Pick one you like the look of and approach with a smile. The food is delicious and affordable but not all the restaurants have an English menu. One dish I recommend trying is goong ten or dancing shrimp; small, live freshwater shrimp in a spicy and sour sauce. They come served in a small ceramic bowl that you give a ceremonial shake before lifting the lid to be met with the little critters leaping out to escape the fiery swimming pool of sauce.
 

 Credit: Thomas Dutton.

 

3. Toy's Place: Thai Food at its most simple and delicious

Back in Chiang Mai, this restaurant has a limited menu of great food that is made for you on the spot. You will find Lanna (Northern Thai) specialties such as soup normai (bamboo soup) alongside Isaan (North-Eastern Thai) favourites like som tum (spicy papaya salad) and laab (spicy minced meat salad). The BBQ chicken and pork is also delicious. The serving sizes are on the small side, but the restaurant's price of 30-50 baht per plate allows you to sample more of the menu and find your favourites.

The staff are friendly but speak a limited amount of English. Toy's Place is open Monday to Saturday 11am until 4pm. 

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Photography: Thomas Dutton

 

Here is the map with locations.