After looking at various different options, we took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chaing Mai, which was surprisingly comfortable. It left Bangkok at 10 pm on Saturday and arrived in Changing Mai just after 11am on Sunday, which enabled us to have a fairly decent nights sleep and we were able to function the next day. We were leaving Chaing Mai on Monday for the the Elephant Nature Park and we only had that afternoon to explore the city, so we dropped our stuff at the hotel, had showers, and promptly fell asleep (well, one of us did…)! We’d had the intention to go out and explore the temples of Chiang Mai, but after having some lunch we decided staying inside and having a lazy afternoon was a better idea then battling the heat and crowds. Although the temples looked cool, we reasoned that, not only had we just seen A LOT of temples in Bangkok and Ayutthaya, but we’d also be visiting Chiang Rai the following week and we felt pretty templed out at that point. This meant we had an afternoon to catch up on some things we needed to do, and we also got to spend some time researching and booking the next leg of our trip into Laos, as we’d be without Wi-Fi for the next week at the Elephant park.
As it was a Sunday, there was an night market on not far from our hostel, which we did mange to get to for the evening for some food and shopping. It was a lot bigger then we thought it was going to be, and what we assumed was going to be a short stroll through the streets turned into a couple hours of pushing and shoving through crowds. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great market with loads of stuff (we definitely bought a few different things here), it was just a bit manic and very crowded. Probably not a good one to go to if you’re not a fan of big crowds (especially ones where people have no qualms about pushing in), but very worth it if you’re happy to get close to other people. After eating our fill and buying some things to take home with us, we headed back to our hotel as it was going to be an early morning for us to get to the Elephant park for the week.
We came back to Chiang Mai for a night after ENP, and stayed in a great guesthouse with a fabulous man running it. We’d decided we wanted to go to Chiang Rai for a night so that we had time to see everything up there (It’s a 4 hour bus ride, and we didn’t feel like doing it as a day trip), and then we were coming back to Chiang Mai for one night before flying to Laos. As we were staying at the same guesthouse for our last night in Chiang Mai, the man running it let us leave our big packs there so we didn’t have to lug them on the bus and around Chiang Rai, which was super helpful. The next morning we were able to get up, grab our day packs, and head straight for the bus at 7am so we could spend the afternoon exploring Chiang Rai.
We booked a hostel right next to the bus station there, so it was an easy 30 second walk to check in and drop our bags off before heading out. As it was early afternoon by this point, we grabbed some lunch and then did a bit of a self guided walking tour around Chaing Rai. Some of the most famous sites are outside the city and not very walkable, so we decided to save those for the next morning when we had more time and when they’d
(hopefully) be less busy.
The sites of Chiang Rai consist mostly of temples which, although beautiful, start to blend into one after a while. We’d actually gone to Chiang Rai with Natalie, a fellow Brit we met and got to know during our week at ENP. She’s a solo traveller and had a couple days to kill, so we invited her to join us for a few days after we left the elephant park. Although I love travelling with Rich, it was a nice change to have someone else along with us and we had a great 2 days exploring with Natalie before saying our goodbyes. It was especially good to have her along on our walking tour, as she added another dynamic to our group and we had a lot of fun wandering around with her, even after getting bored of seeing temples.
Chiang Rai also has a night market; however, it was a vastly different experience from that of the Chiang Mai market. Chiang Rai is a lot smaller and lesser known area compared to Chaing Mai, and we definitely noticed the difference during our walk around in the afternoon, and especially during the night market. It was really enjoyable walking around the night market and being able to get close enough to look at all the products being sold and move around without bumping into someone. A massive area of the night market is just for food, and the 3 of us tried a traditional hot pot – a big pot of broth that they bring you that has a fire under it, with raw veg and meat on the side that you add in and cook yourself. It was really good, and to top it off we got a few different little dishes as well to share: spring rolls, satay sticks, and some other things that we’ve no idea what they were, except that they were delicious! After having our fill of food and doing a bit of Christmas shopping at the stalls, we headed back to the hostel and spent a couple hours on the roof top deck trying different local beers and chatting.
Our bus back to Chiang Mai was at 4 pm the next afternoon, so we got up early and caught the local bus out of the city to Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. The original temple was in bad shape and restoration works were halted due to lack of funds during the late 20th century, so a local artist – Chalermchai Kositpipat – decided to rebuild the temple and fund it completely out of his own pocket. In doing so, he also got creative license to do whatever he wanted to do with the temple, and so he decided to make the temple all white to to signify the purity of Buddha, with every element in the design representing the teachings of Buddha. The effect of this is stunning to look at, whilst also being thought invoking and sometimes a little bit eery (although some might say creepy). It’s definitely worth the visit, and although it was busy when we went, it didn’t feel too busy or crowded, but I imagine that can change at different parts of the year.
Once we’d walked through the various buildings and areas of the White Temple, we headed to the other side of the city to see Wat Rong Suea Ten, or the Blue Temple. Exactly as the name suggests this is a temple that is all blue, both inside and out. It’s a fairly new temple and not completely finished, but it’s free to visit and a good contrast to the White Temple we’d seen earlier that morning. You can pay for a tour of both temples that includes transport; however, we found it was cheaper to do it on our own using local transport (albeit slightly longer), and we got to go at our own pace. Either way is good, and you can also do a guided day tour from Chiang Mai if you’re so inclined (but it makes for a very long day). Thailand, as usual, has great good and Chiang Ria was no different, so we grabbed some lunch at a local street stall outside of the Blue Temple before heading back to the hostel to chill out before our bus back to Chiang Mai.
If you’re in Chiang Mai and have a free day or two, I would recommended going up to Chiang Rai, either on your own or with a tour. It’s much quieter, and there is some cool stuff to see without feeling overwhelmed by other people, although I imagine this will change in the next few years as it becomes more popular. I could have stayed another night or two in Chiang Rai as there are a lot of things to do outside of the city, but they were just too far away for the time we had there. Unfortunately we couldn’t extend our trip as we had to be back in Chiang Mai to catch our flight to Laos the next morning.
Although we didn’t get to see much of Chiang Mai except the night market, I’m glad we went up to Chiang Rai instead, as I think there is more to do and see and it’s overall a better experience. That’s not to say you should skip Chiang Mai completely, especially if you’ve got time to do both, but given the choice, I think Chiang Rai is a better option if you can only pick one.