As a fairly seasoned traveler I should’ve known a popular city such as Chiang Mai would be a big place. Somehow I had envisioned a big village or small city, perhaps on a hill, with a series of winding alleys and small food carts. Instead, I found a busy city of some 1.5 million people with large hotels and scattered high-rise towers and wildly coloured tuk tuks and red and white and yellow pickup trucks with covered backs for passengers to ride in and endless shops and markets.
Still, there are some quiet parks and a pretty river and a million or so temples and rich history. There’s also, and I had no idea, a series of brick walls around the old city and a huge moat system that was outside (usually better than inside) the old walls. It now resembles a large, square river encircling the city, often flanked by small lawns or trees or bright red flowers, giving the city a bit of a European look; perhaps Asia meets Lucca, Italy.
My introduction to the city was at a property I can only describe as exquisite; the 137 Pillars House. It’s an old property built largely of deep, dark and glistening teak. King Chulalongkorn, best known outside Thailand as the royal student of Anna Leonowens (famous from the movie The King and I), invited the first Europeans to settle in this part of Chiang Mai. Anna’s son, Louis, was the original resident of 137 Pillars House.
The grounds resemble a garden, with longan trees and towering banyans and heliconia and pink, wild ginger and more. There’s a long, linear pool with a huge wall of green plants on one side and lots of lawn space with places to sit and rest. I was given a suite of about 1,000 square feet, with a large living area, four-poster bed, walk-in closet, double sink and a huge bath with a marble shower and a tub and an outdoor shower; perfect for this climate. There also was a partly covered balcony with outdoor furniture and a rocking chair. I was told the smallest room is about 700 square feet, which would still be monstrous for a hotel.
There’s a gorgeous library with coffee table books on Thailand and Southeast Asia, which is where I ordered a late night appetizer of river shrimp with crispy rice and garlic; served with tamarind sauce and wrapped if you wished in a betel left. The shrimp were enormous and it was very tasty and cost less than $15.
The spa is wonderful, and I had a traditional Thai massage where I was kneaded and lightly pounded into submission, then had hot cloths soaked in local herbs rubbed into soothe the ache. Hugely satisfying. Afternoon high tea is served in the Parlor Lounge and by the pool.
The hotel is in a nice part of town, just two very short blocks from the Ping River, which is lined on the hotel side with coffee shops, small restaurants and popular bars. I had wonderful Tom Yum soup on the patio, which is heated with beautiful lanters and is right on the river, directly across from the flower market. The food is good but the service was horrendously slow when I was there.
The market not only has booths filled to bursting with carnations and lotus flowers and other delights but features toys and jewelry and cheap jeans and veggies and fruits and some great food. I snacked on some tiny sausages wrapped in pancakes that were merely okay. But the crispy, rolled crackers were awesome, as were the pork buns (about a quarter each). I also had some cool coconut milk dessert/soup, with bits of mango, jackfruit, corn, kidney beans and other items, all topped with a heaping of shaved ice to keep it cold on a hot day. Very nice and also about a quarter, I think.
I also had a chance to try Khao Soy, a local soup with noodles where you get to add bits from a series of small bowls containing shallots, chiles, coconut milk, pickled veggies, limes and other treats, including bananas. (The Thai people seem to like mixing fruits and veggies in ways we North Americans probably wouldn’t.
Temples are a huge part of the attraction in Chiang Mai, a city founded by King Menrai in 1296. Wat Phra Singh in the old town is a beauty, with a huge, white and yellow chedi out back and pretty gardens. The most impressive and popular is Doi Suthep (see photo at top), located high on a hill about 40 minutes west of town. The story goes that one of the kings in Chiang Mai had some Buddha relics in town but that they broke into two pieces. The king wanted to have the relics stored in a special place so had a white elephant wander about to do the searching. Apparently the elephant roamed up into the hills and circled a certain spot three times before laying down and dying, which was taken as a sign that this was the right spot.
It’s a commanding location, with sweeping views of the city and nearby mountains. The chedi is clad in shimmering gold and is hugely impressive, rising up over a series of beautiful Buddhas and ornate paintings of Buddha’s life. There are a series of large bells you can ring for good luck. And there are some whimsical, small likenesses of sleeping or pudgy monks with glasses; a nice touch that makes me realize Buddhists don’t always take themselves so seriously; a nice lesson for North American or Western churches, I would think.
Another great trip is to see Wiang Kum Kam (see photo at left), the original empire founded by King Menrai until he found it too susceptible to flooding. There’s a pretty temple nearby that’s in good shape, and then you take a horse and buggy ride to see the very atmospheric ruins of several other temples in the region, including Pra That Khao Temple with its gold Buddha and the E-Kang Temple, with its towering stone chedi.
My last night was at a hotel called Rachamankha, which I found utterly charming. The room was fairly normal in size but featured pretty, whitewashed walls of stone and lots of dark lacquered furniture for an authentic Asian feel. The rooms are laid out along a couple of pretty courtyards with archways and small gardens. There’s also a beautiful deep blue tiled pool surrounded by chaise lounges and backed by a white building in the back, which is reflected in the water reflected like a temple. They serve a nice breakfast in a courtyard with blue and white tiles on the walls and similar coloured pottery on display and small red and white flowering plants.
Each time I walked into the main courtyard I saw lovely white and yellow frangipani flowers floating in a rain barrel near the centre; a lovely effect. It’s not fancy but it’s a warm and authentic property I would highly recommend.
And it’s a great location; maybe three minutes walk from Wat Phra Singh and surrounded by tons of shopping and restaurant options and only a couple blocks from the old walls and moat.
Next up: Chiang Rai, with the awesome Four Seasons Tented Camp.