I actually really like Bangkok, but it’s one of the busiest, most crowded places I’ve ever visited. And that includes Shanghai, Hong Kong, and New York. Even the temples are larger-than-life. Bangkok makes it easy to escape the crowds and relax at luxury hotels for $100-150 a night, but I really wanted to try visiting someplace different on this trip.
Chiang Mai was an obvious alternative with flights from Hong Kong and onward to Siem Reap. It wan’t out of the way, and it had elephants, which were deemed critical to the success of this trip.
Trip Report Index
- Trip Report Introduction: Taking My Sister to Asia for Two Weeks
- Review: Cathay Pacific First Class SFO-HKG (Last of the 747s)
- Review: Grand Hyatt Hong Kong (after Renovations)
- Revisiting the Old, and Finding New Favorite Activities in Hong Kong
- Review: Dragonair Economy Class to Chiang Mai (HKG-CNX)
- Review: Le Meridien Chiang Mai
- Visiting the Baanchang Elephant Park in Chiang Mai
- Chiang Mai: Like Bangkok without the Crowds
I found myself enjoying several of the new cities on this trip (Siem Reap came out on top) probably because I could experience a different culture without the stress of a metropolis. I commented in my review of Le Meridien Chiang Mai that while it was a perfectly fine hotel, I probably would also have been happy in one of the cheaper guest houses.
Chiang Mai is the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna and is surrounded by a square city wall about a mile on each side. Le Meridien was located on the opposite side of this city center from the airport and about half way between the wall and the river. The wall itself was surrounded by a very pleasant moat that was more like a city park.
We set out one morning walking from our hotel to Wat Phra Singh, a large temple complex on within the walls on the far side. Passing through the gate we saw a few armed guards, but this was the largest military presence we observed in Thailand despite the recent coup. (However, General Prayuth Chan-ocha did appear every night on TV, and the locals seemed to pay attention.)
We meandered through a few streets, stopping to explore the small temples we passed. Unlike in Bangkok the majority were not hidden behind tall skyscrapers or down alleys. It was far more open. And I liked that everything was built on a smaller scale. Everything in Bangkok is so huge that it’s hard to grasp what you’re looking at.
One of the more interesting buildings we passed — simply because it wasn’t another temple — was the Lanna Architecture Center, a small elevated house with posters and models depicting the various architectural influences in the region. Unlike the overly commercialized Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, it looked like very few people visited besides us.
Unfortunately, the place we didn’t go that is apparently very popular is Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan. It didn’t look that different from all the other temples when we looked in from the gate, but I learned later it has a much larger temple in the back with several carved elephants. My sister would have loved it.
We ended our afternoon by hiring a tuk tuk to take us to the umbrella factory, which was probably the most underwhelming activity of the entire two-week trip. It’s supposed to be one fo the popular tourist attractions, but tourist trap is more like it. After a harrowing 20 minutes on the back of a tuk tuk, wondering where we were going, we found ourselves at a roadside gift shop where few umbrellas were actually being made. We spent about 10 minutes, trying to be polite to our driver, before asking him to take us home.
The various night markets near our hotel were far more interesting. Although we saw lots of Western tourists and food catering to them, it was a nice change of pace to see more actual merchants than prostitutes, which is sometimes the case in Bangkok. Our first night we just sat in a court yard listening to some local band play cover songs while we munched on $3 pad thai and drank beer. It was great.
But the best experience was definitely the fish pedicure. You have to try it once! It was the most ticklish thing we’ve ever done, though I have to admit it worked. My feet were incredibly soft for the rest of the trip and even after I got back home.