Exploring Chiang Mai, Part 1: markets, traditional food and shopping

I don’t get much chance to do it these days, but when the opportunity arises, I absolutely love to travel and see the world. My sister, brother and I were very privileged growing up in that my dad wanted us to see the world, to see and learn more about other cultures and admire their history. When my sister suggested a trip with our mum to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, that was one trip I immediately jumped up and down and shouted ‘YES!’…out loud to my phone.

We visited Bangkok, Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands as a family when we were younger and it consisted of mostly tourist activities like scuba diving, parasailing (my sister and brother), riding on jet skis, horseback riding on the beach and getting our hair braided in corn rows with beads (my sister and I). At least 20 years later, my outlook on what I want to achieve from a trip abroad has changed.

I can’t say that I was very much committed to any religion growing up, but I realised in many ways, as a Hong Kong-born Chinese, I can’t ignore my past and should embrace all aspects of my life. In Hong Kong, the Chinese way of life, where many traditional families adopt Taoism as their religion, shares some similarities to Buddhism. Although not the same religion, we believed in Buddha as one of the deities we should respect. One of these ways I wanted to respect and acknowledge my history was to visit various wats (temples) in Chiang Mai. On the way, I also wanted to explore other aspects of life Chiang Mai has to offer.

Below I share with you some of my favourite activities, places to see, where to shop, and sites to visit.

Buddhist temples (wats)
Thailand, as are most Asian countries, are predominantly Buddhist in traditional culture and history. Not that other religions such as Islam or Christianity don’t exist, but Buddhism played a huge part in many South East Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Hong Kong and Japan to name a few. It therefore comes as no surprise that at every corner, you’ll find a wat as often as you would find a Christian church in most Western countries.

Note: When entering Buddhist temples, you need to make sure you follow certain etiquette:

  • Remove your shoes and leave them at the steps before entering the building
  • Men and women should wear tops that cover your shoulders (not sleeveless tops or vests) and wear shorts or trousers that are at least knee length. Shawls are sometimes offered at the door for women to cover your shoulders with
  • Step over the wooden threshold to the temple, never on it! This is bad luck
  • Don’t point at a monk or Buddha statue, either with your fingers or feet

Wat Phra Singh

My very first wat in Chiang Mai and probably the one that sets the standard for the rest. Accessible from Th Singharat, many come to view the image of Buddha known as Phra Singh or ‘Lion Buddha’ kept in Wihan Lai Kham, the small chapel immediately south to the rear of the temple grounds. The grounds are full of beautiful architecture with Lanna influences.


Wihan Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

This was one Wat that we really wanted to see. The towering Lanna-style chedi built in 1441 houses a huge reclining Buddha (I can’t say how much bigger it is compared to the one at Wat Phra Singh) as well as the revered standing Buddha statue called Phra Chao Attarot as well as a jade replica of the famed Phra Kaew which is now held in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. Although not as majestic at Wat Phra Singh, from photos of Wat Chedi Luang, this is one sight to behold and I hope to be able to visit it one day.

Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t really find the entrance to Wat Chedi Luang (at 103 Phra Pok Klao Road) from the map we were given at our hotel which was also different from the 2014 map from my Lonely Planet guide and ended up visiting a completely different wat.

Some wats offer Monk Chat sessions where monks are happy to talk about their lives as a monk to help improve their English while visitors get to learn more about their way of life and finding enlightenment through Buddhism. At Wat Chedi Luang, there is a table under a tree where monk chats are offered daily from 9:00am to 6:00pm.

Wat Phan Tao

You know how I mentioned we went to a completely different wat in our search for Wat Chedi Luang? We ended up visiting Wat Phan Tao (Phra Pok Klao Road) instead which was quieter compared to Wat Phra Singh. I think if we continued on a little further, we might have found Wat Chedi Luang (on my return to Edinburgh, I realised it is right next to Wat Phan Tao but slightly further down the street), but because we had arrived in Chiang Mai early afternoon, we wanted to make the most of the day. The temple itself is constructed from all teak panels with a stone base and was originally a Ho Kham (or throne hall) for one of Chiang Mai’s Kings built in 1846.

If you look closely enough, you’ll notice it has a three tiered roof with golden colored chofah (roof finials) shaped as stylized Naga snakes on its roof ends.

Food and Drink in Chiang Mai

We only had 2 and a half days to spend in Chiang Mai, but there are a few things I would definitely recommend. First of which is pandan leaf tea. It has a very unique and naturally sweet flavour. All I can say about it is that it has a slight nutty flavour, but it’s hard to describe. It’s one of those flavours that I tasted at the restaurant Rice Terraces in Edinburgh (see here) and have never forgotten the taste ever since. The leaves are great for flavouring South East Asian dishes, but you can also buy the leaves dried for brewing tea.


Iced pandan leaf tea at The Oasis Spa in Chiang Mai

Another fragrant and herbal tea which I enjoyed very much is the butterfly pea flower tea. My mum had done her research and was on the hunt for this and while I was determined to bring back pandan leaf tea, my mum was doing the same with the butterfly pea flower. You can get blue flowers, but the fresh variety from Chiang Mai are a bright strong purple colour. Mixed as a cold tea beverage, you can also serve it with lime soda to brighten the purple colour of your drink.


Butterfly pea flower tea at our hotel

If you want a taste of Northern Thailand, you can’t leave Chiang Mai without tasting khao soi (pronounced kao soy), a crispy noodle dish based in curry soup with pickled vegetables, meat and shallots. We found Khao Soy Fueng Fah (Charoenpratet Road Soi 1) which is in the predominantly Muslim Ban Haw neighbourhood (for other khao soi recommendations, see here). Khao Soy Fueng Fah is about halfway down the street, near the residential part and towards the last of the shops, so you might feel like you’ve walked quite far before you reach it.

For 40 baht (93p), you can get a small bowl (which was more like a child’s portion, but seeing as I wasn’t too hungry, it was just right for me), but you can ask for a bigger portion if you’re hungry. The lovely chef can speak some basic English and she is a very lovely lady if you would like to try any other dishes on the menu.


Khao soi with my favourite bean curd drink

Shopping

In any city or country you visit, souvenirs and buying local products are a given. You can’t walk away from fond memories of a trip without even the smallest momento that will allow you to relive those memories of happy times spent in a foreign country. Here are some of my favourite shopping spots.

Herb Basics

Located at 344 Thapae Road, Herb Basics is a shop that only uses natural ingredients, mainly local herbs from Chiang Mai and Thailand, to create homemade spa, aromatherapy, fragrance and herbal products. Each item is beautifully crafted with gifting in mind, so you can present any products to family and friends without any additional packaging.

Keeping in mind that I was going for cruelty free products, this was the perfect shop for me. I couldn’t leave the shop without buying a few souvenirs for myself so I got a lovely floral Evening Solid Perfume and Pandan Leaf Cleansing Milk. I’ll let you know how I get on with these products once I’ve had a chance to use them.


My souvenirs from Herb Basics in Chiang Mai

Night Bazaar

If you’re in the Ban Haw neighbourhood having a bowl of khao soi or biryani for dinner, be sure to walk back out to the main road at night time, you’ll find that the pavements are lined with stalls on both sides of the street as well as filling various shopping centre floorspace. The Night Bazaar is a great place for shopping bargains and finding unique Northern Thai souvenirs. Be sure to sharpen those bargaining skills before you go!

I didn’t manage to take a good photo, but you can basically buy anything from pandan leaf and butterfly pea flower tea, handmade Thai themed notebooks, children’s clothing, lamps and one day-turnaround personalised paintings to Thai green herbal balm which is made from a Thai herb and has been a cure all for my mosquito bites and eczema. It also purports to be good for bruises, muscle pain and has been very effective when used by a colleague as a chest rub for her cough and another had used it on a fresh iron burn. There is also a new and stronger version from the same brand which shows a metallic blue tree on the label that works just as well.

Be careful to only buy the one shown in #12 here. Ask to see the bottles first and be sure to only buy the ones with the gold logo on the lid and has a raised imprint of the logo on the base of the jar, all other varieties showing a print of the tree photo on the label are counterfeits!

Worarot and Ton Lamyai Flower Markets

Worarot Market (called Chinatown by one of the Night Bazaar shopkeepers) can be found between Thapae Road and Chang Moi Road and is somewhere locals and tourists alike visit. Here, you can find everything you need from flower offerings at temples to herbs, spices, snacks, tea (if you couldn’t find pandan leaf and butterfly pea flower tea at the Night Bazaar, you’ll definitely find them here) and other delicacies. We spend most of the morning and afternoon visiting the various stalls. Again, you can use your bargaining skills here although some stalls with their prices displayed are not open to bargaining.

We also bought some fresh young coconuts to keep us hydrated (something you’ll find very common in Thailand as a refreshment) as well as some sweet crispy golden curls to snack on.


Fresh young coconuts and my XL Coke


Ladies making crispy golden curls


Available in either small or large bags, salty or sweet flavours

It reminded me of sweet and delicate versions of Chinese egg rolls. If you are also looking to buy fresh flowers for your home, as a gift to a friend you’re visiting or as an offering at a temple, the flower market is one street away, next to the Worarot Market.


Worarot Market

Saturday and Sunday Walking Street

Every Saturday, Wualai Road is closed to traffic from 4pm till midnight (on Sundays, this runs from Tha Phae Gate to Ratchadamnoen Road) so stall holders can set up shop along the 1km long street to sell the wares they’ve been working hard during the week to make. If you really want some truly beautiful handcrafted pieces, here you’ll find figurines make from hemp rope, dried fruit for snacking on (I would recommend dried mangoes and strawberries), hand made clothing, artwork and accessories, hammered steel pieces of art, hand cut Thai designs with a blade on supple leather as well as hand carved soap in the shape of realistic-looking flowers in wooden bowls. You can also find 100% Thai silk scarves and homeware such as silk table runners and placemats.

If you still haven’t managed to find anything at the Night Bazaar or Worarot Market, you’ll most likely find something to your liking here. Not only is the length of the street filled with stalls, even little side streets and open areas are filled with stalls selling food, fruit, tribal Thai printed shawls and scarves and other knick knacks. We walked for about 2 hours one way and found we hadn’t even reached the halfway point! There was a lot of people walking along the street that evening, but also because there are so many stalls to stop and see, you really need to rest up and keep your energy to go shopping later on in the evening, or wear really comfortable walking shoes you’re prepared to walk for miles in.


Stall holders setting up for the Saturday Walking Street at 4pm


One artist hammering designs into steel plates

I’ve got more to share from our trip to Chiang Mai and these posts will be coming soon!

In the meantime, if you’ve visited Chiang Mai and would like to recommend other sites and shopping areas I’ve not listed above, I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below to tell me and other readers what other places you would recommend visiting!

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