Highlights from Dawn Jorgensen’s visit to Chiang Mai

Northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai is an iconic Thai town surrounded by the walls of the Old City, with ornate temples and lush forests just a short drive away. Here you’ll find a charming centre easily navigated on foot, clean mountain air and a somewhat cooler climate.

The old town, inside its 600-year-old moat, is an extraordinary vision with 30 temple spires, barefoot monks in flame-coloured robes and street vendors selling their wares on the banks of the Ping River. Founded in 1296 as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, today it is a peaceful place where past and present merge with modern buildings, and luxury hotels exist effortlessly alongside sacred wats.

Chiang Mai somehow feels more like a rural town than a bustling capital. A place where the people are intrinsically linked to their timeless traditions and ancestry. Just beyond the city’s borders you’ll find lush countryside, peaceful Hill Tribe villages, sensual Spa’s – and even a Muay Thai training camp, should you so wish.

Increasingly popular with travellers seeking a more in-depth look at the country’s culture and traditions, Chiang Mai is a personal favourite of mine and as part of the #ThrowbackThailand series, I reflect on the highlights from my visits there.

Listen to my conversation with Lesley Simpson on Amazing Thailand South Africa where I talk about them here.

Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Located on the top of the hill at the end of a 15m winding mountain road and overlooking the city is the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Established in 1383 by King Keu Naone to house a piece of bone said to be from the shoulder of Lord Buddha himself, the bone was brought to the area by a wandering monk from Sukhothai. It broke into two pieces at the base of the mountain, with one piece being enshrined at Wat Suan Dok and the second fragment mounted onto a sacred white elephant that was set free to wander in the surrounding jungle until it died. It chose to do so right on the top of the hill, in the process selecting the spot where the temple would be constructed.

From the car park at the temple’s base, visitors have the option of climbing the 300 plus stairs that are lined by an intricately carved Naga serpent, which is said to help devotees accrue Buddhist virtue, or you can take the tram. Either way, arrival at the top introduces you to a beautiful example of northern Thai architecture. There are pagodas, statues, bells, a museum and shrines to marvel at, as well as a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the Hindu God Ganesh. Within the inner terrace a walkway circles the original golden Chedi that protects the relic. Here you will also see the five-tiered umbrella that marks the city’s independence from Burma and its union with Thailand.

Visitors queue in this area to leave offerings at the shrines, before walking past the many Buddha statues that sit and stand in a variety of positions just beyond. Outside this main area you will find the shrine to the White Elephant and the story of how the temple on Doi Suthep was founded. There is a wide walkway around the main temple, which leads you to a large viewing terrace with wonderful views down over Chiang Mai.

The Ohkajhu Farm to Table Organic Cafe

If the theme of your travel is health and wellness, or you simply enjoy feel good stories that are matched by delicious food, you won’t want to miss a visit to Cafe Ohkajhu.  The Farm to Table Organic Cafe is found on the outskirts of Chiang Mai and is where three young local food lovers have started a movement, growing their own produce on a small holding, and serving inspired organic meals in their ever-popular restaurant.

At the San Sai farm and café where it all began, you can walk through the growing fruit and vegetables that are farmed in the greenhouse tunnels and the land that surrounds it. It offers an inviting wholesome environment with soul food of the most delicious kind served. Try the mushroom tempura, and consider an energy booster juice to go with it.

To quote Ohkajhu founder Jirayuth Puwapoonpol, who’s better known as Jo, ‘Who knew that the dreams of high school children could come true and that a simple decision to eat non-toxic and fresh vegetables would grow into a business that lovingly produces food that is served in a collection of organic restaurants.’

The Banchamek Gym and Buakaw Village

About 50km outside Chiang Mai at the Buakaw Village you will find the gym where Buakaw Banchamek, long standing K-1 Muay Thai World Champion and Thailand title holder, has created an environment where the popular martial art can be learnt. His motivation – ‘I want to protect the reputation of Muay Thai’ – Buakaw Sombat Banchamek. Here trainers offer packages that include Muay Thai coaching and sparring, with accommodation in the chalets that overlook the rice fields.

The days are designed to include two group training session per day, communal meals and your air-conditioned room with free WIFI , where you can retreat between session. You can structure you time learning Muay Thai at the Banchamek Gym to include additional personal training sessions, should you wish to maximise on your time there. All trainers are highly professional with years of experience between them, many are still active fighters who have dedicated their lives to this ancient martial art.

The boxing ring and work out area is set in a picturesque landscape with rice paddies and vegetable gardens surrounded by natural forest and hills, making for the perfect setting to train while fully focussed. If you’re lucky, Buakaw may be in residence and you’ll find inspiration in his humble disciplined ways.

Doi Pui Hmong Tribal Village

The Doi Pui Hmong Tribal Village is located on Doi Suthep Mountain about 4 kilometres away from the impressive Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, and is home to the Hmong hill tribe, one of six major hill tribes found in Thailand. The villagers here wear Hmong clothing, sell Hmong handicrafts, and live in traditional Hmong-style homes.

In the heart of the village is a small house that has been set up as a museum to display early hill tribe clothing, plantation tools, kitchen and opium producing equipment. Further up the hill is an attractive well cared for garden with abundant flowers and trees, including the opium poppy which was once a mainstay of the economy of the hilltribe people.

Over the years the Hmong Doi Pui Village has grown steadily and there are currently about 200 households here, with a population of over 1300 people. The main income of the villagers is tourism, and the village is committed to educating visitors on Hmong culture and customs in a bid to keep their traditions and culture alive – without being exploited by tourists.

Additional Insider Gems

Found about 60km from Chiang Mai is Doi Inthanon, one of the most popular national parks in Thailand, famous for its hiking trails, waterfalls and viewpoints, as well as cool climate given the altitude. Known as ‘The Roof of Thailand, it covers an area of almost five hundred km and includes the highest peak in Thailand.

There are numerous galleries and boutiques in the city to explore and each night street food vendors set up near the Chang Puak Gate. Venturing further afield, consider a visit to the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre where dozens of rescues have created a thriving elephant herd. A fun recommendation is a day out touring with The Tuk Tuk Club, who will teach you to drive one, before you head out on your three-wheeled adventure.

Offering a quieter and more authentic look at the Kingdom of Thailand, Chiang Mai has developed a reputation as a spiritual retreat, a place to study meditation and yoga and where you can immerse yourself into Northern Thai culture.

Whatever it is you hope to gain from your visit here, you’ll undoubtedly find it.

Recommended Accommodations and Day Trips:

137 Pillars House Chiang Mai, the elegance of the orient.

The Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, on the banks of the Ping River.

The Oasis Baan Saen Doi, where wellness is the priorty.
For more ideas of what to do in the area, take a look at  our Popular Day Trips from Chiang Mai blog post.


By Dawn Jorgensen