I visited Chiang Mai in 2016 solely for the purpose of experiencing Yi Peng, the lantern festival, and was met with so much more! This vibrant city should be on everyone's list of places to see. While I typically prefer to avoid cities with large expat and backpacker communities, Chiang Mai is an exception. The city is rich in culture, traditions and delicious food. Despite being a popular destination for tourists and expats, the city is still quite affordable which is always a plus.
Chiang Mai was previously the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and their traditions are ever-present, allowing the city to stand out against other locales of Thailand. You can find 38 temples scattered around the 'Old City', a one mile squared and moated remnant of the history of this beautiful place. Adjacent to the entrance of the old city is the market where you can find some amazing street foods and local wares. In the hills surrounding the city, there are other ethnic tribes living still with their distinct languages, beliefs and traditions.
Yi Peng Lantern Festival
As mentioned, I planned my visit for the opportunity to experience the lantern festival as Chiang Mai is home to the largest Yi Peng event in the country. The release of the khom loi, or lanterns, coincides with Loy Krathong, the festival held all across Thailand, in which handmade baskets are floated down the rivers in honor of the water goddess. The idea behind releasing the lanterns is to let go of the bad luck and negativity from the previous year, allowing for good fortune to enter instead. At this point in my life, this was exactly what I needed, and the sight of thousands of lanterns drifting up through the night sky was breathtakingly beautiful. I highly recommend the experience to everyone.
The drive up to Doi Suthep is beautiful and includes stops at Wat Pha Lat and Chalerm Phrakiat offering views overlooking the entirety of Chiang Mai below. Once you approach the top of the mountains, you are greeted with visits to Wat Phra That, Bhubing Palace, Namtok Doi Pui and the Hmong village. Wat Pha Lat holds the distinction as being one of the most important Buddhist temples in the region as legend states it contains Buddha's breast bone. Bhubing Palace was built in the 1960's specifically for the royal family and visiting foreign dignitaries. The grounds are open to the public and host amazing gardens while Namtok Doi Pui is home to a beautiful waterfall. I was not expecting to be able to experience the Hmong village and was very intrigued as I knew so little of this people group prior to my visit.
Mon Jam was a little bit further of a drive but was still perfect for a day trip outside of the city. On the way to this village, we stopped off at the Mae Sa Snake Farm to watch the local men handle various species found in the region, including Siamese Cobras. As a lover of reptiles, I thought this would be the highlight of the day but soon found myself experiencing something absolutely incredible. A short drive up the road more we discovered the Mae Sa Elephant Camp. I felt good about spending my money in this location as I was informed this was a sanctuary for elephants whom were rescued from not great situations. I did not enter and find tourists riding the elephants which gave me the peace of mind. Instead, I was able to pay a small amount for bananas to feed the elephants, allowing for an up close and personal encounter. This has been one of the highlights of my life so far, absolutely heartwarming. Please be cautious when meeting elephants and do not support any location which allows anyone to ride on these beautiful animals. After my life-changing experience, we continued on the road to Mon Jam and found ourselves in another beautiful community. It was great to take in the fresh air atop the mountain while enjoying the incredible vistas. There are markets, restaurants, cafes and even overnight accommodations available. We spent some time here to enjoy the gardens and enjoyed a lunch as well as a gander through the markets.
Who doesn't love Thai food? If you have enjoyed your local Thai restaurant (presumably in the western world) then you really are missing out. The food in Northern Thailand is very different and on a whole other level of delicious. Khao Soi Gai, Khanom Jeen Naam Ngiaw, Muu phan and Nam Prik are just some of the dishes distinct to the area. The flavor profiles are very different from Southern Thai cuisine which the region your local restaurant typically draws its inspiration from. Northern Thai food tends to shy away from the sweetness common of the western influenced cuisine of the south. The dishes in the north feature more chicken, pork and vegetables in contrast to the more-prevalent seafood to the south. I highly recommend giving the various street foods a try. The night market offers many options to try.
My visit to Chiang Mai was only part of my second solo trip abroad and this location already set the bar very high for places to fall in love with. The city provides a more relaxed vibe as compared to Bangkok. Each of the various temples found throughout the region is very distinct, yet they are all ornate and absolutely mesmerizing to see in person. The locals were among the friendliest and most welcoming people I've ever met and helped to arrange an unforgettable experience. If it wasn't for the local friends I met while there, I would never have discovered so much. I am always looking forward to the day when I can return to this incredible place.
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