Chiang Mai – The Backpacker Paradise of Thailand

It all happened in a short time. Cheap flight deals and a backpacker friendly destination were enough reasons to convince a penniless me to sign up for this adventure. Tickets were booked quickly, lest prices went up. The excitement in our whatsapp group could be measured by the number of “must- visit” places shared on a daily basis. Me and a friend of mine were headed for a 2 week trip to Thailand and were later to be joined by two more of my friends in Vietnam. As we were planning on cities to visit in Thailand, there was one place which we both unanimously agreed upon and that was Chiang Mai.

Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a 700 km. ride away from Bangkok. There are frequent buses from Morchit bus station to Chiang Mai. It took a good 12 hours to cover the distance.

Chiang Mai
Tha Pae Gate

I found the ride very comfortable and what I found surprising was that your bus tickets could be used to redeem free noodle soups at their pit stops.

We reached Chiang Mai at 12.30 in the night. There was no point in checking in to a hotel, so we just stayed at the bus stop till 5.30 a.m. It had gotten chilly by then and we decided to search for hotels. A tuk-tuk dropped us outside the Tha Pae gate.

Chiang Mai

A square wall encloses the old city of Chiang Mai and this old city, built over 700 years ago, is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular attractions. It is one of the best places to understand Thailand’s culture and history. It was once completely barricaded on all four sides and surrounded by a moat. Today, there still stands a square wall around the old city giving us a glimpse of the olden days.

The eastern gate is the Tha Pae gate and I would say the best starting point for a tour of the place. We were lucky to get a hotel, at a stone’s throw away from this gate.

When we walked in through Tha Pae gate for the first time, all we could see was a street lined with restaurants selling western food, bars, café’s, eating joints, fancy hotels etc. On first look, it felt like a commercial hotspot. Of course, this opinion changed by the end of the day.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was a place which had embraced modernity for sure, but while still retaining its quaint appeal. From fancy cafes and swanky hotels to mobile food stalls and ancient temples, it toggled on both ends of the spectrum.

Just walking along the streets here will open the door to a wealth of local experiences – be it learning how to cook delicious Thai food, learning an intense martial art like Muay Thai or being an elephant trainer for a day.

A walk from the eastern gate to the other end is almost 2 kms and once you reach the other end, you can see a natural canal running parallel to the city, lined by lush green trees.  On the Tha Pae side lies a canal too and people often stop here to feed pigeons.

Chiang Mai

Life here is pretty laidback. It is exactly this vibe which makes it a paradise for backpackers from around the world. You will mostly find them exploring the city on cycles, mopeds and I even remember seeing tricycles.

The people here are some of the friendliest you will meet. They are genuine in their interactions and unlike the rest of Thailand, there are no travel touts who will pester you to buy their tours.

Chiang Mai

The landscape in this part of Thailand is blessed with lush green rainforests, mist covered mountains, gushing waterfalls and massive caves. The terrain and its close proximity to national parks lend itself to tonnes of adventures like jungle trekking, ziplining, rock climbing and river rafting.

It’s kind of overwhelming because you feel like doing it all. But you would never like rushing from one place to another. The relaxed ambience, which is so intrinsic to Chiang Mai, would make you want to just idle away in the company of nature.

The best part about Chiang Mai is its food though. Never have I been as adventurous with food as I was in Chiang Mai. There are a number of restaurants and eating joints, but the best food is always on the streets. You can literally conduct a food tour in this place for weeks and still miss out on places to eat.

Chiang Mai
Khao Suey

Chiang Mai was once under Burmese control and even today, you can see remnants of that influence in the cuisine. You only need to taste the region’s mind-blowing signature dish, Khao Suey, to detect the unmistakable Burmese touch.

Their evening and night street stalls are some of the best ways to savour the local cuisine. Not to mention delectable desserts available on the streets. The icing on the cake (pun intended) is that the street food is extremely cheap. You can get an Egg Pad Thai for as little as 30 THB (INR 60/ USD 1).

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a special place, sans the hype associated with the rest of the country. Its simplicity and old world charm will slowly but surely grow on you. Sadly, it doesn’t receive as many footfalls as the rest of Thailand.

Unfortunately during my Southeast Asia trip, I hadn’t budgeted enough time for this place. On our way back to India, we had already started making plans to visit Thailand again and both of us swore to spend at least a week in Chiang Mai.

Wat Rong Khun – The Fairy Tale White Temple of Thailand

We were cruising by the countryside at breakneck speed. The roads were spotless and it looked like we would cover the distance to Chiang Rai, the border town between Thailand and Myanmar, in no time. I was on a day trip which included a popular hot water spring, the famed golden triangle and a visit to the village of the long neck tribe. I wasn’t so excited about any of this though. The sole reason why I signed up was to see the Wat Rong Khun, or what is popularly known as the White Temple.

I am no fan of architectural works, but it’s hard not to be amazed by this temple. In fact if there is one temple you should visit in Thailand, it is this one (And probably Wat Arun).

White Temple Thailand

We arrived at around 11.00 in the morning, and saw a sea of tripod and selfie-stick toting tourists. Guys, here is a pro tip, arrive early if you want this temple all to yourself. Especially, if you want to take some dreamy shots, with no human heads.

After parking our vehicle, we were given tickets by our tour operator and allocated exactly 40 minutes to roam around. Well, here is another pro-tip, don’t go with a group tour, because you will surely lose track of time and you certainly don’t want to see this temple in haste.

White Temple Thailand

From the second i walked into the temple complex, I was left speechless.

An arched golden tower leads you into the premises. There is a neatly maintained lawn and a pond surrounding the white temple, teeming with colorful fishes.

The marble white exterior of the main temple is an architectural masterpiece, with a zillion statues and faces of demons, the eye for detail more than impressive.

And the white façade just stands out against the blue sky. A photographer can spend an entire day here. Having borrowed a DSLR from my friend, I went totally nuts.

White Temple Thailand

There was a long queue on the bridge that led you inside the main temple. We had to take out our shoes, wrap it in a plastic bag and take it inside with us.

If the exteriors of the temple make you gape in awe with their creative brilliance, the interiors will have your jaws dropping in no time.

Photography wasn’t allowed in the main hall and even though I saw some tourists flouting that rule, I din’t take out my camera.

White Temple Thailand

The moment I walked in, I saw artistic murals, of Kung Fu Panda, Batman, Superman, Michael Jackson, Terminator and Star war characters adorn the walls. In my sheer disbelief I almost missed the seated Golden Buddha inside.

I am all in for standing out from the crowd, but I couldn’t understand if these works were a result of creative ingenuity or meant to send a message to us. I guess only the artist knows better.

White Temple Thailand

As I wandered around, I saw there were other Buddhist towers nearby and all these structures were white. There was a wishing well with a huge bell hanging over it. There was so much more left to explore and I was just about to go to other side of the complex when I heard my name being yelled out.

I saw my friend frantically wave at me. I knew what had happened and rushed immediately. I was late by 15 minutes and every one was apparently pissed at me. Their looks when I entered the van made it very clear.

White Temple Thailand

My friend later told me some of the members of the group had subtly hinted at my lack of punctuality. The lady in charge however made no use of such subtlety.

She gave me a proper dressing down in front of everyone. It almost felt like being yelled at by a teacher in school. I din’t regret being late at all though. A place as beautiful as the white temple certainly deserves more time.

Entrance Fee: INR 100/ USD 2

Thailand – A Gastronomic Delight

Lights, music, an atmosphere of merriment and the constant whiff of delicious Thai food permeated the streets of Khaosan road on the night of 14th February. Valentine’s Day was being celebrated in high spirits in the bars that lined every street. There were so many people partying in these bars that there was no room inside and the revelry eventually spilled out onto the streets. It was a teaser of the mad nightlife that Bangkok is known for.

But what caught my attention was the ever present smell of barbecued meat and every time it entered the nostrils, my stomach responded with a growl. I don’t really consider myself as a foodie and while I enjoy a good meal and by most standards, have a good appetite, I am far from being a connoisseur of food. Thailand’s street food though had my palate going on an overdrive.

Thai Noodle Soup

We landed in Bangkok at 12.00 in the night after a draining 8 hour halt in Kolkata. Sleep deprived, we somehow kept ourselves awake till 5.30 a.m. when the bus service supposedly started. We got a bus at 6.00 a.m. and in what seemed like an hour were dropped off at Khaosan road. The hotel where we had made our reservation would let us check in only at 12.00 p.m.

By now, I was not just badly craving sleep but food as well. We dropped off our bags in the hotel lobby to get some breakfast. As we were walking on Soi Rambuttri lane, my friend Neeraj who had stayed here a year back remembered a stall where an old man sold noodle soup. We walked to that stall and it was the same person whom my friend had met a year ago. We saw the few who were sitting there having a delicious looking soup with meat balls on top. We ordered the same.

Thai Noodle Soup

The Thai pork meat ball noodle soup adorned with herbs and condiments was the perfect breakfast. The chicken broth was lip smacking and combined with noodles, sliced pork meat and tender meat balls completely satiated my hungry stomach. We usually washed away our breakfast with passion fruit juices or flavored milk available at any 7 – eleven store.

Dinner in Khaosan road meant Chicken or Egg Pad Thai with chili flakes, crushed peanuts and soya sauce as toppings. And when we ventured out in the night, a midnight snack of Grilled Chicken and Chocolate Sandwich was customary. If Khaosan tickled my usually indifferent palate, Chiang Mai drove it into a frenzy.

Khao Suey
Khao Suey

Situated in northern Thailand and close to Myanmar, Chiang Mai is a food paradise. One can literally do a food tour in this place for weeks and still miss out on places to eat. Once you enter the old city of Chiang Mai through any of its walls, you can see streets filled with cafes, restaurants, eating joints and bars. But like I had experienced in Khaosan, the best food was always on the streets.

A scrumptious breakfast in the morning was Khao Suey, a signature dish in Chiang Mai – noodle soup with fried noodles in chicken with a coconut curry broth. Google search led us to SP chicken, a famous restaurant serving Isaan (North-East Thai) style roasted chicken and they served it with delicious sauces. I could barely walk after gorging on a full plate of roasted chicken with sticky rice and Som Tam (papaya salad).

Roasted Chicken

On other days we had rice with traditional Thai red or green curry along with fried egg on top. But nothing could beat the evening street markets of Chiang Mai. With an array of delectable dishes laid out in front of you, there was no escaping its savory charm.

Dessert was the best banana chocolate crepe in all of Chiang Mai, said the newspaper clipping on their stall and I wouldn’t believe otherwise. On days we were a little less prudent, we had Banana & Nutella crepe and it was just mind blowing.

Thai Green Curry

The streets of Pattaya were as tempting with an assortment of grilled kebabs. While walking along the city, we found a lady selling chicken kebab by the beach. In a single bite of the mustard laced kebab, we had become her loyal patrons.

The stalls in Sukhumvit on the other hand catered to us with mouthwatering chicken noodle soups and Khao Man Gai – a traditional Thai dish of rice with boiled chicken, served with chicken broth and cucumber on the side. Sprinkled with spices, the Khao Man Gai acquired a taste of its own and became one of my favorite dishes.

I traveled for close to 2 weeks in Thailand experimenting and relishing a variety of Thai dishes. This was the first time that food was the constant thing on my mind during a trip. For the uninitiated like me, exploring the culinary world was a new experience. In my 4 years of travelling, I have been to many places and got an opportunity to taste a variety of cuisines, but never have I been as delighted as I was in Thailand.