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Our Guide to Bangkok and Chiang Mai

by Travelbag on 15 August 2019, 12:08PM

Bangkok Marble Temple

Northern Thailand is very much a tale of two cities. The capital, Bangkok, is a maze of street food stalls, lavish palaces and jam-packed markets, surrounded by a sea of horn-beeping traffic. Meanwhile, quiet Chiang Mai – to the north of Bangkok – is a haven famous for its elephant sanctuaries and tranquil temples. They’re two very different places but, together, they’re the perfect match. When the frenetic pace of Bangkok gets too much, you can simply decamp to peaceful Chiang Mai. As Chris Coplans explains in this guide to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, visiting both cities allows you to see the contrasting personalities of Thailand – and you’ll be glad that you did.


Guide to Bangkok

Bangkok is not for the faint hearted. Tropical heat, chock-a-block traffic and a frenzied pace of life add up to an exciting – if not especially relaxing – start to your holiday to Thailand. But Bangkok is, of course, one of Asia’s must-see cities. So before you head on to your next stop – whether it’s Phuket, Koh Samui or beyond – stay a while in the capital. But make it easy on yourself. Try to book into a hotel around Sukhumvit, where the BTS Skytrain alights, so you can get around easily. There’s a huge concentration of good value three to five star options around the Metro stops at Sukhumvit or Silom, where the streets are crammed with cars, taxis, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, buses and the occasional elephant, all fighting for a sliver of road space.

Bangkok food

Bangkok’s pavements are awash with a potpourri of global citizens, manoeuvring between stalls selling everything you never knew you needed, but still end up buying. Even the rivers are filled with floating markets selling fruit and snacks. Food is the lifeblood of Thai culture and by nightfall the still, hot air is permeated by the aroma of competing food stalls. You may be tempted by deep-fried grasshopper – crispy, but surprisingly tasteless – but a steaming Pad Thai is more satisfying. The food in Thailand is incredible, so it’s best to try dishes you haven’t seen back home. Restaurants in Thailand are used to Western tourists, and will nearly always reduce the spice for visitors – so don’t worry about it being too hot. If you want to become a legend in your own kitchen, you should dabble in a cookery class. You’ll find them in lots of high-end Bangkok hotels, but there are also independent cooking schools dotted throughout the city.

Floating market in Bangkok

Bangkok temples

It’s difficult to know where to start with the sights in Bangkok, but the Grand Palace – which includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – is undoubtedly the city’s most famous landmark. Built in 1782 and the home of the revered Thai monarchy for 150 years, the giant complex is best appreciated with one of the official guides. Just make sure you’ve dressed appropriately for the occasion – no shorts, no vest tops, no flip-flops. You can read more about etiquette in Thailand in this handy guide.

Adjacent to the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, which houses the 15-metre high, 43-metre long, Reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf. It’s also home to the prestigious Thai Massage School, where a massage from one of the students is one of the best holiday treats money can buy. Just down the road from Wat Pho is the mighty Chao Praya River, where you can get the best views of towering Wat Arun – Temple of Dawn – from the opposite bank. The sunset views are incredible. Enjoy a cold Chang beer as you take pictures from The Deck, an attractive riverside bar.

Grand Palace Bangkok

Something a little different

It might sound ridiculous given the state of Bangkok’s traffic, but travelling by bike is a great way to see the other side of the city. My favourite ride takes you from the banks of Chao Phraya, where a long-tail boat whisks bikes and cyclists across the river to Bangkok’s secret gardens. On two wheels, you can swap concrete and steel for more than 50 miles of cycle paths through mangrove, banana and coconut plantations. As you cycle through the maze of waterways and past tiny clusters of houses, the occasional glimpse of skyscrapers peeping through the lush vegetation is the only giveaway that you’re still in the city.

Or, at the other end of the scale, you could watch Muay Thai boxers punch and kick the daylights out of each other at the Lumphini Park stadium. It’s a very popular Bangkok attraction, and a big part of the city’s culture. If you’re feeling fit, you can even learn this ancient art in one of the Muay Thai schools and gyms in the city. It can come in useful for settling disputes over who gets the pool lounger.


Guide to Chiang Mai

When the big city gets too hot to handle, it’s time to head northwest to Chiang Mai. This mountainous city is just a one-hour flight from either of Bangkok’s airports. Or, take the scenic route and travel up by train. The later of the two night trains is the best one to go for, because you’ll see the most picturesque part of the journey in the early morning light, as the train makes its final assent into the mountains. Book a first class cabin, rather than the second class couchette-style beds, for both privacy and security.

The once capital of the Lanna Kingdom – that stretched across Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos – Chiang Mai has long been a magnet for travellers and dreamers. Set amongst glorious mountains with their cooling breezes, this beautiful place is the temple capital of Thailand. Over 300 places of worship dot the landscape and some of the finest are to be found within the moated old city. This delightful enclave is stuffed with history. The old city is a walker’s paradise and best explored on foot or bicycle, as the narrow lanes lead to unexpected little gems.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai temples

The oldest temple in the city is Wat Chiang Man, which dates back to 1296. Its towering teak columns and sweeping multi-layered roofs, typifying the Northern Thai style of temple architecture, are guaranteed to impress. Equally imposing are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang. This compound contains a huge Lanna-style stupa – a dome-like Buddhist building – which, although badly damaged by an earthquake, has been sympathetically restored. High up on one side of the structure sit six magnificent elephants, while a group of menacing naga (dragon-headed serpents) stand guard below.

For those fond of a good legend, Thailand has a rich tradition of tall tales – none more so than at the hilltop temple of Doi Suthep. Stunningly situated, it affords breathtaking views of the whole Chiang Mai area. The story goes that while looking for a place to enshrine a magical relic of the Buddha, King Kuena placed the relic on the back of a sacred white elephant. The elephant led the King to the top of Doi Suthep where it trumpeted three times, turned round three times, knelt down and died. It was on this spot that the king then built Wat Phra That. If you’d like to visit, you’ll find that most hotels can arrange a tour, and the local guides can offer their own take on the accuracy of the tale.

Wat Phra Singh

Elephants in Chiang Mai

As well as temples, Chiang Mai is famous for its elephants – and for protecting them. The Elephant Nature Park is one of Thailand’s most reputable sanctuaries and rescue centres, and it’s just 40 miles from Chiang Mai. You can visit and volunteer on a day trip, or stay overnight. Don’t wear your Sunday best, though, as you’ll be getting down and dirty when you’re bathing Nelly. Whichever elephant centre you choose, it’s important to do your research. You’ll find that some supposed ‘sanctuaries’ are less ethical and offer elephant rides – but a quick Google on how the animals are trained in this practice should be enough to put you off the idea.

Something a little different

Instead of riding an elephant, you should also consider going to the Tuk-Tuk Club in Chiang Mai, where you’ll actually learn to drive one of these much-loved vehicles. There are a number of options available, ranging from a full-day tour to an 11-day odyssey that in follows the legendary Mae Hon Song Loop, which is considered one of the world’s greatest motorcycle rides. However much ground you cover, it’s definitely the world’s number one tuk-tuk ride. Even the day trip includes some driver training, before your drive along some stunning rural lanes. You will learn about feeding and bathing elephants, followed by a delicious Thai lunch and a spot of bamboo river rafting.

Spend your evenings winding down, and trying some more of Northern Thailand’s unique cuisine. No visit to Chiang Mai would be complete without a visit to the night market, found between the moat and the Ping River. It is busy – with tourists as much as locals – but there are bargains to be had if you hone your haggling skills first. A perfect way to end your evening is to pamper yourself with a foot and head massage at one of the many street parlours that have sprung up over the last few years. Accompanied by a mango and passion fruit lassie, is as close to Nirvana as you’ll ever get.


Tempted? Take a look at our holidays to Thailand, or find out 10 things you never knew about 'the Land of Smiles'.

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