My whirlwind week in Northern Thailand: top tips and things to avoid.
November 2018 was the month that I finally visited an Asian country. This coincided with my first blogversary of Road2culturedom so I’m glad that I celebrated this way!
Thailand is the typical gateway country to South East Asia so it made sense for me to start here. Due to the flight distance from the UK and incredible prices once you’re there, people will visit for 2 weeks minimum. 1 Thai Baht was worth about 0.04 pounds at the time of travelling so this is great for all budgets. I only had a week’s holiday left for the year and decided to go anyways because no one ever did Thailand in one trip!
I flew with Air China from Heathrow which has a short layover in China before landing in Bangkok. The flights were fairly cheap at £350 return. Thai airways does fly directly if you are willing to part with another £200. Download the app “Grab” for the best taxi prices from the airport and around town.
We spent just under 2 days here, staying at Onion Hostel for one night. It’s central, basic, clean and “breakfast” was included – in reality it was toast and tea! We were next to the flower market, night markets as well as a KFC, Starbucks and Boots.
In Thailand, the word for a temple is “Wat” and there are so many Buddhist temples to choose from in each city. Make sure that you’re covered up before you go (long loose trousers or long skirts/maxis and a scarf to cover your shoulders. In a few cases, a t-shirt is preferred). If you end up not being appropriately dressed, check out the markets down the road for cover ups.
Wat Pho is the first temple we visited and it’s 100 baht for entry. It’s one of the oldest temples in the city and is classed as a high grade royal temple. It was the first public university in Thailand, is home to the Thai school of medicine and is where the traditional Thai massage began! Within the temple complex, you’ll find various buildings including:
Chedis – usually conical shape but they can vary. They are the most sacred structure within the temple complex, containing relics of Buddha or shrines of Kings or monks. There are many beautiful chedis throughout the courtyard here.
Bot – ordination hall where Monks are ordained and other temple rituals occur here.
Viharns – these are assembly halls. Viharn Phranorn holds the impressive structure of the reclining Buddha here. It’s gold and 46 metres long! Also make sure you check out the soles of his feet which have been decorated with beautiful symbols.
Keep hold of your entry ticket for Wat Pho to claim your free bottle of cold water which you’ll be grateful for in the sweltering heat!
Wat Arun – The temple of the Dawn. You get to it via Chao Phraya River on a public ferry for 4 baht per person. The ferries leave every 10 minutes so waiting times are generally not too bad. Avoid anyone who promises a private ferry as it takes 5 minutes to get across and isn’t worth paying any more! Once you reach the temple, you initially enter the complex for free but then pay 50 baht to enter the area with all the gorgeous Prangs (tower with a conical shape, getting narrower towards the top).
Whilst we were there, a monk asked me to take a picture with him which was nice! You can’t come in close contact with/ touch monks but they are happy to chat with you and take pictures if asked. They are really respected around Thailand and will have their own seating on buses, in airports etc.
The Grand Palace. We didn’t make it here properly but I’ve heard mixed reviews. Firstly it closes at 3.30pm whereas the other temples close at 5-5.30pm so this will have to be your first stop. Next it’s 500 baht to visit which is a lot more than the other places. You can’t pay with card unless you’re buying multiple tickets too. They are so strict about the dress code here – you have to be wearing a proper top (a scarf across your shoulders isn’t enough), and if your trousers are tight, you may not get in. Appropriate clothing can be bought within the complex for extortionate prices so go prepared!
I ended up taking a few pictures in the grounds as I couldn’t get in with my trousers but if you do enter, let me know! Apparently the Emerald temple is gorgeous.
Thai food is amazing and their street food is definitely one to try! You can get a meal for 40thb which is literally £1!
Khao San Road is a party street filled mostly with backpackers. Along this road are multiple food stalls (including the women selling insects!!), juice and alcoholic drinks, sit down restaurants, bars, clubs, ping pong shows and massage parlours. A massage post dancing is quite ideal!
Getting around town is quite hard on foot due to the size of the city so you have a few options:
Tuk tuk. A tourist trap which can be fun if you enjoy clinging on for dear life as they race through heavy traffic! The prices are expensive, especially for smaller groups or during the night.
Taxis especially grab taxis are more ideal if you can!
Bikes/moped – if you’re brave enough to take on Thai traffic.
From Bangkok, it’s an hour flight away or over 12 hours overnight on land. If you do fly, make sure you enjoy the culinary delights in Bangkok’s airport…we basically did a food crawl and it’s an absolute treat! Air Asia do feed you as well so bear that in mind!
Chiang Mai is a lovely city and is more chilled compared with the madness that is Bangkok. The city centre is very close to the airport – a mere 10 minute taxi ride which cost 200thb for the 4 of us. Grab taxi doesn’t work here unfortunately.
We stayed in What’s Up Chiang Mai which was a newly opened hostel and one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in! We stayed in the female dorm which had 8 beds and there’s also 2 other rooms which are male and mixed. The rooms access a balcony and outside there’s a pool and lounge area. Their hospitality is A1!
There’s quite a lot to do around Chiang Mai:
Unlike Bangkok, most of the temples in town are free/cost significantly less to enter. They are smaller but just as beautiful.
Wat Phrah Singh was the only one I paid entry for here – 20 baht. Here you will see Lanna style temple art and architecture. The Lanna Kingdom covered parts of Northern Thailand, Laos, Burma and even China so it’ll be interesting to see the similarities when I visit these other areas.
Inside one of the assembly halls is a monk who will give you bracelets and then bless them your parents which was lovely. On the other side were a row of monks which are so life like that everyone spent a minute trying to talk to them before we realised that they are just statues!!
Wat Inthakhin Sademuang is a tiny temple near the Arts and Cultural centre. Its outside monochrome architecture is stunning and it has a free onsite museum on its history.
Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai! Its “chedi” was built as elephants holding up the temple which is a really powerful image as traditionally elephants have been highly respected animal in Thailand.
I particularly loved the “wisdom trees” which had thoughtful phrases and words of wisdom hanging off them.
Other places to visit:
Tha Phae Gate – located in between Rachadmnoen Road and Tha Phae Road. It was once a fortress for the Old City but today is a popular attraction, well located near bars, restaurants, massage parlours. temples, hotels and more. There’s a square next to it which hosts live entertainment on Saturday evenings as well as food markets. Most of the important festivals will host events here including Loy Krathong which happened whilst we were here (see below).
Three King’s Monument – this is a statue of King Mengrai (the founder of Chiang Mai) friend King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao who are thought to have worked together on the city. The statue stands outside the Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural centre.
Buak Hard Park – a beautiful but small park in the south west of the old city. You can get here easily in the red taxis (which act like an Uber pool and are also cheaper than a tuk tuk) but I hitchhiked with a girl on a moped which was fun! The park is a great place to chill or work out (they offer yoga sessions in the morning).
Food and drink
Bagel House – go here for all your bagel needs! I had the iced thai green tea with the bagel Thai ranch style – 185 baht in total.
Tapae Gate – for a buffet breakfast for 189 baht (including tea/coffee). The restaurant is connected to a fancy guesthouse so it’s really lovely and the staff are attentive.
The Night Bazaar is a great place to have an evening snack (pre midnight) . In the food court, I tried the delicious khachaburi which was filled with cheese, spinach and potato for 120 baht.
As Thailand is typically hot, this is the perfect place to indulge in ice cream. Tesco Lotus Express had some interesting flavours like the “unicornetto” below for 24 baht.
The Night Bazaar is bustling at night and has a great atmosphere. As well as the food mentioned above, it also features stalls within it and outside, selling all you could want from the classic elephant trousers to candles, soaps, ornaments, jewellery and more.
Thai massage – after a hard day of sightseeing, this is the perfect way to wind down. Most parlours stay open until about midnight. We had an hour long oil massage at Giving Tree Massage for 400 baht each.
If you fancy a night out, Las Vegas is the club to be. 100 baht entry includes a drink and here you’ll find a good mix of locals and tourists. It’s hidden amongst residential areas so there’s security to make sure people don’t stand outside making noise which is thoughtful of them.
A Thai cooking class is an absolute must! I hadn’t taken part in one abroad before but I loved it so much that I’ll try to incorporate them into more of my travels. Your hotel/hostel will have a list of cooking schools they recommend. I went with Smile Organic Cooking School which was 800 baht for 6 hours.
They pick you up from your accommodation and then the first stop is to a local food market. Here are we are introduced to the main ingredients used in Thai cooking. Next stop is the cooking school. We get to wander around the farm and check out the fresh herbs before we choose our meals for each course and get cooking! I made pad thai, red chicken curry and hot and creamy soup. We also made group spring rolls!
The evening ended with a free Thai cook book.
Seeing elephants is a popular tourist activity but it comes with a lot of responsibility for us travellers to make sure that we are doing it as ethically as possible. Whatever you do, remember that riding elephants is a no-no! It’s bad for their backs and they are mistreated in order to make them comply with this. There are plenty of animal sanctuaries around which again your accommodation can recommend.
We checked out Dumbo Elephant Spa which was 1600 baht for a half day. The reason we chose this one was to see the 4 month old baby elephant called Ellie! We spent the afternoon playing the elephants, feeding them and then bathing them (although the volunteers seemed to be splashing us more than the elephants did!). They provide the colourful T-shirts plus food and drink once you’re done.
The Light Festival
The main reason we visited Chiang Mai was for the Lanna style Loy Krathong and Yi Peng “light” festivals. These occur in November each year.
Loy Krathong is celebrated on the full moon night of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. Small floats made of banana leaves and decorated with flowers and candles are lit and set afloat the river as a simple of thanksgiving to the Water Goddess and for good luck. We did this along the Ping River where the majority of people taking part had gathered.
Alongside this is Yi Peng where lit up paper lanterns are released into the sky. This is one of the most magical scenes I’ve ever seen! There is a private party where you pay a lot of money to do this, however it’s completely unnecessary as there is plenty of space along the river bank to release your lantern (for free) and it’s nice doing so with the locals!
The krathongs (small floats) are available to buy from the markets along the Ping River on that evening (prices between 20-30 baht) and the lanterns cost 50. Bring a lighter if you can, but otherwise people will offer theirs to you or you can buy them for 10 baht each.
Once you’re done, then there’s plenty of food and drink stalls nearby to indulge in.
Compared with Chiang Mai, this city is smaller and more relaxed. It is a few hours drive from Chiang Mai. We found a tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai who offered to be our driver for the day. We paid him 3000 baht which is a pretty sweet deal for him and economical for us. The other economical way to get there if in a smaller group/solo is via coach (Greenbus) which goes frequently between the 2 cities. Make sure you book in advance otherwise you’ll end up slightly stranded as I was when I had to go back to Chiang Rai for my flight!
Wat Rong Khun aka The White Temple is probably the most famous temple in Chiang Rai. The pure white design is fascinating and the whole complex is filled with symbols relating to human desires. It costs 50 baht to enter. You can get here from Chiang Rai city centre via taxi or bus from the old bus station.
Village tribes – We visited the “Union of hill tribe villages and Long Neck Karen” where we got a taster of their way of living for 300 baht. There is a path which goes between the tribes where they are selling items that they’ve made and are willing to interact with you. The Karen tribe are famous for the gold rings which lengthen their necks as a symbol of beauty. Interestingly the women also had these rings on their legs. The process starts from the age of 5 and rings are added every 9 years until she turns 45.
Chiang Rai city centre is much smaller and quieter compared with the others so is great for a rest day if required. There is a Night Bazaar which has a restaurant perfectly placed opposite the stage where live performances occur and surrounding it is the Night Market which closes at 11pm. One thing to try here are the delicious ice cream rolls which are made to your taste. I had the vanilla, choc chip and pepo (green jelly) topped with caramel sauce…and it tasted amazing!
So that’s a summary of my week in Thailand! I’m excited to go back to explore the islands next time. If you haven’t been to Thailand yet, make sure it’s top of your list as the weather is great, the people are some of the loveliest that I’ve ever met and the food and culture is amazing.