Chiang Mai, the former capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, is home to one of Thailand’s most dramatic lantern festivals, and offers up a cultural and culinary escape to remember.
Words & Photography : Timothy Tam Wae Yih
When one mentions Thailand, thoughts of bustling Bangkok with its endless canals and market alleys or idyllic Phuket embraced by sandy beaches and blue water, come to mind.
Recently however, Chiang Mai (which means ‘new city’ in Thai, as it was the new capital of the Lanna kingdom in 1296) has been garnering significant attention, not only as a tourist destination but also as an expatriate hub. It is common to see foreigners traversing the streets, many with large haversacks but also clutching MacBook Airs and donning knock-off Ray-Bans.
The abundance of Western-style highspeed Internet cafés serving impeccable coffees, the welcoming nature of the locals, the closely-knit expatriate community and relatively cheap cost of living make it an especially attractive base for digital nomads to run their virtual companies. Despite the high number of foreigners living here, don’t cross out Chiang Mai as a place to immerse yourself in authentic Thai culture. Thanks to infrastructural developments prompted by the influx of foreign visitors, Chiang Mai’s charming cultural attractions are even more accessible to the rest of the world.
Hopping off my early morning flight from Kuala Lumpur and in dire need of a caffeine fix, I met up with my buddy Ming Yan, who took me to Doppio Ristr8to – one of Chiang Mai’s most prominent cafés. Located along trendy Nimmanhaemin Road (or Nimman to the locals), the café’s name comes from its specialty, ristretto, a short shot of espresso. The café claims theirs has “superb body and elegant aroma, delivering delicate acidity and caramel rich on the palate”. I ordered a cup of muggaccino – two shots of ristretto – from their special blend of Brazilian Mocha Java with steamed milk and a fine layer of foam to top it off.
I’m no coffee connoisseur but I can appreciate the difference between freshbrewed and instant coffee, and this was one of the best coffees I’d ever tasted. It was just so well-balanced and smooth, the synergy of coffee and milk giving the right taste, texture and aroma. The coffee looks as good as it tastes; the barista here recently nabbed sixth place in the World Latte Art Championship. All this for a very reasonable THB98 (USD3)!
Festival of Lights
Thereafter, it was on to the Tae Phae Gate for my tour with Thai life to experience the Yi Peng Festival that’s held on the second month of the Lanna calendar, usually around the end of November.
Coinciding with Loi Krathong, this festival,is celebrated most elaborately in Chiang Mai due to its history as the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom. During this festival, sky lanterns called khom loi are released with wishes for the future.
The tour by Thailife included coach transportation to and from Mae Jo University, where the largest release of lanterns is held. I usually don’t join tour groups, preferring to challenge my geographical instincts and move at my own leisure, but I’d definitely recommend taking this tour.
After a 90-minute drive through the picturesque Thai countryside, we arrived at Mae Jo University. Tantalising aromas of freshly-cooked delicacies led us to food stalls serving hot-from-the-wok delicacies like pad thai, spicy minced chicken with rice and lots more, for free! After stuffing ourselves, we headed to the main field where the event was to be held.
As the sun set, monks began to pray and meditate. Lanterns were released into the sky dotting the heavens like stars. Lying on the grass and looking up at this amazing view with the subtle chanting in the background gave me a sense of serenity.
When the chanting stopped, smoke began to rise from the centre of the field, cueing the moment we had been waiting for. The candles lined up throughout the area were lit and the entire field was soon aglow with a fiery hue.
We held more lanterns above the fire to ignite the fuel cell at the bottom, which would fi ll the lantern with hot air and pull it skywards. We were told beforehand to wait for a cue before releasing the lantern, so we continued to hold on, admiring the sight of the thousands around us, faces aglow from excitement amidst the lanterns.
A couple of minutes later, a short burst of fireworks erupted into the sky and everyone released their lanterns. Seeing the lanterns slowly rise and blanket the jet black sky, left me utterly overwhelmed. The sky was ablaze, and as the lanterns kept rising, the breeze gently pulled them westward, stretching the lanterns into an arc across the sky. The lanterns rose so high that they blended with the stars, and with thousands of them in the air, it looked as if the Milky Way had just formed before us.
It began to pour right after the event, as it did last year causing traffic to come to a standstill. This is the main reason I’d recommend going with a tour group. A bunch of people we spoke to said it took almost an hour to find a songthaew (red pickup trucks with covered bench seats in the back that are Chiang Mai’s main form of public transportation). So, the THB200 price tag for the tour was definitely worth it!
We spent the next day covering two of Chiang Mai’s most famous temples: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and Wat Chedi Luang. Over 1,600 metres above Chiang Mai, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep offers an amazing panoramic view of the city, surrounded by greenery, the Ping River and scattered towns.
Legend has it that a monk discovered a relic of the Buddha and was invited by King Kuena of the Lanna Kingdom to enshrine it. Upon completion of the shrine, the relic magically replicated, so the king decided to place one on the back of a sacred white elephant and set it free.
The elephant climbed all the way up to Doi Suthep, trumpeted and dropped dead, inspiring the king to build Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep at that spot in 1383. Covered extensively in copper and gold, the central chedi shimmers blindingly in the sunlight. The temple has also expanded significantly over the past 600 years, and is surrounded by endless shrines, large bells, golden umbrellas and statues of Buddha. The best way to get to Doi Suthep is to catch a songthaew from Chiang Mai Zoo, at a regulated price of THB80 for a round-trip.
Our next stop was Wat Chedi Luang, located right in the center of the old city on Prapokklao Road. Initially built in the late 1300s by King Saenmuangma to store his father’s ashes, it was completed by King Tilokarat and once towered majestically above the entire Lanna region, standing about 86 metres tall at that time.
Age however, has taken its toll on the temple. Today, it remains semi-restored with most of its main spire missing due to an earthquake in 1545. Personally, I can appreciate unrestored structures in their original state. Knowing that part of the wall I was looking at once embraced the famous Emerald Buddha in the 15th century and witnessed the territorial battles between the Burmese and Thai people in the 17th and 18th centuries added to the overall cultural and historical atmosphere.
Rest & Relaxation
No trip to Thailand would be complete without a Thai massage, so we headed to the highly-recommended C&R Spa to relieve our internal knots and strains. It is located on Ratchadamnoen Road, home to the famous walking street, and we were disappointed to fi nd that there was a two-hour wait, but also slightly excited since it meant that the spa was really popular.
It was worth the wait! It was one of the best massages I’d ever had. I’d had surgery on my left collarbone, and when I’d told other masseuses about it, they would stay clear of it, leaving me feeling relieved on one side but with an even more accentuated strain on the other. But my masseuse, being an expert, knew exactly which areas to avoid and the right amount of pressure to apply. I don’t remember ever feeling that revitalised after a massage, and two weeks later, the usual cracks from stretching my neck had still not returned! 90 minutes of pure bliss and long-lasting relief for a mere THB200!
Tastes & Tunes
Feeling rejuvenated, we dived straight into the Sunday walking night market that stretches the entire length of Ratchadamnoen Road. This is a shopper’s paradise, and you can find almost anything you need from hand-carved wooden statues and silk ties to fried quail eggs.
If you’re a foodie, it’s best to come here on an empty stomach. Along the street, temple courtyards are packed with food stalls, serving everything imaginable from jellyfish-topped sushi to glutinous rice with mangoes and even freshly-ground Arabica coffee. Khao soi, crispy egg noodles in a creamy coconut-based curry with slices of pickled cabbage is a local must-try. After treading the entire 1.2km stretch of the walking market, we headed to North Gate Jazz Co-op. Located on the old city side of the north gate, this place is a favourite for both locals and foreigners, serving up lively contemporary jazz. Popular throughout the week, it’s common for crowds to spill out onto the streets so it’s best to get there by 10.00pm. If you’re daring enough to rock out on stage, there’s even an open jam session on Tuesday nights. Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway, or a temporary relocation, Chiang Mai should definitely be high up on your list. With warm locals, delectable cuisine and picturesque festivals, it’s definitely worth checking out.