chiang mai

The Silver Temple and other Chiang Mai Secrets...

Chiang Mai, Thailand

OK - I spent around 3 months in total in Chiang Mai - and let’s get something straight.

1) I do not (Mr Tuk Tuk driver) want to visit some zoo on the outskirts of town and lie my weary traveller’s body against the flank of a Tiger and get it’s whiskers all up in my grill

2) Ok I’m still on point 1 - but really? People want to do this? Sensible, intelligent friends I met did this. Am I the only one that thinks this is crazy? Not just distressing for the animal - but logically speaking - the tigers have either been drugged which is why they are docile enough to have hordes of idiot back packers having their photos taken with them. Or they have not been drugged - which means they could - if they so desired - snap (their jaws) at any minute. Either way - I’d rather see majestic wild animals in the wild - not in captivity.

3) It’s not a Butterfly and Orchid farm without butterflies in it. It’s just an orchid farm.

4) When a 60 year old man tells you he loves Thailand because the barriers don’t exist between ages and he enjoys partying with his 21 year old Thai twins who are just “friends” it’s time to move to another venue.

Rant over.

So where do you go and what do you do in Chiang Mai - if, as a slightly more discerning traveller you don’t want to rest your head against the chops of a tiger; traipse up the top of Doi Suthep with 900 other people; cram yourself onto the streets of its night market to look at hawkers selling rip off tat or chug back the cheap cocktails at backpacker haven Zoe’s in the centre of town with the rest of the 21 year olds, Thai teenagers and sexpats?

I based myself in the less touristy part of town - at a place called Life in Town (a clean a/c room with smart ensuite and cable tv - plus secure gated access) by Suan Pung Gate (south gate) for around 150 quid for the month - and spent the next couple of months discovering places off a little more off the beaten track.

Wats Up? The Silver Temple.

If you have been travelling around Thailand for any amount of time you may well reach a point where you feel “all Watted Out.” It’s not that these beautiful temples or Wats with their peaceful courtyards, intricate and bejwelled exteriors, and glowing golden rooves aren’t fascinating but even the sight of a monk with a bright orange strimmer the same colour as his robes - trimming his hedge - wasn’t enough to tempt me inside after the 100th on the journey so far. Until I discovered Thailand’s only silver temple - practically on my doorstep. The temple was built in the 16th century and is situated down Wualai road -the traditional silver making district of Chiang Mai. It really is a view to behold. On the day I’m there it sits shimmering like a steel pan behind the deep blue of the October sky.

The entire temple and roof is clad in silver panels and the grounds are also home to a silver making school as well as a Monk Chat programme where you can pop along and chat with a monk about Buddhism, meditation or anything else that takes your fancy!

The main ordination hall is called the Usobot and women are not allowed to enter unfortunately due to ancient Lanna tradition. Ah well. It’s also very close to the Saturday (Wualai) walking street which offers a slightly less hectic version of the Night market - filled with colourful little stalls and street food.

An Art Lesson with Nonnie.

I have been vowing to take up drawing again since I hit the road. I’ve met a couple of painters on my travels and thought it would be lovely to keep not just a written and photographic record of my journey around the world - but a painted one as well. Oh the best laid plans etc - it never came to anything. But I did manage to go to one art class! Nonnie runs a studio of the main touristy road - MoonMuang. She’s a slightly intimidating and non smiling - self taught artist who works out of a studio rammed with half finished oils, charcoals and other offerings from her students. Rin - my friend and I are first given a box of postcards - to find a picture we wnat to copy, and then we are set up at an easel. Nonnie brings us a ginger tea and clucks at her demented pussy cat that’s making a strange howling noise (i didn’t think my artistic skills were that bad.)When it looks like I’m perilously close to cocking the whole thing up, she deftly takes my paintbrush off me and with a few sharp and confident strokes sorts the whole thing out. I’m not a terrible artist - it was always one of my favourite subjects at school no thanks to the villainous Ms Sage who - unfamiliar with the concept of positive praise - hissed every vitriolic comment out of her mouth through an aggressively snarled lip. However I’m sorely out of practise. It’s a little bit painting by numbers - for the very artistic this class doesn’t offer much creativity and I expect those far more talented than me may resent someone else stepping in and taking over with their masterpiece every once in a while. But I’m grateful for all the help I can get. It’s a calming and satisfying way to while away a morning with the brusque but kindly Nonnie, her ginger tea and her unhappy pussy.

A Haven of Tranquility

For a small city, Chiang Mai can feel suprisingly hot, polluted and crowded at times. For some sweet sanctuary away from the madding crowd - why not try a class in one of the healing arts or wellness centres that the town is known for. Tucked away down a little side street around the back of Chiang Mai Gate Market is Wild Rose Yoga - a beautiful little oasis in the city with brightly coloured wooden parasols in the garden area and an intimate little yoga room. I tried the Vinyasa flow class there in one of Thailand’s hottest months (kind of like getting a bit Bikram thrown in for free. )

YogaTree studio, Chiang Mai

The Yoga Tree studio on the west side of the moat also offers free meditation classes and yoga as well as Bio Danza (a joyful and liberating type of dance class where the emphasis is on non verbal communication and reaching a state of Vivencia - pure joy!) I took part in a 2 day dance festival earlier this year - and found myself dancing along to Flashdance with 40 other women (and one slightly scared looking man) at 11 o clock n the morning - which was, quite frankly, a brilliant way to start the day. The studios are set far away from the main road in lush green gardens.

 An’ All that Jazz*

Hipsters, ChiangMai, Thailand

If you want to avoid the tourist trail and coffee shop mecca of Thapae Gate, and can give the central backpacker night club Zoe’s then hie thee to a couple more out the way establishments for a classier evening. The Gossip Gallery and Bar is situated on Wichayanon Road just outside the the north east side of the old town. It’s a very small and cosy venue with some large leather comfy seating and lamps. It features live jazz from local musicians thursday through to sunday and there’s an art gallery upstairs with regular exhibitions. For a more scenic view - cross the Ping River and make your way to The Good View for a meal and live music overlooking the water. I visited Windy’s - another intimate live music venue - filled with trendy young Thai’s drinking whiskey and a Thai hipster duo on acoustic guitar. It was a bit like being in Shoreditch - except of course the G&Ts were 70p instead of 7 quid ;)

Any secret places you’ve found in Chiang Mai that you want to share? Let me know in the comments below :)

*Please note that I was in Chiang Mai between April and October 2013- and that many bars and restaurants seem to change owners, close and reinvent on a regular basis in this city!

Sensational Songkran, Thai New Year Water Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This time last year I was living in Chiang Mai creating some of my most magical travel memories ever. Why? Sensational Songkran that's why. Read on. 

The skies are a scorching bright blue and the “hair dryer” effect hot hair is all engulfing from 8am til sun down. The water of the moat is running low and all along the waters edge, the blackened branches of the blossom trees droop with firebursts of bright orange flowers - as if the very tips of the twigs have burst into flames. The pavements are cracked, and the grasses dry. We are now entering the very hottest months in Thailand. All around Chiang Mai – the hillsides that ring the city are concealed in a dusty, smog. This is crop burning season and farmers are slashing and burning their fields which sends a thick low level blanket drifting into the city. Even the Thai people are fanning themselves and gesturing: "very very hot!" to me although of course, they still seem to manage step out in full length jeans and sweatshirts... Thank goodness its time for SongKran – Thai New Year wherein the entire city of Chiang Mai shuts down from 12th April to the 16th and the Thais embark on what can only be described as an enormous and brilliant water fight.

Water was used traditionally to purify the Buddhas that are found in temples and carried through the streets in procession. Then Thais would take the same water (seen as blessed) and gently cleanse each other with it. The processions still take place but the offering of a light scattering of water in the direction of one's neighbour has transformed into open backed jeeps crammed with Thai teenagers menacing water guns and barrels of iced water - and if they don't get you then the pavements flanked with cafe and restaurant owners wielding hosepipes and plastic buckets will. You simply cannot go out doors and hope to stay dry – particularly, it seems, if you are a game looking falang woman. There is only one thing to be done -and that is join in!

My friend Kat, a blonde 'n' bubbly (is there any other kind) Essex girl from back home is travelling Asia and is joining me to celebrate. I find a family by the moat who sell my a blue and yellow water pistol for 200B along with a little plastic waterproof purse to put my valuables in. I'm already drenched of course. The fact that I've been unarmed and completely bone armed and loadeddry has been to much temptation for the truck loads of Thais roving the streets.

“Sorreeee ladyyyyyy” smiles one Thai as he tips a bucket of ice water over my head.

Welcome to Songkran.


I meet up with Kat and although we try and hold our own with our pistols we are being fired at from all sides from men, woman, children and even grannies armed with make shift mop handles transformed into squirting guns; we've even had a hosepipe turned on us. There are stages set up with blaring music and falangs line the streets drinking beer in the midday sunshine and joining in the mayhem. We take to a side street and find a little bar filled with gnarly old western men and Thai women. It's a tad dubious, the women have teeth missing and are already three sheets to the wind – I have a feeling they are prostitutes. We grab a beer and one man grins at us ruddily:

“Byron bay has the most women per men in the world” he informs us – that's where he hails from...

“but there...i'm too old for them...”

Then he cheers up and with winking bloodshot eyes, leers... “But not here...”

Hmmm. Gross.

Never mind – the bar is playing Rhianna and the prostitutes seem delighted to see us, anointing us with chalky white face paint and garlands of flowers. They are drinking a cloudy white liquid from a bucket and let us try some. It has a tangy lemony flavour. Apparently its rice whiskey made from sticky rice. We want to buy some – but I think it may be the equivalent of moonshine as someone i think of as "Mummy Prostitute" says she is not allowed to sell it. Eventually we talk her round and she sells us some for 70 Baht concealed in a beer bottle.

We stand on the kerb shooting water at the people that have the misfortune to wander down the road in front of us. Overall the etiquette seems to be that if you are from the same bar you are all on the same side – and just shoot at people across the road. Unless of course the action dies down a bit ...then, I discover, as I watch the prostitutes  stuff one of the girls in a big box of ice water - you are fully within your rights to turn on your fellow man for entertainment value.

It's interesting watching peoples water gun technique. According to Kat I shoot at people with a deeply satisfied and smug grin on my face. One gangly guy slopes past then casually cocks his gun behind him and squirts someone on the top of the head – execution style. Men particularly seem to be taking this whole thing very very seriously!

We've both agreed we would rather drink this “purer” form of alchohol than some of the dodgy cheap Sangsom they sell in the shops. Problem is we have absolutely no idea what it is we are drinking. It tastes dangerously good though. I genuinely can't remember when I've ever had so much fun. I'm soaking wet, absolutely drunk, dancing on the streets and shooting at people with toy guns. Its fantastic. There is a brilliant atmosphere too. Every one is welcome to join in the entertainment and although people are eating and drinking throughout the day there never seems to be any violence or aggression – unlike an average night out in any British town.

Just before it gets dark, the skies cloud over and a wind picks up. Suddenly after days, even months of bone dry and roasting heat, the heavens open. Everyone screams and throws themselves out of the bars and onto the street . It's almost as if the Gods have been listening in; watching all the festivities; regarded all the processions and offerings made to them – and have finally answered our prayers. The shooting of water continues as we rush out and onto the road to stomp about and dance in the pouring rain. It's an incredible, magical moment. I'm taking part in one of the biggest, most totally impromptu, ecstatic, rain dances of all time.

Happy Thai New Year Everyone.