Getting Acquainted – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Getting Acquainted – Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Buddhas and pandas and noodles, oh my! Chiang Mai is teeming with delights for both the tourist and the explorer. Our favorites:

The Naga staircase leading to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep - more than 300 steps!
The Naga staircase leading to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – more than 300 steps!
Doi Suthep: If you’ve got a motorbike, take it out for the day and head 16 km north of the city to Doi Suthep, a majestic mountain that’s home to the impressive Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Be careful, though – narrow roads, tight turns and steep grades can spell trouble for those not experienced with manual gears (thus, the wheelie at the summit). Food and craft stalls line the steps leading up to the temple staircase, and you’ll find plenty of interesting goods, such as embroidered coin purses and waffle-wrapped bananas on a stick (they look like corndogs). Past the shops, you’ll see the colorful Naga staircase (marked by the railings molded to look like dragons) that has 300 steps leading up to the temple. Once there, a sign directs foreigners to pay 30 baht for a ticket. We almost bypassed it but then changed our minds. You probably could just walk in without paying the fee – no one was around to check tickets when we went inside the temple – but it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. You can wander the complex and admire the vast collection of Buddhas. If it’s a nice day, move to the outer edge of the temple and admire the view of Chiang Mai.

The Chaing Mai Zoo loves advertising its pandas, which were

The Chaing Mai Zoo loves advertising its pandas, which were “friendship ambassadors” from China in 2003
Chiang Mai Zoo: The zoo is at the foot of the hill leading to Doi Suthep, so it’s easy to combine both for a day trip. You can follow a footpath through the exhibits, but if your legs ache from climbing up and down temple stairs, there’s a small tour bus that circles through the zoo. If you’re around in the afternoon, look for feeding schedules for the animals – you can watch the sea lions, tigers and hippos chow down. A major draw is the panda exhibit, featuring two pandas sent from China in 2003 as “friendship ambassadors.” It costs 100 baht extra to see the “diplomats.” Chiang Mai Zoo is a big departure from Western zoos, where the animals tend to be cleaner and reside in state-of-the-art “environments.” Here, the penguins live in a cramped aquarium with such murky water that you can barely see them swim. Witnessing these conditions may put a damper on your visit, but the wide array of exotic species is worth seeing. There’s an entrance fee of 30 baht for the zoo, as well as a 10 baht fee for motorbike parking.

Sunday Market: Get ready to flex your bargaining muscles at this lively market that runs on Sundays along Ratchadamnoen Road and features food, music and shopping. Food vendors set up inside the walls of temples and offer everything from spring rolls and fried ice cream to fried chicken. There are numerous small tables where you can sit on the ground and set your food in front of you, but they fill up fast. Also, there are chairs and mats set up for foot and back massages. The price is excellent, especially after a long day of hiking – 120 baht for a full hour of Thai massage. Prices for crafts here are cheaper than Bangkok, and the selection is great. You’ll find remarkable paintings of Buddhas, handmade paper lanterns and cute clothes. The atmosphere is a more family-friendly version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road.