Since our hotel, Rendezvous Classic House, is in the old city of Chiang Mai, we decided to spend our first full day here exploring some of the many Buddhist temples (wats) the city is famous for. A moat surrounds the brick walls of Old Chiang Mai, enclosing a maze of streets and narrow alleys. First impressions of this part of Chiang Mai were mixed as we discovered a serious shortage of sidewalks or safe places to walk, even on the main roads. Walking requires weaving around stalls, parked cars and scooters meaning you’re frequently walking among the swarming traffic. It’s hot, too. Still, we made our way to the first wat on our list, Wat Chedi Luang, without any real difficulty.
Wat Chedi Luang is renowned for two things in particular: the Vihara, a building that houses the “City Pillar” or Inthakhin Pillar, and the semi-ruins of a huge ancient chedi. The main temple is also impressive with its elaborate golden facade and soaring interior.
Behind the main temple stands the crumbling ancient chedi or stupa, the largest in Chiang Mai and the largest Lanna structure at the time it was built. An earthquake in 1545 destroyed the top 30m. The Emerald Buddha, which was housed there at the time, was afterward moved to Luang Prabang, Laos, before eventually finding its way to Bangkok.
The all-wood Wat Phan Tao lies just next door to Wat Chedi Luang. It is much smaller than Wat Chedi Luang, but is a beautiful example of classic Lanna architecture.
After leaving Wat Phan Tao, we continued our walk north. The day was gorgeous, but hot and we couldn’t resist ducking into an air-conditioned little cafe for delicious iced coffees. Coffee arabica is grown in northern Thailand and we’ve found the coffee here to be really good. Refreshed and recharged, we continued our walk on to Wat Chiang Man, a beautiful temple famous for the elephant statues surrounding its gold-topped stupa.
Our stomachs were indicating lunch was in order. On impulse, we ducked into a truly unusual lunch venue: the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute Restaurant. This nice little café, shop and Thai massage parlor is run by women from the local prison as an effort to train and rehabilitate them for employment after incarceration. We enjoyed our traditional Thai lunch and the friendly service. My khao soi was the best of the trip. Khao soi is a northern Thai specialty made with a mix of deep-fried noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry coconut milk sauce served with yellow crisp-fried curry noodles. Uniformed guards checked up on us along with waitresses in simple beige pant-and-tunic outfits.
Last on our list of must-see temples for the day was Wat Pra Singh. We’d actually seen a bit of this temple the evening before on our first stroll through Old Chiang Mai. (See lead photo above.) A large group of military-looking people in white uniforms with black arm bands were gathered there for some event. We’d peeked in, but decided not to risk intruding on what may have been yet another in the many mourning events going on around the country for the recently deceased and much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced “poom ee poon ah doon yah day”).
After Wat Pra Singh, we called an end to temples for the day. We’d really enjoyed the temples of Old Chiang Mai, but we were hot and ready for a dip in the hotel pool. It is a vacation after all!