All posts by Richard

Brand new Midlifer

Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai was a name that we had heard but never really paid attention to. It kinda followed Chiang Mai as places to see but never really struck us as a place to go. When you are doing your planning and do a quick what’s there search you will find the White Temple, The Blue Temple and the Black House Museum.

From there if you click through to images the White temple will blow you away. From that point alone we figured that we had to go.

The two cities are only a 3 hr drive apart and as such a general search of things to do will roll the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai attractions together. In fact, there are return day trips from both cities to see each other’s attractions – albeit a pretty long day.

Getting to Chiang Rai

This bit was pretty easy as from Chiang Mai there are loads of options. We opted for the bus. We paid top dollar for the first class bus 300 baht ($15 each) but the bus was delayed and then merged with another route so we got downgraded to a lesser bus and was refunded 100 baht each as we boarded the bus. Either way, the bus we got was perfectly reasonable so sit down, stare out the window and 3 hours later you are being delivered to the heart of town.

You could have paid more and taken a private car but the time would have virtually been the same and the air-conditioned bus was comfortable enough for such a short trip. That said I don’t think I would want to go much further in a bus.

Chiang Rai Central

Our first 5 minutes in Chiang Rai put us back in the Thailand we remembered – right in the midst of the girly bars. This is something we did not see once in Chiang Mai ( I did google it later – they were there we just didn’t see them). But within 300 meters of our hotel there they were, scantily clad and asking all of the usual questions. As it turned out this had more to do with where we were living as really this scene in Chiang Rai is fairly small. Oh yes, and the weed is still everywhere.

The center of Chiang Rai is actually pretty small and it is easy to get around just about anywhere on foot (notwithstanding the state of the footpaths). There are some Wats, some lesser-known and smaller attractions within easy walking distance and some a few kilometers from town that may warrant a tuk-tuk. Things like the clocktower, hilltribe museum, Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park (see temple artifacts, botanical gardens, and traditional teakwood houses) the Oub Kham Museum (artifacts of the Thai royal family).

The clocktower is at the centre of a roundabout near the heart of town. It was built in 2005 by a local artist to honour Queen Sirikit. This thing is seriously ornate and the street is lined with ornate railings. If you come at night there is a light show that starts on the hour (7pm, 8pm and 9pm) and goes for 5 mins.

The Night Bazaar

The night market is a lively place just behind the bus terminal. It has a variety of options for eating and drinking with the usual tourist trinket fare available for purchase. There are lots of shops around that sell everything from clothing, hats, toys, shoes, glasses, etc. There are even a few breakout areas where you can sit and listen to music and have a drink.

The White Temple – Wat Rong Khun

Well, this is the main reason for everybody coming to Chiang Rai and I must say, it does not disappoint. It is phenomenal. The masses of people are a challenge but that aside, this place deserves its place as the top tourist attraction.

By way of background this place was getting pretty run down so in the late 1990s a local artist from Chiang Rai (Chalermchai Kositpipat) bought it and decided to completely rebuild the temple and fund the project with his own money. Most of the symbolism blurb below has been drawn from the tourist spiel that is available everywhere.

The main building at the white temple is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake. In front of the bridge are hundreds of outreaching hands that symbolize unrestrained desire. The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed, and desire.

Next to the lake stand two very elegant Kinnaree, half-human, half-bird creatures from Buddhist mythology.

After crossing the bridge, the visitor arrives at the “gate of heaven”, guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decide the fate of the dead. 

Having been judged, you cross the bridge representing “the cycle of rebirth”. This is meant to signify the crossing over from the cycle of death and rebirth into a state free of suffering. It symbolises the way to happiness by overcoming worldly things as temptations, greed and desire.

From here you enter the temple (no photos allowed) and are then free to tour the expansive grounds. Where you will find all sorts of interesting features many of which will be highly unexpected. The area adjacent to the temple is intended to house, the centre of learning and meditation and help people benefit from the teachings of Buddhism. 

Around the temple grounds are several concrete “trees” with thousands of medallions hanging down from them (Bohdi Leaves). For 30 Baht you can add yours with your name written on it. With all of the visitors that have done this, it has now spilled out from the trees and there is a long walkway the ceiling of which is made up of these medallions.

All around the grounds of the white temple you will find an eclectic mix of paintings, sculptures and murals that depict modern representations of good and evil.

The best game that can be played is to try and find and identify the sculptures representing good and evil. We found many but I am certain that there were many more that we never even saw.

Even hidden in a waterfall you will find a heap of these figures and sculptures. Figures like Batman, Spiderman, Elvis, ninja turtles, the predator, venom – villains and superheroes from movies and comics.

But you really need to look or you could miss them

One of the most heavily photographed buildings there is this golden pavilion. Swarms of people are constantly posing in front of its beauty. Believe it or not…it is just the public toilet.

The Blue Temple – Wat Rong Sear Tean

Like the White Temple, this temple is totally different from almost every other that you will see throughout Thailand. It is about 4km from the heart of town, so a short tuk tuk ride – but in our case a fairly decent walk. Unsurprisingly the Blue Temple is blue a colour symbolically associated with purity, wisdom, and the lack of materialism that Buddhists aspire to. The name translates to mean the temple of the dancing tiger.

It is truly stunning this place. We have been in and out of Thai temples and they are all very lovely, intricately carved incredibly ornate and all very much similar. But even though you know it will be different this place takes it to another level. An absolute must see.

The Black House Museum – Baan Dam

The museum covers an area of about 40 acres and has over 40 different structures scattered around the site. The artist who designed and created the Baan Dam Museum (Thawan Duchanee) wants to turn this into a national arts and cultural learning centre. A bit like the white temple the place is covered in art and installations.

It gave me more of a sense of an old-school furniture shop more than a museum. Except that the furniture had been made from dead animals (notably water buffalo horns and skulls) and taxidermied animals such as crocs, snakes and even a wolf were used as table runners.

Everything is painted black and deep brown with big, intimidating-looking doors. The walls, floors, and even ceilings of the buildings are covered with paintings, sculptures, installations. But mostly there was just a lot of furniture made from animal skins, bones, and horns.

The big buddha – Wat Huay Pla Kang

While everyone calls it the big buddha it is not a buddha but actually a 23-storey high white Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy. In addition, there is a 9-tier pagoda (temple) guarded by golden and green nagas and of course… there is a ridiculously long staircase to get to it. And Hello Kitty busses to ferry the tourists who don’t want to walk.

Chiang Rai Flower Festival

Ok, so this was sheer dumb luck. It just so happened that our journey coincided with the Chiang Rai flower festival. We were headed to the 75th anniversary flag and lamp park (built for the king’s 75th birthday) when we found that the park was in the midst of the flower festival. Orchids, tulips and many more perfectly sculptured flower displays were sprawled out all over the park. Add to that some strategically placed dry ice in water to make an eerie mist and it was lovely. As I am not really a flower guy, I will just shut up and show you what we stumbled upon.

Much more interestingly for someone like me is that they had turned the nearby walking street (an occasional market) into a huge nightly market (with seating) with a massive selection of food that was so cheap that it almost rivalled Cambodian prices (bearing in mind that everything in Thailand is about 2.5x more expensive).

Chiang Mai was much better than I expected. Most people come and do an overnight here but as you can see from above there is much more to see and do here than that. We were here for 7 days which gave us plenty of time to see what we wanted without busting a gut.

Things around that we didn’t do

Wat Tham Pla- the Fish Cave Temple or Monkey Temple

I will state upfront we did not go here and the couple of photos are not ours. This is a Buddhist temple at the foot of the Doi Nang Non mountain range. This is the same mountain range where the soccer team had to be rescued from a cave a few years back. The entrance is guarded by a massive staircase 7-headed Nagas (mythical serpents) and the temple is basically the same as all others – but in a cave.

The main reason we did not go here is that it was 50km from town and the temple was infested with monkeys (northern pig-tailed macaques to be precise). Even the official websites tell you that the temple is overrun with monkeys and reviewers tell us that they are quite menacing and are known to jump on unsuspecting tourists and snatch their things – so visit at your own risk!

Visit the remote Karen Hilltribe Village

Karen hill tribe villages are scattered all across northern Thailand and can be found in just about every province. Many traditional villages can still be found in remote areas of Thailand. They tend to dress in traditional clothing and live in primitive bamboo stilt houses.

As we had seen and got photographed with them in Myanmar, we chose not to do the 50 km trek to see them again.

Visit the golden triangle

This is the tri-border area of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar once renowned for the opium and heroin trade. Having been to all three countries already we passed on seeing the sign.

Cambodia the extra bits

Visiting the far away temples

Ignore my earlier advice about taking a tuk tuk when it comes to visiting the further out temples. The distance between them is far enough for air conditioning to be effective and much more importantly, the roads are so bad that you will relish having effective suspension in your vehicle.

Banteay Srei

Is a 10th century temple that is considerably smaller that each of the ones in town. Because of this you can get around it a lot easier and the fact that it is made out of red sandstone means that some of the reliefs and carvings have held up a bit better making it a nice spot to visit.

The People

Firstly let me say that the Cambodian people are lovely. There is always a smile and a wave and as at early 2023 they seem not to know how to lie and cheat (YET). With the exception of the markets, there is no bartering, the price for something is the price. English is widely spoken and even more broadly understood. The usual dramas that you get throughout Asia you do not, yet, get here in Cambodia. As the disgusting hordes have not fully descended on the place, in many ways it remains (at least partially) untouched. Yes there are massage joints everywhere, and yes they are seriously cheap ($10-12/hr) but for the most part they are offering massages and not the special happy ending types that seem to abound in places like Bali, Vietnam and Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, I am not naive enough to think that if you asked for the extra service that it wouldn’t be available or easily found but it is not in your face like it is elsewhere in SE Asia. There also is not the preponderance of old fat white guys with young Asian women, holding hands and making smoochy faces. This fact alone is refreshing in this part of the world.

But it is still a poor country and the people are doing what they can to get by. You will be asked constantly “tuk tuk sir” or “you want souvenir” or in my case the less than flattering but sadly accurate “we have big sizes”. If you brave the markets you must expect to be besieged however if you are walking down the street a light wave of the hand is usually enough to dissuade the approaches. This is not the case in the markets surrounding the temples, especially later on in the day. These guys can be quite forceful and persistent. That said, it is possible that they have not made a sale yet that day and that these are desperate attempts to earn money to feed their family.

Begging…this is a new thing since last time we were here. Begging was not a thing in Cambodia in any of our other visits, however whether it is COVID, the downturn or simply desperation it is a feature that is creeping in – especially in the early evening at meal times. Gangs of wheelchairs traverse the street food stalls begging for change. In addition there are gangs of children stalking the tables. The children for the most part are looking for recyclables such as aluminium cans however on initial glance do pass off as beggars.

Siem Reap Food

First thing to know about food in foreign countries – eat local. Local food uses the local ingredients, techniques and has been tried and tested to be good and more often than not cheap. You will invariably see signs that offer you the sorts of food that you are used to, grew up with or are just your favourites. With very few exceptions…these will be terrible. I have been caught out in this regard so many times it is not funny. Pizza and pasta seem to be my personal main failure points. The longer you are away from home the more you will be tempted to order something familiar. But it will invariably be bad, expensive (comparatively), poorly executed and will leave you feeling disappointed.

Second thing to know is that we are fairly adventurous eaters and are not (normally) afraid of the street food stalls. These tend to offer the best and most authentic foods at the cheapest prices. Lets be honest here, I am a little more likely than Jill to get into the weird and wonderful things but she is certainly not afraid and once she gets a taste for something there is no stopping her. That said, there are some things she will just not come at.

Albeit you do often end up eating on tiny tables while precariously perched on a plastic stool that was designed for toddlers.

Either way I am certain they are not rated for my XXL frame. So each time we go, I gently lower myself onto one of these plastic kindergarten chairs and hope and pray that I do not have the embarrassment of coming crashing down mid meal.

So far so good…

Cambodian Food

Cambodian food is simple but great. Typical of the region, soups, noodles, rice and BBQ sticks are the order of the day. There are the two most famous Beef Lok Lak and Fish Amok. Our first time here we did a cooking class and learnt how to make these along with some spring rolls. The fish amok is a mild coconut fish curry that is steamed in banana leaves, while the lok lak is a stir fried beef typically served with a dipping sauce of salt and pepper with fresh squeezed lime juice. Fried rice is of course available everywhere as is a range of noodle, meat and vegetable dishes.

If you are anything like us when it comes to food in a foreign country you tend to pull up at small side of the road stand or restaurant and stare at the pictures on the menu pointing at things that seem vaguely recognisable or at least inoffensive. If this is the case Kuy Teav is the staple for both breakfast and lunch and you have probably had it without even knowing that you have. It is a kind of rice noodle soup with random acts of stuff thrown into it. Num Banh Chok is kinda the same but it usually uses a fermented noodle. These two are available virtually everywhere and is so common it is usually just referred to as Khmer noodles. If you didn’t have one then it would have been the other.

Num Pang is a local Cambodian version of the Vietnamese Bahn Mi or traditional Cambodian sandwich.

These usually involve a crispy bread roll (demi-baguette) that comes with pork and a pickle mix of carrot and daikon often added to by some local salad like cucumber, tomato, fresh herbs such as coriander, and an optional chilli sauce. This has become a quick lunch for us and for between $1.25-3 we get 2 rolls and our lunch is sorted. Jill dodges the chilli while I dodge the cucumber and coriander.

The interesting thing about ordering the Num Pang is that I have been to the same stall on 3 different days, I have been served by the same woman, and I have received the same item, but I have paid a different price every day. To be fair, if I were comparing a Banh Mi with a Num Pang the Vietnamese do a better version. But the Cambodian Num Pang is still very tasty and for about a buck, you cant do too much better for lunch.

Other lunch and dinner specials include: Bai Sach chrouk (pork and rice), Num Kachay (chive cakes), Nhoam svay kchai (green mango salad) and Lap Khmer (Beef salad). The food is simple and basic but also tasty and (as long as you avoid the tourist strip) cheap.

The bugs

Cambodia, like other places in Asia, has a culture of eating the creepier, crawlier and slitherier types of protein sources. While I have taken great pleasure over the years of dipping my toes into these waters, for the most part it was to say that I have. They were not particularly pleasant culinary experiences and fit more into the category of bragging rights or interesting future dinner conversations. Very few of these I would choose to repeat.

Cambodia has many dishes made from insects/bugs and roving tuk tuks will have trays of various such bugs for your culinary pleasure. Typical offerings are either laid out on trays or have been skewered for your convenience and can include: snakes, scorpions, crickets, silkworms, grasshoppers, cockroaches, ant eggs, spiders, beetles, and bamboo worms. On a previous trip to Cambodia the boy and I had an evening at the night market sampling the various weird collections of food on a stick. These included snakes and the particular Cambodian delicacy of deep fried Tarantulas.

On other trips to other countries I have had virtually every type of bug that is available for sale (I really need to stop drinking before hitting the night markets). As I have grown older (and supposedly wiser) I tend to eat less of the freaky stuff and stick to tasty local delicacies. For the most part, once you have eaten a scorpion you don’t really need to keep eating them everywhere you go. As such, my current intake of bugs and creepy crawlies has dropped off significantly. I am still more than happy to try new things however do not intend to retrace ground already covered.

The BBQ

As with almost everywhere in Asia there will be drums with fire and there will be various meats and vegetables on sticks ready and waiting to be grilled. Some of these items will be identifiable while others will not. For the most part this is where flame meets meat and at this point very little really can go wrong. Stare at something that looks good, point at it, raise the number of fingers that you think will be enough, and wait. A few short minutes later you will be a couple of dollars poorer and have had a meal. Our most expensive foray into these BBQ’s this trip was the $2.50 for the quarter chicken.

As can be seen from the photo above the options of things that can go on a grill are almost endless. Random sausage type things abound, mystery meats and odd looking balls are always regulars on the table as is a usual nod towards tofu and some vegetables. Pick the ones that work for you, point at it and then just dig in.

One of Jill’s personal favourites that fits both the weird and the BBQ categories is the barbeque bullfrog. I think the first time we had this was on a street food tour in Vietnam. We then found it again in Laos and have now also had it now here in Cambodia. The Cambodian version involves covering the bullfrog in a tamarind sauce before grilling over the ubiquitous charcoal drum. We got three bullfrogs for our serving size and tucked in accordingly.

This was neither difficult to find nor considered particularly unusual. It was just a normal item on the menu.

Desserts

Desserts are an interesting concoction here in Cambodia, fruits and juices abound and a bunch of tuk tuk attached stalls have plenty of options for you to choose from. The first night we found the pancakes for a dollar. These involved the thin crepe type batter being stretched and folded and fried in front of you while any number of toppings were an option, the go to certainly seemed to be banana and chocolate. Cambodian bamboo sticky rice (Kralan) is traditional and is cooked with coconut milk and soybean in a bamboo tube, however these tended to be available as you travelled to the outer temples and I haven’t seen too many in town. The next one we tried was the Fried ice cream. This is not really fried and is only notionally ice cream. It is fruit and cream mixed together on a cold surface in front of the tourists to extract some ($2.50) of their money. And the winner is…coconut crepes, these thin crepes are made on the streets and are sold for 25 cents. These eclipse the others by so far it isn’t funny.

Motorbikes and Monster trucks

Motorbikes and tuk tuks are commonplace throughout Asia in fact motorbikes are so ubiquitous that it is virtually impossible to go a few seconds without seeing (or more likely dodging) one. Every evening the streets become choked with parked bikes making even the simplest of walks into an exercise in maze running.

But a new feature on the landscape within Cambodia is the introduction of monster trucks. It seems that almost every second vehicle (excluding bikes and tuk tuks) is a monster truck. It starts with the generally very big trucks like the Ford Rangers, Mazda BT50’s, Toyota Hilux’s and even the odd Nissan Navara. Now these are pretty big trucks to be driving around the narrow streets of Asia however from here things start getting ridiculous with the REALLY big trucks coming into play.

Things like the Toyota Tundra, Ford Raptor, Dodge Ram, and Chevrolet Silverado’s. These are truly massive vehicles and really seem out of place trying to park within the centre of Asian cities. But they are everywhere.

Markets in Siem Reap

Markets are the lifeblood throughout most of Asia. There are two main types of markets to be found the tourist markets and the local markets. The tourist markets are usually hellish spots as touts harass you to buy useless trinkets and souvenirs. For those on short stay trips these make for the perfect spots to buy things for those left at home in a feeble attempt to make them feel like you were thinking about them. In Siem Reap the old market along with the night markets (both noon and Angkor) cater to this type of thing perfectly. If you are looking for something a little more authentic then the Made in Cambodia market may be for you. Focussing on local products and artists things are a little less cheap and tacky and a little calmer.

And then there are the markets for the locals. We saw the biggest one as we drove past it on our way to visit the Roulos Group of temples – Phsar Leu Thom Thmey. We tapped Mr Thou on the shoulder and asked what that market was and could we stop and visit it on the way back. He happily obliged. Phsar Leu sells real items for the local consumers – but be warned this place is both huge and a maze and once in you may never get out. Here there are huge number of stalls selling everything you could imagine. There are gold stalls, fresh fruits and vegetables, food, footwear, clothing by the acre and the ever present wet markets. Butchers and fish mongers abound as live fish flop about in shallow buckets. This place is truly an assault on the senses, but it is pretty commonplace for those who live here.

And importantly as a tourist you can walk through without getting harassed.

Chiang Mai

Our previous forays into Thailand saw us in Bangkok and in Phuket, neither of which really appealed to us at all. The food has always been good (with the exception of the coriander) however the general feel of these two areas have been too touristy and aggressively in your face for our liking.

So this trip we thought that we would head north, up into the mountains near the Laos and Myanmar borders. Another area with lots of old temples and hopefully some great food options. Myanmar was one of our favourite countries to visit, however, the current political situation has made it an international no-go zone, we figure we will be close enough to the border that some of the culinary offers may have leaked through the border.

About Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was founded in the 13th century (1296) and is set high in the mountains. It was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (18th and 19th century) where it was (and remains) the religious and cultural centre of the region. The old part is a walled city with 4 gates.

Within the walls of the old city, the narrow streets are filled with shops, bars, restaurants, markets and more temples than you count. In the centre of the Old Town are the temple ruins of several temples along with many brand new and functioning ones. In fact there are over 300 wats scattered throughout the city and surrounding countryside.

Dead centre is the Chiang Mai arts and cultural centre along with the Three Kings Monument with the Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang Temple just to the left as you look at it.

The Temples (Wat)

The sheer number of temples (known as Wat) within the walled city is amazing, you virtually cannot walk a block without hitting at least one, often times more. The other thing that is fair to say is that one Thai temple is remarkably similar to the next and the one before.

The anatomy of each Thai temple is pretty similar, there is the Phutthawat which is the area devoted to buddha. It can contain several buildings but would typically include a Stupa (Chedi) the bell shaped tower, prang (a tower), an ordination hall (bot), shrine/s (wihan), and several pavilions (sala) for receiving religious education or merely for shade.

The Sangkhawat contains the majority of the working parts of the temple including the kitchen and the monks living quarters, there may also be pavilions in the sangkhawat.

The roofs usually are split into 2-4 tiers and the bargeboards are ornately decorated with a serpent style carving known as a lamyong.

Things to do in Chiang Mai

Our early research showed the abundance of temples, bars and of course food. The Three Kings Monument is in the heart of Old City in front of the arts ad cultural centre. The statue portrays the three founders of Chiang Mai, in the 13th century – King Mengrai, King Ramkhamhaeng and King Ngam Muang.

The gates

The Chang Phueak (Chang Puak) Gate faces north and is in very poor condition, however it is the site of the best street food markets virtually every night of the week. Head to the gate, take your life into your hands crossing the road and turn left. There are stall after stall selling almost anything you want for not very much…and it is all good.

The tha phae gate faces east and is the best, most preserved (renovated) and most tourist friendly of all of the gates of the old city. Because of this it is always busy and has developed an unusual tourist attraction – the pigeons. Groups of roaming touts feed masses of pigeons to get them to cluster then charge tourists money to take photos of them after banging and yelling loudly to get the pigeons to fly. The end result is a lot of noise and some photos of people with birds fluttering about them.

The Chiang Mai gate faces south and is in a reasonable state however due to COVID many of the businesses in the vicinity are closed so many of the shops are not operating.

The Suan Dok gate is to the west and is possibly the second best preserved of the gates. However similar to the south gate many of the businesses are not currently operation (early 2023).

At the north-eastern corner of the city you will find the Si Phum Corner. This is the site of the original unrenovated wall that is slowly crumbling into the canal that surrounds the old city.

The temples around town

As mentioned before, the sheer number of temples in town is staggering and there is no way that I am going to list or visit them all. But here is a sample of some of them and a bit of an idea about each.

Wat Chedi Luang is at the centre of the city and is commonly known as the big temple. Wat Chian Man is the oldest of the temples in Chiang Mai built around 1296-97. Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang (also known as Wat Hua Khuang) is one of the most beautifully maintained and grand looking temples 

Wat Inthakhin Sadue Muang was built over 700 years ago and literally translates to “temple of the city navel”, due to its location in the center of old city. Wat Umong Mahathera Chan is not as ornate and is basically a collection of brick stupas for monks to meditate inside.

Night Markets

The Sunday night market (or Sunday walking market ) is the most famous and the most popular but there are night markets oevery day of the week if you care to look a little further afield. As mentioned above in the gates section we regularly hit the night food markets outside the northern gate but it was just for food and not really for shopping.

The Sunday walking market is essentially the one for the tourists and is the most popular with them. It has a wide variety of the expected local art, craft, music. The thing it does possibly better than the others is the incorporation of food stalls (and ore importantly somewhere to sit and eat them) in more than one location. In addition, the various massage vendors are there and on hand to offer a foot massage should it be needed.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is probably the largest of the markets with hundreds of shops in one place and it is open every day.

It is outside the old city on the eastern side. This night bazaar offers virtually everything including shoes, bags, clothes, handicrafts, artwork, sunglasses, and electronic items. The Anusarn Night Market, Ploen Ruedee Night Market and Kalare Night Markets are all in the same vicinity and as far as I could tell they would be indistinguishable as to where one stops and the next one starts. But they are all open each evening from 6pm.

The Wualai walking street and Gate markets are situated at or just outside the southern gate of old town while the Wororot markets can be found in the heart of Chinatown.

I got my shoes resewn here for the ridiculous price of $3 as I had a blowout – probably from all the stairs.

Getting Around in Chiang Mai

The local preference and probably easiest for getting around is the Songthaew – pronounced song tail (aka Road-Daeng, Red Taxi or Red Truck). It is basically a converted ute with two rows of seats in the back. The most common one used in Chiang Mai is red and all you need to do is hail one down, tell them where you want to go, ask the price and if it is in the general direction they are heading then they will take you. If not, try the next one. As a guide about 30 baht ($1-1.30) will get you almost anywhere in town. If you don’t want to share your ute with the locals then you can pay more and hire a private one (similar to a taxi).

Tuk Tuk – is the second most common transport however is more expensive than the Songthaew with the rates starting at 60 baht for a short trip and 100 to 150 baht for longer distance.

Taxis – There are actual taxis that exist however they tend to park up at the airport, railway station, bus station, malls, and hotels.

Ridesharing – is available and they generally use the apps either Uber or Grab. In fact if you are planning on spending any significant amount of time in SE Asia it is probably worth downloading the Grab app as it is widely used in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Bus – the Smart city bus was introduced in mid 2018 and for a flat rate of 30 baht you can get on and get around. Coins can be used as can the rabbit card that is used in Bangkok for use on the MRT or the BTS Metro Systems. Two tourist card options can be bought that will give you unlimited riding for 180 baht for one day or 400 for 3 days.

Samlor – this is the traditional Thai rickshaw – powered by some skinny old guy pedalling you around. I cannot tell you the prices as I can not bring myself to order one. The thought of a 70 year old, 40kg Asian dude struggling to peddle my fat ass around is something that I will just not do.

Rent a motorbike – this is very cheap at about 100-200 baht for 24 hours that will get you a 100cc motorbike and 2 helmets with the more powerful 110-125cc bikes with automatic transmissions costing more. Beware some places will want to keep your original passport as collateral. Also as a westerner you will be stopped frequently by police to check that you have your helmet, international licence and that the bike is not too powerful (read here that you will need to bribe your way out if you do get stopped).

And of course car rentals and tours are always available.

Things to do around Chiang Mai

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

This is the most famous and most frequently visited of the temples in the region It is easy to get to (about 15 km from town) with most of the transport options (explained below) getting you there with very little fuss. It was built in the early 19th century and is set atop a hill with amazing views over Chiang Mai.

Upon arrival you are met with the usual tourist stalls before you find the stairs (306 of the buggers) to the temple. The stairs are lined by the seven-headed serpent statues (naga) – there is a funicular if you really are not up to the stairs.

Once you have made it up the hill you will find the temple where a golden pagoda sits that is said to contain a bone from buddha’s shoulder. On the terrace you will find a statue of the white elephant that allegedly carried the bone to the temple. As usual for this sort of place you will also find the obligatory shrines and monuments. For those willing to pay the money there is also a night tour available.

If you are willing to pay a little more and take a private trip, there is a night tour available.

Bhubing Rajanives Palace was built in 1961 as the king’s residence when he came to stay in Chiang Mai.  It is about 22 kms from old town on Buak Ha Mountain. The gardens are perfectly manicured with extensive plantings that would send a gardening nut into fits of rapture. From my side…it was very pretty.

Doi Inthanon National Park is the highest point of Thailand and home of the beautiful King and Queen pagodas. There are tours heading here all the time and many of them will include some of the items listed below as well. This is a truly stunning spot and well worth the visit. While there are a ton of stairs to get to the Pagodas they have thoughtfully considered us old buggers and put an escalator (up only) to the top of each side…very civilised.

Chiang Mai Zoo and aquarium is a is a 200-acre zoo with over 400 species of animals that includes a 133m aquatic tunnel and they have a night safari. Oh Claudia, if you are reading along…they have pandas.

Elephant Sanctuary – The Meaklang Elephant Sky Camp is reported to be an ethical Elephant Sanctuary where the elephants are taken care of very well. The ads recommend that you bring spare clothes and a towel for if you join in to the elephant bathing.

As we have done numerous elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka and Laos we chose to skip this but those we met spoke highly of the experience.

Wachirathan Falls is one of the largest and most beautiful waterfalls in the country at over 80 meters tall the waterfall creates a mist that feeds the surrounding vegetation. Sirithan Waterfall is a stunning 50-meter cascade, fed by the Mae Klan River. Paths all around this one gives you many angles and photo opportunities.

Chiang Mai Street Art

Similar to Penang, Chiang Mai has a thriving street art scene that has not been advertised and is rarely written about. So much so that we didn’t even know to look but Jill kept stopping and taking photos of these amazing scenes or funky pictures. The same sort of thing exists in Penang but somebody has put it together as a tourist attraction as a sort of hide and seek for the artworks.

The same thing could easily be done here. I am certain that we have missed a heap of these and a google images search assures us that we have, and we saw others but parked cars ruined photos. The bottom line is that if you care to look there are amazing artworks often hidden down tiny alleys or side streets and if you are willing to roam patience is required to find these hidden gems.

Long story short – here is a business opportunity for anyone willing to make a map and add it to the tourist agenda. A complete list of the artworks and a treasure map of where to find them would keep people amused for hours and would add greatly to the local tourism scene and things to do list.

Weed-Cannabis

This bit surprised me a little given all that we Aussies have heard about Thailand’s tolerance of drugs – or lack thereof. Cannabis can be bought simply and easily almost everywhere through old town and beyond. The smoking of weed is totally legal at home or in private places but not in public.

WARNING – Fines for smoking weed in public are about $1000-1200 Australian and 3 months imprisonment.

This was either unknown to the backpackers or they just didn’t care as it didn’t seem to stop them smoking away as they walked down many of the streets and alleys late at night.

Siem Reap – Take 2

Well after several years of having our wings clipped, we finally got ourselves offshore again. The first major port of call was somewhere that we knew well and had enjoyed – Cambodia. More accurately Siem Reap. Our first foray here was back in November 2013 with a subsequent visit with the boys a year later in November 2014. The place and people are lovely, it is cheap and the food is great. A good way to ease ourselves back into the world of global nomadding again.

Khmer Empire

Before we get too carried away lets get some of the basics down to provide some context about what is going on here. Between the 9th and the 15th century Khmer or Ankorian Empire existed within SE Asia and at its peak was said to be larger than the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) which existed around the same time. Kicking off in the early 800’s the empire the grew to be one of the largest going and satellite images show that at its peak it was the most extensive pre-industrial urban complex in the world. Long story short, there are about 50 Buddhist and Hindu temples dating back to the 8th-12th century in the vicinity of Siem Reap. Many of the structures have collapsed or been swallowed by the jungle but the structures that remain and the carvings in place make the are a must see and listed by UNESCO.

Touring the temples

Step One – buy your ticket. The prices are in USD and they range as seen on the right (prices correct as at Nov 2023). Note that these tickets are for the main temples etc and they do not give you access to all things. If for example you wanted to go to the Kulen Waterfalls then another ticket would be required.

There is an inner loop (ie the ones close to town) and an outer loop of temples that can be done. The inner loop takes in the big ticket items of Angkor Watt, Angkor Thom, the Bayon temple and Ta Prohm Temple (which became famous in the tomb raider movie and game with its image of the tree growing out of the wall). The inner loop can be easily done in a day but does involve a lot of walking and a lot of stairs. The outer loop takes in the temples requiring a little more driving and are generally a little less impressive or less well preserved. These too can be done in a day but there is more tuk tuk time and fewer stairs. From here there are the far away temples. These are considerably further from town and individual negotiations would need to take place on both price and type of vehicle required.

What to wear when visiting the temples

Dress is simple. You are off to visit temples and holy sites so dress accordingly. This means that your legs and shoulders should be covered for the period when you are inside the temples. For such a simple concept this still continues to confuse the majority of the women that attend these sites. The innate need for short skirts and strappy tops is obvious…so too is the absolute requirement to show as much skin in your influencing photos and videos. However, the inability to throw an overshirt or the ubiquitous elephant pants on for the few minutes you are in a temple seems too impossible a task to muster. And guys the world will be able to survive for the few minutes it takes while you put away the gun show – especially those northern European (glow in the dark) biceps.

How to get to Siem Reap temples

You you can hire virtually any type of transport that you want to take you around and through the temples. You can have a bus all to yourself if you really like. There are private cars, motorcycles, bicycles and tuk tuks. If you take the private air-conditioned car or bus, you will find that the short distances between temples means that you have arrived at the next temple before the air conditioning has had a chance to kick in.

You can ride a bicycle, but that would mean that you would have to ride a bicycle. Motorcycles mean that you are either on the back of a local’s bike or that you have hired your own and would need to know your way around the various temples.

Tip Number One: Take a tuk tuk. The tuk tuk is cheap, easy and has great air flow, especially if you choose one of the more open types rather than the more enclosed versions. This means that you are cooling down immediately after having hiked up and down the temples, rather that sweltering looking for relief. We had the one on the left (below) driven by the lovely Mr Thou and it was fantastic.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is clearly the most famous of the temples and is the main attraction for the region. It was built in the 12th century to worship the Lord Vishnu (a Hindu deity) and allegedly served as the funerary temple for the bloke who commissioned it, King Suryavarman II. It is set on 402 acres and surrounded by a 5km moat which contains an outer wall of 3.6 kilometres. Once inside there are three rectangular galleries and the main building. At the centre of the temple stands the five towers (that google tells me is called a quincunx – not a word that typically lives in my vocabulary but hey lets go with it).  

The five lotus towers are 65 metres tall and are decorated with around 2,000 stone carvings of Apsaras (celestial dancers). In all reality, virtually all of Angkor Wat’s surfaces are carved. There are kilometres of carvings that include battle scenes, fictional animals and all sorts of other things that give credence to the legend of the day.

Angkor Thom

Once you leave Angkor Wat you (typically) head across for a bit to Angkor Thom or Big Angkor. It is the largest site in the Angkor Archaeological Park and contains a number of smaller temples and archaeological sites. Our first stop was the south gate (one of five 20-metre-tall gates that surround Angkor Thom). The gates have intricate stone carvings of elephants and the 4-faced Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, while the bridges leading up to the gates are lined with carvings of devas (gods) on the left and asuras (demons) on the right. Both the gods and the demons appear to be playing tug of war on a snake (Naga). You tend to come through the south gate as the vandals have stolen the heads off many of the statues on the other gates so they are considerably less impressive.

There are 8 metre high walls and a moat surrounding Angkor Thom. The faces on the entrance gates were added later than the original gates and they reflect the faces that can be found on the Bayon Temple (also contained within the walls of Angkor Thom). Within Angkor Thom is a range of smaller temples that include Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Prasat Suor Prat and many others however these have and are falling into great disrepair. Notably you will see the terrace of the Elephants and the terrace of the leper king that are prominent and are both currently undergoing considerable preservation and restoration works.

Bayon Temple

The Bayon Temple is probably the second most recognisable after Angkor Watt as it features approximately 50 stone towers with intricately carved faces. The blurb tells me that the faces are the 4 faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (not really sure what that means but hey, I can go with that too). Bayon is in the midst of Angkor Thom and it too was built in the late 12th century. Each of the stone carvings of faces are 4 metres high and oriented toward the 4 cardinal points. It is surrounded by long walls that have some seriously intricate carvings of battlefields, markets, and religious rituals.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is the famous a Tomb Raider temple. Very large trees with impressive roots have grown out of, through and amid the various walls and roofs of the temple.

The other temples

Needless to say, there are 50 of them. They are too numerous to mention and they are in varying states of disrepair but here are a few of the more common ones to look out for. The Preah Khan (Sacred Sword) temple complex is notable as it is surrounded by a moat and the roads are lined with sculptures on the way to the temple. The Roluos group of temples is about 13 km east of Siem Reap and was the original head of the Khmer empire from the 9th century before being taken over by the main ones in the 12th century. Thought to be the first capital the group of temples include Bakong (largest temple in the Roluos Group), Lolei, Preah Ko (temple of the cow) and the smaller Prasat Prei Monti.  

Ba Phuon (newly restored and reopened), Phnom Bakheng (sunset hill), Prasat Banteay Srey (citadel of women), Koh Ker (about 90 minutes away with around a dozen temples dating around the10th century), Baksei Chamkrong (Temple pyramid near the South Gate of Angkor Thom).

Kulen National Park

Phnom Kulen (Mountain of the Lychees) is a national park around 40 kilometers outside of Siem Reap. While it is not that far, the state of the roads make it a 90-120 minute trip and it must be done in a car or even a 4WD in the rainy season. It is said that Phnom Kulen is the birthplace of the Khmer empire and was even the site where King Jayavarman II declared independence (around the 9th century). Much of the stone used in the temples of Siem Reap was mined here and transported to the temples. But today it is the site of a couple of really nice waterfalls, a reclining buddha and the river of 1000 lingas (phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva – so I am going for the river of 1000 dicks).

The first thing to note is that the temple ticket that you have does not count for this area…so you have to pay for another one. We ended up travelling around 40 km out of town, we spent 3 times the price on transport to that paid for seeing the temples. In hindsight I don’t think it was worth it. The waterfalls were lovely and there was a nice outlook spot that we stopped at on the way that provided a different kind of view of the area. The buddha had seen better days but was still ok and the River of 1000 dicks was at best disappointing. If you have plenty of time then sure go ahead but on a limited time this one could be skipped.