Chiang Mai: Of Temples, ATVs, and Thai Rock Bars

December may just be the best season to avoid the heat in Chiang Mai. Temperatures typically hover around 30°C in the day and 20 at night, which is as good as it gets here. With Day 1 spent away in Chiang Rai, we were down to four days in the city. Thankfully, there was plenty else to do.

Temples visiting was a given. If you have never been to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, you have never been to Chiang Mai, so say the locals. And so we took a songtaew up the steep mountains and arrived at the stairs towards the pagodas, a sight worth every of the 309 steps.

Photo: The Ü
Wat Doi Suthep.

This is a sacred site to the Thais, and is considered to be one of the holiest pilgrimage spots for Buddhists. It has the scale to show for it. Awash in royal gold, the temples and shrines are pure displays of grandeur and magnificence.

Huge crowds made it hard to stay in a spot for long, though devotees held on firm. They prayed for peace, meditated beside the monks, and lit up candles as offerings. The staggering number of tourists stretched to the bridge, where we had a gorgeous vantage point of the city.

Photo: The Ü
Pictured: not us.

We explored the rest of Doi Suthep in about an hour, before heading back to the city for lunch. Nothing but instinct guided us as we willingly walked the distance for Chiang Mai delicacies. (After all, our first day was spent with a day tour of quick lunch and dinner stops, which did little justice to Thai cuisine.)

At It’s Good Kitchen, our taste buds were in luck. The great menu selection consisted of my personal favourite – a giant omelette with rice. My sister ordered the authentic Khao soi, served on a bed of hot curry and amazing crispy noodles. Both were honestly unmissable.

Photo: The Ü
Meeting the legendary Khao soi in the flesh.

After the satisfying meal, we continued onto other Buddhist temples in the vicinity. These included Wat Pan Tao, exquisitely built out of teak wood, as well as Wat Chedi Luang, which featured a massive pagoda that was most handsome in detail.

Soon, evening greeted. I fell back on old habits – to look for good local rock bands at all cost. Following the music was easy. Come Together blasted from the brilliant live band at the Ploen Ruedee Night Market. A few beers later, we were settled in. Thank Thailand for elevating night markets to an art, where rock and metal often found its place on stage.

Photo: The Ü
Night Market-hopping is my new favourite hobby.

The guys put on a superb set. Some tourists were in agreement, having somehow worked in that cha-cha move during AC/DC’s TNT. Kids joined in the fun. Air-guitar ensued. All in all, it was a rather wonderful way to spend the night for audiophiles and partygoers alike.

The next day, we decided to dive into outdoor sports, as we kicked off our ATV adventure in Mae Rim. I had no idea what to expect. It was certainly not a practice track that featured uneven grounds, mud pools, and rocky slopes. My sister did fine. But being the license-less amateur who flipped on first try, I had to ride passenger with a tour guide.

Photo: The Ü
Update: Did not die.

Riding backseat still made for a fun, different experience. There is a chance for a chat. The weather was good to us, granting a welcome break from the sweltering heat of Chiang Mai. It took us more than an hour going up winding flat roads, while the guide was waving through traffic on narrower roads.

The end introduced an incredibly mountainous slope, which daunted most of us. I was relieved that I could rely on the guide to do the hard work; it turned out to be the site of one minor ATV accident that day. Couple of scares later, we were finally atop the mountains with no serious incident.

Photo: The Ü
Atop Mae Hong Son.

The sights above were worth the climb, and the way down was not half bad. We saw elephant sanctuaries (that we skipped this trip) and fresh strawberry farms, one of which we stopped by. In case more motivation was needed, a pack of dogs awaited at the finish line.

After a rest and a quick detour, we boarded another songtaew. Little did we expect the driver to challenge the adrenaline level of the ATV drive. He slid past cars in a jam, went against traffic in an alleyway, arrived at the airport (he misheard us) in under 30 minutes, before finally dropping us off at our right destination.

We had a fantastic lunch at SP Chicken (the best roast chicken) and dinner at Terrace Bar and Cuisine (minced pork with basil), where the waiter shared his love for Peranakan food between servings. Then came time for another night market, this time the Anusarn Market.

Photo: The Ü
The Blackhawks.

Within was the Thai European Food & Bar, which was truly a lucky find. Their house band The Blackhawks was a delight. The guys rocked out UFO, Black Sabbath, and a whole lotta Led Zeppelin with infectious energy. They also took our request for Iron Maiden, which was cool. We came for the beer, and stayed for the music till the end.

Day 3 was a big change of pace, when we boarded the Mae Ping River Cruise. Heck yes, that was one of the places Rambo was shot at, though the actual setting is considerably more peaceful. We later realised that stand-up paddle boarding was another option to get there. An adventure for another day, perhaps?

Photo: The Ü
Top choice, Stallone.

Lunch time was spent at the Tikky Cafe, and almost dinner time, too. The queue flowed in unending streams. For a while, it seemed we were never going to get a seat before its closing. Fortunately, we got to enjoy the food and juices close to two hours later. But we reckon genuinely hungry souls would do fine to skip this stop.

That left us just enough time for the Warorot Market, where we tried the Khanom Krok (coconut rice “pancakes” with sweet corn). We walked on and found a pet food stall. Here, my sister saw a cage with some puppies and exclaimed in jest, “Those look delicious!” Horrifyingly, the faux pas was greeted with the death stare of two tourists, who had missed the context of our weird humour.

We quickly escaped towards the Pentatonic Rock Bar. Beer night here featured a grunge tribute band and another live metal act thereafter; the hidden corners of rock are everywhere in Thailand. Music was loved, acquaintances were made. Sadly, all good travels must come to an end.

Photo: The Ü
One of many Thai national treasures.

Not without curry, I decided. Our last day in Chiang Mai was dedicated to some mango curry and more Khao soi at Cooking Love. Tragically, we had to forego the gigantic dessert, but this was definitely a restaurant that deserved its tips.

And so ends my trip to the land of smiles, which had been nothing short of fun. Kop khun kha Chiang Mai, for the amazing food, music, outdoor adventures, and people, no doubt. I’ll be back!

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