Chiang Mai’s Old City is on UNESCO’s list for consideration as a Heritage City and the Tha Phae Gate is the main gate into Chiang Mai’s old city located on it’s Eastern wall. The old city is shaped in a roughly 1.6 km by 1.6 km square area that used to be surrounded by a wall and moat with a gate at each section of the wall. With exception of the southern wall which has 2 gates. Tip: the ‘h’ is silent in the Thai language, this landmark is pronounced Ta Pay gate. That should help when you’re trying to let the driver know where you want to go/get to. Many will eventually understand if you pronounce the ‘h’ though.
So what’s there to do here? At first glance, nothing much. The first impulse is to get a selfie right in front of the gate and right in front of the metal plaque embedded in the wall. With all the mention of the Tha Phae Gate in anything related to Chiang Mai, when you’re actually standing in front of it, it’s pretty underwhelming, in my opinion. The walls on either side of the opening are rebuilt using red clay bricks (which looks too new) and has been said to not have been rebuilt according to historic records. The walls also end where the moat begins which may be an indication that the gate is not exactly in it’s original location. The wooden door and wooden door frame is mostly faded gray and water stained, making it look older than the wall. A hose runs up the door frame and across the gate’s opening to spray mist on people as they pass through the gate, not to worry it’s only on the really hot days and is quite refreshing. The stairs leading up to wall (from within the old city) are blocked at the top so you can’t get on top of the wall, too bad, but safety first. So just what is it about this place? I urge you to fight off the initial urge to snap the usual selfie’s and continue on your way, especially if you like to people watch or take candid photos. You’ll get lots of ‘usual’ shots like:
I spent a lot of time around the Tha Phae Gate. Why? because I found it very interesting. At all times of the day there’s always something going on. I didn’t feel this way originally though. The first time I visited this gate was late in the afternoon, right after I checked into my hotel and found the dental clinic I needed to be at the next day. My trip to Chiang Mai was solely for my sudden need for dental treatment which you can read in my post entitled, “Dental Holiday in Chiang Mai. Wait what? SERIOUSLY?!?! and the hotel I chose to stay in was The Signature Hotel @Thapae you can check out my review of it here. Both of these places were within 100 meters of the Tha Phae Gate, in a straight line and on the same side of the street. There is even a 3 story Starbucks, a 24 hour, 2 story McDonald’s and a Burger King within 50 meters of the gate. Consider going up to the top floors for different angle shots, especially at night if you want to get some light trail imagery (like in the first pic above) or try a sunset shot from the upper floors.
If you don’t have much time for sightseeing, I suppose 20 minutes tops and you’ll be done getting the usual selfies in front of the open gate as well as in front of the plaque and a few pigeon shots. If you budget 45 min to an hour, you may be able to get some of the locals to help you get even more dynamic images. Here’s how, find the locals that are either holding a sack (full of bird food), stick, hat or ball or a combination of those items. They may even be taking pics of other tourists (with phones and usually low to the ground) already or just throwing down food to attract the pigeons to one spot. You’re not looking for the locals selling little plastic bags of bird food, unless what you want is to just feed the birds, have them land on you etc. Once you find the local “tourist photographer” (as opposed to the local photographer taking candid/street shots with DSLR’s) you can approach them, if they haven’t come and approached you already. For an increased chance of them approaching you, stand close to the wall and try take selfies with the pigeons. I’m always too busy shooting to see how much people were paying but it can’t be that much, lotsa people were doing it and I mean lots! Don’t forget to bargain. So here’s how it works. Once you’ve agreed on the price and paid the person, you hand over your phone. They will guide you to a spot, throw down some bird food, and give you some general movement tips. There are three ‘poses’ that I’ve noticed that they use every time. One is the normal standing shot, stand however you like, another is a walking parallel to the wall shot and the last is you twirling on the spot. The photographer with your phone is sitting or lying down on his side and when he’s ready says something to an accomplice who then scares the pigeons, either by stomping, clapping or tossing an item in the air to get the birds to fly up. As a photographer I’d have to say that’s pretty clever and bordering on professional, they’re just missing the more detailed posing and maybe some dramatic lighting. After each shot you’ll be able to check your phone and do a retake if you’re not satisfied. From a distance I think I got some good shots, so I’m sure they did too. I chose to shoot from a distance because I was uneasy with all those well fed, startled pigeons flying around. Yes, there are that many pigeons especially on weekends when I’ve seen enough pigeons for 4 of these “photoshoots” going on at the same time against the walls on either side of the gate (on the plaza side). Note: the lighting is better on the right side when you’re standing in the plaza facing the gate. Also if you plan on doing the “photoshoot” consider exaggerating your arm swings when walking/twirling. The purpose is to create lines and/or angles which should add “tension” to your photos, it’ll look much better and natural than just letting your arms hang down at your sides.
Warning for the ladies…if you’re wearing a light, loose dress and stand near the wall, if there’s even a slight wind, it’ll hit the wall and lift your dress/skirt. Even the mass of pigeons taking off from around your legs is enough to lift your skirt. Trust me on this, I’ve never been flashed so many times in my life! Not only that, there are A LOT of photographers around. Could be tourists snapping selfies with the pigeons around you or taking pictures of the pigeons on you or the locals just hanging around some selling bird food, some looking out for the cops. Then there’s local photogs getting their street/candid photography fix, or tourist photogs like me, people watching, sniping shots when something happens. On the off chance that you get there and no one is feeding the birds, it’s because the cops just went by and confiscated all the food. There’s signage around to let you know that you’re not supposed to feed the birds. Just stick around for a bit, the locals will come back with more food.
If that’s not interesting enough for you, there’s local ice cream sellers (coconut flavor), artists doing portraitures (I didn’t notice any caricature artists). Then there’s the odd trinket souvenir vendor walking around. Most of the vendor come out after sunset. I was fortunate enough to catch a tv commercial in the making complete with “fake family,” backdrops, shooting assistants and a model shooting water from a fire hose attached to the fire truck. I’ve also seen some kind of parade/procession start from the plaza and then proceed down the street. Most nights there is a musician or 10 sitting around playing tunes. If you’re lucky, like me, you might run into a protest. The one I saw was a cruelty to animals / don’t partake in the animal sanctuary attractions protest.
To get the most out of your time, if you like taking photos and shopping, is on Sunday around dusk to try to catch the sunset a bit earlier if you’re into the tourists and pigeons schtick and later if you like light trails by traffic. You can sit upstairs in Starbucks or McDonald’s to get some traffic light trail shots. Other things to do at night would be wait for the hand crafted (mostly) vendors, toy sellers, ice cream vendor and occasional a snack vendor. If you’re here on a Sunday evening you’re already at the easiest starting point (from outside the old city) to the famous Sunday Night Market. Just walk on through the gate and you’re at one end of the main street of this market. Be careful though because the gate is actually part of an intersection although not many vehicles go through the gate, there are some once in a while. If you’re a morning person, you can also get a sunrise shot over the gate when you’re standing facing the gate from inside the old city.
Here’s a few more shots:
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