16 days in Chiang Mai’s Old City

pedestal with the map of Chiang Mai’s old city on top

Chiang Mai’s “Old City” is the area, roughly 1.6 km by 1.6 km, surrounded by a moat and at one time walls. There’s not much left of the original walls, only the bastions on each corner and at remnants at the 5 gates. All look like they have been mostly restored, you know they look old but not as old as they should look according to how old they are supposed to be. Also some look too straight and symmetrical for that time period. Anyways, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city nestled in a valley next to the Ping River. Thailand’s highest peak is about an hour or so drive away which is one of the tourist attractions of Chiang Mai. It’s call Doi Inthanon if you’re interested in checking that out. I tried, it didn’t work out, more on that in my post entitled, Did I get scammed in Chiang Mai? Chiang Mai is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage candidate list has been granted the title of Creative City by UNESCO. Not really sure what that means, but it sounds cool.

So what is it that makes Chiang Mai such a hot tourist destination and blogger destination? I’m really not sure. Maybe its the cost of living being so low coupled with the adequate internet Wi-Fi service? Maybe its the allure of potential legal marijuana? The flower farmers were opium poppy farmers before so you know they have the know how to grow stuff. As for the tourists there are a ton of things to do in Chiang Mai from temple visiting to mountain hiking, a water park in a canyon, river rafting, atv riding and taking cooking classes, paintballing and zoos. Then there are tours on Segway’s, bicycles and mopeds/scooter in addition to the bus/van tours. If you’re not into tours, you can rent cars (need an international drivers license), mopeds/motorcycles, bicycles or those electric skateboard things with the handle. The more unique activities would be the elephant sanctuaries and tiger sanctuaries. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether they are “good or bad”. I personally don’t mind them if the animals look well treated but I never got around to going. What I’ve listed is probably only a drop in the bucket as to the amount of activities there are judging by the display of brochures I see in the shops. The reason why I went to Thailand, this trip, was because I needed some dental work done and I was informed that Thailand’s dental practices were top notch and inexpensive. I chose Chiang Mai over Bangkok because Chiang Mai was cheaper both in dental prices as well as accommodations. If you’re interested to know more, here’s my post about it, Dental Holiday in Chiang Mai. Wait what? SERIOUSLY?!?! Overall, I found Chiang Mai to be less ‘hustle bustle’ and less traffic than Bangkok but more “touristy”. What do I mean by that? Well, many Thai people in Chiang Mai, can speak Mandarin. I thought it was because of the amount of Chinese tourists at first until I was kind of forced on a hike (Details in my upcoming failed Doi Inthanon excursion), on which I had to pay for a local hills tribesman to guide me on, told me (in very broken, sporadic English) that people on the mountain speak Mandarin because of their proximity to the border. He tried explaining it in Mandarin to me but I can’t understand Mandarin. Although I tried to reason it out, I couldn’t. The northern borders of Thailand are Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, I didn’t think they spoke Mandarin there. Anyways, I was quite startled to be spoken to in Mandarin by customer service staff in many, many shops/restaurants I visited. Another indication of the large number of tourists are the sheer number of shops offering tour packages, it’s like there’s one every 10 shops as you walk down any street. If you’re interested to visit the Hills Tribes people, there are plenty of tours. The “Golden Triangle” tours will take you to the area/river delta where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. Don’t worry if English is your only language, I’ve found that speaking English in Chiang Mai isn’t an issue as everyone could understand me and for the most part I could understand them. The only time I had a language barrier was the time I had a tour guide, yup, I don’t understand that either.

Aside from the abundance of non Thai speakers everywhere, so are the local forms of transport, songthaews and tuk tuks. Songthaews are pickup trucks with the bed converted to benches on either side and a roof. The red ones service the general vicinity of the old city and the yellow ones travel further out, although you can hire a red one to take you wherever you want provided you can agree to terms on the price. I’ve also seen black ones and maroon colored ones, but have no clue where they go. Songthaews operate like shared taxis, anyone can flag one down, negotiate a price and hop on. Usually, the more riders, the cheaper the fare gets. Although all the red ones have $30 TBH fare written on the side in English, the rest of the wording is in Thai and I’d like to think it means minimum amount because every time I’ve flagged one to ride in the vicinity of the old city, the first amount the driver would say was $100 TBH. For some reason I was always flagged the empty ones. Note: I always check the price on Grab before I try to flag a songthaew, so if I can’t get a ride on a songthaew for significantly cheaper, I just book the Grab taxi. Having said that, I only rode the songthaew’s two times in the 16 days I was there. There were a few occasions when the songthaew was $20-$30 TBH cheaper than the Grab but I took the Grab anyways because I didn’t want to deal with the heat, sit on a bench in the back of an enclosed pickup truck (the small little side windows didn’t help much, and the exhaust smell ain’t that great either) and I got motion sickness the two times I rode in the songthaews plus it gets so tedious to negotiate a price every time. I tried taking the tuk tuk’s (motorized rickshaw) too, the motion sickness for me was not that bad, much more ventilation and the driver doesn’t stop to pick up passengers. Tuk tuk’s are usually more expensive than songthaews which puts them in the Grab taxi price range, unless you’re really far from the old city. You have to negotiate a price before you get in too. Thank goodness for Grab because while exploring on foot, I found myself in many places where I didn’t see any songthaews or tuk tuk’s around. If you do plan on using Grab keep in mind that you can’t use the funds in your Grab wallet to pay for your ride because it’s not available at the time of this writing. Almost forgot, there are metered taxis but the only place where I saw them was at the airport and only once, in town, that was dropping off tourists at a hotel.

Hailing a songthaew, then negotiating the fare with the driver.

View from the inside a songthaew

Neon lit Tuk Tuk’s available for hire

Metered taxi

Languages and transport aside, I found Chiang Mai to be abundant in artistic stuff like paintings, drawings, carvings, crafts. I even found some graffiti! There are many night markets that open up on the streets/sidewalks in different areas around Chiang Mai and they all start around 7pm and you can watch them start setting up around 6pm. You’ll find a lot of hand made stuff along with all the art stuff. The big nightly street market is the Night Bazaar which is East of Tha Phae Gate, lots of stuff to see there. There are a handful of vendors at Tha Phae Gate too but mainly just handmade souvenirs and an artist or two. On Saturday’s just outside the Chiang Mai Gate (also called Pratu Gate) is where, from what I was told, the silver smiths peddle their works. I went there once didn’t see much silver. Saw a lot of street food vendors though! If you’re into silver jewelry, there are plenty of shops all over the place, good prices too. On Sunday’s is the mother of all night markets. They close off streets within the Old City to facilitate this night market, it’s pretty awesome, I got to see it three times! Prices are low and then you can bargain if you so choose to, they kind of expect you to anyways. It gets really crowded but civilized. For the most part people try not to bump you and give an apologetic gesture if they do. The vendors aren’t pushy and genuinely nice, IMO. Never did I feel threatened or mobbed by a bunch of kids asking for money, nor were there homeless/less fortunate people sitting/lying around unlike Bangkok. Most of the less fortunate were actually trying to earn instead of beg by playing a musical instrument, dancing or singing.

Street artists selling his drawings in front of Tha Phae Gate in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you’re into seeing/visiting temples, then Chiang Mai is for you. They have big ones, small ones, new ones, centuries old ones, and nationally recognized ones. It’s impossible, I think, to walk 10 minutes in any direction and not see one. After a week and a lot of walking, I thought I saw them all which I later learned was a mistake. One evening as I was returning from one of my walk abouts, the front desk clerk asked me how my trip was thus far. I told him it was awesome, I loved all the temples and stuff and now that I’ve seen them all, didn’t know else I should do. You should have seen the wide eyed look on his face as he said, “all 300?!” You should have seen the wide eyed look on my face as I said, “300?!?!” I think I visited maybe 30ish. In my defense, I was only looking at the ones with stupa’s and missed a lot of the smaller ones because I just didn’t see/notice them. So upon further “inspection” on my walk abouts, I don’t know if there really are 300 temples but there are a lot, some are really, really small as in just a small shack or two housing a statue or two and a space for prayer. Anyways, it became an adventure of sorts. Speaking of adventure, there is also an area where excavations have yielded ruins of temples. You can take a buggy ride, for a fee to visit them all or you can try to find them all by yourself. If you do try to find them all yourself, please, please don’t walk! I tried didn’t get very far, plus there are loose dogs (don’t know if they were wild or not), a lot of them not too friendly, had to fend a couple off with my tripod once. I did find a few pretty cool looking ruins though, made it worth it for me coupled with being able to see how the local people live because these ruins are scattered in residential areas (found horses in some yards too)! Wish I had more time to go back and take the buggy ride though. If you’re interested in that area, it’s called Wiang Kum Kam, I’ll make a separate post about it soon.

An ornate white and gold stupa with a cloudy blue sky in the background

Chiang Mai’s famous bar street has a lot of bars and happy ending massage shops (you can tell because you can’t really see into the shop and there are plenty of girls trying to entice you inside) on both sides of the street. The other massage shops that are on the up and up, in case you’re wondering, has people, usually female that just greet you or just smile and nod as you walk by. You can see into the shop and you’ll notice it’s an open area, many times not even curtains to separate the patrons. So you can be pretty sure there’s no “extras” in those. Back to the bars, on the weekdays, it’s really, really quiet like I’m one of 5 guys walking around and there aren’t many customers in the bars either, maybe 1 in 5 bars and the few bar girls around won’t even bother to look up. The weekends aren’t much better although there are more bar girls hanging out in front of their shops and more enthusiastic about trying to get patrons plus the music is louder. There are days when there’s Muaythai bouts held in the boxing ring which is located down this sort of alley lined with bars that opens up to a sort of cul de sac in which the boxing ring is in the middle surrounded by more bars. Those days make it more interesting although you have to pay an entrance fee but since some of the bars have a back entrance off a side street, you could enter those, buy a beer and sit close enough to see the action thereby skipping the entrance fee to see the fight. As much as I love beer, I didn’t see any bar that was interesting enough to drink in. It was much more fun sitting in a restaurant facing the street near Tha Phae Gate and watch the tourists or head into the Night Bazaa where there’s this area like a huge outdoor food court and beer stalls. Much, much more people here than on the bar street. They have live bands too which (I don’t mean this in a mean way) perform covers in the local style English which I found very weird yet interesting. Some people get up and dance when they hear their jam, so that’s fun to watch too.

Muaythai Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium.

There are (as far as I saw) 3 shopping malls, two modern ones with global brand name shops and one older, more local one. I went to one of the newer ones, called Central Festival, to extend my phone plan since the sim chip that I got from the airport was only good for 8 days (there’s one kiosk selling sim chips where the luggage belts are and one after you exit customs). Central Festival was pretty new looking and prices were not local prices, I checked out some camera gear and it’s pretty much the same price as in Singapore. The local mall, named Kad Suan Kaew, I literally just walked into it without knowing it at the end of one of my walk abouts. Most of the shops were closing up so I didn’t get to see much. The local shops prices looked reasonable, the recognizable, global brand names were the usual price so really nothing special about the shopping malls. I much prefer the street markets.

One of the newer shopping malls in Chiang Mai

Local style shopping mall in Chiang Mai

The more I think about it, the more I’m thinking that Chiang Mai is my favorite destination thus far I think Chiang Rai has something to do with it too. I’ll post a write up of Chiang Rai soon too. So consider following me for updates to find not only my other travel bloopers, blunders and shenanigans but also photography related news/reviews and the occasional contest entry. The only thing I have to “complain” about is that, to me (and don’t flame me for this) I found that in general, it’s all about the money in Chiang Mai. What I mean by this is when you’re going about paying for your songthaew/tuk tuk ride and don’t give exact change, don’t be surprised if they don’t give you your change unless you ask for it or remind them what the agreed upon fare was. I’ve had this happen when buying food or souvenirs from street vendors too. In the temples I found the sheer number of donation boxes somewhat of a let down. Some temples have an entrance fee too with different prices for locals and tourists. It’s my theory that your attire will have an impact on pricing as well and be aware of this in the shops that don’t have price tags on their items. Grab drivers may try to offer you their services for your other trips which is good, but the prices may not be. Best to know where you want to go and a general idea of how much it would cost via other modes of transport. Almost forgot, if you take pictures of locals who look dressed up in cultural garb, chances are they will ask you for money afterwards, especially the kids. If people offer to take your picture, they’ll ask for a tip afterwards. The amount of the tip they ask for depends on what they do to get  you a nice shot (more on this in a later post). Don’t be put off by this though, it’s just a part of life, I suppose and happen everywhere too.

I love Chiang Mai mural by the roadside at night

Consider following me for updates to find not only my other travel bloopers, blunders and shenanigans but also photography related news/reviews and the occasional contest entry.

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Review of Wooden Pagoda, Hanging Temple, Heng Shan mountain

So my second day in Datong started with a pre negotiated price of 500 Yuan for a taxi to take us to the wooden pagoda, Hanging Temple and Heng Shan then back to the hotel. A private tour guide will cost roughly 1000 Yuan and a price chart in the hotel lobby advertised this trip to be 750 Yuan. So I think we did alright. This price included the tolls but not parking fee up on Heng Shan and didn’t include lunch. As usual, the driver waited in the parking area.

We had arranged for this driver the day before and had gotten used to way of driving. This day though, he took us through corn fields and back roads when the “main” road was closed. At one point we had to get out of the car in order for the car to make it over a bump! It’s amazing how he managed to not get lost!  Anyways, he picked us up at 8:00 am.and the first stop was the wooden pagoda.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda
Yingxian Village, Shanxi Province, China

The trip took roughly an hour and it was a nice scenic ride for the most part. The Yingxian pagoda is quite the site, it’s leaning a bit and as a result you can’t go up although we did see one or two people on the second floor balcony. From online reviews, I thought an hour should be enough time even if we could have gone up to the second story. We spent two hours there and didn’t even get a chance to look around the town as our driver was walking around looking for us!

In front of the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda

Behind the Pagoda is a temple and a yard. In the yard area is an exhibition hall and open space, some nice looking flowers there and an old looking door that’s closed and locked. The temple is cool too and if you go to the very back you’ll get a view to where that old door in the yard leads to. A very big courtyard of an old palace looking building (looks abandoned though).

Temple behind the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.

Yard beside the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.

I really do hope that the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda gets UNESCO World Heritage status, it really is a feat of engineering and a site to see! Was well worth the 50 Yuan entrance fee, in my opinion.

Hanging Monastery
Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province, China

Wide view of the Hanging Temple of Mount Heng.

Our next stop was the Hanging Temple (Monastery)  which took about 1 hour 15 minutes by taxi from the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda. The Entrance fee was125 Yuan. If you’re afraid of heights, you may want to give this a miss. The hanging temple is made of wood and the floor boards creak and may sway. The pathways are narrow (two people cannot pass shoulder to shoulder). The railings are around mid thigh height (I’m roughly 5’10”) in many areas and my be a bit unnerving. If you are wearing a back pack, going up and down the narrow stairs may be tricky, you may bump your head or get stuck.

Narrow stair case of the Hanging Temple.

Slender poles supporting the Hanging Temple.

Having said that, it is quite a sight and experience. Everything felt solid enough to walk on. We took an hour to see everything but rushed a bit as we think that’s what the taxi driver was saying since we had one more stop to go.

Overall we felt that there should be more to see for the ticket price but maybe we missed some? There was a blocked pathway leading up to areas you can see from up in the temple, so maybe it would be better when that section reopens.

Heng Shan
Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province, China

The start of the upward hike up Heng Shan.

Heng Shan’s scenic area is roughly 30 minutes up the mountain from the Hanging Temple. We spent 3 hours hiking up and down the mountain and couldn’t finish it as the path lead to a totally different part of the mountain in which we wouldn’t be able to communicate with our driver where to come get us. Also, what we thought was the peak, wasn’t we found another staircase going further up but running short of time (we had to get back down the mountain) we elected not to find out what was up top.

An entrance to one of the many temples on Heng Shan.

An entrance to one of the many temples on Heng Shan.

There are a few temples on the way up to the top but some were closed. Thankfully there was a “rest stop” about 1/2 way with toilets and a drink stall. The view is of the the valley below is nice. To get to what we thought was the top you have to climb a VERY STEEP flight of stairs. It was scary just looking at it. On the way up and down there were people making their way on all fours! There’s enough to see up there to make it worth the effort.

Steep stairs to the top most temple at Heng Shan.

Temple at the top of Heng Shan

To truly enjoy Heng Shan we feel you should devote more than 3 hours. The entrance fee of 50 Yuan plus the 10 Yuan parking fee we feel is more than reasonable for this place. It’s truly remarkable. One thing to note though. As you leave (towards the end of the day) you may get approached by other taxi drivers to take their cab. This one guy went so far as to tell our driver we wanted to go with him but told me that there were 2 more passengers to ride to Datong. So I ok, they can ride with us. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he was poaching us until he beckoned for us to follow him (we were already in our taxi) so I said no, closed the door and motioned for our driver to go. He seemed upset but I couldn’t ascertain whether he thought we tried to bail on him or that the other guy was poaching. Anyways, something to be aware of.

For more images taken in and around Datong, check out my Datong Flickr Album.

Review of Yungang Grottoes. Datong, China

Yungang Grottoes
Shanxi Province, Datong.

Yungang Grottos is a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside the city of Datong. While you can catch a bus directly to the site you may want to consider a taxi. While the bus is significantly cheaper, it also take longer to get there. Plus, finding the bus stations/stops might be a challenge. Well, for us it was, we didn’t notice any obvious signage or anything indicative of a bus stop (like a numbers), also we didn’t notice any bus station like building. Anyways, if you can afford the time it is much cheaper by public transport. If you choose to go by taxi, you can either go one way (probably cheaper initially) or the taxi driver may offer you a higher price and then will wait for you in the parking area until you’re done. This may be better because your fare is already negotiated and you won’t get ripped off by the second taxi taking you back (I haven’t had experience with that, only read reviews saying fares are higher on the return trip because the drivers know there’s no other option for you). Also, since payment is made when you return from the outing, you’re guaranteed a ride back. From Datong Hotel, front desk got us a taxi for 200 yuan (this is a bit on the steep side, I think). The ride was roughly 40 minutes driving fast. Remember to take a picture of the taxi, driver and license plate so you can find the guy easier when you’re done at the Grottoes.

Just inside the traffic gate at the Yungang Grottoes.

At the Grottoes, you get dropped off at the parking area and you have to walk into the “scenic area”. There are street vendors with drinks and stuff, as well as people (quite aggressively) trying to sell “discount” tickets. Not sure what the deal is but if you can understand whats being said maybe you can get a deal. We did buy drinks from street vendor. I picked Pepsi, at least what I thought was Pepsi. You can see it in the photo but the coloration was a lot lighter than in the photo. I threw it out right after the photo. From the parking area roughly 50 meters away you’ll see a traffic gate/building structure (the background structure in the photo). Go through the gates and keep going straight! Right after passing through the gate/building there is a way to go left with lots of stuff to see, restaurants etc. That’s the exit plaza. To get to the entrance where the ticket office is, keep going straight, you’ll see stairs. Going up the stairs the ticketing office is in the building on the left. Tickets were 125 Yuan. If you like postcards, don’t crumple the ticket because you can tear off the stubs and the remainder is a postcard. We got there at 13:30 and they closed at 17:00. We barely finished it. We could have spent more time looking at things the last hour but we rushed the grottoes knowing we’d run out of time. Not knowing that there is a park area and that the exit was a ways off.

The first section after you buy your tickets and enter the “Grottoes” is a plaza of sorts with temples, a pagoda, some stone art. You’ll pass an Art Gallery too. After getting past all of that, you’ll cross a bridge before getting to the Grottoes section.

View of Yungang Temple after crossing the bridge to the Grottoes.

The first set of caves at the Yungang Grottoes.

The main paths are pretty much smooth and easy to walk. For the grottoes that are higher, there are wooden stairs and platforms built for access. Inside however is a mix. Some have wooden walkways, some do not and some caves were empty.

Wooden stairs and platforms at the Yungang grottoes

Some caves at the Yungang grottoes were empty but perhaps weren't before.

There is temple on top of the cliff (was under repairs at the time) accessible by an almost hidden (by trees) stairway path. The view from up there is pretty cool and you can see how big this “park” really is. Behind this building is a path that goes somewhere, being pressed for time we didn’t venture that far. Some of the caves were enclosed for their protection, some of which were unavailable for entry.

Temple on top of a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

Building built to protect the cave from further deterioration.

Like I said earlier we almost didn’t finish the Grottoes section, but we for sure didn’t get to see most of the park area because we got picked up by an extended golf cart and taken to the exit area because we wouldn’t make it on time for closing. We had to pay 5 yuan each for the ride.  If you can’t walk the entire grounds, you can take the tour cart. It doesn’t go into where the actually caves are though. You may want to budget a bit more time if you like to take lots of photos (like me) because some of the closed areas may be open when you go and also for the park area after the grottoes area. There were games and stalls and stuff.

A large stone buddha carved into a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

A large stone buddha carved into a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

Once you exit the grottoes, the exit plaza has a whole bunch of stalls for you to buy souvenirs. Lots of cool stuff, remember prices can be negotiable. I got 20 yuan off just for picking up a silver bracelet after asking for the price. If you plan to buy the black bead bracelets keep this in mind, once you exit the traffic gates to get to the parking area where your taxi should be waiting, there are a lot of old ladies selling those bracelets at 3 for 10 yuan but I got offered as high as 7 for 10 yuan. These old ladies are aggressive! They will put the bracelets in your hand on your arm wherever they can and refuse to take them back. Once you buy from one you will get swarmed. They will prevent you from closing the taxi door even (our driver was of no help in shooing them away) eventually though they gave up.

All in all,  in our opinion, the Yungang Grottoes is worth the entrance fee. I think I could spend an additional 3 hours in there. Our only regret is rushing and not finishing the park as well as not trying the food. Although you may not want to if you have nut allergies (specifically peanuts) I saw and smelled a lot of peanuts at the exit plaza area.

For more of my photos taken in and around Datong, visit my Datong Album on Flickr.