I heard that question a few times from people touring the beautiful wats of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai has no shortage of wats to visit and walk around in. They are tucked all over town, some more conspicuous than others. I wish we had time to make it up to the mountain top Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (a recommended favorite in Lonely Planet: Thailand), but I can always return to Chiang Mai, I feel. I need to get to Chiang Roi at some point anyway!
The drama of the clouds fogging down over the mountain, parting to show off the wat, is simply a sight to see. The clouds have been so low, so heavy with rain, that they drag their fat bottoms over the peaks and down into Chiang Mai in a slow manner, looking like a heaving breath whispering over the ridges. It’s beautiful, and it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty.
In town, however, the Lonely Planet guide recommends a short walking tour of the main wats, including Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phan Tao, and Wat Chiang Man. Moving at our own pace, we could pop in and out of the wats and view the Lanna architecture leisurely. There wasn’t much of a crowd (though today is a Buddhist holiday, which meant they’re busier), so it was relatively quiet and gave us a good chance to see the locals interact with the wats instead of tons of tourists with selfie sticks.
Wat Chedi Luang is absolutely worth a visit – walk around to the very back to an old, old chedi. It used to have the Emerald Buddha, but now that’s in Bangkok. The old stairs are worn away, and tourists can’t go up there. However, the nagas guarding the once-stairs look just as fierce as they must have when it was built ages ago. Elephants parade proudly from the top, and though some are missing, it’s obvious how important the elephants are to Chiang Mai’s storied past – and present.
Along the wat route are many coffee shops to stop in and rest, let along recaffeinate. I personally enjoyed the Into the Woods cafe (on Th Phra Pokklao, near the north side of the river, Old City) where the fairy tale murals evoke some whimsy as you sit and drink in the wood stump chairs and wrought iron tables. On Th Ratchadamnoen, a somewhat touristy street lined with beautiful small wats and restaurants/cafes, we stopped at one of the Akha Ama cafes along the way, near Wat Thung Yu and Wat Chai Phra Kiat. Let me tell you – this cafe had the freshest coffee scent pouring out of its door, and it drew me in like a moth to a flame. Once inside, I simply had to breathe in the scent, and it felt like a coffee essential oil massage to my under-caffeinated brain. The cafe also stocks and sells local coffees, and I recommend the Peabody for 280 baht – the powerful aroma was like, whoa.
A late morning snack of mango sticky rice (50 baht – so much cheaper than Bangkok!) fortified us for the rest of our walk. We visited a few more wats, popped into a few shops for souvenirs, and then wandered north again. The tiny, newly-restored Wat Inthakhin Saduemuang was a nice stopover before having our first bowl of khao soi (curry noodles) and a plate of fried chicken and rice at Khao Soy Siri Soy near Th Jhaban.
We walked through the Chiang Mai City Arts & Culture Centre to learn a little more about the history of the city, which really gave some insight into the Burmese/Chinese/Thai mix of culture here.
After walking a bit longer, we returned to the hotel for a rest-up before joining the Chiang Mai Street Food Walking Tour later in the evening.
That was a very quick, very interesting walk through the old heart of the city!