Chiang Mai is a charming old city in the north of Thailand well known for it’s hundreds of beautiful temples (or wats) and laid-back vibe. I had only heard good things about it and was desperate to see what it was all about. I was also desperate to do some exercise. Now I am no crossfit fanatic by any stretch of the imagination but I like to jog most days, take a weekly yoga class and walk everywhere in between. Since arriving in southeast Asia three months ago the heat and traffic have hindered my virtuous routines and left me feeling a little frustrated. Thankfully Chiang Mai did not disappoint.
Walk, jog, run
Whichever one you chose Chiang Mai’s old city will lend itself perfectly. The old part of the city is surrounded by a moat and the remaining parts of the ancient wall. The distance around is 6.6km taking the pavement inside the moat which I enjoyed as a morning jog, impossible to get lost and not too hot or busy provided you go early in the morning.
James, having visited Chiang Mai last year, took it upon himself to give me a wat tour of the old city. He excelled and the photos speak for themselves – just imagine peacefully wandering around these ancient buildings with the tinkling of bells in the breeze and monks smiling serenely in the shade. If I ever lose James I am pretty sure I’d find him back at one of these wats.
There is so much yoga in Chiang Mai although hardly surprising given the aforementioned laid-back vibe. I am pretty sure you could go into downward dog in the street and no one would bat an eyelid, in fact you’d probably get someone helping you turn it into a handstand. Luxuriating in this abundance (and the low prices!) I decided to try a different yoga class everyday. It has been an enriching experience in many ways – discovering parts of the city while trying to get to some of the more hidden yoga studios as well as learning something new from each teacher. Having been blessed with an incredibly down to earth yoga teacher back in the UK it has also been amusing to see all the stereotypes in real life: the smoking hot Aussie teacher who makes everything sound like an innuendo as he smoulders through his eyelashes on the mat, the equally good looking American teacher who tells you to “find a balance of awareness and relaxation” as her willowy body contorts into the shape I thought only pretzels made and the spaced out teacher who tells you yoga is too structured as we flail around “moving energy around like a ball”.
James has also been entertained by my yogaing and found it highly amusing when I returned from one class upset and ranting about a particularly unfriendly studio owner who told me off for washing my feet in the toilet. The result of a miscommunication, I hastily add – I was told to wash my feet in the shower by someone pointing to the toilet rather than the shower room (Thai toliets all have a shower hose next to them for freshening up your bottom). Pretty mortifying for me even without her being mean!
My legs still ache as I type from the fantastic hike to Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep mountain on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. The temple is important to Thai people and children learn about it’s history at school – the legend goes that a monk found a bone there which turned into a white elephant and the temple was built where the elephant popped it’s clogs. It is also very popular with tourists who take taxis to the top and back. Feeling adventurous we decided to walk instead. The trail to the top is not used very often with very little signage as Thais do not have the same verve for hiking as we Westerners do so we planned the route using a couple of helpful blogs (here, here and here) from past hikers.
We set off early to avoid the midday heat and decided not to bother hiring bikes to get to the bottom of the mountain, we could see the mountain from our accomodation so it couldn’t be that far…could it? Over an hour later we reached the start of the trail, soaked in sweat and cursing that we didn’t cycle – it seems the eye can see further than you think! Nevertheless we welcomed the dappled shade of the jungle forest as we began our ascent taking comfort from the orange monk scarfs tied around trees that we were on the right track. After about 25 minutes we arrived at Wat Phalad, a beautiful temple hidden amongst the trees devoid of tourists with a river running through it (although dry when we were there). We stopped for a few minutes to take in the views over the city and check our route with some friendly monks who spoke excellent English!
As we continued the track became much steeper and we had to resist scrambling as the second your hand touched the ground or a tree you were covered with ants. James kept me entertained as we climbed with trivia such as the number of ants per person on this planet (just googled it and apparently it is 1.6 million!) until we came to a road. We crossed noticing a couple of taxis and a cyclist on their way up to the temple and carried on up the track on the other side admiring the purple leaves and twisty trees. After another half an hour, feeling pretty puffed out, we came to a fork. Luckily for us a spritely Irishman appeared from one direction and assured us we were only a quarter of an hour from the top. Encouraged by this we pushed on up to the top and came out by a distinctly smelly and unofficial looking landfill onto the road. Another five minutes up the road past the food vendors and we arrived at the foot of the temples 309 steps, joining the hoards of tourists to make our final ascent to the glorious climax of the hike: Wat Phra That with it’s ornate carvings and statues, rainbow of colorful flowers and breathtaking views over Chiang Mai.
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