I arrived in Thailand on July 12 of this year. It would be my first destination as a long-term traveler since I left Manila, though it wasn’t my first visit. I traveled around Bangkok and Ayutthaya for two weeks back in 2013. This time around, I went to Chiang Mai.
Located in the northwestern corner of the country, it is a mountainous region and is popular for its elephants, its numerous temples that dot every neighborhood, and a cooler climate relative to Bangkok.
I lived through a 7-hour layover in Bangkok before my flight to Chiang Mai. There isn’t any direct flight serving the Manila-Chiang Mai route, so I spent three hours eating desserts and pastries in downtown Bangkok to pass the time.
Thanks to the airport train service! Thailand and the Philippines are both developing countries, but Bangkok and Manila seem to be a world apart in terms of transport infrastructure (airport trains, much more reliable train lines, buses with dedicated bus stops).
When I reached Chiang Mai, I was astonished to see temples everywhere. I could close my eyes and walk in any direction and, within five minutes, I’d bump into one sacred Buddhist architecture. I was thrilled, because I love temples, but I understand that they are not everyone’s cup of tea, even though modern travel lets us think otherwise.
[New blog post] Home is not just one place; it can be many places peppering the world we know. It can never be reduced to geographic proximity, either. Our forefathers used to be nomads. They built imaginary roads to cross, listened to the rhythms of nature, and escaped the frigid tundras in exchange for fertile lands. Somehow, we still carry that spirit of desiring to explore and discover, to move and live in accordance with our own individual pendulums, and to seek life in the face of deadly metaphors. (Link in bio 👍)
When I met people on the road, I asked them how they liked Chiang Mai. Some readily felt at home in this small city, whereas others recounted their experiences with weariness and exasperation – largely because of temples. Haha!
Many alternatives have already been written to help travelers avoid getting templed out, but they seldom address the root cause of this phenomenon. Mixing things up to inject variety and novelty is just a band-aid solution. What we need is more authenticity in our experience. I won’t try to define the intricacies of what it means to be authentic, but I believe that an authentic experience is one that is personal and has deep emotional resonance.
I think it’s ridiculous to complain about getting templed out on the first day of a trip. I mean, how can something that’s supposed to be enriching and invigorating (such as sightseeing) be stressful and energy-zapping? Clearly, this indicates that there’s something wrong with how we travel or how we think we should travel.
So, what can you do to make your trip to Chiang Mai a generally pleasant, enriching, and purposeful activity? How do you make the most of your vacation so that every experience becomes worth the penny? How do you avoid getting templed out in a city replete with temples?
Take it easy. Slow down.
Spend at least an hour in every temple. Seeing temples doesn’t have to feel like a race. Less is more. Learn about the temple’s history. See it from different angles. Look at it from afar. Slowly approach it and notice its size evolve before you. Smell the incense. Listen to the monks chanting. Take it all in.
Stop traveling as though it were a chore. If you don’t, you’ll be needing a vacation away from your vacation (which is absurd). In my previous job, some of my colleagues appeared more tired after traveling than before they even took their flight!
Instead of expanding our concept of time through travel, we bring to our destination the rigor expected in the workplace – strict schedules, timelines, and a carefully planned agenda based on the itineraries written by other people whose values and interests differ from ours. After waiting for that promo fare, saving up for your trip, and arguing with your boss for the approval of your vacation leaves, the last thing you want is to make travel an exhausting activity.
Know that temples are not the only place to go.
- Get a Thai massage. Though I’ve experienced it only once, I would recommend that you visit a massage school that specializes in traditional Thai medicine. After five days of long walks, I headed to Lanna Thai Massage Traditional Medical School. For 200 baht (~$6), I enjoyed an hour-long session of contortions and movements I never imagined myself doing. It was like yoga, except that another person does it to you.
- Walk by the Ping River. I can’t emphasize enough how much I find comfort in walking near bodies of water. The best times to go are early in the morning and just as the sun sets.
- Chill out in a riverside café. How about a full morning spent drinking coffee and admiring the fast flowing river in front of you? Vary your mornings so that they’re tied not only to memories of temples.
- Spend your evenings wandering through the night markets. Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is open every evening. On Saturday nights, the Saturday Night Walking Street is set up along Wualai Road (southwest of Chiang Mai Gate). Warorot Market, on the other hand, is open every day and can be found at the center of Chinatown.
- Watch live band performances in front of the Tha Phae Gate (East Gate). These are available only on weekend evenings, and they’re a wonderful complement to the Sunday Night Walking Street which starts at the same gate.
- Sample some insects. The hardest step I had to endure was the first bite. When I saw a Korean girl happily munching on crickets, I tried a piece of one sad crawly and I wasn’t disappointed. Crickets taste like shrimp!
- Eat Vietnamese food in a garden restaurant (next to a temple). The guesthouse where I stayed at happens to be a two-minute walk from Dara – a quiet, unassuming place for cheap Vietnamese food. There are plenty of tables available and, if you fancy, consider a relaxed lunch in their outdoor garden while sipping cold roselle tea.
- Have breakfast and lunch in Chinatown. Food in Thailand is extremely cheap. Most of the time, they’re even cheaper than Manila’s street food. Each day I visited Chinatown to try one type of fruit – dragon fruit, snake fruit, longan, durian, among others.
- Support the local tea culture. During my quest to find local tea shops, I stumbled upon a tiny one that serves cheap organic tea and coffee. The owners are an American (guy) and Thai (lady) couple. The American speaks Spanish, and the Thai speaks spectacular English. Their jasmine-scented Thai green tea latte is the best I’ve tasted in all of Thailand!
- Make Doi Suthep one of the temples you should visit. I know this is a temple, but I encourage you to go anyway not only because of its historical and religious significance, but also because going there is a remarkable experience. You will pass through winding mountain roads and, at the top, you’ll be delighted to see sweeping views of Chiang Mai. I shared the ride with a Spanish couple, a German teacher who speaks Spanish, and a Japanese family.
Know your own travel style. And practice it!
Create your own itinerary. First, ask yourself what you really want to get out of travel, then create an itinerary around that. The reason why many of us tick off so many temples to the detriment of our own sanity is that we read far too many blogs on sample itineraries. I don’t mind using pre-made itineraries as a guide but, when a traveler experiences temple fatigue because of such prescriptions (and on the first day, God forbid!), this is indicative of a problem that has less to do with the destination than the traveler’s attitude and/or misinformation.
Unless temples, Buddhism, and architecture are your cup of tea, it’s quite baffling as to why anyone would force himself to visit so many temples at a time. Trying unfamiliar things is a sign of open-mindedness, but forcing ourselves to conform to a travel plan that does not take into account who we are and what we really want is silly. Understand that must-sees are relative.
I hope that, next time you hop on a plane, you will promise to yourself you will travel on your own terms. 🙂