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300 Temples, 137 Pillars and a Straight Back

Posted By Gerard Ward, Wednesday, 22 July 2015
Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2017

In Northern Thailand, away from the bustle of the capital, Gerard Ward falls for the laidback culture of Chiang Mai.

Sawadee ka,’ I’m greeted as I arrive at the gates of 137 Pillars House. The resort’s main house, raised from the ground with 137 pillars, was built in 1889 and reflects the pre-World War I colonial design. 30 suites were built around the main house, designed less than a decade ago to reflect the same colonial-style colour and decor. My suite, complete with a Victorian bath, in and outdoor showers engulfed in Thai forestry, and even a humidifier with eucalyptus scent, set the mood.

The Dining Room, with dark brown wood doors, thin curtains draped over light blue dining couches and tables adorned with orchids, was where the Thai menu was served. Being the food issue, I needed to sink my teeth into some lunch.

For starters, thin spring rolls at a ruler’s length filled with vegetables with a side dish of orange chili dip. Gaeng Tay Pho, a tender pork confit curry with grilled lime and multigrain rice, came in an orange colour I’ve never seen, but was equal amounts spicy and smooth. Finishing it all off with a lemongrass tea, I had enough energy to head out towards the Old City.

The location of 137 Pillars House, east of the centre of Chiang Mai, suited my stubbornness to see the city on foot. The Old City, with a still-standing wall built to protect it, was a trading centre between Burma and China.

I quickly learned that ‘sawadee ka’ is ‘hello’, though for men, it’s ‘sawadee krap’. I had spent two hours saying it wrong, and feel incredibly embarrassed, though no one I speak to takes any offence to it. Already I feel so welcomed in a place I knew very little about.

Gaeng Tay Pho curry.

Only just walked what felt like ten minutes from the resort, I somehow was a little hungry. I managed to find into Ratchadumnern Coffee on Jhaban Road for a plate of Pad Thai – a dish I could never turn down back home. I notice the Thai foods here have more fresh vegetables, with a satisfying crisp to each bite.

I strolled down towards the Night Market as the sun sets, reaching the Night Bazaar – a touristic spot, but one I wanted to tick off the list first. Sure enough, stalls stretching all the way down Chang Klan Road sold everything from bracelets and trinkets, wood statues, Louis Vuitton wallets and Ray Ban sunglasses with signs above them stating ‘these are not fake’, singlets and the odd children’s toy.

Among the mess of the street, an open space to the side looked like an East London pop-up area – complete with hay and paint buckets for seating and wooden boxes for tables, and the food trucks and stalls selling everything from thin crust pizza and gyoza to burgers and fruit smoothies. A tuk-tuk cocktail bar, tucked in the corner, was especially busy. For 100 baht ($4) the bartender would make you pretty much anything. Surrounded by bottles ‘K’ from the Philippines was swift, measuring shots and grabbing ice behind him while making a Zombie, which is a potent mix of spirits.

A couple of puppies playing around outside of a temple.

My night ends walking past the last stretch of stores on the way home, before catching an impromptu BB King tribute at Mojo, a blues bar not far from the hotel. Returning to my room, I find a printout of the day’s Australian news, and on my pillow lay a bedtime story.

The next day I had planned to be the most action-packed. The day before I kept hearing about Doi Suthep, the biggest temple in Chiang Mai, with an incredibly large Buddha statue. What bothered me was the less hyped 300 temples sitting within the walls of the Old City to see. I decided to avoid the usual, and attempt to see a tenth of the 300 temples by the end of the day.

As you walk down Tha Pae Road, temples are easily spottable. Seeing these temples all near each other seemed less of a competition about who worshipped Buddha best, but that there was always a place to pop in for a quick prayer – almost like a holistic Starbucks chain. Each of the temples were empty, void of eager photographers and sweaty tourists – besides myself, in the 35-degree day.

The contrasts between scooter repair shop, bulk grocery shop and occasional noodle shop with the air-conditioned cafés, pharmacies and 7-11s is something else. You could walk down a seemingly empty street of roller shutters and find a bubbly coffee shop.

The golden statues inside the temples are incredible.

I stop at Ro Rooms Art-Can-Live on Tha Pae Road, a shaded – not to mention air-conditioned – cafe with cushy wooden seats, lighting that looked like glow-worms, cool carved wood shelves, bright yellow flooring and a shaded garden that would be fantastic in the rain. Sipping on a sour citrus kick of a lime juice – priced at 80 baht ($3) – I connect to the wi-fi to find my location. It was only 10:45am, and I had already seen ten temples, varying in size, colour and style, on just one road. And I hadn’t even reached the Old City yet.

Popping into Pacamara Coffee on Ratchadamnoen Road, a modern Melbourne- style cafe with Thai writing out front, I sit down with a piccolo latte. The place is small, but homely. There are even coffee beans on sale, packaged for the shop especially.

Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan, one of the main temples in the Muang District – the centre of Old City – is an incredible sight. Separated from the glamorous temple beside it is an incredible shrine with old bricks, statues of Buddha and places to donate for your Zodiac year – as well as god statues for particular charities ranging from feeding hungry dogs and helping run the school.

You can tell where the more popular temples are from the outpour of tuk-tuks, but the places in-between were dead quiet. While the rest were heading to temples charging 20 baht for entry, I got pristine moments of peace in the lesser-known places.

Signage outside of Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan.

There are points where I really consider hiring a tuk-tuk – which are available almost anywhere you go – and in hindsight, perhaps it would’ve been a smart choice. I’m so stubborn, I stick to my guns and turn away a tuk-tuk driver offering a guided tour for $10, dripping of sweat as I walk away.

I was given a suggestion to find Thai Massage Conservation Club, a massage parlour on Ratchadamri Road that’s run by the blind. Coming into the front office with a blind man on the phone and a young girl helping out, I ask for the standard massage. After paying ($5 for an hour), I was given a card and told to wait. My masseuse comes down from upstairs, and leads me through darkened rooms, where men and women masseuses worked away on the weary.

I watch as my masseuse finds his way, the odd hand wave and click, tapping on his leg for a proximity test, and even climbing two floors of stairs, all while guiding a confused foreigner. The masseuses working next to each other know their locations, only bumping into each other twice.

While hard to find, I am glad I put the effort in to make it. Blind or not, the massage was thorough. The concentration is deep. There’s the odd finger click, and the unrelenting removal of knots in muscles. We share laughs when I crack more than I expect. I finish feeling better for posture, and just a little happier than before. One full day is just too short for Chiang Mai.

Tags:  anza  anza singapore  chiang mai  thailand  travel 

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