Not long ago I came across an interview with the critically acclaimed chef, author, TV personality, and travel guru Anthony Bourdain. In the article, the former chef talks about the importance of slow travel—of taking the time to venture off the beaten path— to get an authentic feel for the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the daily lives of the people and places that we’re visiting. One quote in particular hit home for me:
The more I travel internationally—going on seven years now—the more I’ve come to know, to understand, and to 100 percent agree with these sentiments.
I realize that while some of us have the luxury of time without much monetary reserve, others have the luxury of financial freedom without much time to spare. I’ve also come to realize that despite financial or time constraints, one can discover a happy medium when it comes to traveling more slowly, more deeply, and more mindfully. You see, it's possible to hit the main attractions, while also making room in your itinerary to explore—no pun intended—the parts unknown, and I can think of no better example of this than my recent trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Located in the misty mountains of northern Thailand, the vibrant former capital city of Chiang Mai has become a bit of a breakout star on the Thailand tourist circuit, and more specifically, amongst the seasoned travelers who have over explored the postcard-perfect islands of the south. There are no white sand beaches or elaborate coral reefs to be found in the northern regions. Instead, travelers who visit places like Chiang Mai, are presented with an entirely different, kaleidoscopic experience—one complete with rolling green mountains, numerous ethnic groups, abundant wildlife, and a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist temples. In fact, one of the most sacred and famous temples in all of Chiang Mai is the stunning Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, often referred to as “Doi Suthep.”
In 1383, King Keu Naone, of the former Lanna Kingdom, established a Buddhist monastery on the grounds of Doi Suthep. He built the monastery to protect a piece of bone. This bone was sacred because it reportedly came from the shoulder of the Buddha. Today, visitors to Doi Suthep will find an arduous 306-step staircase, which leads to an inner terrace brimming with beautiful monuments, and yes, a few bones. However, indeed, the main event here is the glistening golden chedi—or shrine—which houses the ancient relic.
Before entering Doi Suthep, I must admit that I was overwhelmed with the number of red songthaews—pick-up trucks that have been converted into taxis, predominantly used for tourists—lined up outside of the temple. I was also totally overwhelmed by the number of tourists, as well as the sheer volume of local merchant stalls set up alongside the road, selling all sorts of trinkets, souvenirs, and tourist hullaballoo. For a place that was meant to be sacred, it felt noisy, crowded, and chaotic.
I was taken aback once more, just before climbing the stairs to the inner temple, when I saw a beautiful little girl, adorned with brightly colored clothing. Her clothing was symbolic of the Hmong ethnic minority group, who live in the surrounding mountainous regions. Not far from her, sat a woman with a collection box. Here, tourists were paying money to have their photos taken with this little girl. She seemed unhappy and uninterested in posing for pictures with foreigners. As most children would, she instead preferred to doodle on the small scraps of paper that she collected from the steps nearby.
Although this scene was, in a word, disheartening, I decided to proceed with my climb up the remaining 300 stairs. I was relieved to find that inside of the temple the atmosphere changed completely. There were still plenty of tourists, but the noise and chaos had subsided. The sheer beauty of the monuments was transformative. Here, we all walked around barefoot, silent, and utterly mesmerized by the intricate statues and glittering shrines. For me, the innate beauty of the monuments at Doi Suthep, as well as the dramatically transformative atmosphere, made this trip well worth braving the chaos outside of the temple walls.
Doi Pui to Doi Suthep Trail
Just outside of the Chiang Mai city center, there sits a less-known, less-traveled hiking trail, which passes through the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Often referred to as the “Doi Pui to Soi Suthep Trail,” this blissfully scenic trail begins just past the Buphing Palace and leads trekkers up to the summit of Doi Pui, before winding down through local villages, coffee farms, lush forests, and finally, the famous Doi Suthep monument.
The climb up to Doi Pui Mountain is a gentle 500-foot ascent, where trekkers are rewarded not with sweeping views of the countryside (the mountain is mostly covered by trees), but rather with lush, jungle-like forests. Think long swinging vines, sprawling green ferns, crisp mountain air, peaceful streams, and towering evergreens. From the summit, hikers will traverse a short ridge that makes its way down to a local village. Several coffee plantations surround the area, and there’s even a small shop here for travelers to sample some of the local beans. Visitors to the village might also see some Hmong women drying coffee beans from a recent harvest or plucking herbs from their gardens. Of all my time spent traveling in Thailand, I have to say that walking through this village was probably the most authentically Thai experience I will ever have. It was beyond rewarding—worth the trek and so much more! From the village, visitors can follow the trail down through forest all the way to the main road—ending just a few steps away from the main entrance to Doi Suthep.
Regarding transportation, it’s easy to use Grab to find a local driver in Chiang Mai. Grab drivers can pick you up from your hotel and drop you at the trail entrance. Here is a link with more explicit directions and maps, showing the starting and ending point, as well as explaining the route in more detail. Once you’re finished touring Doi Suthep, you can easily jump in one of the red songthaews to head back to the city center.
The truth is, venturing off the beaten path is always going to take just a little more effort on our parts—at least in the beginning. Also, more often than not, it’s going to lead to some pretty awkward interactions, because well, that’s what getting out of our comfort zone is all about. But these are also the moments where the real magic of travel starts to transpire. As Bourdain says: “It’s those little human moments that are the ones that stick with you forever.” Sometimes, venturing off the beaten path can gift us with some of our most memorable travel experiences—the ones that we had never thought possible or even imagined before our trip; they are the ones that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Abby Faires is an East Coast native turned Denver transplant. In 2013, she received distinction as the University of Colorado School of Journalism’s Outstanding Graduate, where she also obtained a B.A. in Journalism, News-Editorial, and a certificate in International Media. At the core of her writing lies a true passion for education, wellness, and responsible travel. Abby has been living abroad and is currently making her way across Asia. Up next: South America!