Chiang Mai: The Heart of Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai (“CM”) is Thailand’s second largest city, and the hub of the north. It’s a favorite among travelers and expats, especially those who want to stay put in Thailand for a long period of travel. I met a Canadian who told me you can rent an apartment for one month and pay less than what you would pay if you stayed in a hostel dorm room for that same period of time; and in case you’re wondering, hostels are very affordable in CM. As a large city, there’s traffic, noise, and some pollution to deal with, but all at a much lesser degree than what you find in Bangkok. And much of the city is super walkable, which is great. Though, like BK, rent a scooter at your own risk. Traffic can be dicey, but if you’re used to driving in Asia, you’ll be fine. Be sure to have an international driver’s license, as cops do look out for non-Thai drivers to pull over and ticket. (Thanks to Ryan, another travel friend I met while in Laos, I learned that getting an international driver’s license is as easy as making your way into AAA, giving them your current US driver’s license, paying a $20 fee, and within minutes you’ll have an international license. No additional test or other complicated requirements! Definitely worth it if you plan to rent cars or scooters in many places around the world.)

For me, CM was a stopping point after a (too short!) trip to Chiang Rai, and convenient for getting to Pai (my favorite city in all of Thailand). I spent several days exploring, mostly the incredible restaurants, street markets, Chinatown, and great bars. CM was also where you stay in order to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, which was my favorite day (so far!) in almost 9 months of traveling.

A bit of a confession: I’ve been country and city hopping so much in the past couple of weeks that I’m rapidly falling behind in my blogging. So this post is going to be a bit short (for me!) so here is the cliff notes version of my time (about 1 week, split with a few days before and after a trip to Pai) in Chiang Mai.

Travel to Chiang Mai. There are plenty of options. Chiang Mai has an international airport, which was how I departed the city. But for my arrival, I took a bus from Chiang Rai. While there are several bus companies, the most comfortable ride for this 3-4 hour journey is definitely to book a ticket (in advance!) on the Green Bus (http://www.greenbusthailand.com/website/en/). It’s comparable to any of the large and comfortable buses in the US, and has air conditioning (which often runs SUPER strong so bring your winter jacket to avoid freezing on the bus, I’m not kidding). You arrive at Terminal 2 in Chiang Mai.

Accommodation. I stayed inside the Old City both times I was in Chiang Mai. It’s very convenient for tourists, and if you plan to do any tours (including Elephant Nature Park) they all offer free pickup inside the Old City (but usually add a fee outside of that area). Pro Tip: if you stay even just 1-2 blocks back from the main streets that border the Old City, it’s shockingly quiet at night. If you stay along one of the main roads, at the very least, you’re going to hear constant traffic driving by at night. I stayed in two nice and reasonably priced places. My favorite was definitely Hostel by Bed; I got a private room and slept in the most comfortable bed I’ve had anywhere in Asia, nice A/C, and they had quite a good (free!) daily breakfast, all for less than $40USD/night. Unfortunately, they were booked up on my return from Pai, so I stayed on the other side of the Old City, in Kavil Guesthouse, for around $30/night. It was a nice place to rest my head for a few nights; not nearly as modern as Hostel by Bed, but the family who runs this hotel is very nice, the location is not on one of the main roads so it’s incredibly quiet, and they also had a good selection for the free breakfast. I’d stay in either place again for sure.

Food & Cocktails. As anyone who knows me, or has read at least one of my posts, knows, I LOVE FOOD. And I was not disappointed in Chiang Mai. But be warned: most restaurants stop serving food early, even on weekends, so don’t wait until late to eat (get there before 9pm). I had a really wonderful (and huge portions! Ended up making two meals out of it) meal at Reform Kafe, a vegan restaurant that was a very close walk to Hostel by Bed. This place is super popular, for good reason! The cheapest coconuts in all of Thailand (that I saw, at least) were at a local market, Ming Muang (Somphet) Market, and cost only 20BHT (= $0.64USD) for a delish, sweet coconut full of milk and yummy flesh you can scrape out and eat!

The food highlight for me was stopping into one of the Temples during the famous Sunday Night Market (see below) and sampling food from at least 5 different food stands. I had the 2nd best pad thai I’ve had in all of Thailand, incredible veg dumplings, and of course, mango sticky rice (to name a few).

Nong Bee’s Burmese Restaurant & Library was so damn good I’m salivating still thinking of that place. Go there and order (at least) the tea leaf salad and their eggplant curry. Phenomenal!

It’s located along Nimman Road, which is the place to go for food, coffee (Ristr8o is literally a global, award winning café, for good reason!), desserts, drinks, and just about anything you need in your life. Including the best nail salon I’ve been to anywhere in the world (see below).

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One of the best cocktail bars I visited in all of Thailand (and if you’ve read my blog about Bangkok, you know what a high opinion I have of bars there) is along on of the main roads in the west side of the Old City, Nophaburi Bar. I’m not a gin drinker, but if I was, I’d be in heaven. The menu is also full of rum drinks, which aren’t usually my thing, but Chor-Ma-Kham is one of the most interesting and creative cocktails I’ve ever had. It’s made with mekohng (Thai rum), lemongrass, house made tamarind puree, lime juice, a splash of cinnamon syrup, and is finished with a sprinkle of sugar and lemongrass shavings, all of which are set on fire. I loved this place so much I visited two nights in a row! I also really liked Cru, a wine bar not far at all from Nophaburi Bar. They have a rotating selection of reds, whites, and rose, and I had a fantastic Cab Sav/Cab Franc blend that was well worth the $10 or so (definitely paying Western prices at this place) it cost. The chef and owner were also great fun to chat with while hanging out at the bar. I highly recommend visits to both!

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Putting the finishing touches on my super tasty drink.

What to see/do

The Sunday Night Walking Street/Market was way beyond anything I could have imagined. Next to Chatuchak Market in Bangkok (which I believe does take the prize for largest market in Asia), I’ve never seen such an expansive street market. There must be close to 2 miles of streets that are closed to vehicular traffic on Saturday and Sunday nights, and home to every manner of craft, artwork, jewelry, art, and food you could imagine up. And thousands of people all strolling around. I have some great time lapse videos from walking through the market, but Word Press gives you so little storage space that I’m almost at capacity, so until I take the time to upload things onto YouTube and insert links here, a couple photos showing some beautiful wares and colors will have to suffice.

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Hand made soaps
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Colorful wooden bracelets.

I made the mistake of popping into a random salon on Nimman Road (that was nearly across the street from Ristr8o) to get a mani-pedi, and almost had my nails destroyed. Less than 24 hours later (after said business was honorable enough to give me a refund) I made my way to Nimman Nails (https://www.facebook.com/nimmannails), which was a lifesaver! When I walked in asking them to “fix” my gel manicure, the girl at the salon told me my nails were too damaged and instead needed treatment (even though the fee for this was less than half the cost of a gel manicure)! FYI on gel nails: thanks to this salon I learned that you should remove gel polish after 2 (maximum 3, if you have really healthy and strong nails to start with) polishings to let your nails breathe. Failure to do so will result in damage to your nails. The integrity and professionalism here make me wish I lived in Chiang Mai so they could be my permanent nail salon!

You pretty much can’t go wrong visiting an Asian city’s Chinatown neighborhood. What I especially loved about it here was the shopping! I found some of the best deals in all of Thailand (except, perhaps, Chatuchak Market in BK). Some of the vendors are really nice and will let you try on clothes before purchasing, but trying on clothes means on top of whatever you’re wearing. So be thoughtful when you’re getting dressed, or you’ll end up looking a bit like this…

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When you squeeze yourself into a new dress over the top of the one you’re wearing.

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Within CM’s city limits (heck, inside the Old City), there are loads of temples! However, I think I was a bit temple-fatigued, so I didn’t visit any while inside the city. But I did take a tour on my final day in CM to explore a lot of the important sites just outside of the city, including… Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong Worawihan (a well known temple)

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Wachirathan Waterfall

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Doi Thanon (the highest spot in Thailand)

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Twin [King’s & Queen’s] Royal Pagodas (Phra Mahathats).

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And the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej

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I found my tour online, and it was one of the few that had availability for the next day and that allowed me to pay online. It was easy and the tour was decent, not great, but worth the cost. They also included free lunch, and planned ahead of time to accommodate a vegetarian diet (and I had waaaaay too much food to eat!). There are probably better tours, but for the price (and if you’re booking last minute and want something easy you can book and pay for online, Klook’s Doi Inthanon National Park Tour totally works (https://www.klook.com/activity/384-doi-inthanon-national-park-chiang-mai/). If you book elsewhere: be sure to avoid any tour or activity that involves riding elephants!

Chiang Mai is a safe, friendly, walkable, and digestable city, and a nice jumping off point for so much of northern Thailand. Including a trip to my favorite of all destinations in Thailand, Pai! Coming up on my next blog!

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