Having arrived early on Sunday morning, it didn’t take us long to realise that Chiang Mai was a completely different city to Bangkok. This was a great source of relief having booked ourselves in for a week here. It is far less hectic (apart from the ring road around the old city), with less of a concrete jungle feel to the city centre and people are far less pushy. This is just a selection of the many things that I prefer about Chiang Mai.
There are quaint little coffee shops and bars on almost every street corner and whilst it’s obvious that the city has been commercialised, Thai culture is still prevalent. There are street stalls and restaurants all selling Thai dishes at a range of prices. These were all very reasonable by Western standards. Then the temples – there are a lot of them! If you enjoy looking at spectacular buildings, all lavishly decorated and resplendent in the hot Asian sun, then you’ll love Chiang Mai. Almost all of the big temples are within walking distance from the main tourist areas and other activities are only a short drive from the city.
Shopping & Dining/Drinking
For any first time visitors to Chiang Mai, the Saturday and Sunday Night Walking Markets are an absolute must. They are both great opportunities to try great street food from very clean stalls, as well as a chance to shop for authentic Thai clothing and accessories. Haggling is a little harder at the larger markets due to the competition each stall faces, but just take a stroll down one of the side streets that lie away from the main beaten track, and you can grab yourself a bargain. The Saturday event takes place just south of the old city by Chiang Mai gate, whilst its Sunday (and far busier) counterpart starts at Tha Phae gate on the east of the of the city centre. If you would rather do your clothes shopping at malls, there are several scattered throughout the city just outside the old town walls. Alternatively, have a gander down Nimmanhaemin Road for more of a hippy and touristy shopping trip. This road is rather more expensive but it is a must for those visiting!
Throughout Chiang Mai, it’s very easy to find excellent restaurants that you can buy both traditional Thai or Western dishes at. Pad Thai should typically cost between 60-80 Baht and large Chang beer should set you back between 70-100 Baht. Other cocktails can be anywhere between 50-150 Baht. There are many vegan/vegetarian restaurants and most others will have dishes that are vegan friendly…so for those of you who are so inclined, eating out should not be a problem!
Sightseeing and Activities
For those of you who enjoy cultural visits, there are temples all over Chiang Mai. In fact, I believe there are over 300! Just outside the city, there are multiple ethical elephant sanctuaries, national parks, and jungle trails to explore. I would highly recommend the Bamboo Elephant Family Care sanctuary. They offer full day excursions that include a half day of feeding and bathing elephants, making traditional medicines to help the elephants’ digestion, a 2 hour trek to a waterfall and finally white-water rafting. This will set you back around 1600 Baht, or just over £37.50 by today’s exchange rate.
Everyone who visits Thailand should try traditional Thai cooking classes. I tried one at the Smile Organic Farm Cooking School just outside the city and it was amazing. The food was incredible and the instructors were hilarious. There is a great emphasis in Thai culture on making dishes “sexy” or spicy and its great fun watching the real chefs breaking down barriers in groups by making them laugh through our unfamiliarity of this. I spent 1200 Baht on this course, and I was taught to make (and then devour!) 7 different Thai dishes. Needless to say, I could barely move by the end of the day! After we had made our desserts, we made our way to the hot springs 5 minutes away from the farm and enjoyed a relaxing foot spa. All in all, I would definitely recommend this as a daytime activity.
There are many more things to do in Chiang Mai. For example you could visit the Grand Canyon water park which is endless fun packed into 3-4 hours. Here you can zipline, kayak, cliff jump, and run on the massive obstacle course that makes Total Wipeout look like a kids’ playground adventure. At night, you can venture east of the old city and visit all the tourist bars and the Night Bazaar food market. Here you will also find the famous cabaret shows which are great entertainment – this coming from someone who was firmly against going until my girlfriend convinced me. The two main ones in Chiang Mai are Khantoke and 6ixcret so look them up!
Maria and I stayed at Varada Place which cost us just over 2700 Baht for 7 nights. We we go a private room with an en suite shower room and balcony, as well as free coffee and bottled water (which was a live saver!). For couples travelling together, Varada is a great option as it is very cheap when split between two people and it is very close to Nimmanhaemin Road and the old city. However, if you are looking for something different, there are a multitude of hostels throughout Chiang Mai, both in the centre and to the east where most backpackers seem to stay. I would recommend using Booking.com or Hotels.com as they both have a great selection. However, we found that it is probably best to book yourself just one night at a hostel online, and then walk around the city to see if you can find anything better or better suited for you. This way you get a better idea of what is available.
Honestly, walking about the city will keep you in pretty good shape because of the heat and distances you’ll end up racking up. However, if like me you are worried about losing any progress you’ve made in the past year, a good option would be Go Gym or Strong Gym. Go Gym is located in Hillside Plaza, Huay Kaew Road whilst Strong gym is just outside the old city, in the Nimman area in Central Kad Suan Kaew Shopping Mall. They charge 80 and 70 Baht respectively for a days pass and will definitely get you working up a sweat!
Overall, I loved Chiang Mai. It was a great and eclectic mix of traditional Thai with some Westernised areas. As mentioned before, the people are far less pushy than in Bangkok, and you are far less likely to get ripped off, or feel unsafe in any way. It’s a great place to meet new people and experience cheap luxury, so if you’re in Thailand and stuck for something to do, I’d definitely recommend it.