City Guide: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Oh my dear, dear friends, it’s been a hot minute since I’ve had the chance to really sit down and hash out all the nitty-gritty details and edit the zillion and a half pictures I’ve collected from our lovely Thai-me in Thailand! See what I did there? I know, I know… I’m hilarious. But here I am! And I am so, so thrilled to share all the goodness Chiang Mai has to offer.
In retrospect, it’s obvious. Chiang Mai was one of my favorite stops in our adventures in Thailand. It’s home to the best of everything Thai, from glistening wats, to the easy access of the great, wild rainforest and hill tribes next door, to the delicious street foods and authentic goods. It really is the hub of all things good and wonderful.
– Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city (after Bangkok). Most of the Thai people in Chiang Mai are natives of the area and are the kindest people I think I’ve come across!
– The center of the city (known as the Old City) is only a square mile, and is surrounded by an epic walled moat. Certain gate entrances host famous street food vendors, which we will definitely be covering later in the post.
– The city is known for housing a lot of expats!
COSTS & MONEY SAVING TIPS
– Let me tell you, Chiang Mai is the most budget friendly area we explored in Thailand! But don’t be afraid to bargain with a smile at markets and before entering a tuk-tuk. Spark a friendship and save yourself some moolah.
– There’s a little bit of everything available here in Chiang Mai! Guesthouses and hostels are in abundance and hotels range from low key to the opulent. If you’re wondering where the best area to stay is, I would suggest somewhere either near the North Gate or around the Old City square. Why? Well, it’s better for giving directions to your tuk-tuk driver and you have access to all the fun stuff available in the Old City!
– Hostels dorms can cost as little as 125 baht, while guesthouses start around 200 baht (without air conditioning)… but expect 340 baht per night if you’re looking to stay cool. Trust me on this, if you’re going in the summer you need that cool breeze. Budget hotels start around 440 baht per night and go upward.
– If you’re going cheap, eat street food. It’s the most authentic anyway! A typical delicious dish will set you back around 25-50 baht, while a sit down restaurant will set you back around 170 baht.
HOW TO GET AROUND
– As I’ve preached over and over again, do yourself a favor and download an offline map before you go! It was so nice to have handy when a little confused on directions.
– Tuk Tuk’s: Okay these little buggies are the most adorable little car bombs I’ve ever seen. Be sure to set a price before you enter, but be aware that you are going to have to pay more than the native Thai people. It’s just how it is! However, it is cheaper to be tuk-tuk’ed around the Old City gate square, rather than going inside. 60 baht is reasonable anywhere in the city, as a tourist.
– Songthaew: At 20 THB for anywhere in the city, this is the cheapest way to get around (other than walking, duh).
– Bike: One of my favorite days in the city was renting a bike (around 100 baht per day) and mosey-ing around the Old City. Not only does it free up your sightseeing, but it’s fairly safe to navigate around the Thai drivers.
– When in Chiang Mai, you must eat khao soi in abundance. This soup is a northern Thai specialty and is downright drool worthy. With a coconut milk-curry soup base with egg noodles, served with pork or chicken, pickled cabbage, red onions, shallots, a wedge of lime and roasted chilies and topped off with crispy noodles… I mean… how could you not? Hands down, my favorite northern cuisine dish!
– The thing about Thailand is that the best restaurants often go unnamed. Rule of thumb? If you see locals eating there, you eat there.
– Favorite restaurants/street food locations include:
–Khao Soi Mae Sai: the best, and most authentic khao soi spot for lunch
–Heun Pen: for authentic Northern Thai cuisine
–Cooking Love: their papaya salad was stupid good
–Ab Petite Cafe: a clean and simple spot for a little touch of Europe
–The North Gate Street Food Market: for Cowboy Hat Lady’s pig feet and rice (trust me on this!)
– And how could I forget the delicious coffee shops? You can bet that there will be a coffee shop within a stone’s throw of where you are at any minute in this city! And let me tell you, with that mid day heat, popping into one to sip on an iced mocha is a necessity.
SEE & DO
– A Temple Crawl! Make a map and follow the course. Chiang Mai’s Old City is stocked with wats and temples galore. Must do stops include Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man and Wat Sisuphan (you know, that pretty Silver Temple I wrote about a few weeks ago).
– The Sunday Walking Market was one of my absolute favorite aspects of our time in the city. Starting at the Tha Phae Gate and stretching down the Old City’s center, this walking market is the place to pick up souveneirs and collectables from artisan to kitschy. Be sure to go early around 4pm to beat the crowd!
– Escape the city and explore the wild in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
– Pop in for some late night jazz at the North Gate Jazz Co-Op.
– If your nights are already booked up, consider visiting Warorot Market during the day. This is a great place to shop for clothes and gifts and get some really great, cheap food by the river.
– Participate in a Monk Chat. Talk about a once in a lifetime opportunity! This is an exchange for us foreigners to learn more about the country’s religion and culture and for monks to practice their English. Most meetings occur Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at Wat Dok Suthep.
– Another memorable experience (that I unfortunately could not do, due to my fractured foot… I’m still crying about it inside) is a day trip to the Elephant Nature Park Conservatory just outside of the city. Why here? Because the elephants housed at the Elephant Nature Park are rescued from exploitative tourist traps where they are painted, chained, hooked, and ridden. These elephants are nurtured and cared for, which is something I think we all should endorse.
– Feeling adventurous? Check out the Flight of the Gibbon and Eagle Trekker’s zip lining courses, take a river cruise down the Mae Ping river, or white water raft down the Maeteng River during rainy season.
TIPS & TIDBITS
– Assimilating 101: Being a non-Thai is obvious here. But there are ways to blend in a show respect for the native culture. Be sure to cover up when entering temples, take your shoes off when you see them stacked outside of the door, and be careful to never touch another person’s head or a monk’s hand (if you are a woman).
–Practice Responsible Tourism: Do your research. The sad case is that many too good to be true experiences are just that. Use a travel agency or carrier that is ethical and uses good decency when working with native tribes.
–The Locals Are Just The Nicest: It’s true. Being an American, whenever I’m approached by someone asking where I’m from or how long I’m staying in an area, I typically assume that I’m being sold something. This is not the case with the Thai people here in Chiang Mai. We were approached several times by kind souls who directed us to some of the most delicious and beautiful spots in the city!
For those of you who follow me on Instagram, you might have gently stalked my daily thoughts and findings of our time in the Land of Smiles and noticed that, “oh hey! Laura seems to not be in Thailand anymore!” Yep. That’s right. We’re in Japan now soaking it all in! Be sure to follow me there for a more up to date look at what we’re up to, since our wifi and time is limited here on the island. Hint: It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to write about it in more detail!
So what do you guys think? Is Chiang Mai on your list of places to visit in Thailand? Anything you find surprising or interesting? If you have any questions or are looking for more recommendations, please let me know in a comment! I live for this stuff, guys, I really do!