“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
Chiang Mai is known to be one of the worlds most liveable cities. So it’s really no surprise to see expats dominating the local cafes. I had pictured it to be quite small, but it’s actually huge. It is the second biggest city in Thailand. If you are a nature lover – don’t be turned off by the idea of the city. It never feels like you are in a busy place, plus there are hundreds of different day trips to venture into the nearby jungles.
There are hundreds of hostel accommodation options in and around Chiang Mai. For travellers wanting to socialise, I would highly recommend a place called The Living Place 1 (they have 2 but 1 is more popular). Although it’s located outside the Old City walls, it is perfectly situated in a quiet laneway towards the night bazaar (which I guarantee you will spend a lot of time!) The owner, Aree, is especially welcoming.
If you are interested in trying something new, and if you have the time, I would recommend just booking the first night somewhere and playing the rest by ear. Wandering around the city, you can find numerous small guesthouses and B&Bs offering fantastically cheap deals for clean private rooms. Many of them don’t have websites, have no advertising whatsoever and aren’t affiliated with any travel companies. They literally wait for walk-ins! Step off the beaten track and find a hidden gem!
TIP: If you only have a set amount of time in Northern Thailand – don’t miss visiting Pai – the small hippy town 3 hours North. Read more about Pai here.
8 TOP CHIANG MAI EXPERIENCES
1. F O O D
Personally, I think Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. Most of it is fresh, delicious and the variety is crazy! The markets are the best place to pick up decent meals. Pad Thai, mango sticky rice, soups, gyoza and a plate of meat skewers all average 30 baht per serving (only US$1) and you are guaranteed to leave full!
TIP: Try and eat food which is cooked fresh (in front of you) to avoid food poisoning.
If you need a break from street food (or enjoy eating breakfast in a cafe like me!) here’s a few places I would highly recommend:
- Blue Diamond Cafe – Great garden atmosphere with a gourmet bakery attached and homemade treats.
- Free Bird Cafe – Delicious! And 100% of profits go towards Burmese Refugee Houses fighting against human trafficking.
- Dada Cafe – Get educated while you eat. The walls are covered with posters teaching customers about the health benefits of everything they serve!
- Dash Teak House – Although higher priced than the other restaurants, the Thai/American owners serve up delicious hearty Thai cuisine in a fine dining setting. (Try the mind blowing Khao Soi curry – only found in North Thailand!)
TIP: If you’re a coffee lover, head down to Nimmanhemin Road outside the Old City. The entire street is lined with boutique coffee houses including Australian owned – Risto8to (amazing coffee). If you are lucky enough to have the global award winning barista on shift – he can create your portrait in the coffee foam!
2. G O T O A T H A I B O X I N G M A T C H
Normally, boxing does not appeal to me. Watching men smash each other’s faces in just seems pointless. I was convinced by a local that there is no blood and it’s “not so violent like America”. I reluctantly agreed to give it a go. A group of us from the hostel went together (400 baht each) and could BYO beer which was great. Our seats were reserved from earlier in the day and it ended up being an amazing experience. Being so close, we could smell the sweat and Thai boxing was much more about speed and skill rather than violence. It was good to watch.
We were lucky enough to see a number of international matches throughout the night including USA, Italy and The Netherlands (both male and female). By the end of the night, we were all so engrossed in the tournament that we were cheering them on and making bets (you can make official bets at the back) and we all loved it!
TIP: Buy tickets in the morning through the hostel or wander down to the night bazaar to reserve a good seat!
3. V I S I T D O I S U T H E P
Doi Suthep is a mountain in the Chiang Mai province reaching 1,676 metres. It’s covered in lush vegetation and holds near the top, a stunning Buddhist temple.
James and I hired a scooter for 150 baht for the day. We probably could’ve gotten cheaper, (I had heard of others getting them for 120 baht) however we had a lazy morning and wanted to be quick and make the most of the day so couldn’t be bothered negotiating.
TIP: Ensure you ask to add insurance (could be an additional 40 baht) but it’s worth it! If anything happens to the bike – they may not give back your passport until you cough up the money so insurance is a safe bet.
The mountain is 15km away and has windy roads leading up, so if you are not comfortable on a scooter, you can opt for a taxi instead.
The temple is beautiful. You need to take your shoes off to wander around the grounds. If you head right to the back in the small alcove, there is an old monk sitting there. Kneel down in front of him, he will bless you, ask Buddha to grant you good luck and he will tie a white string around your wrist to symbolise the bond between you and your soul. It’s polite to always keep your head lower than those of the Buddhas and monks (which might explain why people are crawling around!). We lit candles, worshipped alongside others and took in the energy around us. When we were ready to leave, we saw a group of young school kids trying to raise money for a school library. Having little else to do, James and I spent the next half an hour dancing with them and helped them raise over US$200! Not only that, we got to spend some quality time interacting with locals and learnt about cool new haircuts and where to get great Thai food!
We continued on the scooter further up the hill because we had heard about the village on the top. To be honest, I don’t know if we found the right village, although we had fun getting lost. We came across a small village filled with small shops and local kids running around playing with younger siblings. It was here that I met a lady with raw crystals who carved me a beautiful amethyst necklace!
TIP: Try the noodle sausage at the base of the temple! (Another Northern Thai specialty)
For those who want to try meditation, Wat Suan Dok offer 2 day meditation retreats called “monk chats”. It allows tourists to get a taste of the Buddhist lifestyle by learning about meditation. Live, eat, sleep and meditate like a monk for 2 days and at the end – feel free to ask the monk questions about his life, rituals and beliefs. Really interesting. Find out more by clicking here.
4. S E E A T H A I C A B E R E T S H O W
Having reluctantly seen a PingPong show in Bangkok before, I was very hesitant about agreeing to a “ladyboy show” when it was offered. I was assured that it was nothing sexual but I still had my doubts. All I can say is that it was one of the best things I saw in Chiang Mai. It was nothing like what I expected. If I wasn’t told they were ladyboys – there was NO WAY of knowing. They were all stunning and paraded around in beautiful intricate costumes and performed great well known hits we could all sing along to like Queen and Abba.
It cost only 200 baht (including a beer) and went for about 2 hours. The first act included most of the performers singing and dancing to latest hits. Many of the performers constantly came off stage to involve the audience (whether they liked it or not!) so be careful if you are sitting in the front row! Some of the performances were slow, deep solo acts, while others were energetic group dance offs. It was truly spectacular!
TIP: Audience in the front row get involved so sit back if you prefer just to watch!
After the show was over, despite being a bar – the venue became deserted. We headed out to Zoe’s Bar which played 80’s and 90’s hits all night resulting in many lost voices. I personally prefer bars rather than nightclubs so I should have called it a night after Zoe’s, however ended up visiting the raunchy ‘Spicys’ later in the night and quickly regretted it. For those who prefer something different – hit up some unique jazz bands playing live nightly at the North Gate bars!
5. W A N D E R T H E M A R K E T S
Markets in Thailand are a must – especially in North. The handmade clothes and bags are influenced heavily by patterns and materials from Burma and India. They are truly unique. Expect to pay more than you would in the famous Chatuchuk markets in Bangkok. These shops are made especially for tourists so be warned, although it is still pleasant to walk around and admire what’s on offer.
TIP: Try the delectable herb sausage available in the night bazaar. It’s a local specialty and the herbs aid with digestion!
The night bazaar outside the city walls operate every night. It offers a live cultural show and numerous food stalls, whereas the weekend markets are only running in the main street on a Sunday evening. My only advice – make sure you go with an empty stomach because it’s hard to resist the huge array of food!
TIP: Try the antique ice-cream available at the weekend markets and experiment with flavours like black sesame or taro!
6. G E T I N V O L V E D A T ‘A R T I N P A R A D I S E’
‘Art In Paradise’ is the world’s largest 3D art museum allowing visitors to be a part of the artwork. It’s a steep 300 baht entry but I thought it was worth every cent.
The museum was once an old department store and was transformed into a creative, colourful playground by 12 South Korean artists. The best part of all, is that anyone can produce great photos! No need for any special SLR lenses – even an old phone camera will do! The markings on the floor help you work out where best to stand for the best angle. Make sure you bring someone along with you so you can take photos for each other!
7. V I S I T A N E L E P H A N T S A N C T U A R Y
Being lucky enough to go on an African Safari recently, I decided I didn’t need to see/ride the elephants in Northern Thailand despite being the most popular thing to do. After speaking with both locals and tourists, I found the ethical debate very interesting. What I did learn though, is that not all elephant farms are acting ethically and many of the animals are mistreated.
In order for elephants to interact with humans, they generally need to be tamed – and in South East Asia – this can be a brutal process. Due to the increasing popular elephant tourism, there are now only 2000 wild elephants left in the entire region. It’s our demand for elephant rides and circus acts that leads to more baby elephants getting captured from their mothers, tortured, and sold off to entertain us.
Whether you ride elephants in Thailand or not is your choice. I completely understand the thrill in it and aware that we all have different morals and standards. Most people who go to Thailand to ride elephants are completely unaware of their mistreatment behind the scenes. I have ridden elephants before when I was younger and it’s easy to understand why people do it. However, traveling has opened my eyes to the reality of this industry. I am writing this simply to create awareness so you can each make an informed decision. If this is still a lifelong dream for you, below are a few tips to help you choose an equitable and right minded tour company.
Tips to choose an ethical company:
1. Ask the company where the elephants are kept overnight (in individual pens locked up or in a bigger park where they can interact with each other?)
2. Avoid any elephant-like shows or companies who offer them.
3. If you do choose to actually ride, try and ride bareback as the wooden or steel seats are harmful for an elephants back.
Many tour groups off a full day out including a jungle trek, sleeping in a local village, a boat ride, and a visit to an elephant sanctuary. I heard great things about Patara Elephant Farm and also The Elephants Nature Park.
TIP: If you have plenty of time to spare – you can volunteer to assist with elephant conservation and nurse sick elephants back to health. Particular sanctuaries rescue elephants from circus-like homes and care for them ethically. Volunteering can even be as short as one or two weeks. Read more here.
8. G E T A M A S S A G E
It’s easier to find a massage parlour in Chiang Mai than it is to spot a convenience store. A 1 hour Thai massage will set you back only 150-200 baht depending on the quality and they are phenomenal (in my opinion). I like massages. If you are not a fan, you will hate this one. Thai massage differs from Indonesian massages in that they don’t use oils and involves more pressure point stimulation and stretching. It is known to be very hard so don’t say you weren’t warned! They are however very good for you!
TIP: For a unique experience, get a massage at the Women’s Correctional Institute and support women trying to make a career in jail!