Nestled in the foothills of beautiful mountains, this North Thailand city is a travellers dream come true. It is the biggest city in the north, however a haven after the hustle bustle of Bangkok. The city has two parts to it – first is the so called “Old City” which is within the ancient walls, now marked by moat canals that mark the outer limit of it. This is the part where most travellers spend their time,it has the most hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and it also has some of the most well known temples here. The outer city is the more modern part of the city with malls and multiplexes and what not. There is a nice riverside slightly outside the Old City which has the Sunday Market as well as a lot of very nice river side restaurants and bars.
If you like the sound of that introduction, trust me, you are going to fall in love with the city just like I did just on my first visit there – I went there without doing much research and no pre-conceived notions, and as I spent time there, it started revealing its beautiful sides one by one, making it one my favourite cities in the world and I slowly understood why so many expats from around the world have chosen Chiang Mai to be there home. Here are some of the reasons this city stood out for me.
The Food – I’m vegetarian & food is typically not a big reason for me to travel usually as all I get is some pizza, pasta, some breads and maybe one odd curry in most places! Thats why I’m choosing to make food the first reason here, because I was pleasantly shocked by the vegan and vegetarian food options in Chiang Mai, there are dozens of places to choose from and for a change I was spoilt for choice. And its not just Thai food, but world there’s cuisine available that you may not find anywhere else in Thailand. I would rate Chiang Mai as the top rated city for experimental Vegan food all over the world. So whether you are vegetarian or not, go here for the amazing food! And while we are on food, do not miss the 100+ cafes this place, enjoy a glass of iced Thai Coffee, one of the best coffees I’ve tasted.
The Vibe – Chaing Mai is a melting pot where expats & travellers from all over the world converge. Its a place where you can meet a stranger from anywhere in the world in a cafe or a bar and make friends with them for the evening or for a lifetime. Its very Thai and at the same time amazingly global in its feel. The vibe is extremely youthful and there is always something or the other happening in the city.
The Nature – One of the best parts about Chiang Mai is that if you drive for 30-40 mins out of the city you are suddenly in the middle of nature! There are hills, rivers, waterfalls, tribal villages just around the city. So whether you want to just go to the mountains and relax, or do a hiking or a cycling trip, explore the local way of Thai living, its all extremely doable from Chiang Mai. One of the best experiences I had was to visit Mon Cham – its on top of a hill with beautiful views all around, a place visited by locals and not so much by tourists.
The Temples – Chaing Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples (Wats) and they are probably some of the best maintained and beautiful temples I have seen. There are many in the Old City itself and you can explore them as you walk around, however my favourite was one that is a little away and not so popular (yeah!) , and therefore away from the crowds – its called Wat Palad and is in the middle of a forest in a magical setting, with steams flowing through it, bridges taking you to buddha shrines, lots of quiet places with greenery & flowers to sit and soak in the calm and peace. My suggestion would be to skip the touristy Doi Suthep and go here instead, and I’m sure you will thank me later. Its not just ‘another’ temple, its a place to be experienced.
The Nightlife & live music – Chiang Mai is one of the most vibrant night cities I have visited in a very cosy way – its not big and bad, its small and cosy, you make new friends and discover new music here. Most places in Thailand have a thriving music culture, but it seems like Chiang Mai has managed to get the best of it all. Any bar or pub you walk into, there will be a local live band playing some terrific music, and yes, you have a choice of what kind of music you want to listen to. For jazz don’t miss the The North Gate Jazz Co-Op, it was one of the best evenings I had, for classical and pop music go to The Good View which has a great riverside feel, or just visit one of the many Night Markets which has many stages playing different types of music. If you like to party then, don’t miss the Bar District – its a small square with atleast 20 bars playing different types of music from Reggae to Irish & more. For some late night revelry, head to Spicy which is open till wee hours of the morning.
The Thai Massage by Ex-Prison inmates – I don’t think I need to talk about Thai massages per se, but what stood out for me in Chiang Mai were many massage centers which are run by ex prison inmates. I thought it was a beautiful way to get inmates back into the society and help them earn a living. While you will find many other spa’s and massage centers, I would urge you to visit one of these and help support them.
The Shopping & Night Markets – No place in Thailand can be complete without the awesome shopping experiences and Chiang Mai is no different. There are walking streets, weekend markets, riverside markets and what not. My favourite was the Saturday Night market. I would recommend keep your Saturday evening free just for this. Start with the food square which is like a food fest- there are food carts of all types of cuisines from the world – grab some of your favourite food, some beer and enjoy the live music , when you want to take a break, walk around and get some shopping done, and if that makes your feet tired, just stop by for a foot massage. And once again – back to some music, wine and shopping – how does that sound?
Some basic things :
Where to Stay? As long as you are staying within the Old City it should be fine to explore all of Chiang Mai. There are umpteen number of hotels, guest houses and hostels available. Choose what suits your style & budget. I chose to stay in Green Tiger House (http://www.greentigerhouse.com/) which was perfect in terms of food, location as well as the personal attention given to guiding us around!
How to move around? The best way to experience the city is to stay within the Old City, hire bicycles & explore the town which is really not that big, For anything outside the old city walls you can use tuk tuks (which are sometimes expensive though), use their shared cabs called Songtheaw or just use Uber. I found Uber to be the cheapest and the most efficient.
Some things to avoid :
I try to travel as responsibly as possible, and while everyplace has its good things, some not so good things always come along. In Chiang Mai, two things have become very common as a part of the tourist circuit which I stayed away from and would urge all fellow responsible travellers to avoid.
1. Elephant Tourism – This is a big draw to to this region and western travellers love the experience of getting up close with these giant animals, getting pictures clicked with them, riding on them, playing games with them et al. But most people do not know the dark side behind all the fun. The fact is that most elephants are illegally traded for tourism and are tortured since birth to ‘train’ them to be fun with humans. Some of the ways they are tortured are un-imaginable and you can read more about it here. I urge you to stay away from this form of entertainment and not encourage animal torture.
2. The Village of the Longneck Tribes – This is another tourist attraction that has literally been created, and is a form of human torture. The Karen tribe came to North Thailand from Burma and has a tradition for women, from age 5 onwards, a ring is added to their necks till they are 21, making their necks un-naturally long. While this tradition may have existing in history, today in Thailand, these villages are literally like human zoos where everything is fake and “displayed” for effect and the women are forced to go through the torture for some good tourist pictures. I’m not sure if they are given much of a choice in the matter. I stayed away from going there, so can’t share explicit details, but you can read more about it here and I leave the choice of visiting it or not to you as a traveller.
I do not want to leave you with a bad taste about Chiang Mai at all, in fact I simply love the place and really want to figure out a volunteering or a remote working opportunity there to go and spend some more time! Leaving you with some more happy pictures of the time I spent there 🙂