This year (2017), on my way to Australia, I did a 2 week stop in Thailand and visit my dad that had been there for 3 months, so far, writing a book.
Knowing that, by that time, my old man would have already explored Chiang Mai intensively, it was best for me not to make any plans in advance, for I would probably have the best guide I could ask for, with already local insight. And so it was.
Already in Bangkok airport, before the domestic flight to the North, I was instructed to exchange no more than 50€ for the local currency (Baht) and to buy myself a SIM card. I randomly chose a 30-day package of 4,5Gb for 549Baht of AIS but any other cell phone company would provide similar package deals. The rest of my money we later exchanged in a Sakol Money Exchange office in Chiang Mai, for a better rate.
My stay in Chiang Mai lasted 9 days. We went to several places and tasted many different local dishes, but also had a lot of free time for relaxing so I’d say that probably 4 to 5 days would have been enough. Below I discuss the most relevant topics I consider worth knowing if one isn’t lucky enough to have a personal guide like I did.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand. It’s located up North in the mountains and it’s definitely worth getting to know because it’s a totally different experience from the South. The old town is inside the square shaped wall ruins and that’s where you’ll find most accommodation and tourist activities, however, we were accommodated in the outskirts, where you’ll also find a lot of activity but much fewer tourists, getting closer to the real Chiang Mai lifestyle and people.
I traveled in the beginning of June which is already low season (rainy season) and actually found it to be a good occasion because I could visit the temples, go on tours, and wander the markets without the hassle of tourists everywhere. Rainy season in tropical countries just means that when you go out, besides the shorts and t-shirt (it’s still really warm), you should also take a light rain cover with you, since it may suddenly start to pour down like crazy. Then it stops again. If you travel in low season take the opportunity to heavily bargain your accommodation, for you’ll easily get better prices.
Most of the Thai people I dealt with were friendly and gentle, but it’s a bonus if you salute and thank them in Thai together with your best smile. For women hello would be: sawadee ka, for men sawadee k(r)ap; and thank you: kop kuhn ka for the ladies and kop kuhn k(r)ap for gentlemen (all sentences end with: ka=females / k(r)ap=males – the “r” is silent, so hearing only “kap” it’s common).
Where it comes to indigenous, there are still several different tribes around the North, the Karen being the most numerous. The villages outside the city are usually tribal areas.
In Chiang Mai, as in the rest of Thailand, the elephant plays an important role and is a symbol of Thai culture. For centuries Asian elephants have been domesticated for working, carrying and even participating in wars. Statistics about the number of elephants in Thailand are not very accurate since the wild ones are difficult to count, but one can roughly consider around 7.000 animals, 40% to 45% of which are still domestic but no longer roughly abused. In the Chiang Mai area, only domesticated elephants will be found.
In our case, the means of transportation consisted in a rented scooter. I definitely advise it, for it’s really cheap in Chiang Mai (around 200 Baht per day) and allows for free and fast mobility everywhere, even up the mountains. The only times we didn’t get to places on our own were when we took tours further away from the city, like to the Elephant Sanctuary or Chiang Rai.
If you plan to rent a scooter, remember to take your international driver’s license because the police love to stop foreigners to check their papers. Also, be aware that in Thailand driving is on the left side. Usually, people drive quite slow in the city (up to 40km/h) so even though it is a bit messy, it’s easy to have enough reaction time. A cool tip regarding scooter traffic: if you’re turning left at a red light, you’re free to go without waiting for it to turn green.
If driving is not an option, alternatively tuk-tuks, songthawes, and taxis are available. Taxis, I only saw 3 times in 9 days. The songthaew with canopy-closed benches in the back sitting up to 10 people. It’s common to share this public transport with strangers. Tuk-tuks are more exclusive but then again more expensive. Bargaining should be done upfront. In addition, renting a bicycle is also pretty common, or using Grab or Uber.
Temples, palaces, and museums
Thai are mainly Buddhists so you’ll find Buddha statues and Buddhist temples all over. Going through them all is a mission only some will be able to take upon themselves. From my experience, and also confirmed by my dad, Wat Phratat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang (Wat=Temple) were pretty representative. All are exquisite pieces of architecture with vibrant colors and inherent peacefulness. Shoes are all left at the entrance and proper clothing should be accounted for, namely shoulder, belly and legs covered.
Palace wise, in the Chiang Mai area I really enjoyed Rajapruek Royal Park. Although the Palace itself was closed for repairs, it nonetheless has several beautiful exhibition stations, mainly related to botany. There is a 15mins free tram tour available but I mostly enjoyed rambling around on the bike (bike rentals inside for 60Baht).
We also went to the Puphing Palace, again with beautiful gardens, and once again the main building was closed for visitors. I guess in low season there is a higher chance palace buildings are closed for maintenance. Or maybe I’m just really unlucky.
The only museum we chose to visit was the Tribal Museum. It’s rather small but has brief documentaries about the several tribes of Thailand and surroundings, allowing a better understanding of original and current ways of living, also providing further context to the villages we had already visited and those that we were still to swing by.
Activities and tours
As most tourists, we headed for the classic elephant tour during our stay, that my father had actually left for my upcoming visit. We chose to do it with the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, but several companies also provide a day with the elephants’ experience without riding them. Some others give the chance to ride on the back, but we’d rather choose one that only takes care of them. The experience basically consisted in hearing a small briefing about elephants, then feed them, scrub mud in their skin and head for the river to bathe with them. It’s really sweet to watch them scrubbing themselves in the mud as well as afterward enjoying the river wash. They are indeed a fabulous creature and it’s not everyday one gets so close.
My tour also consisted in rafting down a river in a bamboo canoe which I found to be absolutely beautiful. Maybe because I was the only tourist (no one else was interested in this activity that day apparently), that was the moment when I really felt connected to the wild beauty of the Thai lands.
The other tour we took was to the white temple of Chiang Rai, the golden triangle and a long neck Karen village. This tour consisted of a lot of hours in a car and some useless stops. For example, we stopped in some really uninteresting hot springs, as well as in the border with Myanmar. The Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar borders join) was worth it due to the beautiful landscape, however, the optional boat trip could have been dismissed.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed the White Temple. It has been very recently restored (works are still ongoing actually) and the inside wall paintings of the main building include many of the nowadays worshiped heroes, like Superman, Sailor Moon, Songoku and even the Minions, as well as other references to other earthly interests such as rockets or cell phones, which I found pretty amusing.
The long neck Karen village actually made me a bit sad, because the people are refugees from Burma, living on the northern border of Thailand. Due to their non-resident status, they have very limited employment opportunities and basically live off selling tourists their crafts, trinkets and taking photos. I made sure to spend some Baht in their village, as a simple contribution.
I don’t know if this is considered an activity, but of course, I also enjoyed a Thai massage (by ex-prisoners), full body, one hour, for 200Baht. The lady was very polite, caring if too much strength was being applied and adjusting as required. Really nice.
Being a foodie myself, I couldn’t pass on mentioning the amazing Thai cuisine! One activity I made sure not to miss was a cooking class, which was a real treat! Fish sauce, oyster sauce, basil, chili peppers, lemongrass, palm sugar, tamarind, and ginger are some of the ingredients that from now on will have a place in my kitchen, being the basics of Thai wonderful tastes.
I won’t mention all of the dishes I tried because the list is too long! But I recommend Mix restaurant for some fancier meals; street food including from the markets for reasonable eating and Cherng Doi restaurant for a great crispy chicken with tamarind sauce. I recommend Riverside which is a more touristic restaurant by the river, but their food is nice and we also enjoyed a very fine live band (on a Thursday). For me, it was also indispensable to order some Chang beer to balance the spicy of the meals! By the way, Chang means Elephant in Thai.
I didn’t go clubbing with my dad, but we didn’t miss out on Chiang Mai by night since it’s when the city comes to life (it’s too hot during the day). During the week the Night Bazaar gets set in the streets from around 6 pm and it’s time for shopping, eating, drinking, watching live concerts, getting massages and fish tank experiences. Saturday night market takes place on a different street as well as Sunday night market. All of them are fundamental to enjoy if visiting Chiang Mai. None of the street food and fruit juices had any bad effects on my system if that’s a concern.
In addition, we went to some roof top bars and my favorite is called Oasis, where the specialty is mojitos.
An easy place to live
Having the privilege of getting around Chiang Mai for a larger time than most backpackers and having my own personal guide to explore some of the local aspects of a current living, made me consider this city as an easy place to spend a longer season. If only I weren’t addicted to living close to the sea, Chiang Mai would definitely be a good option.