Chiang Mai, TH: Everything You Need to Know
Fascinated by the New City?
I have some Chiang Mai advice and observations to share with you.
Back in December of last year we made a speedy trip around Thailand. After spending the first 3 days in Bangkok, we then flew north, all the way to Chiang Mai to check out the world famous 'Old City' as well as the sprawling streets of Thetsaban Nakhon. Read on to learn key facts about the city, discover the observations we made and places we visited.
Thai: Thetsaban Nakhon Chiang Mai; Chiengmai
Founded in 1296 by King Mangrai.
Counties: Mueang Chiang Mai District and Chiang Mai Province.
Regional Population: Over 1.72 million.
Most noted: local handicraft products, hill tribe cultures,
tourism and ancient temples.
The atmosphere and general aesthetics is quite different from Bangkok; while there are many streets in the city, it is surrounded by trees and open air spaces. The district has a particular charm about it, I think it's largely due to the fact that a certain amount of the culture has been preserved. You will find many bars, small restaurants, markets and food stalls all within walking distance. While most of the area is quite pleasant to gaze at, it's the city's numerous temples that attract the eyes of many visitors. The structures vary in size and architectural design, partially due to the fact that builds occurred in different periods under the guidance of different architects and rulers. The great thing about this region is how vast it is; there are many districts that you can explore if you have the time. You also don't have to go too far to find yourself surrounded by the natural beauty of the north. The rainforest national parks are breathtaking. If you enjoy wandering around in raw nature, you'll be glad you payed them a visit.
There are numerous modes of transportation, which I would recommend depends largely on where you want to go.
Tuk-tuk: Good for zipping around the centre and seeing the sights contained within.
Taxis: Ideal for greater distances to nearby 'Amphoes' / districts.
Mini-buses: For tours and trips to the leading tourism sites.
Bus: Local mode of transport that usually travels between nearby towns.
Car and Motorbike Rentals: Available across the city.
Mostly, we walked around the city and used Tuk-tuks when we were exhausted or the distance was too great for walking. A word of caution, many Tuk-tuk and taxi drivers will try to rip off (you know, being a tourist and all), so it's best to negotiate the price before you agree to a ride. A one way trip around the city should not cost more than 100 THB but many will charge more than this. It's up to you to decide if you think the price is acceptable.
The only time we used a mini-bus in Chiang Mai was the red mini tour bus that takes you from the centre of the city all the way up the Doi Suthep mountain. It was a 45 minute journey that costs 50 THB. For a return journey, it's 80 THB. I recommend getting a return journey unless you want to spend 5 hours traversing down the rainforest mountain like we did! It was an amazing experience but I wouldn't recommend it if you're not in good health of if you have mobility issues.
Also, it's important to note that as I previously mentioned in my review of Bangkok, Thai authorities exercise strict rules on car and motorbike rentals. If you are planning to hire, you must have a driving license specifically for cars or motorbikes from your homeland as well as an international driving license. We saw many motorcyclists stopped by traffic police and questioned for not having the appropriate license. Organise this in advance, otherwise you risk receiving a hefty fine.
Did I mention the temples here are stunning? There are so many dotted around the city, so if you're only staying for a short period of time, it's best to determine which you would like to see most. Unfortunately, there were 2 or 3 we didn't get to visit due to their location being much further out than where we were exploring. However, we did see several such as the famed Wat Phrathat atop of Doi Suthep, Wat Suan Dok, Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Mai, Wat Pansao and more. If you enjoy viewing beautiful, ancient architecture, impressive Buddhist sculptures and well kept shrubbery, you'll enjoying exploring the temples. Sometimes you will come across Buddhist Monks at these sites carrying out daily tasks and providing blessings on worshippers, but mostly we found many of these sites to be empty. The good thing about these temples is that there are usually pashminas and sarongs available just outside of the building to cover the shoulders and legs, some charge a small rental fee of 10 THB, others are free. Do remember to take your shoes off before you enter.
As part of it's rich heritage and culture, Chiang Mai is known for it's handicrafts and preservation of certain ancient villages and tribes. There are numerous museums, tours to hill-tribe villages and handicraft sites. We didn't go and see the hill-tribe villages, however, we did visit a few of the handicraft centres; Thai silk manufacturing, gold leaf and eggshell lacquerware etc. It was interesting to see the process of how such products are made. The attention to detail was amazing!
If (like me) getting out in nature is more your thing, there are several national parks, botanical gardens and waterfalls. While the walk back from Doi Suthep was gruelling, I really enjoyed being high up over the city, seeing the cityscape below from a view point half way down, following the winding, long road in the middle of a rainforest on a mountain and surrounded by the sounds of nature. As I mentioned earlier, we did visit the famous temple, Wat Phrathat. In all honesty, while the main golden temple structure and various aspects of the grounds was rather impressive, it was far too crowded with large tourist groups being extremely noisy and many of the large sculptures had scaffolding around them due to ongoing renovations. I was barely able to take photos of the area due to overcrowding. To add to matters, once we had completed our ascension up the huge, steep stairway to Wat Pharthat, we were immediately confronted by a loud and incredibly rude member of staff pointing at sign stating that foreigners must pay an entrance fee of 30 THB each. While in one way I understand that with such a huge influx of tourists, it makes sense to pay a fee to help cover the costs of repairs and renovations, it was more the manner in which it was approached and the way we were treated by the man in question that bothered me. I literally wasn't even allowed to go near the shops before the temple entrance to use the bathroom! I had to queue up and pay the 30 THB before he would let me go. I have to say, I really wasn't impressed. It was remarkable really, that even in a place of worship you still have to contend with rude staff members, just like anywhere else in the world...
So what about important festivities? If you time it right, you may witness one of the cultural festivals that take place yearly in Chiang Mai such as Yee Peng / Loy Krathong: the lantern lighting ceremony. As is the case in many regions, these festivals serve specific purposes. They usually coincide with the lunar calendar and is one of the main avenues for locals and tourists to come together and celebrate as one. You can learn more about the different festivals here.
Food and Drink
If you enjoy authentic thai cuisine at excellent prices, I suggest venturing a little further out of the touristic zones. Here you can find small cafe-style diners, that aren't so impressive in appearance, and yet the staff are really friendly, the food is delicious and at a low cost. If you want real Thai food, dine where locals do not tourists.
Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai has it's fair share of convenience stores, food markets and street stalls. I swear, across the two weeks I was in Thailand for, I was often looking for one of the street stalls that sold chicken legs and skewers. They are so good! As well as fresh coconuts, of course. I must have drank one almost every day! There are several restaurants dotted around, but we mostly ate street food. It's some of the best I've had and the price is reasonable.
If you're a coffee fiend like myself, I think you will enjoy some of the cold coffee specialities from S&P, perfect for a morning wake up cool (get it, because it's so hot outside? Yes, it is a terrible joke. Ha, ha, no.) Seriously though, if you need a morning fix of caffeine and something to cool you down, it's the way to go. I really enjoyed my Iced Cappuccino but part of me really wanted to try the Milky Way iced drink. S&P is a medium budget, thai restaurant and bakery chain. It's a good spot for breakfast and lunch if you don't mind spending more.
So what can you expect Entertainment wise? For adults, there are a number of themed bars (including karaoke bars) and a couple of nightclubs.
If you enjoy watching Muy Thai Boxing, matches take place very regularly, at least once or twice a week. Just ensure that you buy tickets from genuine vendors.
There are also popular night markets, one of main ones being the Night Bazaar. If you are looking to unwind, there many massage parlours that specialise in body, hand and foot massages.
In terms of family orientated activities, there are various animal safari parks, zip line rides, a grand canon water park and Elephant sanctuaries. It's important to note that not all Elephant sanctuaries are legitimate, so it's important to do your research beforehand. Sadly, many of the Elephant attraction parks were torturing wild Elephants to become performers for their tourist shows and were kept chained up in poor conditions. As more and more reports came out about this cruelty, these parks were starting to lose business. Their solution was to merely change their business label from an attraction park to a sanctuary. The worse part is, they have no intention of releasing the animals back into the wild. So please, do research all the animal attractions that you would like to visit first so that if you too feel passionately about it, you can avoid funding animal cruelty for tourism. You can find out more about this subject here.
For the 3 days we stayed in Chiang Mai, we booked a room at Anchada hotel, which was located just outside of the city centre. It was difficult to find the place, even our taxi driver had missed the turn off! Once we had arrived, the hotel receptionist wasn't the friendliest I had ever encountered. Plus, he initially tried to charge us for the room which we had already paid for. When we entered our room, I was disappointed with it's condition. It wasn't as clean or as well maintained as it seemed in the images online. The bathroom was in poor condition and the room wasn't overly clean. What made matters worse was that when we had used the self service washer just around the street corner (which doesn't have a dryer), my partner asked the receptionist if they had a clothing rack or something we could borrow just to hang our clothes to dry overnight. He proceeded to take my partner to the garage and pointed at a dusty, dirty old motorbike helmet shelf and asked for 50 THB! So instead, we had to hang our laundry across the entire room, hanging it on anything and everything we could find. Luckily, most of the items dried over night. It was disappointing to see how unhelpful the hotel staff were and unwilling to show any kind of actual customer service. Basically, avoid booking this hotel!
My main suggestion would be this, while you are deciding on a hotel to book, check out the reviews on Google, as they can vary greatly from the reviews left on price comparison and booking sites. Also the star system isn't fool proof, even a 4 star hotel can be hugely underwhelming.
In Chiang Mai, you are likely to come across almost as many tourists as you are locals. It's a popular destination for travellers and as such, it has become a place of compromise. While some locals are friendly, many of those who are service providers such as tuk tuk and mini bus drivers are dishonest and abrupt. The booming tourism of the region seems to be a double-edged sword; while local service providers profit financially, a lot of their cultural practises and history is being compromised with the growing need to adapt the country's infrastructure to support the influx of visitors. Many businesses are welcoming this change but there does seem to be underlying resentment from some. Also, I can only imagine what groups of inexperienced and intoxicated tourists could be like to deal with. I've seen some really embarrassing scenarios in various European countries involving groups of drunk tourists, I imagine at times it can be far worse for ultra popular destinations such as Thailand. So while I didn't like the manner in which everyone was harassing us for a ride, constantly attempting to overcharge us and were being incredibly rude to us, I know why this happens. Also we saw a quite a few young people on motorbikes pointing and laughing at us, which is surprising as we weren't wearing anything odd or doing anything out of the ordinary. I guess being 'different' is sometimes enough. Sadly, I wish I could say more positive words about our interactions with people here, but unfortunately for the large part it wasn't particularly pleasant.
The same protocol applies here as it does in any other city, keep your belongings with you and don't walk around dripping in gold. Generally, the safety factor wasn't an issue. While I kept a close eye on my belongings, I never really felt at any point that I or my stuff wasn't safe. However, there are areas that get very crowded at certain times of day, so do make sure you stay aware. Also, I recommend keeping young children in close proximity as fast traffic flows around the region as well as cyclists and motorcyclists.
So how did Chiang Mai do overall? Take a look at the pros and cons for a condensed overview.
Beautiful Ancient Temples
Surrounded by Nature
Delicious Thai Food
Great Street Food
Great City Views
Poorly Managed Tourism
Rude Service Providers
Questionable Animal Attraction Parks
Overall Slay Rating
3 / 5
I have to say, I enjoyed my time in Chiang Mai more than Bangkok, but I still couldn't help but feel let down by certain key aspects. Nevertheless, the views from atop of Doi Suthep were immense, the rainforest was stunning and I enjoyed photographing a number of the temples. Plus, the view from the Iron Bridge at night, with all the lights from the restaurant, boats and the bridge itself was really beautiful. I'm glad I was able to view these locations first hand.
For those who have visited Chiang Mai and would like to share some of your experience or write a short review, feel free to leave a comment on this post. I'm always keen to read how others found their stay.