Thailand is popular tourist destination. And when I say popular, I mean realllllly popular. According to Wikipedia, 29 million international tourists visited Thailand in 2015 (the total population of Thailand is 67 million, BTW). That works out to just under 80,000 tourists entering the country each day. 80K per day! If all of these people arrive by plane, that equates to approximately 8 fully loaded 747 jumbo jets of international tourists every hour of every day.
The reason I mention this is because in the few years before our trip, we had many, many friends and acquaintances visit Thailand. It seemed like every month or so one of us would be browsing on Facebook and be like, “did you see so-and-so is in Thailand?” So prior to our journey, we asked a bunch of people what they thought about Thailand – where should we go, what should we do..you know, the normal list of pre-travel questions. And every time we received a blurb about an island, Bangkok and a GLOWING review about Chiang Mai. It got to the point where I wanted someone to NOT like Chiang Mai. Just one person! Tell me you hated it!
I was afraid Chiang Mai was going to be the Matrix Reloaded of travel – unbelievable hype leading to a major letdown. However, Chiang Mai somehow surpassed my already high expectations (the lack of Keanu Reeves was probably a contributing factor). I loved it. We were planning on spending five days and had to drag ourselves away after eight. I think Chiang Mai was the only place we visited in SE Asia where we could actually envision living.
Let the hype train continue.
High Level. Bus and Songtheaw.
Detailed. Caught X Class Greenbus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. Red Songthaew into Chiang Mai.
We stayed at Kaysorn Residence. I really liked it. It was a little outside the main area (about a mile away), but it was worth it. The accommodations where nice, but what I really loved was their focus on sustainability. This is something you don’t find very often in Southeast Asia. They had recycling, composting, free water refills, and participate in Trash Hero. They also served delicious organic and vegetable filled breakfasts in the morning (for an extra fee). They also book day trips for you (at the same cost as booking yourself), and you get a free breakfast out of the deal. Oh, and they have bikes you can rent for cheap! Kaysorn Residence was one of my favorite places we stayed during the whole trip.
Chiang Mai has a wonderful mix of local Thai food and delicious international (western) restaurants (I think driven by the large expat community?). Here are some of our favorites:
Phuphiang Coffee. We loved Phuphiang Coffee (giggle). We went there almost every morning. It is a simple coffee and breakfast cafe in an outdoor garden/patio setting. The food and coffee were both solid and less expensive than our hotel. By the last few days in town, the woman working there knew our order. #locals.
Khrua Wiang Bua. LARP AND PAPAYA SALAD NEAR HOTEL SO GOOD. Fun story on this one. So we stumbled into this place on our first day in town. It was mid-afternoon, and we were starving. Each table had pencils, sheets of paper with menu items listed on them, and a picture booklet for all items. The normal process was to sit down, look through the pictures, make check marks on the paper menu next to the items you want, and then bring your order up to the counter.
We went up to the counter to ask for an English menu and the motherly counter lady was kind enough to take our order in English and translate it onto the Thai order sheet. Awesome.
The food was wonderful so we decided to come back a few days later. This time…the motherly counter lady was no where to be seen. We didn’t want to be a pain in the rear so we decided to try to complete the order on our own which went something like this:
D – OK, we want Larp.
S – (Finds a picture of Larp in the booklet). Alright. The first letter is half of a W with an E coming out of the side and it ends with three strange looking L’s.
D – (Scans through three pages of order sheets.) “Found it. But it looks like there are two sub-options.”
S – (Looks back at the booklet.) Hmmm, I think that means with rice or without. We want the one that looks like Mr. Potato Head wearing a hat.
15 minutes later we handed our order in and hoped we didn’t order raw chicken feet.
Ristr8o. Fancy coffee. There are several awards along one wall from Latte Art Championships the baristas as this joint have won. I loved it.
Thamel Coffee. If you remember back to our Kathmandu post, Thamel is the main tourist area in Kathmandu. As soon as we saw there was a Thamel Coffee shop in Chiang Mai, we made sure to add it to our list. It was a little bit outside of the old town area – in what appeared to be the textile-y, market stall-y area of town – but definitely doable by bike. Overall, we loved it. Awesome milk tea. Good coffee. Fantastic food. Maybe the best food we had in Chiang Mai.
Other awesome places, including Healthy B Cafe (Part of Trash Hero, veryyy good food, friendly staff, just a bit pricey) and Food4Thought (I remember prices being comparable to the US, but delicious food.. a “fancy” night for us). We also tried Aim Inn, which is a biker vegetarian cafe. We REALLY wanted to love it (and it has great reviews), but the food just wasn’t that good. Maybe it was an off night for them.
- Explored Old Town. If you look at Chiang Mai on Google Maps, the first thing you will probably notice is the huge square in the middle of town. This is old town! The outside of the square? That’s a moat. There used to be a wall around the entire city, but now the wall is only standing in some places and businesses have filled the gap. Most of the temples and other touristy things are located inside the wall/moat.
- Temples. When people talk about Chiang Mai they usually mention temples. Some people even told us, “If you are not temple-d out by the time you get to Chiang Mai, you definitely will be by the time you leave!” As a result, I was a little concerned that we would not be able to fully appreciate the temples, this being our 5 month of travel. On the contrary, I found the temples of Chiang Mai to be wonderful! Mostly, how integrated they are into the city. You’ll be biking along a back alleyway and, boom, temple. They are everywhere. The large, famous temples are great, but I thought the small, afterthought temples really set the city apart.
- Sunday Walking Market. We walked through the Sunday Walking Market because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Seemed to have higher quality goods than other SE Asian makets we had been to. It is HUGE. Took up so much space (1 km long plus all the side streets). Neat event, just real crowded.
- Elephant Nature Park. There are a bunch of elephant reserves/preserves (jelly/jam?) in Northern Thailand. As with any animal-related tourism there are some great organizations and some terrible ones. Danielle did her research and we ended up visiting Elephant Nature Park. Our day was as follows:
- Picked up early. In the car, they showed us a few videos including one of how elephants are “broken” and how poorly they are treated in the name of tourism. Super sad. Don’t do animal tourism.
- Fed elephants. Walked around with elephants. Bathed elephants. Walked around with elephants some more. Got poured on (rain that is…not by the elephants).
- Elephants are so cool! Some hang out in packs. Some are alone. Many hurt from logging accidents or land mines or are blind. Baby elephant is an ass hole to its pack. Seriously, baby elephants are grade A jerks.
- Our tour guide was named Aeh. She was cool.
- All the mahouts were Burmese which raised a few red flags for us. We have read a lot about Burmese migrant workers having little to no rights throughout SE Asia (read: modern-day slaves). The mahouts seemed to really care for the animals, but the potential for mistreatment (for the workers) is still there which worries us.
- Rock Climbing. We took a rock climbing course with Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures. Ooan was our guide. It was kind of funny because he had just come back from a week long climbing instructors class in….you guessed it..Boulder, CO! He traveled from Thailand to Colorado to learn how to teach. We travel from Colorado to Thailand to learn from him. Not sure this is the most efficient way to learn how to climb, but it makes for a fun story!
- We learned how to clean an anchor (which is basically untying and retying yourself to the rope at the top of a climb) without dying. We are still alive, so it was a success, but it still makes my palms sweat thinking about it.
- S learned to lead climb (somewhat).
- Crazy horse (where we climbed) was a cool area. Tons of routes. Not very busy when we were there. Just us and one other person in our group – four climbers all day.
- Jazz Coop. Hole in the wall on the north side of the wall. We didn’t feel like we had enough street cred to hang out here too long, but we had fun pretending we were hip!
- Massages. Went to Green Bamboo massage. Sam/D got 30 minute feet, D got 30 minute back. So good! And like $10 for 90 minutes of (good quality) massage.
Ristr8to. So good.
Everything really. Chiang Mai, solid city.
Mosquitos. The mosquitos weren’t terrible here, but I am pretty sure I ended up contracting a mild strain of Dengue in Chiang Mai. The fever, chills, etc. didn’t hit me until Myanmar, but I still blame Chiang Mai.
One ways. Old Town is chock full of one way streets and they don’t always connect like you think they should. I can’t tell you how many times we had to bike a huge circle trying to go half a block.
- Alpha Running Store. Chiang Mai has a trail running and triathlete specialty store. How cool is that?! D desperately needed a new pair of running shoes, and she was able to get a pair of Brooks for $65. It was awesome!!!
- 700th Anniversary Stadium Workout. The 700 Anniversary Stadium is located about 5 miles outside of Chiang Mai. We rode our bikes there from our hotel, and there were surprisingly really great bike paths part of the way to get there. It was built in 1995 to host the Southeast Asian Games. It is part of a whole complex with a pool and a bunch of courts and a really nice track, but we only spent time in the stadium itself. We did a track workout in 94 degrees. Because Southeast Asia. As a side note, when we were doing our track workout, people were weed whacking the center field area. Like, instead of lawn mowing, there were 5 people weed whacking. Because Southeast Asia.
- Trail Run to Doi Suthep. We went for a trail “run” to a temple on top of a hill. This meant gaining 1,700 ft in 2 miles. That means super steep, yo. Plus it was as hot and humid as only southeast Asia can be. We sweated all of the sweat. At the top, we explored the temple a bit, then ran down the hill. D didn’t want to go fast, but I made her, because I’m mean. Our quads were sore for like a week.
- Ran Around the “Wall/Moat”. It turns out that the wall/moat around old city makes for a good running option. It is almost a perfect square with each side being just about a mile long. There were almost no people on the sidewalk that went alongside the moat, so running worked out really well. Quick trivia question: There are four sides to the city, and each is about one mile long. How many 7/11s do you think there along the outside of the wall? The answer: Six! Or one every 2/3rds of a mile. Because you can never have too many 7/11s.
- Saw a bad motorbike accident. Oh man, this was almost a terrible situation. We were out for a run at night and a drunk motorbiker swerves across the centerline and hits another biker right behind us. If he swerved a few seconds later, he very well could have hit us. I helped the drunk guy pick up his motorbike before I realized he was extremely intoxicated and he had a head wound which was bleeding profusely. Since I didn’t want some random dude’s blood all over me, couldn’t converse with a Thai guy slurring his words, and there were a bunch of other Thai people around, Danielle and I went on our way. But still, not a good situation.
- Missed monk talks. Monk talks are a big thing in Chiang Mai which is exactly what it sounds like – chatting with monks. The idea is that you learn more about Thai culture and the monks get to practice English. Win win! Danielle and I tend to avoid these types of events because introversion, but we decided to put on our big kid pants and go try it out. We arrive at the correct time at the correct temple…..and the monks are no where to be found. Wah wah.