After 2 bus rides, 2 layovers and a train ride, we arrived in Chiang Mai 34 hrs after departing PakSong. Oy! Traveling on a budget is not for the faint of heart.
Chiang Mai was a bit of a surprise. We didn’t do our research and expected to find a quaint, calm city. Instead we found a bustling, tourist hub with seemingly more tourists than locals and more traffic and air pollution than I cared to endure. That said, Chiang Mai grew on me. With plenty of tuk tuks and songthaews, it is easy to get around; there are tons of good food and cheap restaurants; and it’s safe.
THE OLD CITY
David and I spent our first 4 days in Chiang Mai in the Old City, which is tourist central. Although at first overwhelming, it became nice to step out of our hostel and have dozens of restaurants and coffee shops at our fingertips. If you are planning a short visit to Chiang Mai, I would recommend staying in the Old City. The best and cheapest restaurants are there as are most all of the beautiful old temples.
CHINESE NEW YEARS
We arrived in Chiang Mai the day before Chinese New Years. The city was bustling with Chinese visitors who skipped the usual Thai Chinese New Year hotspot of Bangkok to come to the less politically-tumultuous Chiang Mai. New Years was a bit understated in Chiang Mai. There was a street festival with lots of food vendors and crafts and a stage with live performances, but that was pretty much it. It was a fun experience, but lacked the energy and nighttime revelry I’ve come to expect of a new year celebration – at least a US one.
If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, we went to three restaurants that we loved.
- 29 Cafe – cheap Thai food and yummy western breakfasts. Delicious coffee! (in the Old City)
- Dada Kafe – lots of fresh, healthy food options, good Thai and western food. Great fresh fruit juices, smoothies, and yogurt shakes (in the Old City)
- Chinese food place beside Anusarn market (don’t remember the name) – awesome fresh seafood restaurant, good prices, delicious hot pots (see the picture!)
THINGS TO DO
For all the time we spent in Chiang Mai, we didn’t do too many touristy things. But of the ones we did, we had some great experiences!
- Thai Farm Cooking School: this class was great! Dave and I each learned to cook 5 different dishes – a curry, soup, stir fry, noodle dish and dessert. Dave will have more on this class and our cooking in Chiang Mai in a future post.
- Chiang Mai Zoo: we had an awesome time feeding and petting the animals! Got to pet a lemur, feed a giraffe and an elephant, and got a kiss from a sea lion
- Thai Elephant Conservation Center: we had a lovely experience feeding, riding, and petting elephants. I’ll tell you all about it in a future post!
- Temples: There are SO MANY temples to see in Chiang Mai. It’s a bit overwhelming. You don’t need to see them all. The one’s I most enjoyed were Doi Suthep (which is up on top of a mountain) and Wat Phan Tao, the only wooden temple I saw in Chiang Mai.
- Night Bazaar – the Night Bazaar is a large array of shops and food stalls that has every little tourist-coveted trinket you could desire. It’s a busy, overwhelming little shopping center that’s opened every night of the week. There are no prices on anything, so it’s a great place to practice your haggling.
God, I hate it! You haggle for everything in Chiang Mai, except food and buses. Every tuk tuk and songthaew, every little trinket, a shirt, a pair of pants … you haggle! The Night Bazaar is where haggling really comes alive. Because there are no prices on anything, you must haggle for everything. And it seems the merchants set the prices based on how you look, which is really annoying. Locals will pay the least, then disheveled backpackers, then young, non-disheveled tourists, and lastly, older tourists will pay the most. Being an amateur haggler, I don’t like it one little bit!
STAYING LONGER THAN WE’D EXPECTED
Our first four days in Chiang Mai flew by. And we found ourselves one day from departure with no plan for where to go next. Although some may enjoy the adventure of hopping on a bus to an unknown destination and figuring it out once you arrive, that is very much not our style. We want to research! We want to know the best bus route, the best place to stay. I want to know what to do, what to see, what should the tuk tuk cost (I will NOT be swindled!). So, given that we had no idea where we wanted to go and we had 9 days left on our visa before needing to exit Thailand, we decided to find an apartment for a week to figure things out.
It was lovely! We found an apartment away from the hustle and bustle of the Old City. We spent our final week in Thailand chilling in our apartment, visiting the local food market, cooking Thai food, and, most importantly, figuring out what to do next!