Ah, Thailand! It seems as though we just can’t enough! Our second round here was for a very specific reason: Songkran. We weren’t sure where to celebrate it, but since we had already seen the southern islands, we figured it was time to discover a new part of the country.
We had heard all the hype about Northern Thailand: the chill vibes of Chiang Mai, the insane temples of Chiang Rai and the hippie town of Pai. We wanted to see for ourselves, especially since Songkran was supposed to be pretty epic in Chiang Mai.
How to get there from Bangkok
Our journey started in Bangkok, and there are a ton of ways to get from the capital to Chiang Mai. Keeping an eye out on flights, you can get a pretty cheap one to Chiang Mai. Ours was a little under $100USD for the two of us, including luggage. A total steal! And it’s the fastest way to get there, for sure. And sometimes, it’s just slightly more expensive than taking the bus or train, but a hell of a lot shorter!
Just know that the buses and trains are also good options to get to Chiang Mai. There are plenty of day and night buses and trains that go to Chiang Mai that may be a little more budget-friendly but less time-friendly. So there is something for every type of traveler. We hear the bus and train are great ways to see the country-side, unless you go at night, of course!
Chiang Mai is your base to explore the north of Thailand. It’s also your gateway to Laos or Myanmar as it’s the largest of the northern cities. Most buses leave from here so it’s pretty convenient. And the city is pretty cool too.
A little history for you – Chiang Mai was the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558. Many places still carry on the Lanna traditions and vestiges, like the Old City which still has its walls and moats. Chiang Mai is also home to hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples. But more on that later.
One thing you will surely notice in Chiang Mai is that it’s a little paradise for digital nomads and expats. They are everywhere, so it sometimes feel like you’re not really in Thailand anymore. Still, it’s a pretty chill city, so we can understand why so many have chosen to call it home. And you can totally understand why we spent more than 10 days here. Just keep in mind that the north is more than just a bunch of cities and things to do. It’s a vibe. So just let go and enjoy your time here. And don’t feel bad that you didn’t do and see everything on your list. The whole philosophy here is to not have a list.
What to do
One of the main things you will notice about Chiang Mai is the impressive number of temples. There are hundreds of them around the city. Just walk around and you will see a ton of them, one around every street corner. We kid you not! Some are worth checking out more than others, but here are the main ones.
Wat Chedi Luang
This temple is in the historic Center of Chiang Mai. It’s one of the oldest temples in Thailand, dating back to the 14th century. There are different parts to this temple. One of which is the city pillar. Somewhat upsetting is the fact that women can not enter it, because we menstruate, and will ruin the sanctity of the place. The feminist in both of us dies a little when we read things like this! Anyway, two other temples are still pretty cool, especially the one in ruins.
The temple is situated in the Old City, and there are signs directing you on how to get there, so it’s a fairly easy temple to visit.
15 km away from the city, Doi Suthep is situated on top of a mountain that gives you amazing views of Chiang Mai. You can easily hire a car to take you there, or take one of the songthaews there. We didn’t make the trek there, because we were all templed out, but from what we hear, it’s quite lovely! There are also tons of tours that include this stop in their itinerary, if you prefer visiting places hassle free.
We totally wish we could have gone here, but the trek was a bit too much for us. These are the famous Bua Tong waterfalls near Chiang Mai that have so much calcium built up, that they have become “sticky”. You’ll have crazy grip on them, just channel your inner SpiderMan. The falls are over an hour away from Chiang Mai, and there are many ways to get there.
You can hire a private car or a songthaew to get there. Just make sure you split it with a few people so you make your buck go further. We didn’t know anyone in town, so this was not a great option for us. If not, you can always take a scooter or motorbike if you are comfortable, which we were not. This way, you can drive up there on your own, and spend as much time there as you’d like. This just gives us another reason to go back to Thailand (as if we needed any more!)
Elephant nature park
This is probably going to be the highlight of your trip in Thailand! You will see a ton of offers to see elephants and play with them. The only thing we ask is that you do your research! If they offer you to ride an elephant, to watch it paint for you, to see it do tricks for you, you need to refuse it. These are all places that abuse their elephants.
We chose to go with Elephant Nature Park, for many reasons. You can read about our experience and see for yourself, if this is the type of place you want to support. We sure hope you do!
Tons of day tours
If you are strapped for time, and can’t visit any other cities in the North, there are a ton of tours that can take you up to Chiang Rai to see all the famous landmarks there, including the White temple, Blue Temple and Black House. We saw some as low as THB1100 for a whole day out including transport and food. Expect to be crammed into a bus and on a very tight schedule with little time to explore. But if these are a must-see on your list, it may be worth it.
Just walk around and take it all in
One of our favourite things to do in any city is to just walk around. You get such a good sense of the city by seeing what life is like on the streets. Luckily, there are tons of shops and food stalls around to keep you entertained. And Chiang Mai has an impressive number of street art for you to enjoy. So take a day of two to just stroll the streets of the Old City.
Where to eat
There are a ton of places to eat in Chiang Mai. Especially in the Old City. An lucky for us, there are plenty of vegetarian options out there too! Here are a few places we really enjoyed.
Cat House: Right at the edge of the Old City, the Cat House is a great option for breakfast, lunch (even brunch) or dinner. Their meals range from Western to Middle Eastern to Mexican. Whatever you are in the mood for, they have it, and it’s delicious! Our favourites were the omelette (boring Derek) and the chakshuka with hummus. Delish!
Cooking Love: There are 2 of these kitchens. We went to the smaller one, that’s not attached to the hotel. All the food is affordable and delicious! Try the Khao Soi soup, a Chiang Mai staple, or the pineapple fried rice. Either way, you can’t go wrong with much on the menu!
Peppermaint guesthouse: A quaint little place that serves vegetarian and vegan meals. It’s small, but cozy, with just a few tables. The owner, an old lady, is quite a pleasure to talk to. We loved the massaman curry here. The critics are split on this place, so it may be hit-or-miss for you. We quite loved it here though!
North Gate Jazz Co-op: As the name suggests, the bar is at the North Gate of the Old City. With bands coming out to play pretty much every night, and cheap beer, could you really ask for more? An awesome place to grab drinks and just chill while listening to some good beats. With seating inside and outside, on the sidewalk, try to get here early (around 9pm) as it does get quite crowded. Some nights are open mic, so the quality of the band may not be the greatest.
Night market: A staple, a must-do and eat! There are tons of night markets around the city. We checked out one near Pantip plaza, and another called the Bumrung Buri Market. Both have awesome options for vegetarians, and meat-eaters. Take your pick of the busiest stall – those are usually the best ones anyway! Bon appétit!
Where to stay
We didn’t stay anywhere that we would actually recommend. But what we do suggest is finding a place with a pool. The heat becomes pretty unbearable.
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