After 142 days of not staying in any place longer than a week and almost a year since we started our around-the-world trip, we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we had booked an entire apartment (through Airbnb) for a whole month! I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to unpack my bag, wash everything we owned and hang up all the clothes – yes, we even had a closet! I was suddenly no longer restrained to what I could fit in my luggage and decided I deserved some Christmas shopping. Note: A month later, as I attempt to squish everything back into my luggage I may or may not be regretting the shopping.
Of all the cities in the world, why did we choose Chiang Mai to live in for a month? Likely for similar reasons to the thousands of expats living there. Chiang Mai is what I consider to be the perfect melting pot of Southeast Asian and Western culture and lifestyle; it’s equally hectic and tranquil, ancient and modern, beautiful and unrefined. While it’s the second largest city in Thailand (population: 400,000), it manages to maintain a small town feel. Furthermore, the city is located in a valley surrounded by hills that are covered in jungle filled with waterfalls and hikes on all sides (if only it was near the ocean!).
Another aspect that sold us on the city was the climate which is relatively temperate – especially in winter when humidity is low (unlike sweaty, sticky Bangkok) and it cools right off in the evenings. The stunning ancient temples are so plentiful that you could spend days just wandering through them. The street food is the best street food I’ve had anywhere in the world. There are restaurants and cafes serving every type of international cuisine you could possibly want. And of course, the people. Thailand is often referred to as the “Land of Smiles” and the moniker is much truer in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok or the islands. Even in the touristy areas of Chiang Mai, shop owners offer you a smile and leave you to shop and browse instead of constantly haggling you. People smile at you on the street and genuinely want to help you. And best of all, Chiang Mai is cheap; while Thailand is cheap to begin with, northern Thailand is the cheapest part. All in, the two of us were spending less than 2000 THB ($55 USD) a day and we could have done it for significantly cheaper had we wanted to.
We were picky with the neighbourhood we chose as well, we wanted somewhere near the Old Town, but not in it, and somewhere with easy accessibility to grocery stores, cafes and restaurants. For that, we picked Nimmanhaemin Rd or “Nimman” for short, Chiang Mai’s ‘West End.’ The area is fast becoming known for its more trendy, modern and upscale culture; excellent restaurants, craft beer bars, upscale coffee shops, high-end massage parlors and boutique clothing (and silk) stores. Staying here made our short stint of living in Chiang Mai easy, and that’s what really sold us.
A huge bonus about the Nimman neighbourhood (and really, Chiang Mai in general) is the hundreds of cafes, set up with WiFi and tables catering to the nomads working from their computers. I truly value sitting back, sipping a latte and working on this blog or browsing the web, no matter where in the world I am. It’s also interesting to note that because of the huge blogger community in Chiang Mai, there are thousands of blogs that rave about the city and everything it has to offer. As a result, people often have high expectations when visiting. Having visited before and loved it, we also had high expectations. I was a little scared we would be disappointed. And the first day I was, prices were higher and the markets more crowded than I remember, but after getting a feel for the city again I remembered what I had loved about it. Chiang Mai definitely isn’t for everyone. It’s quite far out of the way if you’re in Bangkok and visiting the Thai Islands (by far the number one tourist attraction in Thailand), there are no beaches, and some people might see just another city. Dan and I love cities, in particular finding all the hidden gems they have to offer and exploring the different areas. And Chiang Mai was the perfect place for us to do this for the month.
The month we had in Chiang Mai went by insanely fast. We had barely settled into our apartment when we woke up and it was Christmas morning. Our short post “My First Christmas Abroad” has some photos of our apartment and a short intro into our time in Chiang Mai.
Getting Around IN Chiang Mai
Walk: Almost everything within in the walled Old City is within walking distance and every street is packed with things to do and see. Once you get outside of the Old City, sidewalks become fairly non-existent and walking can be difficult. I usually love to walk anywhere under an hour’s distance but not so much in Asia where scooters rule the road edges and you’re constantly jumping out of the way.
Songthaew: Songthaew’s, or “red trucks” as I more commonly refer to them, are Asia’s equivalent to Central America’s “collectivos”. Essentially, they’re shared taxis. In Central America they were vans, in Thailand they are pickup trucks converted to have a roof and benches in the back. You flag a driver over and tell them where you want to go; if he’s going that direction or close to it, he’ll get you to hop in, otherwise you wait for the next one to drive by (which will usually occurs less than 10 seconds later). The trucks are cheap although if you’re going a long distance it’s best to agree on the fair before getting in. If they are driving out of their way to drop you off, they’ll try and charge you extra.
Tuk-Tuk: We never took a tuk-tuk (3-wheeled transportation) in Chiang Mai. Unlike in Cambodia where the tuk-tuks are motorbikes that pull a small carriage in the back; in Thailand, tuk-tuks are jimmy-rigged economy sized car motors (either two-stroke motors or converted to run on CNG or LPG) attached to a steel frame and are atrocious for the environment. The massive puffs of blue smoke coming out the exhaust makes you gag constantly if (or when) you get stuck behind one. We also found they charge a ridiculous price and wouldn’t bargain much – even when we walked away, the driver didn’t bother to follow us or lower his price.
Scooter: We rented a scooter for the entire month and found it was by far the best way to get around. You can rent them by the day but you’ll save quite a bit of money if you rent monthly (about half price). We paid 3000 THB (just over $85 USD) for a Honda Wave semi-automatic scooter for the month and barely anything in gas ($2.30 USD would last a week). The streets in Chiang Mai are designed to allow (and encourage) scooters to weave through traffic. At major traffic intersections, where the lights are almost unbearably long, the first 10m are reserved for scooters; cars stop further back allowing all the scooters to get to the front. I can’t understand why anyone would drive a car in Chiang Mai – the traffic, especially on the highways leading out of town are bumper to bumper during rush hour and scooters can go around it all. Just remember that there’s a method to the traffic madness.
Our Chiang Mai Highlights & Memories
New Year’s Eve (Family & lanterns)
It turns out it’s a small world after all and we got to spend New Years’ Eve with my mom’s cousin, Sharon. Sharon and her daughter, Richelle, were working and living in Nakhon Sawan, a town about halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. With a bit of time off from work for the holidays, Sharon made the trip up to visit us at our temporary home in Chiang Mai!
One of the most well known festivals held in Chiang Mai is ‘Yi Peng’ or Lantern Festival. The Northern Thai festival coincides with Loi Krathong, a festival celebrated throughout Thailand where Krathongs – buoyant, decorated baskets – are floated on a river or other body of water. In Chiang Mai, people release thousand of Khom Loi, lanterns made from a thin fabric such as rice paper stretched over a bamboo or wire frame. A candle or fuel cell is attached and when lit, the resulting hot air is trapped inside the lantern and creates enough lift for it to float up into the sky. From the photos I had seen, the spectacle in Chiang Mai is truly mesmerizing and the sky is literally transformed. While photographically beautiful, it’s difficult to overlook the environmental impact of tens of thousands of paper lanterns floating away to land in the near-by hills. Additionally, the government has begun to impose stricter regulations on the Yi Peng festival due to the hazard the lanterns pose to aircraft and the potential damage they can cause.
What I didn’t know until I was right in the middle of it, is that thousands of lanterns are also released on New Years’ Eve. Following a delicious New Year’s Eve dinner of Indian food, we started walking toward the Tha Pae Gate in the Old City, the focal point of all NYE celebrations. Slowly we noticed the sky begin to light up with lanterns. We happened to walk by a monastery where the monks were releasing the lanterns with tourists and it was free (donation accepted to the monastery).
Sharon and I chose to release a lantern together and I did my best to concentrate on the ceremonial meaning of the release which is meant to have the power to grant your wishes for the new year. I was pleased to be part of the ceremony with the monks and at a monastery. As we continued walking, I watched as most tourists released their lanterns on the side of the street, purchased from make shift stands set up for the evening. If there is one thing that bothers me more than the impact the lanterns have on the environment it’s the blatant commercialization of something meant to be sacred. Having sparked my interest, I later researched more about the Yi Peng Lantern Festival and what I read shocked me. The ceremony raved about and attended by thousands of tourists actually occurs a week after the traditional ceremony. This second festival, or lantern release, is “international” and everything is in English, catered specifically to foreign tourists, for a hefty fee of $100 USD.
Saturday/SUNDAY Night Market
Every Saturday and Sunday evening, night markets – or walking streets – are held. The two night markets happen in different parts of the city. From dusk until late into the night the streets are closed to traffic and crowded with pedestrians. Both markets are quite similar, although we preferred the Sunday one. A great place to find cheap street food, authentic local souvenirs and to people watch. They get extremely crowded during high season although that can be part of the fun! *Chiang Mai also has a very touristy daily Night Bazaar which I wouldn’t recommend unless you aren’t there on a weekend and want to do some market shopping.
Explore the neighboughoods
One thing I loved about Chiang Mai is the lack of indoor activities, or better said: the excess of outdoor activities. Other than shopping malls, which we frequented for groceries and a movie night, everything is done outdoors. We didn’t visit a single museum or indoor attraction. Instead, you’ll see much more just getting lost on all of the little “sois” (streets) that criss-cross through old town and other near-by neighbourhoods.
The Samoeng Loop is a popular 100 km circuit starting and ending in Chiang Mai. Dan rode this winding road through the mountains first without me, to get the feel of it on the scooter. The second time, I joined him for an afternoon filled with riding, waterfalls, temples and jungle. There were quite a few other stops along the way which we chose to skip including a Tiger Kingdom and elephant riding park. Check the YouTube video below for a short video of our ride and the stops we did do.
Mae Sa Waterfall
The entrance fee was a little steep but had we been better prepared (with a picnic) we could have spent the entire afternoon here. There were very few other people at the waterfall which meant we had plenty of space to explore on our own. We also didn’t realize how many stages there were to the waterfall – or the amount of walking/hiking involved – and had to cut our time short due to the fact we had started the circuit quite late and wanted to be back in the city by dark.
wat Pra That Doi Kham
The name of this temple translates to “Temple of the Golden Mountain,” an appropriate name given it is perched on Doi Kham hill and surrounded by a beautiful mountainous landscape. Located near the end of the loop, on our way back to the city we stopped here just before sunset. While the view of Chiang Mai was hazy and not worth a photograph, the large Buddha statue (believed to be over 1,300 years old) and surrounding decorations and figures were definitely worth the short detour.
Shinawatra Thai Silk factory and showroom
Thailand is very well known for it’s Thai Silk. The only problem is, most of what is sold at the markets is artificial silk, often rayon or a rayon-blend. Definitely don’t trust the sticker on it that says “100% Thai Silk.” Some of it is very obviously not silk (when a scarf costs only $3 USD it’s likely fake…) and some of it is much better quality – to the point where I wasn’t able to tell the difference. That said, even the “good” fakes, when put next to real Thai silk – like the display at the Shinawatra Showroom – is quite obviously not real silk. To learn more about how silk (specifically Thai silk) is made from the silkworm to the final product, a visit to Shinawatra Thai Silk Factory and Showroom is an excellent place to start. I was nervous that they would charge a fee or be pushy with their products but they did neither. The staff were extremely friendly and knowledgeable and led us around the factory showing us the various stages of production. Afterward we were left alone to explore the showroom. We didn’t buy anything there but I did purchase a gorgeous scarf from their outlet in the city which was 60% off. The factory is 7 km out of the city, near the town of Bo Sang – famous for its hand-crafted umbrellas.
Bo Sang Umbrella Festival
The Bo Sang (or Borsang) Umbrella Festival is a three-day festival held every January in the small town of Bo Sang, east of Chiang Mai. This surprisingly untouristy festival celebrates the tradition of umbrella making which has been in Bo Sang for more than 100 years. The town thrives off of paper and bamboo umbrellas and parasol and exports their original products around the world. Almost every hand-painted umbrella in Thailand comes from here! While the town is decorated year-round with Saa umbrellas, they step it up a notch during the festival and the streets become filled with hundreds (if not thousands) of umbrellas and lanterns. On top of that there are bands, beauty contests, plenty of food and much more. We were hoping to catch one of the beauty contests where women dressed in traditional Thai Silk outfits ride bicycles carrying umbrellas but after waiting around for hours after they were scheduled to ride by we had to leave.
Legend states that over a hundred years ago, a Buddhist monk, while travelling through Burma, learned the unique technique of using Saa paper for making umbrellas. Saa paper is ideal because it is lightweight, durable and semi-water-resistant. Thus, the umbrellas served as a practical way of protecting the holder from the sun and rain. Over time, the villagers added their own distinctive colours and style, such as integrating local silk and cotton and hand painting the umbrellas with intricate and colourful images.
Another thing Thailand is famous for are its Thai massages. And I’m not talking about the ones with happy endings. A Thai massage isn’t something I would describe as relaxing. You are always fully clothes (most places provide a change of clothes), no oil is used, and the massage usually involves the masseuse putting your body into a lot of yoga-like positions and digging their hands, elbows, feet, and knees into you. They tug, twist, and pull your body, kneading out knots and stretching your muscles.
The average price for a one hour Thai massage (at a medium-quality spa) is around 300 THB ($10 USD) – way cheaper than in Canada! I tried a couple of really cheap places and wouldn’t recommend them (including one place which had blind masseuses). I was not given a change of clothes, which was a problem because I was in short shorts and a tank top and thus my skin wasn’t covered. Additionally, my feet were not washed – which when you think about it is really gross because the masseuse always starts at your feet and works up to your head. The quality of the massage as well as the cleanliness and ambiance of the medium quality spas are worth the extra couple of dollars.
The Street Food & Restaurants
Truly amazing; so amazing and delicious and plentiful that I decided to dedicate an entire post to it: OUR FOOD HIGHLIGHTS FROM CHIANG MAI, THAILAND.
Thailand is the first country out of the 50 plus that I have visited where wine costs more than Canada. Yup, you read that right, a bottle of wine costs more than the ridiculously taxed price of a bottle of wine in Canada. Having come from Europe and become accustomed to cheap wine, this broke my heart. I tried Thai Wine one night which is quite a bit cheaper (about the same price as a cheap bottle back home) and it tasted like fruit juice gone bad and didn’t even resemble the taste of wine. After that, I stuck to boxed Australian wine although even that was pushing our budget. On the other hand, Thai Liquor, tastes decent and is quite cheap. The most popular liquor in Thailand is a local rum distilled from sugarcane called SangSom.
Very annoyingly, you cannot buy liquor in any store or supermarket between 2 PM and 5 PM. Want to get drunk at 10 AM, no problem; want to buy a bottle of wine for dinner at 4 PM – well, that’s illegal. Even after a few weeks in Thailand we got stuck at the grocery store angrily having to return our liquor or wait until 5 PM.
Extending our Thai VISA
While we wanted to spend a month in Chiang Mai, we still wanted to see more of Thailand and re-visit the Thai Islands we loved so much when we were there two years ago. However, Canadians, like many other nationalities, only get a 30-day entry permit on arrival. After spending a lot of time reading other travellers blogs and stories we came to the conclusion it was very difficult to extend our visa and considered doing a “Visa Run” to a neighbouring country to cross the border and re-enter Thailand by land, allowing us another two weeks. But again, we were discouraged by the fact that Thailand is ‘cracking down’ on this and it’s getting more difficult.
As it turns out, extending our visa was actually pretty simple. There is an immigration office in Chiang Mai and all we had to do was line-up, photocopy our passports and get passport-sized photos taken (both of which you can do at the office while you wait) and then fill out a two page form. We went on a Friday, probably the worst day to go as the office is closed on weekends, and even then the wait was only a couple of hours. 1900 THB ($50 USD) later and we were done; we could legally stay an additional 30 days in Thailand. Not cheap, but also not very difficult. And considering Thailand doesn’t charge an initial entry fee like many other countries do, the price wasn’t really that bad.