Warning: long intro alert! If you want to skip to the details, just scroll down...
I'd heard great things about Chiang Mai: that it was more laid-back than Bangkok; that prices were cheaper; that it would feel more authentic; that there is a large expat community. I was there for six days: just enough to form an impression of the city that was both similar to and different than what I expected.
Cheaper than Bangkok? Definitely. Expats? I think so, based on all of the international food and shops as well as going to a local meetup.
However, I didn’t find the city all that laid-back (e.g. calm and quiet). There are motorbikes, songthaews, and people everywhere, gunning engines and talking loudly. It definitely feels like a big city, and after six days I was more than ready to escape to the mountains. But I also figured hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and rented a bike for myself, which was pretty awesome.
There are a lot of bars playing live music, which is also not quiet, but definitely fun. I heard some pretty decent live blues music at the North Gate Jazz Club , which was unexpectedly delightful.
As for whether it’s more authentic than Bangkok? This word, “authentic,” is one I run into over and over while traveling. If it means less tourists, I wouldn’t say that Chiang Mai felt any less touristy, at least not within the walled Old City. Both cities have touristy and non-touristy areas. And let’s face it: I’m a tourist, and I appreciate being able to read menus and signs and communicate a little with people around me. Does that make me unadventurous? Maybe.
I did try to visit different areas of the city to get a feel for what it might be like to live here as an expat—you know, just out of curiosity. I stayed north of the Old City near the university for a few days, and joined a meet-up group one night at Bus Bar (tip: they meet there every Wednesday night and there’s a big sign for “Couchsurfing Meetup”). This was really fun and a great way to meet a few locals.
So that’s my long intro. I really did love Chiang Mai, and getting to know a city is part of the fun of traveling. If you’re going there, here’s the short list of my favorite activities in and around Chiang Mai. And if you're only interested in food, check out my story on eating in Chiang Mai (so much good food deserves its own post).
Elephant Nature Park
I chose to go to Elephant Nature Park despite it’s high price (2500 baht – the most I paid for anything so far on this trip!), because I’d read great things about it from a couple of bloggers. I didn’t book far enough in advance to do the full-day trip, so I did the short day which leaves Chiang Mai at 9 am and returns around 3 pm. I think the only thing I missed out on was bathing the elephants. But to be honest, four hours outside in the blaring sun was enough for me; there’s not a lot of shade in the park and it’s not much cooler than Chiang Mai so there's no escape from the heat.
The special thing about Elephant Nature Park is that it’s a sanctuary where they rescue and take care of elephants (as well as dogs, water buffalo, and other animals). Their philosophy is that the elephants should be allowed to live as naturally as possible, so they do not allow visitors to touch or ride the elephants.
The practice of elephant riding a little bit controversial as there are other places, such as Baanchang Elephant Park, which say it’s ok to ride the elephants as long as it’s done in a humane way. If you want to see elephants, please check out the practices of whatever place you’re visiting and if you want to ride them, make sure it’s at a place that cares about humane practices, has specially-fitted harnesses or no harnesses, and doesn’t overwork the elephants. You can read more on the subject here.
We still got to feed the elephants, which was fun—their trunks are hairy! Then we spent a lot of time walking around looking at elephants, which was fine for a few hours but got a little boring after that (sorry elephant lovers). It was still a great experience and I learned a lot.
Getting a massage
I still haven’t done a traditional Thai massage (getting stretched and pummeled doesn't appeal to me) but I did get an amazing oil massage in Chiang Mai. There are massage places on literally every block. Most are air conditioned and charge around 200-250 baht per hour (about $7). I went to Green Bamboo massage and my oil massage was the best one I’ve had so far on this trip. The place is air-conditioned, quiet, and smells lovely so it feels like a luxury for less than $10. They give you water before and a cup of tea afterward, and you can hang out and use the wifi while basking in your after-massage glow. I had to book ahead—this is one of the few places that seems to always be busy.
Hiking, mountain biking, and Lake Huay Tueng Tao
Although I loved Chiang Mai, I wanted to get out of the city and see some nature, so I signed up for a day-long hiking and mountain biking trip with Chiang Mai Mountain Biking & Kayaking. Originally I planned to take a leisurely bike ride to Lake Huay Tueng Tao (side note: you can go there with a songthaew or motorbike, sit in a hut, and take a refreshing swim in the water—it’s a good afternoon trip). However when I found out I was the only one who signed up for that trip, I joined another group doing a day trip to hike up a mountain, have lunch at a Hmong village, and bike back down, stopping at the lake for a quick dip. It sounded way more fun.
I made a good choice. We were led through the tour by two guides, who were funny and extremely patient with all of the biking beginners (like me). The hike itself was no problem; I was out of breath and sweating by the time we reached the top, but we stopped a few times along the way for water breaks.
I know that some of the villages tourists go to are recreated versions (people don't actually live in them), but the village we stopped at for lunch felt real, with kids running around, loud singing from a wedding party going on nearby, and satellites on the rooftops. We had delicious noodle soup, watched some kids playing a game involving string and spinning tops, and saw the soup vendor making shaved ice for the kids.
Biking down was another story. The road was super steep and rocky; not the best trip for a total novice! Most of us fell off our bikes once but we were all padded up and going pretty slow so there were no injuries.
If I’d realized how difficult it would be I probably would not have gone, but in hindsight, I’m so glad I did it, and I felt proud of myself for making it down. It was a treat to jump into the lake at the end and wash off all of the dirt.
Chiang Mai Street Food Tour
At 750 baht the street food tour probably cost three times as much as it would have been to buy the actual food, but I felt like I got so much out of it. We were picked up and dropped off at our hotels and taken to two different markets, where we ate 9 or 10 dishes over three hours. I was completely stuffed afterward!
Our guide was great at telling us about the food and answering our questions. We each took home a paper booklet describing 18 different dishes as well as some Thai phrases for ordering and talking about food. I would definitely recommend doing this early on in your visit so you can go back to the markets afterward.
Note: I wrote a whole separate post on eating in Chiang Mai if you want to read more about food.
Nimmanahaeminda Road area
This trendy area seems to be popular with Thai students and expats. I went there twice for shopping, working at a coffee shop, and eating at one of them myriads of cute cafes. If you like boutique stores and international food, I'd definitely recommend this area. I found lovely handmade purses at one store (a bit too much for my backpacker budget sadly), and I stocked up on some cute, reasonably-priced clothes at Chiang Mai Cotton (so much better than the night markets!). There is a big beer garden and another place for live music; it's a hip area that I'm sure I'd hang out in a lot if I lived here.
If you go...
- I stayed at three places and each had some flaws so I wouldn’t recommend one place specifically. Chiang Mai is pretty inexpensive and if you’re a backpacker, you’ll love the cheap, clean, modern dorms. If I go back, I’ll try to find a hotel or guest house between Nimmanahaeminda Road and the old city. The prices are still quite reasonable and then you can be within walking distance of both areas and avoid haggling with the red taxi drivers (something I hated doing).
- It's inexpensive to fly to Chiang Mai from many cities in Thailand—I flew from Krabi, flights from Bangkok and Phuket leave often too. If you're going to Laos, you can take a minivan and boat route for a couple days or if you're short on time like me, you can fly nonstop to Luang Prabang.
- I also did a side trip to Pai; I didn't have a bus ticket, just showed up at the bus station and got onto the next mini van waiting. But make sure you get off in Pai—show your ticket to the driver before you get in the van! My driver didn't understand me when I said Pai and I ended up going a couple hours further than I wanted to (long story).
Have any tips of your own for Chiang Mai? Feel free to share in the comments—would love some insider tips for when I go back, as I'm sure I will.