The second stop on our Thailand adventure, Chiang Mai, was all about old world charm mixed with modern luxury — a stark change from bustling Bangkok.
With its jungle surrounds and the contrast of intricate temples and Westernised tourist traps, the confines of Chiang Mai’s Old City reminded us a lot of Bali’s Ubud. I’m such a sucker for this type of city. The ability to duck into an organic coffee shop for breakfast, followed by lunch at an local street food stall is so ideal. Strolling through temples built in the 14th century by day, and waiting in line for a trendy jazz club by night – I’m not above it.
While we travel to widen our understanding of the world and for authentic experiences, I have to admit that I love having the option of retreating to all the creature comforts I’m accustomed to. In Chiang Mai, we found the most perfect hotel for exactly this – the Pingviman. A Northern Thai-style building with a touch of luxury, I felt calm as soon as we walked in. Plus, I’ve learned my lesson to never stay in a tropical climate without a pool – the perfect antidote after a long day on your feet.
We stayed within the confines of the historically significant Old City, which is a 1.5km-square surrounded by a defensive wall and moat. However, we also spent a lot of time in (and travelling to and from) NImman Road. Its full name is Nimmanhaemin Road, and this area is where all the aforementioned trendy spots are – but I imagine not a very peaceful accommodation choice due to the buzzing nightlife.
How to get around:
Besides by foot, there are really only two ways to travel: Tuk Tuk and the “Red Trucks.” Well, technically, these are called “Songthaew,” and are the most cost-effective. When I first read about the red trucks in the research phase of our trip, I thought they were the elusive, local way to go, and would be intimidating to navigate as a visitor.
Ha! How wrong was I – these things were built for us out-of-towners. They are everywhere. Just flag one down, and for 30 baht ($1 USD) per person, you can get pretty much anywhere inside the Old City. Two long benches in the back of a pickup truck can fit up to 8 people, so you have to check with the driver if they’re going anywhere close to your destination to drop off the other passengers. No guarantees you’ll get there quickly (and you may have to show them your destination on Google Maps) – but that’s part of their charm! Plus you never know what entertaining characters you’ll encounter.
Tuk Tuks require much more haggling, but are private to you so tend to be much quicker. If you have a dinner booking, Tuk Tuk all the way. Then stroll or Red Truck your way home to take in the sights.
What to Eat:
I highly recommend a healthy mix of food stalls and splurge-worthy restaurant feasts. And whatever you do, do NOT skip the coconut ice cream, mango sticky rice of any kind, and both Ristr8to Coffee shops. Or Beer Lab, where we spent Christmas Eve drinking American craft beer because, well, we could. (And what else would feel like a traditional Christmas in Thailand anyway?)
You MUST eat as much Khao Soi as humanly possible. It’s a coconut milk-based curry with chicken, and just delicious. Admittedly we liked the gussied-up beef version we had in Bangkok better, but the go-to place on Nimman Road is Kao Soy Nimman. There will be a wait, but that’s just part of the experience. S&P Chicken was also an absolute culinary highlight of our trip. There will be a long line here too, but you can watch the rotisserie chickens pirouetting in front of the master roaster, who meticulously bastes and fans them to perfection while you watch in awe.
For a fancier dining experience, we loved The House By Ginger. We had a booking here towards the end of our stay, but unknowingly ate its sister spot, Ginger Farm Kitchen at ONE NIMMAN market (also adorable) our first night. No regrets though, they were both amazing.
What to do:
Visit temples. After Bangkok, we decided to prioritise and pick just a couple in Chiang Mai, to avoid temple overlaod. We hired a driver through our hotel and took an early morning journey up the Doi Suthep mountain to see its namesake temple, beautifully golden and elevated high above the city – with an epic dragon staircase as the entrance. The morning air pollution-haze had yet to burn off so the views weren’t clear, but this was better than the alternative of afternoon traffic that we heard could take hours to ascend the windy mountain road at a slow crawl.
On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at Wat Pha Lat and hiked the short “Monk’s Trail”. This ancient stone temple was unlike any of the other ornate and glitzy ones we’d seen to date, and was so serene and natural – don’t skip it!
Get a massage: Chiang Mai has a couple famous spas with masseuses trained from the women’s prison. However, these seemed more touristy, so we opted for a random walk-in spa once (not great) and a luxe appointment at Cheeva Spa. While super fancy, it honestly wasn’t nearly as good as our simple La-Z-Boy massages in Bangkok! The massage was fine, but honestly the highlight for me was the post-treatment mango sticky rice…
See live music: Again, like Bali, Chiang Mai is amazing for the alternative artistic scene. We heard the North Gate Jazz Co-Op was a must. We love live jazz, but there wasn’t a jazz band the night we went, and it was so popular we were literally listening from the street. It was still a really cool venue that just wouldn’t fly in other parts of the world, so worth the jaunt. We also liked Thapae East and had our own little table to perch at with our Changs (local beer of choice, obviously) which was a plus.
Peruse the night market: We briefly checked on the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, which was mildly entertaining, but just not our thing. It was certainly eye-opening, with a questionably ethical child pageant as centre-stage entertainment…
Spend a day at an ETHICAL elephant sanctuary: This was a highlight of not just our Thailand trip, but life in general. And it deserves it’s own post for the sheer amount of photos alone. Stay tuned.
Stay longer!: There were so many day trips from Chiang Mai, or several day journeys up Northern Thailand that we wish we had time for. We were tempted by Chiang Rai to see the White Temple, the hippie town of Pai, and hiking the Sticky Waterfall or in Doi Inthanon National Park. For a great round up of Chiang Mai inspiration, check out this blog. We’ll be back!