Chiang Mai is Northern Thailand’s largest city, and was once the capital of the ancient kingdom, Lan Na. It is consistently ranked in the top 25 destinations of the world by TripAdvisor, with its 300+ temples, great food, nature parks – we can see why. One thing that is missing – Thai people! In fact, we were surprised to see so many of the “great” restaurants, and activities are run by expats living in Chiang Mai. It made it almost impossible to find some genuine Thai food (don’t worry, we found it). Steve and I have differing opinions on the matter. I enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, once I got over the amount of pollution, I found the city to be charming. Steve didn’t feel like it was an authentic experience. If we return to Northern Thailand, I imagine a trip even further North to Chiang Rai being part of it.
How We Got There and Around
We flew into Chiang Mai from Phuket on AirAsia. The flight was only a few hours, and not bad at all. Once arriving at the airport, we took a taxi to our hotel. Travel around Chiang Mai is done via walking, scooter rentals, riding in the back of a truck, or hopping in a Tuk Tuk. We made a point not to hop in a Tuk Tuk. Often times local mafias run Tuk Tuk operation and we didn’t want to support or deal with that.
However, we did ride in the back of a truck, not on purpose of course. We had booked a tour at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (see below) which came with a hotel pickup. We anticipated a large 15-person van – nope. We got a truck, with two rickety benches in the back know as a “Songtaew”. The drive to the jungle was close to 2 hours long, and involved a lot of off-roading, making the truck choice an obvious one. Still, we were shocked when the truck rolled up.
Where We Stayed
The Mandala House was just outside the walled city and for less than $15/day, was the optimal choice. For that price, our expectations were not high and sure enough, the room was basic. The only real saving grace was the fantastic air conditioning, which felt like a life saver throughout our stay. The hotel was close enough to the city, 10-minute walk at most, and close to the famous night bazaar. We later found out that the walk to our hotel involved walking through the “red light district” which became apparent when a woman asked Steve if he wanted a “full body massage” (wink wink… she really did wink). We were also noticed a huge amount of older white males with younger Thai women (and men) walking around our hotel area – it didn’t take long for us to figure out what was going on.
Our Favorite Eats
By far, one of our favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai was “Cooking Love”, recommended by Steve’s friend Alex. Their food was fresh, tasty, and a bit spicy.
We also visited Kat’s Kitchen a few times, and loved eating there too!
What We Did
With over 300 temples to see, you can say that Steve and I did our fair share of Temple Hopping. Chiang Mai has a lot to offer tourists besides temples, and we took advantage of seeing most of it.
Tha Phae Gate – I mentioned earlier, Chiang Mai was once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lan Na, and therefore, a wall was built around the city (sometime in the 13th or 14th century?). Today, much of that wall is in ruins, but the gate still stands.
Wat Chiang Man – Built in 1297, it was the first Buddhist temple in Chaing Mai.
Wat Chedi Luang – The temple began construction in the 14th century, and took quite a long time to complete. It was recently reconstructed in the 1990s (to the dismay of many locals), in preparation for their 600th anniversary. The temple also has the city pillar, after it was moved there in the 1800s.
Wat Phra Singh – This temple was built in 1345, and restored again in 2002.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary – Steve and I are passionate about traveling, but we work hard at being conscious travelers. In Asia, there are several places where you can get photographed with tigers, or ride elephants – those places are unethical, treat the animals inhumanely and should be avoided. We had such a high desire to see elephants but feared we would be part of the problem. We ended up choosing this organization and even then we felt very wary. For every 30 positive reviews, we had read a negative review saying they treat their elephants bad. We decided to go and see for ourselves. Our ride there was eventful, in fact involved car sickness on a few patrons in the truck with us. On the way to the jungle we saw dozens of elephants tied up, chained up and being ridden by tourists. It was heart breaking to see elephants with their feet chained up. When we arrived at our camp, we were told we were going to feed the elephants sugar cane and corn (which we had to carry down). The family of elephants we were seeing were once part of a tourist group and were rescued in recent years; they are being reintroduced to natural surroundings. You can read about the elephants we met here. I won’t lie, the whole experience was magical. The elephants were so smart, friendly, cuddly, sneaky and hungry. The employees seemed to know everything going on with all of them, medical issues, personal likes, etc. There was a bond between the handlers and the elephants. We were allowed to go to the water and bathe them, which was more fun than it sounds – except we did have a poop incident. This is often the highlight of the trip for people. We were in the water for about ten minutes when the matriarch decided it was enough and gave the symbol to her family it was time to go back to eat. I was surprised to see that the handlers were quick to usher us out of the way, and didn’t force the elephants to stay to “entertain” us. In fact, I felt the elephants were in charge every bit. Overall, I didn’t see anything shady with this experience, and felt it was a once in a lifetime event. These magnificent creatures are so intelligent and loving – I hope they make it to the wild without the fear of being recaptured.
Fish Spa – Steve and I decided we wanted to try the Fish Spa experience. For 15 minutes, we let fish eat the dead skin on our feet. Does it sound gross – yes. Did it tickle – yes. Did it work – uh, maybe. Still, it was quite the experience to share.
Night Bazaar – The night bazaar was only a 10 minute walk from our hotel, so after dinner we decided to check it out. This place is geared towards tourists, with shops, food, bars, and live music – it was the happening place. While Steve had beer for dessert, I enjoyed the ice cream rolls!
Lanna Folklife Museum – The museum contains relics and exhibits on Lanna history, and culture. We found the museum to be informative and interesting.
Three Kings Monument – A monument of the three kings who founded Chiang Mai: King Mengrai, King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao – all sworn an oath of eternal friendship. When King Mengrai found a location for his new capital, it was with the help of his friends he was able to accomplish settling and building the new capital.
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