Arrival, transportation & hostel
I arrived at the Chiang Mai airport from Singapore and headed for the official taxi stand outside. The organization of the cabs was amazing: you would give your address to a woman which would calculate the price until your destination and then assign you a driver. Like this you were sure not to overpay the driver. I stayed at a hostel called The Living Place which was one of the best places I stayed at during my whole trip. The staff was really nice and introduced me to all people when I arrived (it was kind of weird when he went like “hey everybody, this is Giny” and everybody answered “hey Giny!”- I felt like joining a self-aid group). I slept in the room on the first floor (16 bed dorm) in a top bulk. The beds were clean, big and comfortable. The hostel itself was very clean and the owners (who had a travel/ booking agency) really cared for the guests and suggested and booked activities and trips. For the price it was a very good deal, but don’t expect anything too fancy- it’s just a nice and simple place to stay. I chilled out quite a lot at the hostel and met many nice people. In the evenings we played cards over some Changs and later went out to some clubs.
Food & drinks
On the same street as the hostel you’ll find lots of small restaurants which are amazing for a cheap and tasty breakfast/ lunch/ dinner. I used to have banana pancakes or american breakfast with a fresh fruit shake (banana, coconut, papaya and mango were my favorite). I was amazed by how good the espresso and the tea (make sure you try ginger tea!) was in Chiang Mai! There was one little restaurant on that street (on the same side as the hostel) which was baking their own banana cakes (I got completely addicted to them!) and other sweets- don’t miss that! The day I arrived was still during the Chinese New Year festivities, so there were lots of stands with food on a street near the hostel (unfortunately I can’t remember the name anymore).
I’ve always been very skeptical about street foot when traveling to Asia – mainly because I always thought the cheap price would mean cheap quality. During the last trip I’ve set up a new rule: everything that’s cooked and where you can see the ingredients and the cooking process is fine with me. I’d rather have street food where I can see how it’s been cooked than go to a restaurant, where I have no idea what’s going on in the kitchen. Another good rule of thumb is to go to places where locals eat and there are mothers with little children (normally mothers care for good nutrition, so the places can’t be that bad!). Street food is amazing- for 20B you can get a variety of food, from sushi to noodles, meat sticks and fish. It’s a huge buffet, where you can try all the things that inspire you!
Evening Program: Bars & Clubs
Chiang Mai offers a wide range of activities to do during the evening. There is a cute night market, which offers a wide range of souvenirs and street food. Some of the numerous temples are usually open at night, so it might be worth having a quick look inside when walking around. The backpacker’s mecca is the club/ pub called Zoe’s, a wildly westernized place which is packed with drunk tourists and sells buckets & changs while mainstream hits blast out of a stereo. There are more bars nearby and I personally enjoyed the Reggae Bar way more since it had a local band playing relaxing reggae music all night long and was less touristy and packed. If you’re looking for a more relaxed night out, make sure to check out THC Rooftop Bar, located near the walls. The atmosphere is very relaxed (with neon lights/paintings and chilled techno beats), it’s full of young backpackers (you even have to take your shoes off to go up to the terrace) and the drinks are pretty good. If you’re looking for a more local experience, you might want to head to the Warm Up Club, a Thai disco/ bar where you’ll be one of the few lost europeans. They had an Absolut Vodka bar with amazing drinks, 2 live bands and djs on different floors. The club was divided in different areas (lounge/ outside bar and club). If you need to go from one club to the other, make sure you take a Tuc Tuc with big speakers– we had the ride of our lifetimes through Chiang Mai with techno beats blasting out our Tuc Tucs! Make sure you bargain the price!
On the first day in Chiang Mai I joined a group of backpackers to chill by a hotel pool for a while (Top North Hotel, 100B entry fee for non-guests). Nothing fancy, but very relaxing. On the way there we walked by lots of little streets with small restaurants and markets. Near the wall there was a big market which offered a range of souvenirs, food and massages. If you’re planning on doing some shopping in Chiang Mai the markets (night market & saturday market) are worth a visit, I couldn’t find such cheap stuff anywhere else in Thailand (Unfortunately I had decided not to buy a thing, so at the end I kind of regret not having bought some of the cute cheap stuff I saw there..)! Another nice thing to do in Chiang Mai is to get a massage. There are lots of places which offer “the best massages in town” – my suggestion: try them all!! I had one at the temple Wat Buppharam (located right next to the hostel): 1h massage (30′ feet and 30′ shoulders & back) for 140B. Be prepared that Thai massages can be painful and they include way more parts of the body than the ones actually mentioned in the massage type.
Chiang Mai is packed with temples and even though I really love their architecture (especially the dragons!) after a while you’ve had enough of them (there are way too many!). My suggestion is to walk in some of the temples you randomly walk by (unless you’re a real temple junkie and want to go and look for every single temple..). The nicest temple I’ve seen was definitely the Wat Phrarat Soi Sutep on the hill. Not only it was golden, but the hill offered a breathtaking view over Chiang Mai (which I discovered to be huge!! Apparently it’s the second largest city in Thailand!). We went up with a red cab, but I would recommend to rent a scooter, hitchhike or take a normal car to go up. We lost our driver for the way down (even though we had made an appointment we couldn’t find him anymore since all the cars looked alike) and looked for a new one for quite a while. We wanted to go to the waterfalls nearby, but the driver we found let us off about 10km before so we started to walk until a nice Thai lady took us there with her car. The waterfall wasn’t bad, it was very small. The best part was that it was in the woods and the climate was very cool. There were only a few locals so it’s the perfect place to escape the hectic of the city.
One of the best activities I’ve done was a half-day (8-14) cooking class at the Smart Cook Cooking school. It costed 700 B, but was definitely worth every single baht! We learned to cook 4 different dishes and had an introduction into the Thai ingredients. At the end we even got a small cooking book (with all the recipes of the course and others)! I tried the recipes back at home and they came out pretty well too (I’ll try to post some of them when I cook again) 🙂 Besides learning to cook new things, the lessons gave us an insight into what we were actually eating on a daily basis. Our Thai teacher spoke a really good english and explained all the ingredients at a local market as well as gave us some suggestions on what we could use to substitute them back at home (although I could find pretty much everything in an Asia shop in Zurich). I learned how to do a soup with coconut milk and chicken, pad thai, green curry and spring rolls. We ate a lot and everything was really good. I can really recommend you this cooking school and the half day course (I was so stuffed and tired, I couldn’t have cooked/eaten anything else). We organized everything at our hostel and got picked up/ dropped off at the hostel. The kitchen was really nice since it was located near a market and was outside.
Chiang Mai has a lot more activities to offer than the ones I did. You can go elephant riding, tracking and do different day trips. The best way to inform yourself is to ask at your hostel/ hotel or go to a travel agency. I didn’t decide until the evening before/ the day itself what to do, so don’t worry on planning much ahead. The same thing goes for transportation in and out of Chiang Mai: there are loads of different busses which will take you almost anywhere around SE Asia. From what I’ve experienced the most common stops for backpackers were Pai (which unfortunately I skipped), Bangkok and Laos. I decided to book a 3-days-2-nights slow boat trip to Luang Prabang, more about my journey on the Mekong in my next post!
Chiang Mai is really cheap compared to Thailand, I spent around 1000 B/ day. Usually meals would be between 55-180 B and transportation between 20-150 B (the most expensive thing was a taxi to go from the airport to the hostel). The accommodation was very cheap, I spent 180 B/ night in the hostel where I was staying. The most expensive thing was partying (as usual) with about 50-150B/ drink.
In case you want to know anything else about Chiang Mai, feel free to ask!