We came to Chiang Mai, the jewel of northern Thailand, to explore its temples, markets and natural scenery. It was also to be our launching point to visit the Elephant Nature Park, Pai and Chiang Ria. Over the decades Chiang Mai has become a big tourist destination for all of these reasons. We were lucky to find a great AirBnB on the northeast corner of town between the Old City and the trendy Nimmanhaemin district. We knew very little about Chiang Mai before we arrived so we felt lucky to end up in this location. Our house was on a quiet street and there were many great restaurants and coffee shops just a few blocks away. We could also walk into, and across, the Old Town in less than an hour. After several weeks of hectic travel we were looking forward to four full days in this town.
Our flight from Bangkok was easy and it was a short 15 min cab ride to our AirBnB. We were met by the aunt of the owner who showed us around the house. It was a spacious classic Thai home – simple in its features but very roomy and naturally cooled by thick concrete walls and open screen covered slotted windows. We quickly settled and then headed out to explore the town. This involved visiting a local restaurant recommended by the owner and then trekking through the old town and eventually arriving at the night market. We did some quick browsing and then decided to all get foot massages after a 4-5 mile walk. Thailand has many massage parlors which are located in markets, on street sidewalks and in buildings. The messages are typically $5-6USD for an hour. They are relaxing but can also be painful depending on who you get to give the massage.
After enjoying our first night in the city we waived down a local songthaew to get a ride back to our house. Southeast Asia is covered with these songthaews, which are typically pickup trucks fitted with covered beds configured with bench seats. They are painted red, or other bright colors, and drive through the streets picking up and dropping off people. You waive one down, ask if they are going in your direction, negotiate a price (it was 100-150 baht or $3-5USD for our family of five), and jump in with other passengers. Depending on the load the truck will meander towards your destination.
It was 10 o’clock at night so this songthaew was empty and our driver, Chiang, saw a business opportunity in our family of five. He motioned me into the cab while the family rode in the back and proceeded to sell himself in his broken english as our personal driver for our stay in Chiang Mai and everywhere else in northern Thailand. I liked Chiang and his driving seemed sane and his cars, based on the pictures, fairly modern so we took him up on his private tours. The next morning he picked us up initially in his songthaew and drove us to his house to get into his new Toyota SUV, and then drove us up into the mountains to see Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or Doi Suthep for short. This amazing temple is located on a hilltop several thousand feet above Chiang Mai with sweeping views of the valley. Here’s a great video of that adventure.
That afternoon he recommended we go visit the Tiger Kingdom. We had no idea what it was but the girls seemed excited. Further, we were hungry and were told that they served a good lunch, so we went. Upon arriving we learned that the Tiger Kingdom has around a dozen large cats in captivity and they allow guest to come into the enclosures and take pictures with them. Like swimming with whale sharks, it was one of those borderline ethical experiences. Of course the adventurer inside wants to do this, but at the end of the day you are promoting the exploitation of these amazing animals. We got lunch and decided that we should do it since we were there. It was super cool to be so close to these creatures – it gives you a greater appreciation for their beauty and grace. It also makes you somewhat sad about the collision between nature and society.
The next day we met up with our Eli and his family, who is currently teaching in China but also vacationing in Chiang Mai for the New Year. Our group of nine piled into Chiang’s toyota mini-bus and drove 150km south to Doi Inthanon National Park. This protected area is full of lush forests, very twisty roads, waterfalls and is the home to Thailand’s highest peak (elevation 8600 ft). On the side of this mountain sit two giant pagodas. These pagodas are surrounded by gardens and it was a picture of them that drew us to Chiang Mai in the first place. It was a long day filled with lots of adventure, which is captured in this video:
On the third day the weather turned and we took a rest day to catch up on social media, do laundry and recharge. It cleared in the afternoon and we were able to explore the many restaurants and coffee shops around our house and started wishing we were going to be in Chiang Mai longer. That night we visited a Saturday street market, had more street food and then Eli and I went out that evening to a Thai kickboxing tournament to experience more local culture.
Our final day was spent exploring the magnificent wats inside the old city and shopping in the Sunday street market: Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh. Parts of these temples are 700 years old and all of them have rich history traced to prior Buddhist monks and imperial rulers. Our four days passed very quickly and we were sad to leave Chiang Mai.
Travel Reflections / Tips: Chiang Mai remains a great tourist destination and is a great central base for exploring northern Thailand. We were glad we stayed on the northeast corner of town, outside the old city. It was an eclectic mix of locals, tourists and trendy cafes near Chiang Mai university. Four days was the minimum to see the city and surrounding area.