This post may contain affiliate links. These links help give me the wherewithal to continue traveling at no additional cost to you. For more information, click here.
I initially didn’t bother writing a blog post about Chiang Mai, for why would I when it’s one of the top two digital nomad cities in the world (along with Medellín, Columbia), and every other blogger has already written about it? However, I now have time to fill in the gaps of my blog, and I’m realizing my story there is rather unique, and possibly even interesting to you.
I went to Chiang Mai on November 6th, 2015 after spending over a month in Bangkok where I attending the Travel Blogger EXchange (TBEX) Convention. Most of my blogger friends had already migrated up to Chiang Mai, and I decided to follow suit, especially with all the amazing posts they were writing about the city.
Chiang Mai is roughly 700 km north of Bangkok, and was founded just over 700 years ago. Its 160,000 population might seem paltry compared to the 14.5 million in Bangkok, but the metropolitan area includes nearly 1 million! Still, it’s was a nice break after the wild cacophony in Thailand’s capital. Even better was the weather. The average is lower than Bangkok by a few degrees, along with less humidity and rainfall.
My adventures began the first day I arrived. With some friends from the Be Beez Guesthouse I was staying at, we went to the Tiger Kingdom. It wasn’t in my budget to pay the 500-700 baht for photos with the tigers, and I’d read enough blogs to make me ecotourism-conscious. However, since tigers are one of my favorite animals, I was more than satisfied with seeing them just a few feet away from me on the other side of the fence.
Later that day I went to my first fish spa. What an experience. I thought I wasn’t ticklish. I was wrong. After 10 months of hiking, my feet weren’t in the best condition. I think the fish noticed. They swarmed. I paid 40 baht for 15 minutes. The lady placed me on the tank outside, and must have either forgotten about me or simply considered I was her promotional display because she left me there for over 40 minutes! By the end of the session, the fish hadn’t let up a bit. In fact, they seemed even more frantic to suck my skin clean by the end of my time. But boy did my feet feel different!
When you go to Chiang Mai (or anywhere that has them), I would definitely recommend getting a fish spa treatment. Recently there has been some hype on how you might get diseases from the fish. To date, there are no confirmed cases of this occurring! You will find the spas all around Chiang Mai, but primarily in the night market area east of the old town. The spa I went to was right outside Tha Phae Gate (click for location). Average price is 60 baht for 15 minutes or 100 baht for 30 minutes, but you can always find cheaper (or more expensive) ones like mine.
Doi Suthep Jungle
The next day was one of the greatest adventures in my travels. Getting lost in the wilderness of the Doi Suthep jungle! I already wrote the story on that one. Actually, two stories. The first is how I got lost, and the second is my second attempt a couple weeks later where I was able to find the correct trail and make it through the jungle successfully.
Connecting with Bloggers
While in Chiang Mai, I had the chance to network with dozens of other bloggers, mainly those in the travel industry. As one of the top digital nomad hubs of the world, the town is built to accommodate those with a similar lifestyle to mine, as well as other expats of all types. There are several cafes and nomad centers catering to on-line work. My favorite was C.A.M.P. (Creative and Meeting Place), a 24-hour lounge on the top floor of the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center in the Neiman area, northwest of old town. They serve decent snack food and smoothies, and you get two free hours of internet for every 50 baht you spend.
I quickly met many new bloggers and friends. Twice I attended two birthday parties (one of which I hosted). At C.A.M.P., there were daily seminars by leading bloggers and other digital nomads. Many bloggers worked at C.A.M.P. throughout the day and night, and many times when I needed help I could just walk up to one and ask them my question! As a whole, the travel blogger community is simply fantastic. With the exception of only one blogger and their best friend, I’ve yet to meet a blogger who I didn’t like immensely.
After some searching, I found my own favorite cafe for working. Into the Woods Cafe on the north side of Old Town. A very cozy and cute cafe with delicious food, free wi-fi and good air conditioning – a combination hard to find in Thailand. When you go, make sure you try their signature Into the Woods frappe with coffee and honey. I had several meals there and all were fantastic.
Wat Pho Massage School
The productivity highlight of my time in Chiang Mai was my class at the Wat Pho Massage School. I originally received a free one-day class and 2-hour massage through the Tourism Association of Thailand, in connection with TBEX. One day was all it took to get me hooked. That was a technology I had to learn to pass on to others. Rather than repeat myself again, here are the two posts I wrote giving full details of the Wat Pho Massage School, and why you need to train as an authentic Thai massage therapist.
Loi Krathong Festival
Here’s an event I completely forgot to write about. My favorite festival of the year. Well, actually two festivals which coincide. The main festival is Yi Ping, which most people know as the Thailand Lantern Festival. Loi means floating and a krathong is a banana tree bark boat, or simply small boat for this festival. If you go to the right place, you’ll see the lights on the boats floating on the river at the same time as the lanterns floating overhead. Mesmerizing.
This year the festival got really confusing for tourists. There were rumors that the festival was cancelled, that you had to pay €100 to get in, etc. None of the bloggers I asked knew exactly where to go, so I used my favorite tactic and talked to the locals. There were still a couple who didn’t know, but many more were able to provide me with exact details of what to do, as long as they spoke English. I found out that there was one temple that had sold a few hundred tickets at €100 for their own show, but they had sold out several months earlier. Luckily, all you had to do was sit outside the temple and you could see the whole show for free. That’s exactly what a friend and I did. The temple is at the Thudong Lanna Institute (click for directions). Arrive an hour early, as the traffic can get pretty bad just before the ceremony which starts at 9 PM on the dot. You can purchase khom loi (floating lanterns) for 20-100 baht throughout the city, or at the temple when you arrive.
If you don’t want to go 15 km outside the city to that temple, you could just stay at the Tha Phae Gate. Most of the festivities are held either there or on the river down the street for the three days of the festivals. The festivities include fireworks, loi krathongs on the river and parades at the beginning and end. Wherever you go to see it, even from your hostel balcony in Old Town, you’re sure to have a spectacular, unforgettable show. This is one festival you don’t want to miss.
Chiang Mai Grand Canyon Cliff Jumping
Talk about the adrenaline rush of a lifetime. 15-meter cliff jumping into a water-filled quarry. This one I already wrote about too. If you’re looking for an adventure, I can’t stress this one enough. And get there soon, as it still seems to be a fairly unknown local gem.
Many people come to Chiang Mai for its vibrant yoga scene. While I didn’t get a chance to partake this time around, it’s something that I’ve added to the list. There’s some unique offerings that have piqued my interest, such as yoga retreats on floating docks on a lake as wells as tantra retreats given by Mahasiddha Yoga (click for more information).
Sunday Night Market
This market surprised me, half because it was completely unexpected, and half because of its sheer enormity. I stumbled upon it simply by wandering around one night. Several streets in the Old Town by Tha Phae Gate get shut down every Sunday night and turned into a massive bazaar. Street markets are definitely common in Thailand, but it’s not every day that you see a band with four didgeridoos performing under the traffic lights in an intersection. All types of Thai arts and crafts are on sale for wonderfully cheap prices, food stalls abound and performers line the center of the street. Some weekends are busier than others. The Sunday Market before Loi Krathong was absurd. Literally. It took 45 minutes to push my way through 30 meters of street. When you make it to Chiang Mai, this one is definitely for the to-do list.
I liked the food in Chiang Mai far more than in Bangkok for two primary reasons. First, it was cheaper. Second, it was more diverse. After eating street food for nearly 100 straight meals in Bangkok, I was ready for a change. Thus, I made it a habit to have at least one Western dish a day. Boy did some of those turn out to be phenomenal!
The first one was at Be Beez Cafe. They served a wide variety of meals, all with imported ingredients. Even with their big selection, I had the same meal day after day there. The English breakfast! Did I ever mention I love the UK? Well, Be Beez did a great job on the breakfast. Eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and toast, with coffee and orange juice on the side. Only 160 baht for the meal, which is a steal compared to the usual €10+ in England.
The next amazing, Western meal I had was at By Hand Pizza. It was a little shocking to find pizza in Thailand which was good by Italian standards, and many other bloggers were skeptical when I invited them. On arrival, they readily agreed this was a true gem. The owner, although Dutch, watched videos on how to construct an authentic Italian pizza oven, and then spent two months building his own – by hand – to perfection. Each of the three times I went, I tried a different pizza. My favorite was the meat-lover deluxe with chorizo sausage, smoked & cured bacon, coppa ham, merguez lamb and a whole load of vegetables, on a pizza crust which was simply perfect. Pizzas are 160 to 275 baht (except for the meat-lover deluxe, which is 335.
As far as Thai food goes, Chiang Mai is just as good as Bangkok, if not better. There are street markets all over the city selling dishes for 30-40 each, night markets selling them for even cheaper. Even the Maya Shopping Center has a huge “street food” food court on the bottom floor if you want to get a full meal for cheap while working at C.A.M.P. My personal favorite was the night market on the sidewalk next to Maya.
The Bangkok-style taxi cars are replaced in Chiang Mai by songthaews. These are taxi pick-up trucks with two benches and a roof. Here’s a great blog post by another traveler giving all the specifics: Local Transport in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is small enough that usually you don’t need anything more than your feet to get around. Only problem with that is Thailand can be fairly hot. It behooves you to stay indoors as much as possible during the hottest hours of the day.
My personal favorite mode of transportation is a motorcycle (scooter). The cheapest places to rent from are in the Old Town. Most will rent out their bikes for 150-200 baht a day. The one I went to was 100 a day! Click here to find this one on the map. You could also try Mango Bikes to see if they have a bike in stock. They have much higher quality bikes to rent than in the Old Town and for not much more. I rented one for a week for 1000 baht.
No post on Chiang Mai would be complete without mentioning what it’s like to ride a motorcycle there. The phrase “anything goes” couldn’t be more true. There are laws, but violations of them are so common it seems the law is the exception to the rule. Few locals wear helmets, speed limits are ignored, passangers are sometimes three deep behind the driver (we’re talking about a scooter here), and lanes aren’t regarded. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see a motorcycle coming in the opposite direction to traffic near the side of the road, or spilling over into oncoming traffic across the median. The wildest I saw was five large Aussies crammed into and hanging from a motorcycle taxi with a tiny sidecar (sorry for the blurry photo, it was taken while riding my own scooter).
I also need to write this with a warning. The locals are some of the most skilled motorcycle riders I’ve seen. I personally have over 50,000 miles of motorcycle riding experience. However, serious and even fatal accidents were a daily occurrence with inexperienced foreigners (and sometimes locals). It’s not always the fault of the driver. Cars drive nearly as wild as motorcycles. If you are planning to rent a motorcycle or scooter, do so with caution, keep safety first and stay sober!
If you’re really on a budget, you could also rent a bicycle at 50 baht per day. Many of the places renting motorcycles also have bicycles available. Many hostels and guesthouses also have bicycles and motorcycles to rent, but not always as cheap as the ones in Old Town. But after all, is it really worth it to haggle over €0.50?!
Finally we come to where to stay. I had six locations I stayed at during my three weeks in Chiang Mai – four guesthouses and two fellow bloggers. Although they didn’t have AC, my favorite was the Be Beez Cafe and Guesthouse (mentioned above) for 140 a night. I spent a couple days at Mr. Jack’s Guesthouse for 200 baht a night and one at Chacha Slow House for 150 baht, both of which had AC. I also spent one night at Julie’s Guesthouse, which was unique in that it was the only time in 2015 when I had a private room, which they gave to me at the same price as a dorm (200 baht) since all the dorms were full! Didn’t have AC and it was directly above the bar, but the whole guesthouse was very nice and I loved it.
The second thing to know is that despite those hundreds of hostels and thousands of beds, they all fill up! In the off-season of April-October when it’s just too hot to visit, they tend to run at about 20% occupancy. But in the other months, they operate at around 80% occupancy or more. Then there are the festivals. I learned the hard way that every single bed in town is taken during Loi Krathong. I literally spent hours going door to door with the guesthouses finding every one of them was fully booked. It inspired me to write my post on booking hostels in advance. Luckily I had a blogger friend who came to my rescue.
Update: Stay at Tangmo House! They are the best!
So that was my three weeks in Chiang Mai. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and I certainly am looking forward to going back. Especially because I missed out on something very important. I had been planning to meet up with my brother in January 2016 to travel around Thailand but he ended up cancelling. My plan was to go with him to Chiang Mai, and then hit Pai, Chiang Rai, an elephant conservation center, etc. Since that trip fell through, they’re still on my bucket list. Ah well, the law of the traveler strikes again: the bucket list only gets longer.