Back in 2012, Alex visited Chiang Mai and Pai as part of his monthlong trip to Thailand. He instantly fell in love with the relaxed vibe in the north and has spoken highly of the area ever since. Because of that, we knew right off the bat that we wanted to allow ourselves a good amount of time in the area. As a result, once we finished our motorbike trip through Vietnam we decided to fly from Saigon to Bangkok and then make our way up north.
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You might be wondering why we decided to return to Thailand, especially since we’d already spent a full month there at the end of last year and there are still so many countries in Southeast Asia we haven’t fully explored. We had two main reasons to go back: first, because Thailand is incredible; and second, because we were meeting up with my two best friends from home, Bruna and Kaitlyn!
I can’t even begin to describe how great it was to get some quality girl time with my best pals. Traveling with Alex is incredible, of course, but we spend literally 24 hours a day with each other and it was nice to change things up for a bit. Plus, as much as I love Alex it’s just different having your girlfriends around and it was something I was really homesick for - the random people we’ve met along the way have been lovely but it’s nothing like spending time with people who’ve known you for a decade. So yes, a lot of happy tears were shed when we were reunited.
I’m glossing over our second trip to Bangkok for now (but look out for an upcoming travel guide) because we largely just revisited our greatest hits from the last time we were here, right down to the same hostel. What can I say, we’re creatures of habit! We did carve out some time to visit new sights, though, including the mesmerizing Wat Arun, and our photos there turned out amazingly so I’d be silly not to share at least one.
To get to Chiang Mai, Alex and I took the overnight train from Bangkok. The train takes about 12 hours and cost us each about $35 via 12Go Asia. The booking process is super easy and train cars are organized sort of like India, with a first, second, etc class with or without AC. We opted for 2nd class AC and were perfectly comfortable. Bed linens seemed clean but if you’re really picky I’d suggest bringing a silk sleep liner for peace of mind. There’s a dining car, but the train leaves late enough that you have time for dinner and we recommend eating beforehand as the food options are underwhelming. There are plenty of decent restaurants to choose from across the street from the Bangkok station.
We would’ve preferred to fly but by the time we looked at flights the prices had skyrocketed, and for very good reason, because as it turns out, we arrived in Chiang Mai mere days before the start of a major holiday called Songkran. Fortunately, we didn’t have any trouble finding accommodation during the holiday. We booked at Thai Time Hostel which was located on the Saturday market street just south of the Old City, and we loved how new and clean the rooms and common areas were. The atmosphere was friendly without being a party hostel, which we appreciated, and staff were helpful in helping us arrange onward travel and answering questions about the area.
Songkran is basically Thai New Year, and it’s celebrated in a handful of other Buddhist countries (Myanmar and Laos, for example) as well. Chiang Mai is a wildly popular place for tourists to experience the holiday, as the whole old town becomes one giant water gun battle. It’s one of our favorite festivals in the world, that’s for sure. Alex wrote a Songkran Survival Guide and I’ll leave out most of the Songkran tips from this post because he’s already covered it all. Suffice it to say that by the end of Songkran weekend we were tired of being damp all the time, and eager to have a few days to dry out and recover from the festivities. Luckily, Chiang Mai is full of stuff to do whether you want to chill out or have an active holiday, so we were never bored.
Northern Thailand is well-known as a hotspot for all sorts of outdoorsy pursuits. The area surrounding Chiang Mai is full of lush rainforests, roaring rivers, waterfalls, and mountains, making it the perfect starting point for whitewater rafting, jungle trekking, or wild animal encounters. Elephants are the big draw here, although you can also spot monkeys and birds.
If you’re planning on interacting with elephants in Thailand, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, it is absolutely vital to do your research! Unfortunately, animal welfare standards are quite lax here and many well-meaning tourists eager to interact with wild animals spend their valuable dollars at so-called ‘animal sanctuaries’ where animals are badly mistreated. For elephants, this includes any place where riding is offered - you should never ride an elephant. But sometimes even in ‘no-riding’ establishments, elephants are forced to learn tricks using painful negative-reinforcement methods, and this is also problematic. I touched on ethical animal tourism in a recent Instagram post, and am working on a much more in-depth blog post on the subject, but for now I’ll just say make sure to do your due diligence if you really want to see exotic animals.
After extensive research, the only company I felt completely confident in was Elephant Nature Park. ENP is one of the oldest and most well-known elephant sanctuaries in the area and as a result it is extremely popular. We made reservations over a month in advance and even then, only the half-day tour was available! I recommend booking as early as possible - preferably as soon as you know your travel dates - and being flexible in case your first choice of tour isn’t available.
Elephant Nature Park was a truly memorable experience. At first I was hesitant because it is quite expensive - even the half-day option cost around $80 per person - but it’s one hundred percent worth it. We were picked up from our accommodations in the old city and taken to the park in an air-conditioned van, then we got a rundown of the day’s program from our guide and got to feed some elephants fruit from a viewing platform before heading out into the grounds to meet several of the resident elephants. After an incredible vegetarian buffet lunch we headed back out and got to watch some of the baby elephants play before heading back to the city in the afternoon. Seeing these incredible creatures up close is something none of us will ever forget.
Of course, elephant excursions aren’t the only thing to do in the area, and if you feel like getting out there are plenty of tour companies offering everything from multi-day treks to whitewater rafting and more. Most hostels and guesthouses can arrange tours, and though we didn’t do any other big outings we were impressed by the wide variety of things you can do in the surrounding area.
But you don’t even need to leave the city limits to keep yourself occupied. The old city, where accommodations, markets, and most tourist businesses are located, is compact enough to walk on foot. That being said, most of Chiang Mai’s attractions are really spread out, so you’ll definitely want your own wheels. There are tons of motorbike rental companies in the area that offer short or long-term rentals, and we went with Mango Bikes Rent due to good reviews plus the fact that they offered insurance and had a huge variety of bikes to choose from. We got a 125cc scooter and that’s about the smallest engine size you can safely muster owing to the hilly terrain.
A note on safety and legality: technically to drive a motorbike in Thailand you are legally required to have a motorcycle license from home plus an international driving permit. In practice, though, 99% of tourists and expats who drive motorbikes here don’t possess those items. Police here know that loads of tourists are illegally driving scooters and fines are easy money, so they frequently set up checkpoints. The fine for driving without a license is 500 baht and you receive a receipt that (we’re told) prevents you from getting fined again for a few days as long as you show it when being pulled over, though I have no idea whether that would actually hold up in practice. As you probably know by now, we’ve rented motorbikes all over Asia and Chiang Mai was the only place we were ever pulled over or fined (and it didn’t happen until our last day!). It sucks, but if you’re going to rent a motorbike in a foreign country without the right license it’s just one of the many risks you have to take.
Once you have your motorbike (or the rideshare app Grab installed on your phone), you’ll be able to explore the many sights around Chaing Mai more efficiently, and what better to see than some of Chiang Mai’s many famous Buddhist temples (called wats). The most famous one in the area is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but if you drive just a little further up the hill you’ll encounter a much smaller, quieter temple called Wat Pha Lat that wound up being our absolute favorite wat in Thailand. This temple has lots of gorgeous stone statues and feels much more connected to nature than the others, with less of a focus on ornate decor and more on embracing its jungle setting. It exudes a lovely calming energy and we felt incredibly at peace here. It’s so quiet and relaxing, I recommend allowing yourself extra time to sit and enjoy the serenity.
On the other side of town we also visited Wat Phra That Doi Kham which is home to the biggest Buddha statues in Chiang Mai. It’s up a very steep hill. If you have a car or a powerful enough scooter you can drive all the way up, otherwise there’s a parking lot at the base of the hill and from there an ornate staircase leads to the temple. However you get there, it’s worth the trip because the view over Chiang Mai is astounding.
Of course, Chiang Mai has much more to offer than just temples. We spent an afternoon exploring the Royal Park Rajapruek, which has several different areas dedicated to showcasing different kinds of flowers, plants, and trees, as well as a stunning elevated pavilion. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon if you need to get away from the hustle of the city center, and it’s not far from Wat Phra That Doi Kham so you can visit both on the same day.
Chiang Mai is well known for is its incredible shopping - whether you’re looking for a backpacker staple like elephant pants or something more unique and expensive to bring back home, you can find it here. The city is infamous for its huge night markets, where local people from villages in the surrounding hills bring their wares to different parts of the city and set up shop. There’s a night bazaar every evening near the river (east of the Old City) which stretches for several blocks north to south, but we found the goods to be a little repetitive - it seems like every stall was selling the same stuff. We much preferred the weekend night markets for variety and fun. The Sunday market, which starts at Tha Pae Walking Street and stretches for blocks in every direction, was by far our favorite. We found the best variety of both souvenirs and food here, and it’s way too easy to get lost and spend all your money! The Saturday night market, which is just south of the old city on Wua Lai Road, is basically a smaller version of the Sunday market with a lot of the same vendors. Regardless of which night market you visit, they usually get going by 6 or 7 and carry on until around midnight, and you’ll definitely want to put your haggling hat on to avoid spending too much money.
You know by now that I couldn’t write a blog post without dedicating at least a few words to the local food. Thai is one of our favorite styles of cuisine, and we had high hopes for the food in Chiang Mai. Thankfully, it didn’t let us down. The most famous local dish is khao soi which is a sort of Thai curry noodle bowl usually made with chicken. It’s yummy and surprisingly filling, and you can get it almost anywhere. We also loved the local sausage which has the crumbly consistency of chorizo but is made with tons of lemongrass and other Thai herbs, giving it a complex aromatic flavor. It’s highly addictive. Of course, you can get all the standard Thai curries all over town as well as noodles like pad khee mao, etc. Seriously, though, get the sausage.
One of the best things we did during our stay was enroll in a half-day course at Pra Nang Chiangmai Cookery School. There are dozens of five-star rated cooking schools to choose from and we felt really overwhelmed, but went with this one literally because they were the first ones able to fit us in on short notice, and the course absolutely blew our minds! We each made five dishes including local soup, curry paste + curry, stir-fry, spring rolls, and dessert, and there were multiple options to choose from for each course. We also took a trip to a local market (not the super-touristy one most cooking schools visit) and got to explore while our instructor gathered ingredients. We were given a recipe book to take home, and of course we got to eat everything we made! Everything turned out delicious, they were very accommodating of dietary restrictions and allergies, and we had to practically roll ourselves home we were so full! At 800 baht for the half-day course, this is one of the most reasonably priced cooking courses in town, and I highly recommend it.
In terms of restaurants, we were stunned by the variety and quality of food here, and interestingly enough our favorite restaurants turned out to be almost all vegetarian! Morning Glory is hands-down the best vegan restaurant in town, if not in all of Thailand. The curries are flavorful and wholesome, and the fried tofu seriously tastes like chicken nuggets. It’s indescribably good - run, don’t walk, here! Aum Vegetarian is also a fantastic option, run by a friendly family and serving everything from vegan khao soi to Indian-style curries and more. The smoothies here are phenomenal.
We got our naan and samosa fix at the very reasonably priced Rajdarbar, which had some of the best Indian curries we’ve had since leaving India. And as far as cafes go, Alex has already sung the praises of Clay Studio where we hung out almost every day. And if you find yourself craving a Western fix, we were stunned to find real, actual bagels at Bagel House Cafe & Bakery. And, as I mentioned earlier, the night markets are an incredible way to try all kinds of different foods, from local sausage and plates of pad Thai to fresh waffles, donuts, and ice cream. You could probably eat street food for every meal in Chaing Mai and never want for anything else.
All in all, I would highly recommend Chiang Mai to anyone who finds themselves overwhelmed by the chaos of Bangkok and wants to experience a more laid-back part of Thailand. The atmosphere here is relaxed, prices are reasonable, and there’s enough going on to keep you from ever getting bored. Plus, it’s the gateway to the magical natural beauty of Northern Thailand. What’s not to love?