Chiang Mai is perfect for rejuvenating from the busy cities and experiencing Thailand beyond beaches, closer to the mountains. From hipsters to monks, Wats to walking streets, hiking trails to cafes – Chiang Mai is unique to all the cities in Thailand. In this post, you see an ordinary part-time traveller confessing how she misjudged Chiang Mai before going.
Here is my story of what I thought of Chiang Mai before travelling and why I love it now!
HEADS UP –
The number of wellness centres in Chiang Mai is crazy! Mom and I have walked almost 5km a day on various streets. We must have seen at least 20 wellness centres, yoga schools, meditation classes and so on! Just like in Rishikesh, this may have become a hub of “Soul healing” for those who say, “I am in search of myself.” God knows how many of those wellness centres and spiritual clubs are genuine! It is super suspicious to see healing centres at every corner of the street! Beware and research thoroughly before you join any healing centres.
- How to reach?
- Commuting in Chiang Mai
- Where to stay?
- Best time to visit Chiang Mai. & it’s festivals
- Why visit Chiang Mai
- The mistake I made – Underrating Chiang Mai
- Pet-friendly” Chiang Mai & Irresponsible travellers
- Best things to do here
WATCH THE CHIANG MAI SPECIAL UMBRELLA-MAKING
Where do you fly into for Chiang Mai?
- By Air – Chiang Mai’s international airport is located 4km away from downtown. Though it is an international airport, most flights get connected to Bangkok.
- By train –The famous train route is from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (through Ayuttaya, Lopburi, Phitsanulok ). While most travellers come to Chiang Mai for hiking and cycling, Thailand railways allow travellers to transport the cycle along with them.
- By public bus – Cheapest option but not so comfortable way to get to Chiang Mai from Sukothai is by bus. During the peak tourist season, book the tickets prior.
The usual “next destinations” famous among travellers are Chiang Rai, Mae Hong son, Pai and even Myanmar or Laos. Most hotels can get you linked to the minivans and to the taxis to get to these locations.
Travelling in Chiang Mai
Are there taxis in Chiang Mai?
Songthaews and bicycles are the best way to get around Chiang Mai. There are plenty of agencies renting bikes weekly and daily throughout the city.
Where should tourists stay in Chiang Mai?
While choosing the neighbourhood, you can consider –
- Riverside – For luxury and upper budget resorts.
- Nimman – For nightlife and unlimited options for hostels.
- Night Bazaar area – For Shopping and restaurants.
- Old town – ancient temples, museums, lots of cafes and restaurants – closer to Sunday night market. Quiet and family-friendly area.
We stayed at – Velvet Orchid hotel, Old city. The neighbourhood was excellent in the walkable distance to Sunday night market and many restaurants. They help you book airport transfers and trips to Pai or Mae Hongso by public minivans. I recommend this if you are looking for a family-friendly hotel in a quiet neighbourhood.
What is the best time to travel to Chiang Mai?
The Winter season is from October to January, making it the best time to visit. But I heard from taxi driver Mr Boon that the weather gets too foggy and the hiking trail’s visibility is poor between December to January. February to May is the summer with burning temperatures and windy nights.
Another way to pick a season to visit Chiang Mai is according to their festivals. Keep an eye on Thai calendars or google events to get the exact dates and plan your trip accordingly.
When should you avoid Chiang Mai?
I went in June. The weather was pleasant with showers at night which is a disadvantage. July to September are the pouring months of the Monsoon. It is hard to be outdoors, especially on the bike during this time. Night markets and weekend markets will be shut in the rainy season.
Why visit Chiang Mai ?
Chiang Mai isn’t an off beaten place in Thailand. Backpackers and digital nomads flock every year. Still, it remains peaceful. There are no “tourist points” for a bus full of tourists who go there to take selfies. Tucked in the mountains, it has hundreds of hiking trails. The streets are fabulous for walking and cycling: the Lanna style architecture, bamboo construction and other ways of eco-friendly lifestyles allure globe trekkers.
The historical city is surrounded by moat & canals. The modern town is developed surrounding it with Coffee culture, Vegan cafes with a hundred variety of food, opportunity to meet with Buddhist monks for spiritual seekers. Hiking trails & natural hot springs for nature lovers are an hour road journey from here. Craft villages by locals Thais who thrive to keep the tradition alive, flower gardens, affordable prices, and a laid-back atmosphere makes it a fine liveable city.
What is special about Chiang Mai?
Everything in Chiang Mai seems to be slow & relaxed. (Including serving food at restaurants!) which is exact opposite of Bangkok.
The mistake I made – Underrating Chiang Mai
Apart from the rainy season, there are other reasons why I took the wrong decision to keep just three days in Chiang Mai. While I went through multiple blogs, I felt I would fall in love with Bangkok. Chiang Mai was portrayed as a place for hippies, yogis and mainly long term travellers. On the other side, Bangkok seemed to be colourful, delightful, and full of life entertaining every kind of tourist.
What do people do in Chiang Mai?
Many bloggers referred to Chiang Mai as a “Place for soul searchers.”– I am not in that phase. I know the purpose of my life. And I hardly saw any blog that talked about negative things about Bangkok.
Whenever I came across a post about Chiang Mai’s hiking that takes you to monasteries, I assumed it was tough for my mother to do it. I planned to visit a few temples elsewhere, and Chiang Mai temples weren’t my interst.
Is it worth visiting Chiang Mai?
I am neither a digital nomad nor a soul seeker – An ordinary tourist looking for a peaceful getaway with my mom and learning new things en route.; I am the one who is keen on the architectural, cultural and traditional part of a place. – When I learned about Green School Bali, I came across this school in Chiang Mai, built with bamboo. Once I was sure of my leaves approved from my work, I contacted Panyaden international school immediately. They were swift in responding, but it was a denial of my request for visiting the school as a tourist.
If they let one tourist inside, a beautiful campus like that ends up becoming another backdrop for an “Instagramable” picture. How many of us are responsible tourists? We Indians are fond of that school of Darjeeling where Mai Hoon Na was filmed – St. Pauls School. I was denied entry there too. That is because of a dumb tourist who interviewed students when the classes were going on. Similar things would happen here too.
After the denial, they suggested that I contact the Chiang Mai Life architects to get permission. Hoping they would let me see some of their projects, I emailed/called them. No response from them either. I have emailed so many other people who are even remotely related to the CML! With lots of energy and time wasted, I dropped the idea of visiting the school. I was carried away with the flashy blogs about Bangkok and disheartened by just one denial in Chiang Mai. I decided Chiang Mai isn’t great for usual travellers like us.
Is Chiang Mai beautiful?
Unaware of the flat & moderately difficult hiking trails in the mountains, unique festivals, I planned the trip to Chiang Mai for four nights and three days. On one of the days, I made a day trip to Chiang Rai. Effectively, I experienced the hipster vibe of Chiang Mai only for a day, while half of the second was snatched away by pouring rain. The rest half was blessed with passing showers.
It isn’t a place for yogis and hippies only. As a part-time traveller and an ordinary tourist, you can have a wonderful time at Chiang Mai if you want to explore Thailand’s different faces beyond beaches. My mother would have loved taking up those easy hiking trails. In my hotel, I saw a group of older people waiting for their hiking guide. We loved the slow pace of the town & its atmosphere. We would have loved that view from Doi Suthep – We would have experienced Chiang Mai better.
Chiang Mai & travellers abandoning the pets
A FURRY FRIEND CHILLING INSIDE UMBRELLA FACTORY
I am a mom of four dogs. All my four kids live happily with my parents in our village with plenty of forest and estates for them to run around while I live in the city. I haven’t thought of travelling with at least one of my babies as I am not ready for it yet. Whenever I see a traveller with a dog, I feel happy (and envy them), wondering if a part-time flashpacker can travel with dogs.
Along with temples and Vegan cafes, you will notice dozens of pet clinics in Chiang Mai. There were dogs at almost every restaurant I went to. I saw many tourists travelling with their dogs here. Few of them were sitting calmly on their mom’s cycles, while others walked and jumped with their dads. Indeed, Chiang Mai is one of the dog-friendly places in Thailand that I have seen. The bitter truth is – Few Tourists who come here often abandon their dogs and vanish to infinity!
HELLO – I AM YOUR BUDDY TO MAKE YOU FEEL AWESOME WHILE YOU EAT – AT BUBBLES LIVE CAFE
We wanted to have coffee and cake one rainy evening like we did the previous day at Phankhon coffee. Since it was closed, we had coffee in a shop opposite Phankhon that rents bikes too. Very likely, coffee is just part of his bike rental business. While sipping our hot cup of coffee by the roadside, the owner’s cute dog came out barking at us. Obviously, mom and I fell in love with the fur baby, but the baby was too shy not to let us touch him. When we asked the dog’s name, he said “No Name”.
Who on earth won’t name their own baby? Looking at our puzzled face, he understood and told us a sad story –
“This dog isn’t mine. Three-four years ago, one foreigner came to rent a bike. He lived in Chiang Mai for a month with his dog in a hostel here. When he returned the bike, he asked me if I could take care of the dog as he was going further North. He even offered me money to take care of the dog. After he gave me his phone number and money, I agreed to look after the dog for the next 15 days. A month later, I called that man to know when is he coming to Chiang Mai to take his dog. He said he was in Laos and never coming back to Thailand. That man said, “Keep the dog with you only, or you can let him on the street.”
I don’t want him to be a stray, so I still take care of him. I haven’t named him; I just make a sound whenever I like to call him.”
The first word from my mouth after hearing this is “WTF.” He continued –
“Many tourists come here with the dogs to Chiang Mai. After living here for a month or so, many abandon them on the street and vanish. Few people hand it over to shopkeepers like me. Some even leave them at temples so that monks feed them”
Am I blaming Chiang Mai backpackers?
Nope – I am blaming irresponsible travellers.
In a broader perspective, I can think –” That man must have been struggling financially. He couldn’t take care of the dog. ” But – If you aren’t ready for the responsibility, don’t adopt a baby now and abandon them later. Whatever may be the purpose of your travel (or life) – searching your soul/soulmate, spreading peace and love, XYZ– You can’t abandon your pet. After adopting or getting a dog, don’t travel with them while you are unsure of how to take care of them. Imagine what that poor dog must have gone through after departing from his dad! Luckily this shopkeeper takes proper care of him. But not all dogs are lucky that way. I checked with our driver, who took us to Chiang Rai, if tourists abandon their dogs here. He, too, confirmed this bitter fact.
Summary of gabbing: Don’t travel with your dog unless you are 100% ready for it. Chiang Mai is super dog friendly, don’t make it a hub of abandoned stray dogs.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
Orchid gardens of Royal Park.
While I looked through many backpackers’ blogs, most of them had not mentioned Royal Park Rajapurek. Many bloggers found this place unattractive or too plastic! I wonder why! Owned by the monarch, this park consists of a royal palace (royals live here occasionally), multiple gardens and an orchid garden inside a glasshouse.
After seeing Bangkok’s flower market, I had to see the actual place where they are grown. Though it is not Chiang Mai (Pai and Mae hang son further North to Chiang Mai grow orchids), Royal Park Orchid garden gives you a fantastic glimpse and Aroma of the flowers.
The royal palace is similar to the usual palaces/ temples in Thailand. But the vast park with a hill background is bliss for garden and flower lovers. My mom being a plant person, loved every second spent here. This is a perfect spot for families for their weekend picnics. There are multiple gardens, out of which the Orchid garden and the area opposite the palace are the most beautiful. A hop-on tram starts from the ticket counter, taking tourists throughout if you aren’t in the mood to walk.
Umbrella Handicraft Center
You may have seen Thai Monks with a huge yellow umbrella with bamboo handles. I always wondered why and how the bamboo handles were made. Bo Sang handicraft village is a fantastic place to witness traditional umbrellas made of “Sa” – a type of wood bark, converted into paper, later hand-painted by local artists and fixed with bamboo handles. Not only you get to interact with the locals, but you can also try your hands in making them. The only thing I was good at is – making the holes in the handle with a punching machine.
The village artists are super friendly and excited to narrate the history and umbrella-making process in detail.
The Sa paper umbrellas trace back in time to the Thai monk ‘Phra Inthaa”. While Travelling in Burma spreading Buddhism, he was given a paper umbrella to protect him from the sun by the local Burmese. Soon he realised, his hometown Chiang Mai had all the raw materials to create similar umbrellas. He learnt the technique of making paper umbrellas in Burma, came back to Chiang Mai to teach the villagers the art of umbrella making. Soon, it became the second source of income for Chiang Mai farmers, and its fame spread across Thailand. A few villagers still follow a similar method ( chemical paints instead of organic dyes), keeping the tradition alive.
Chiang Mai is a place where it rains Umbrealls in Thailand
The process goes like this.
- Soak the cut barks of “Sa” wood in water to soften them.
- Once softened, it is beaten with heavyweights to make a pulp.
- The pulp is soaked in a tank of dyes with solvents.
- A large metal sieve is pulled out of the tank carrying only the transparent smaller lumps of pulp across the rectangular sieve, and they keep it under the sun for drying.
- A thin sheet of paper forms on the sieve after drying.
- By now, artists keep sticks, spikes and handles of bamboo and the skeleton ready.
- The thin wire at the end of the spikes holds the spikes in shape. The Sa paper is wrapped carefully around the spikes using glue. Once dried thoroughly, artists paint it with beautiful Thai motifs.
The craft village consists of a souvenir shop to buy umbrellas, a cafe and toilets. You can spend two hours watching and taking part in umbrella making along with locals. The artists even paint your plain regular umbrellas and handbags on request.
Thai Silk village of Chiang Mai
From the worms crawling to steaming them (which is painful to see), spinning the thread out of their coon- you can see beautiful Thai women weaving the silk fabric here at Chiang Mai Thai silk village.
As a layman, we can’t tell you the technical differences between Indian silk ( there are probably dozens of types in Indian silk ) and Thai silk. But we sure can feel the difference between both. Their massive collection of silk fabric and other items is a paradise for shopaholics.! To know more about what we shopped here, read our post” Budget Shopping in Thailand .”
Stop by the temples
No town in Thailand doesn’t have a temple I think. Chiang Mai is no exception to that. Whether it is the majestic Wat Luang Chedi in the Old City or Wat Pha Lat in jungles, this city is religious. Being an early morning person and walking maniac, mom and I walked into the Old Chiang Mai at 6.30 AM. Randomly, we happened to come across a temple with Lord Ganesh’s statue ( Chang in Thai- elephant god). As per Hindu custom, we never enter a temple before bathing. Fortunately, this silver Buddhist temple was attractive from the outside too. Bowing to the gods from outside, we continued our morning walks ahead.
Shop in the weekend night market
The Sunday night market is the second best thing in Chiang Mai, in my opinion. Plenty of handmade items, almost nil fake-label stuff, lots of non-veg food and little veg street food – The atmosphere at Sunday market is super lively. If you are here in June like us, be prepared for interruption by rain. But people don’t lose buying & selling spirit. The show continues after the rain stops. If you aren’t there to buy, you must go to the weekend market to feel the vibe – Tourists like us haggling for half price, sellers using tactics to lure us.
Try Vegan delicacies
My mom is a vegetarian, and I am an eggetarian. Never in our life, we thought of trying Vegan food. After seeing a series of Vegan cafes and eateries in Chiang Mai, we were eager to try Vegan dishes. Guess what? It turned out to be fine! If you can’t or don’t want to try Vegan food here, I don’t know where else you will try! Except for the Vegan coffee, we loved every other Vegan dish.
Walk in the Old City
Old Chiang Mai is made for wanderers. The old city is the best place to wander around for coffee, evening beer, or snacks early morning. The canal dividing the main roads and separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians reminded me of Amsterdam. A part of the ancient city’s moat remains behind the canals. You can take guided walking tours to learn more about history and culture. Or you can pick a different direction each day and walk to see how old and new have merged. You see the hippies and backpackers walking with their huge bags on one side and Buddhist monks with yellow umbrellas on the other.
Do you think you will love Chiang Mai? Let us know in the comment section below.