I had absolutely no idea what to expect when my plane touched down in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I half expected to find a chilled-out backpacker haven set in the northern jungle, full of funky cafés and tour companies. What I got instead was, as they call it, ‘Thailand’s Second City’, next to Bangkok.
We traveled to Chiang Mai in March, which I would actually advise against if you can help it. The Hill Tribes around Chiang Mai take advantage of the hottest months, March and April, to burn back their crops, which covers the entire province in a thick, hazy blanket of smoke. It bothered our throats and made our eyes burn, but it also took away the stunning views of the surrounding mountains, which was a touch disappointing. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful 4 days in Chiang Mai, and here’s what made it so great.
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WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at a guesthouse called Varada Place, which has magnificent reviews on TripAdvisor, and for good reasons. The owner, Varada, and her English husband Abe, are kind, caring and helpful, and take great pride in their guesthouse. The building isn’t huge, but it’s perfectly comfortable, and most of all, incredibly safe. Each room features it’s own private bathroom, a king size bed or two twins, air conditioning, free wifi, a fridge, microwave and TV, as well as two free bottles of water every day. There are also bars on the windows and a security guard on shift from 6pm to 7am, so overall we felt very safe. If ever we encountered a problem (like when we had to reschedule an upcoming hotel in Krabi) or had questions about anything (arranging a taxi, walking to the markets, etc.) Varada and Abe were more than happy to help. And at 2400 baht (about $85USD) for 4 nights, we were thrilled. Where else could you get this kind of service and comfort for $22/night?
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WHAT TO EAT
As for the food, we ate at a variety of restaurants and markets in Chiang Mai, and while not all of the food was mind-blowing, we certainly weren’t complaining for what we paid for it. Chiang Mai truly is the cheap Thailand you hope to find when you travel here – market meals costing as little as 30B – and it’s funny how you begin to truly debate spending any more than $3USD on anything.
Near Varada place, there is an American Restaurant called Amazing Sandwich, which, while not quite ‘amazing’, does have a huge selection of breakfasts from around the world for 129B. We ate breakfast here 3 times and, while never totally amazed, we were also never disappointed. Right beside the building that houses Varada Place is another tiny, 4-table restaurant called Minor Rice, which was actually a pleasant surprise. The prices are fantastic ($2.50 for a beautiful green curry with chicken and rice, $1.50 for the best iced mochas we had in Thailand) and the food and drinks are truly to die for. The rest of our food was acquired at mediocre restaurants or at the markets, where you can walk for hours, grazing on all kinds of delicious, cheap treats as you go.
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Chiang Mai is actually a very easy city to navigate, even for me. (I was tragically born without a sense of direction.) The city is laid out around the Old City Square, which is easy to recognize because it is surrounded by an ancient brick wall. Varada place was about a 10-15 minute walk into the Old City, and then from there you could spend up to 5 hours meandering about the streets, which we did. However, when you’re tired of walking, a Songtheow (red pickup trucks with seats in the back) seemed to be the cheapest way to get around, usually charging 30B per person for a lift between our hotel and the Old City. In our experiences, Tuk Tuks were a rip-off for tourists, and Taxis were only generally used for transport to and from the airport.
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WHAT TO DO
Chiang Mai is a great place to recharge for a few days. We spent our 4 days in Chiang Mai exploring the Night Bazaar and Sunday Walking Street markets (read more about that here) and visiting the Elephant Nature Park (must-do! Read about it here.). It’s also a great place to squeeze in a quick and inexpensive spa day, although we didn’t get around to it – but we did try out a quick Thai Massage!
What we did do, however, is spend an entire day doing a self-guided walking tour of Chiang Mai’s main temples. This can be easily accomplished on foot, and there are signs everywhere. We set out with no main objective or any idea where we were going, and we stumbled on temple after temple after temple.
My top 3 favourite Temples in Chiang Mai were;
- Wat Phra Singh – Houses the Phra Buddha Sihing Buddha statue. Construction began in 1345.
2. Wat Chedi Luang – Construction began in the 14th century, but was not completed until the 15th century. It once held the Emerald Buddha, but after part of the structure collapsed in an earthquake, the statue was moved to Luang Prabang, Laos.
3. Wat Lok Moli – Built some time in the 14th century, this Wat was likely built for royalty. It is spectacularly adorned with incredible and ornate glasswork.
Overall, Chiang Mai was a fascinating place to kill a few days. Between the spas, the nearby adventure tours, the temples, the food and the markets, Chiang Mai holds a little something for every type of traveler.
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Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did you like and not like? What were some of your favourite experiences?