Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is an interesting place. Before visiting Chiang Mai, all you hear is how great it is for trekking and temples. It conjures images of a small hillside town swathed in jungle, with the occasional gleaming roof peaking above the treetops.
This couldn’t be further from reality. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city after Bangkok and it’s a large built up metropolis. Its many temples are tucked behind busy streets and getting around on foot can be a risky game of car dodging, especially when the street food stalls claim every last inch of pavement space.
VISITING CHIANG MAI
So, why go?
For a start, Chiang Mai acts as a great base for loads of tours, from treks and elephant camps to hill tribe villages, waterfalls and adventure sports. And when you start to look past the unattractive ramshackle busy streets, you’ll find a world of incredible markets, fascinating culture and enchanting temples.
The following advice should be taken with a pinch of salt, but a cursory glance over this list might save you from making choices you later regret.
DON’T Walk to Your Accommodation From the Station
If you like to save every last baht and get perverse satisfaction from torturing yourself, you could walk from the train or bus station into town. Chances are, though, you won’t enjoy it. When you factor in the distance, heat, humidity, traffic, pavement blockages, and weight of your luggage you will probably wish you’d had the sense to follow all the other backpackers into a shared van. As a guide, the walk from the train station to the northwesterly edge of the moat takes one hour. The day I made the stupid decision to walk it, I passed a sign telling me it was 42°C at 8 am and I spent the equivalent of the taxi fare just trying to rehydrate.
DO Wear Insect Repellant
There is no immunisation against Dengue fever, but it’s prevalent in Thailand, especially in the Central Plains and Northern regions. Cases this year look to have doubled since 2014 and, to date, there have been at least 51,500 cases nationwide with 37 deaths. Any precautions you can take while visiting Chiang Mai, like wearing insect repellent, using mosquito nets and covering up, will help protect you from the mosquito bites that can spread the disease. If you feel ill, seek medical attention as soon as possible.
DON’T Try to See Every Temple
Believe me. I tried. It’s not possible! The guide books and city maps highlight the top temples for a reason. They’re the most beautiful and most worthy of your attention. By all means, stroll around the grounds of others you happen by that grab your attention, but if you try to see every single one you’ll burn out long before you’re finished. Some of the best include Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, and of course, Wat Doi Suthep, which I’ll come to later.
DO Visit the Night Markets
Chiang Mai’s night markets are world famous. If you’re about on a weekend, the Sunday Walking Street market is the biggest. This takes place along a few of the streets towards the centre and east of the old part of town within the moat and city walls. A similar, but slightly less packed market runs along the diagonal Wua Lai road below the south wall of the city on Saturdays. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also a night bazaar to the east of the city. Street stalls sell everything from souvenirs and clothes to food and everyday items. They generally set up around 4 and go on well into the night, but if you want to avoid the stress of heaving crowds, get there early.
DO Mix With the Locals
While visiting Chiang Mai you’ll have plenty of interesting opportunities to mingle with locals. Hill tribe villagers aren’t the only people who can provide insight into growing up in northern Thailand. Some particularly unique experiences include ‘monk chat’ and prisoner massages. Monk chat takes place at various wats and the idea behind them is that you can exchange information about each others’ cultures at the same time as helping young monks practice their English. The massages are provided by female prisoners close to their release date. They cost about 200 baht an hour and the money goes towards their funds for when they’re released. It also enables them to learn a new skill to help them integrate back into the community.
DON’T Ride an Elephant
Riding elephants perpetuates and already massive problem. Some argue that the elephants provide employment and a source of income to the many mahouts who train them, and that mahouts, in turn, help to care for members of a dying species. However, the problem is, you never know what those elephants have endured while kept in captivity. Even if they’re well looked after, the chances are they went through a horrific process to ‘break their spirit’ and domesticate them. To be on the safe side, while visiting Chiang Mai, put your elephant trek money towards a trip to an elephant sanctuary that doesn’t allow riding. The Elephant Nature Park has a fantastic one-day visit where you can meet, feed and bathe the elephants in the knowledge that you’re not supporting cruel practices.
DO Visit Wat Doi Suthep for Sunset
Visiting Chiang Mai’s Wat Doi Suthep is a must. It has remnants of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but on a smaller scale. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in location. Perched high on a hilltop overlooking Chiang Mai, this temple provides stunning views of the valley below, especially at sunset. Red trailer-style taxis usually charge around 50-60 baht each way from the northern stretch of the city’s moat, but the fun part is finding enough people who want to go when you do. If you value your time, it might be worth negotiating a higher fare for them to take just a few of you. They charged three of us 100 each way. The later in the day you leave it, the less bargaining power you have.
DO Visit Pai for a Few Days
Visit Pai and you will gain some serious backpacker street cred. Pai is one of those more remote towns you intend to stay in for a couple of nights because it doesn’t sound like there’s much to do there and then you actually stay there a week because everyone you meet is awesome and you’re having far too much fun to leave. In town, you can take part in all sorts of activities, from joining a circus school, taking Thai boxing classes, doing yoga, having a massage or getting a tattoo. Further afield, various waterfalls, hot pools, canyons and mountain viewpoints are just a short motorbike ride away.
Whatever you decide to do with your time in northern Thailand, it’s great to discover a world far removed from the touristy beaches and long tail boats of Thailand’s south that warms your heart and pulls you in to an extent you never could have anticipated.