When we arrived in Chiang Mai after barely 48 hours in Bangkok our first reaction was to take a deep breath. Coming from the enormous capital city and all of its sights, smells, and smog, Chiang Mai was a welcome respite with its laid back atmosphere, quaint town life, and proximity to lush and wild nature.
During our travels we met others who, like us, were immediately enamored with Chiang Mai because of its drastic contrast with Bangkok and the relative tranquility it offered us. Others, on the other hand, were disappointed and found it to be too touristy. But no matter the opinion, the consensus was clear that it is a stop on the itinerary that deserves at least three to four full days.
Chiang Mai is surrounded by a wall and the city center is small and totally walkable. We stayed just outside of it at Gategaa Village and it was hands down one of our favorite hotels on the entire trip, (and we stayed in nine different hotels). The lay out and decor was able to blend nature and progress seamlessly with a palette of colors and textures intertwining flawlessly. The best part? Rooms start at 38 euros — amazing breakfast included.
This is probably the best and arguably most authentic place to do an elephant tour, if you are in the market for one. As a crazy animal lover, I was most definitely in the market. Also as an animal lover, I knew ahead of time that we needed to pick a safe and humane sanctuary, which always means no riding. Two of the most famous ones are Blue Elephant Thailand Tours and Elephant Nature Park. We decided on Blue Elephant mainly for price and availability reason and we were not disappointed. It was only Pepelu and I, and four more people. We spent the entire day in the jungle, making elephant snacks, learning about them, walking with them in the jungle, bathing them in the river, and finally having a typical (and early!) dinner back at the lodge overlooking the deep green valley. A picture perfect day.
Pro tip–wear pants. On this tour they do not provide them and the mosquitos are FIERCE. Also, when you bathe the elephants, go against the voice that tells you to wear your boots. The water will get inside anyway and you could get some leeches in your boot that later stick to your legs like Pepelu did. My best advice is to bring jelly-like shoes to wear in the river if you don’t want to touch bottom. That way when you get out you can see if you’ve got any unwelcome visitors.
One hundred and thousand percent the best massage we had was in Chiang Mai at a local rehabilitation center for incarcerated women called Lila Massage. The environment is relaxing in every way and the massage takes it to another level. Remember, if you don’t like intense massages, do NOT opt for the Thai massage. They are always the cheapest, but you should be prepared to be twisted in every way possible. If you’re looking for a relaxing massage, go for a coconut oil one.
I know I’m using a lot of superlatives for Chiang Mai, but I promise they are well deserved. On that note, let me use another. Probably the best food we had during our trip was the food we made at a cooking class, conveniently called, “The best Thai cookery school” Our guide picked us up from our hotel, (they usually do for any tour or class), and we went first to the market where he explained the ingredients we would use for our 6 dishes.
The compound’s entrance was a path that wove between gardens full of the same spices and vegetables we would use in our recipes, which led us to the open air building full of cooking stations. We spent an entire evening making curry, pad thai, sticky rice, tom ghai soup…. The class came with a recipe book to take home and recreate in your own kitchen–something we haven’t been brave enough to try yet. Check me out below, before I almost singed my eyebrows off.
We loved Chiang Mai’s night bazaar more than any other we saw during our trip. The options were endless, there wasn’t hoards of people and locals selling laughing gas and scorpions to tourists, (byeee Khao San Road), and there were tons of reliable food stands and live music that gave a really nice vibe. Don’t miss out on this!
If you’re anything like me, you bring some kind of travel journal to jot down all of the funny moments or emotions you’ve felt during your journey. The one problem I find is trying to find time to actually write in it. The Terracotta Garden is the perfect place to spend a slow morning sipping coffee, writing in your journal, and absorbing the tranquility of the crumbling statues around you and the vines that envelope them. Even if you can’t find the time to squeeze in an entire morning, it is worth even a short visit. Its a little out of the way, but don’t let that discourage you.
If you’re feeling up for adventure on your own, you can rent a motorcycle for a few euros a day and head to some of the waterfalls nearby. We didn’t do this because we did not have an international driver’s license which is absolutely necessary in Chiang Mai. We had no problems in Koh Samui or Koh Tao, but had other tourist friends who were pulled over by police to check for their license. Without one, you’ll be fined around 40 euros, and possibly taken to the station. Ruh-roh. Another drawback could be the likely afternoon thunderstorm on a motorbike. Not. Ideal. But if you have some good weather, extra time, and a driver’s license, try checking out some of the best waterfalls like Huay Keaw, Monthathan, and Mork Fa.
Like many cities in the center and north of Thailand, in any city you go to you can count on seeing many temples sprinkled within the city limits. The temples in Chiang Mai may not have been the most unique, but they were gorgeous in and exemplified Buddhist architecture and design, and were far less tourist-filled than the ones in Bangkok. We even found ourselves to be the only ones inside many times. Aside from the temples, as Chiang Mai is such a walkable city, it is worth it to spend a morning or afternoon just wandering and getting a feel for the city in all its essence.