Located 700 km North of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a laid back city that is easy to get around, full of friendly locals and wonderful food. As a female traveling solo, I felt quite safe wandering around Chiang Mai on my own. I decided to put together a basic city guide for anyone who has Chiang Mai on their list of ‘go to’ places.
How to Get There
I flew from Toronto to Bangkok then used a low cost air carrier, Air Asia, to take a quick and cheap flight directly to Chiang Mai. There are flights between Toronto and Chiang Mai, however flying to Bangkok was significantly less expensive. There are a handful of lower cost domestic airlines that fly to Chiang Mai from Bangkok (such as Nok Air). I found the lowest price with Air Asia. The only drawback to flying with them is that they operate out of Don Muang; a smaller airport about an hour away (double that time in traffic) from Bangkok International. But the good news is that Bangkok International offers free shuttle service between both airports. The shuttle is located on the same level as the public taxis.
Tip: Look for international airfare early and try to be as flexible as possible with your travel dates. Personally, I have found the least costly flights this way. Usually flights leaving during the week offer better rates. For example my departure date was late February, I started researching airfare in October and found flights for as low as $1,300 flying with Emirates! Another thing to keep in mind when researching lower cost carriers is that often times they charge extra fees for checked baggage and meals – something to be aware of when comparing prices between airlines!
If you have a lot of time, patience and are on a strict budget, you can travel by land via train or bus from Bangkok. This journey is at least 10 hours long. Lonely Planet offers a good breakdown of transportation options between the two cities: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/chiang-mai-province/chiang-mai/transport/getting-there-away
How to get around
During my time in Chiang Mai I mainly spent time exploring the old city. It used to be completely surrounded by a squared wall and moat. Today some of the original brick still remains along with a decorative moat and 4 gates into the city which face North, South, East and West. Chiang Mai is a very easy city to navigate on foot, which was my favourite (and most economical!) way to wander around exploring the city. The best place to start is the Thapae or East Gate. This is the gateway to the main street Ratchadomoen Road which runs west of the gate. You will find a little bit of everything on this road, several temples a quick walk apart from one another, Thai and Western restaurants, shops and cheap massages.
Another great way to travel around the city is on a bicycle which can usually be rented for the day at a very low cost. Many guesthouses have them available for their guests to rent.
Songthaews (red covered trucks) are a great option of traveling around if you are going somewhere that’s a bit further than walking distance. They can be flagged down anywhere along the road simply by giving them a wave. Songthaews are much cheaper (about $.80-1.00 on average) than a taxi or tuk tuk, however they carry multiple passengers at once, meaning it may take a little longer to reach your destination or you will not be able to go directly to it.
Tip: ask your guesthouse approximately how much it should cost to get to your destination – knowing how much to expect to pay will help you to bargain with the driver and know you are being given a fair price.
Where to Stay
There is a really wide selection of places to stay in Chiang Mai depending on your budget such as hostels, guesthouses or boutique hotels. Given my budget, I stayed in a family run guesthouse on the lower end of the price spectrum. After reading reviews on Trip Advisor (my go to site for traveller reviews!), I settled on Bed and Terrace Guesthouse situated right outside the old city moat, a quick walk into the city. Room prices range from $15 – 45. I stayed in the Twin room with air conditioning for $20 per night. My room was very spacious, and most importantly clean and safe. The room came with a small safe, comfortable bed, desk, fridge with free bottled water, free Wifi and a nice hot water shower. The family that owns the guesthouse is very friendly, welcoming and helpful.
In my opinion, Thai cuisine is some of the most delicious food that I have tasted during my travels. It has so many depths of flavour; you can literally taste numerous different ingredients in each bite. Some of the best ways to savour it is to hit the street for street eats! Eat great food while sitting elbow to elbow with locals and tourists – all part of the experience! My favourite places were the food stalls at the South Gate where you can get just about anything, including oh so good freshly blended fruit smoothie’s at Pa’s stand and the street stalls along Ratchadomoen Road during the Sunday Market. Or, take a cooking class like I did and eat what you make! Some of the finest food I had in the city came out of this class. For a great cup of coffee, spend a quiet afternoon at Akha Ama (Hussadhisewee Rd, Soi 3 – “Soi” means smaller side street), a peaceful tucked away cafe that serves really good coffee, yummy treats and is working towards sustainable agriculture. It’s a little out of the way, but a nice place for some downtime. PS. It’s a good idea to take a map with you as it can be a little trickier to find.
Tip: Health and safety are always a concern when traveling and eating at food stalls. My general rule is to avoid stalls where not many people are dining and choose those with many patrons. Try to grab street eats at the beginning of breakfast/lunch/dinner hour. Food will be at its freshest then!
Some must try dishes:
Thai Iced Tea – I indulged in this drink daily! Not everyone’s cup of tea, this creamy and sweet beverage is a mix of black tea, spices (such as cardamom and cinnamon), condensed and evaporated milk. The finished product is freakishly orange, but I love it!
Massaman Curry – a delicious rich bowl of curry with coconut milk, tamarind sauce, peanuts and potatoes with chicken, beef or tofu served with rice.
Khao Soi – Tender egg noodles in a coconut milk based curry with green onions, coriander, lime and shallots, topped with crispy fried egg noodles. Often comes with chicken.
Mango Sticky Rice – a very sweet dessert made with sticky rice soaked in a sweet coconut sauce and topped with ripe mango.
Soups – even a regular ‘ol bowl of “chicken noodle soup” is bursting with flavor!
Where to Shop
To find that perfect souvenir or to pick up some cheap items of clothing, my top choice is the Sunday Street Market (aka Walking Street Market). Every Sunday from 4pm – midnight, Ratchadomoen Road becomes a pedestrian walkway jam packed with vendors selling everything from doggie outfits, handmade artisanal crafts to cheap must have fashion that just about every tourist is sporting. Start at Thapae Gate and work your way West. Make sure to shop around as many vendors carry similar items at very different prices! Bargain, bargain, bargain! If you’re not in Chaing Mai on a Sunday, you can peruse the Night Bazaar. Open 7 nights a week it stretches 1km along Thanon Chang Khlan (or Chang Khlan Road). I found some nice pieces of sterling silver jewelry here!
There is a long list of things you can do in Chiang Mai. I was only in Chiang Mai for a short while and spent most of my time volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park outside of the city, but whether you have a few days or more time you can squeeze in some fun and memorable experiences. Here are some of my highlights:
Cooking class with Baan Thai Cookery School – I took their full day class ($30) and made 5 yummy dishes. Choose which dishes you like to make and take a trip to a local market to pick up the ingredients. A recipe book s included in the cost of my class – score!
Elephant Nature Park (ENP) – I volunteered for a full week at the park and came home with an unforgettable experience. You can read all about my experience here. They also offer day tours to the park where visitors can bathe, feed and interact with the elephants staying in their park. ENP is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre set in a natural environment.
Massages – Insanely cheap, take advantage when you’re here! Massages generally range between $4 – 8 per hour. There are literally outdoor and indoor massage establishments on every corner. However, I recommend Pranom Health Massage located in a grassy open air square behind Wawee Coffee shop off Ratchadomoen Road. Choose from a traditional Thai Massage which incorporates a lot of stretching, a foot massage or an oil massage.
Have any tips, recommendations or suggestions to share? I’d love to hear them!