Dear friends –
We are excited to hear you will be visiting Chiang Mai. Here are some thoughts as you plan your trip. With about a month under our belts, we aren’t experts by any means, so keep researching, and I’ll give you the best overview I can.
GETTING HERE: Chiang Mai has a small, international airport (CNX) that is very easily reached from Bangkok (BKK and DMK) and a few other destinations, including Luang Prabang, Laos (LPQ – where we will depart to from here).
If you are first traveling in the Thai islands, look for flights from Koh Samui (USM), Krabi (KBV) or Phuket (HKT). There also are buses and trains from Bangkok if you like long overland journeys, along with other entry points from Cambodia and Laos.
WHERE TO STAY: The two obvious areas to stay are either within the moats of the Old City or west on Nimman (short for Nimmanhaemin Rd). We are staying on Nimman, in a very nice apartment we booked through AirBNB. We are paying about $19 a day, which local ex-pats find amusing, as they generally get an apartment for about $200 a month.
Nimman is a hip, buzzy neighborhood with far more Thai than westerners. While some compare it to the Beverly Hills of Chiang Mai, we think Melrose Ave is a better comparison. Plenty of restaurants, cafes, shopping and nightlife.
The Old City is filled with guesthouses, which are a step up from hostels. Rooms are cheap ($10 to $20 a night), bathrooms may be shared or private and wifi is hit-or-miss. The smaller streets may give you a better chance at a quiet night, but be sure to read plenty of blog posts and reviews on the places you are considering.
TRANSPORTATION: You can grab a taxi from the airport to your place of residence for about 200 baht (US$7 – 30 baht to the dollar). From there you have a few choices.
Either rent a scooter or motorcycle if you are comfortable with that mode of transportation. Thailand isn’t much for actual traffic rules, but there is a certain flow to the traffic you’d (have to) become accustomed to. Renting something with two wheels is maybe 100 baht a day – see if you can leave a photocopy of your passport and not the actual passport.
Our mode of choice is by songthaew (red pickup trucks with benches) or tuk tuk (three wheel motorcycles). Wave down a songthaew, give the driver a big landmark (temple, city gate or market) near where you want to go and ask how much. Confirm the rate is for two people. Expect to pay anywhere from 20 to 50 baht each depending on distance and time of day.
Tuk tuks will take you directly to where you want to go, and don’t get as easily hung up in traffic. Rates are generally around 100 baht for two, but leaving busy night markets can command a premium of 150-200 baht. (Yes, hard-core negotiator reader, I know we paid more than you did).
Chiang Mai is not very pedestrian friendly when you reach the big streets. Be super alert crossing the street, as cars come from the other direction, motorcycles wind their way through traffic on all sides of cars, and you’ll always be jaywalking. If you start walking, drivers will be expecting you to continue the path you are already on – be predictable! You’ll get the hang of it, and join the flow stress-free in no time. Traffic in the USA will seem quaint after visiting Asia.
NAVIGATION: The heart of Chiang Mai is fairly small – from one side of the Old City to the other is about a kilometer. Off the main streets are sois. So for instance, you may want to visit a cafe on Nimman Soi 11, which basically means “Nimman side street 11”. There will be a big sign with an 11 along with signs for any number of businesses on that street. The sois are generally very pleasant to walk along, but stay alert for cars from both directions.
I am very pleased to be using Galileo Offline Maps on an iPhone without a Thai sim card. This allows me to plot any number of points, make notes, and see where I am on the map without using any data. I’ll write up how to do this in a future post. We also have a Thai sim in an unlocked iPhone, using the TrueMove-H “Tourist Sim,” which is 300 baht at any of the numerous 7-11’s, and gives you a phone number, texting and some data.
WHAT TO DO: Regardless of the length of your stay, Chiang Mai has a ton of great stuff to do. The wats (temples) dot the city, and are amazing – each unique in architecture and orientation. Catch one at 5 or 5:30pm, and you may find yourself in a chanting meditation with a hundred monks in orange robes.
Within the Old City, two big ones are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang; some smaller ones include Wat Jedlin (buy the “merit food” for 10 baht to feed the fish), Wat Phan On and an excellent free museum with amazing monk replicas upstairs at Wat Inthakhin.
Outside the Old City, take the trek up to Doi Suthep, visit the cave temple at Wat Umong and have an excellent organic vegetarian meal at Pun Pun, the restaurant on the grounds of Wat Suan Dok.
There are no shortage of tourist agencies and songthaew drivers who will take you to Doi Suthep, Tiger Kingdom, Night Safari, zip lines, overnight hikes and any number of other animal shows. I did a full-day visit to Elephant Nature Park, a really wonderful, memorable rescue facility about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, notably contrasted with the more exploitative elephant shows that feature riding, performance and tricks.
The Night Markets are fantastic, many filled with actual artisan crafts, and a junk-to-treasure ratio that is quite favorable. There are so many street food vendors that allow you to be as adventurous as you want – from a vegetarian samosa to a heaping plate of shrimp pad thai to fried bugs. You’ll find multiple massage stations with twenty easy chairs, an equal number of masseuses and a 1/2 hour massage for 80 baht.
Sunday Market in the Old City and Saturday Market just south of the city gates have their own unique personality. We find ourselves arriving at around 4:30pm, while vendors are setting up, and departing as it gets increasingly crowded.
And I’m planning on taking a cooking class, chossing from the abundance of restaurants that moonlight as cooking schools. Most are in the Old City, with at least one outside the city at an organic farm. Getting a better handle on the classics would be fantastic – pad thai, tom yum, panang curry, sticky rice and mango to start.
WHERE TO EAT: I hope you love Thai food. Many, many great recommendations, Thai and otherwise, at Pure Chiang Mai. Some ways in which you can eat:
On the street, mobile cooking is extremely common. Vendors set up, cook one or two specific dishes right in front of you and serve on plastic plates and bowls, or in something disposable like paper plates or banana leaves. At night, there may be a patio with thirty tables and three or four street vendors – a little Thai food court. Cheap eats – expect to pay 30-50 baht for a dish, where price is inverse to courage.
Local restaurants are slightly more stationary, not any more sanitary, and menus entirely in Thai. Maybe there are a few faded photos of food on the wall you can point to. They are often rudimentary mason block structures with tarps as walls and often adjacent to a welding shop or motorcycle repair. There are of course many gems out there that dish up great local Thai cuisine, including northern Thai, which is spicier and saltier than westerners are used to.
There are many local joints which are a significant step up from the ramshackle destinations – keep an eye out for places with 20 Thai people out front on a waiting list, like the restaurant on Nimman Soi 13 a half block down on the north side of the street that doesn’t even have an English-translated name. Even the nice places are still really cheap – four or five dishes and a big Chang beer might run 300 baht.
Western-friendly restaurants abound. Let me make a distinction between these, which often have Thai/English menus and wait staff that speak a bit of English, versus tourist restaurants which we avoid like the plague. Over in Nimman, I’d recommend Cafe de Nimman, Anchan Vegetarian, DinDee Cafe, Mango Tango and the über-popular Salad Concept.
Cafes are everywhere – Chiang Mai runs on coffee. The world-class coffee experience begins and ends at Ristr8o at Nimman Soi 3, with incredible single-source coffee, arcane brewing methods and champion latte art. Anywhere else, enjoy an espresso, latte, Americano or iced coffee at your leisure and hop on the wifi. Smoothies are a close second, with Smoothie Blues the best we have found on Nimman.
Nightlife, you’re on your own. We might get a beer at dinner or hit a wine bar, and that’s about it. There are reggae bars in the northeastern quadrant of the Old City, loud dance bars all over the place, and assuredly some swanky clubs of which we are unaware. Report back, and we’ll update the guide!
TIPPING: At restaurants and cafes, I tip about 10-20% depending on level of service (which varies widely), with 10% being appreciated and 20% causing mind-blowing gratitude. Maybe I’m bending the curve, but how can you not tip a dollar on a five dollar meal?
I don’t tip the drivers, because I know the rate I am being quoted has plenty of padding. I have tipped the tour guides 100 baht or so, which has been well received.
SERVICES: Everything is ridiculously cheap for westerners. Thai massages will be 150-250 baht an hour. A full load of fluff-and-fold laundry is maybe 90 baht. Scanning ten documents and printing them was 26 baht. Medical tourism is a huge industry here. I think I’ll get my teeth cleaned.
ELECTRONIC DEVICES: Yes, you will need an adapter, and may need a converter as well. There are not many USA-compatible three-prong outlets, but two pronged plugs will work fine here. I recommend (at Fry’s if you can’t find it elsewhere) a generic world adapter. It has a bunch of different configurations like a swiss army knife. Power here is 220V, so make sure your laptop, etc can convert that (look for 110-240V on the power box or device). Any Mac product is OK. Most camera battery chargers are OK. Electric razor, maybe, maybe not. If you can’t find an adapter, it will be easy to find one here, in one of the shopping malls or in the electronics stores just outside the city moat to the northwest.
Phones: we have a new and old iPhone. The old one is unlocked, and so we can use Thai sim cards. There’s a Tourist Sim (truemove-H) available at 7-11 for 300 baht, and then that can be topped up online. You get a local number, domestic and international calls and some data usage. International SMS just stopped working on the phone, despite there being credit, so expect some imperfection.
USING ATM’S: ATM’s are no problem here. But they are expensive, so plan on some sticker-shock. You’ll be charged $5 (150 baht) by the ATM, and then maybe 1-3% by your bank. It sucks but there you go. I take out about $330 (9900 baht) and that lasts maybe a week. Most places only take cash. Any bigger ticket items or nice restaurants should take a card, but remember credit cards will incur a foreign transaction fee unless you have a card that specifically doesn’t. If you bring lots of cash, be sure to split it up (along with active cards) into different bags, just in case something is lost or stolen (that said, Chiang Mai is very safe and not so crowded you are constantly bumping into people).
POLLUTION: Yes, there is. It is apparently outrageously smoggy and smoky when the burning starts in the mountains, from roughly late January through March. Here in the dry season of November and December, the pollution from way too many unregulated diesel engines and smoke from the countryside fills up the basin pretty good. A nice rain washes the city clean, and it starts getting hazy within 48 hours. If the powers-that-be could convert just the songthaews to biodiesel, Chiang Mai’s international standing would be raised dramatically (for better or worse). If it is any consolation, Bangkok was much worse.
BEYOND CHIANG MAI: Overnight hiking at Doi Inthanon. Out to the village of Chiang Dao. Farther beyond to Pai and Chiang Rai. South to Sukhothai. Many, many more places our readers might be able to help with.
To be expanded…