Greetings from Chiang Mai!
After a year of stillness and work in Krabi, I’ve been taking a week off to travel solo, something that I like to do once in a while. It helps me recharging and relaxing at the same time. I mean, how cool is it not to have to make plans in advance or compromise on dinner or where to go next? I enjoy traveling with friends and family, but sometimes I need my time alone.
Taking advantage of the quiet low season, I decided to fly North, stop two days in Chiang Mai and the rest of the week in Chiang Rai: I’ve visited the former on a stop over some years ago, but it’s going to be my first time in the latter, and I can’t wait to be there.
However, this post is only about Chiang Mai, because there is a lot to say about this city alone, and Chiang Rai deserves its own post.
Table of content:
The city of Chiang Mai, a digital nomad favourite that looks like a village
Chiang Mai, or Chiangmai, is the largest city in Northern Thailand and the capital of Chiang Mai province. It lies 700 km north of Bangkok in a mountainous region.
The name Chiang Mai means “New city” in Thai, however the city used to be the capital of the Lanna Kingdom before the reign merged with other kingdoms as part of Siam, nowadays Thailand, so its story is longer than what the name might suggest.
Chiang Mai is crossed by the Ping River and because of its position it has become a religious, cultural and economic centre for Northern Thailand, as well as a strategic Northern hub for travels to and from the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, China and Laos.
Chiang Mai is also one of the favourite cities of digital nomads; this reflects in the great number of co-working spaces, cafes, clubs, organic shops and vegetarian and vegan restaurants that can be found all around the city but especially in the Old Town and in the Nimmanhaemin area. It’s also a renowned and appreciated tourist centre, thanks to the many attractions that satisfy most travellers, from stunning National parks like the Doi Inthanon to jungle and river adventures, trekking opportunities, elephant sanctuaries. Not to mention the thousands of temples and ruins that fill the province and the presence of the hill tribes, minority groups of Tibetan and Mongolian descent like the Karen, Hmong and the Miao who possess awesome clothing, interesting religious beliefs and a remarkable way of living. We all can absorb some wisdom from the hill tribes, and in fact visiting a village of White Karen has been one of the highlights of my trip.
Yet, despite offering a great deal of activities, Chiang Mai appears like a large village: it’s (mostly) very clean, it’s orderly, it’s quiet and traditional, and the high rise condos haven’t changed its appearance, yet. The Old City, particularly the 18th-century walled quarter, lies on the West bank of the Ping River; it contains ruins of many 13th- and 14th-century temples, while the modern East-bank area is a more open scenery. Two bridges cross the broad Ping River.
Flying to Chiang Mai
After Bangkok, Chiang Mai is probably the most well connected city in Thailand.
There are weekly flights to most Thai cities (including Bangkok, Hat Yai, Hua Hin, Samui, Khon Kaen, Krabi, Pattaya, Phuket, Nan, Pai, Phitsanoluk) and several low cost airlines like Air Asia, Nok Air, Kan, Nok Air, Tiger Air fly to and from Chiang Mai airport, on top of major airlines like Thai, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air .
Flights to Bangkok depart almost every hour, while International flights connect the city to bordering countries like Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, but also to China, South Korea, India, Taiwan and Qatar.
The direct flight from Krabi to Chiang Mai is operated by Air Asia and it costed me about 2000 THB, booking a week in advance. From Chiang Mai I plan to travel by bus to Chiang Rai, where I will be spending four days. On the way back, I’m going to fly from Chiang Rai to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Krabi with Thai Lion Air. For the three flights I paid 4500 THB, but the fare can double in high season (November to March) and during public holidays.
Where to sleep in Chiang Mai
The accommodation I’ve chosen is an original boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town. It’s called Elliebum and I love it! The staff is not only welcoming but very professional and friendly, eager to share tips and info about the city and activities to do. The little garden at the entrance of the hotel is adorable, and you can sit there with friendly Gede and chat while sipping a glass of good wine at sunset, if you feel like enjoying some company.
The rooms are on the small size but spotlessly clean and well furnished with anything you need, from a bathrobe to hairdryer and safety box. My Deluxe room is on the second floor, there’s no elevator but the staff can carry your luggage upstairs if needed.
Breakfast is AWESOME. You get to choose among 8 or 9 options and they will prepare and serve it according to the time you prefer. So far I’ve tried Jok (a Thai porridge with pork meatballs, ginger and eggs) and a Lebanese dish of fried eggs in a bed of tomato sauce. You can book directly with the hotel or through Booking.com, always my first choice for reservations.
If you like to book your activities in and around Chiang Mai through Get your Guide or Trip Guru, the Elliebum boutique hotel is well known to their guides and drivers, and the address automatically pops up when choosing your preferred pick up location. Super easy.
Like myself, most travellers opt to sleep in the Old Town, which is the most charming part of the city, filled with temples, monuments, restaurants and shops. It’s enclosed by the old walls and very easy to explore by feet or by bike.
Just outside of the old city, at the four corners, are some shopping malls like Central or Maya, useful if you need to buy trekking equipment or go grocery shopping for imported food.
All around the city, in the countryside or on the hills, are some upscale resorts and boutique hotels that are the dream of Instagram influencers.
You can wake up in the mist that engulf the hills, surrounded by the jungle, and open your window to a suspended hammock or infinite pool. Of course all come for an expensive price.
To recap, the main areas you should consider for your stay in Chiang Mai are the following:
What to see in three days
1) Temples, temples and more temples
It’s raining heavily in Chiang Mai at the moment (not surprisingly, for mid October) so after landing I decided to spend the rest of the day walking lazily around the neighbourhood, dressed as a Smurf in my rain jacket, to check out bars and restaurants and visit a few temples.
The Warorot Market, which was one of the local places I wanted to experience, is unfortunately closed due to the heavy rain and flooding. But be sure to check it out when visiting the city.
Instead, on my first day in town I decided to take it slow, and get lost on purpose, walking without a precise itinerary. Isn’t it relaxing to get lost once in a while? Especially in a city that’s filled with temples, markets, design cafés, local specialties and interesting boutiques selling high quality cotton and silk clothes.
I had planned to rent a bike or a scooter for going around, however due to the very heavy rain and flooding I reconsidered, and went by foot.
The first temple I visited, just around the corner from my hotel, was the Wat Chedi Luang (entrance fee: 50 THB) where Chiang Mai’s City Pillar is hosted.
Chedi Luang, also known as The Great Stupa temple, is one of Chiang Mai’s most important temples. Its most easily recognisable feature is the massive stupa (or Chedi = pagoda) dominating the courtyard. It was built over a century and once finished, in 1475, it had reached an impressive height of 85 meters, the tallest structure in Chiang Mai province. A earthquake destroyed much of the pagoda in the 16th century, however it was partially restored in the Nineties .
The most sacred Buddha statue in the country, the Emerald Buddha, used to be housed inside the Wat Chedi Luang. Today, however, the statue is housed in the Wat Phra Kaew temple, in Bangkok.
The Sao Inthakin, Chiang Mai City Pillar is also housed in a small shrine inside the Wat Chedi Luang complex. The city pillar is believed by locals to protect the city. Women are not allowed to enter the shrine to see it, though, and you will find an explanation why on the sign at the entrance. Surprise, surprise...
The Wat Chedi Luang complex was partially flooded and everybody was walking in water at knee length, but I was enjoying my stroll and decided to keep going.
The next temple I entered was the Wat Phra Singh or “The temple of the Lion Buddha” , dating back to the 14th century when Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
The temple hosts a great number of monks and it was lively even in the pouring rain.
The most peculiar thing about this temple is the main golden stupa which is a circular structure mounted on a square base. Four elephant statues emerge from the 4 sides of the stupa.
Even in the grey sky, the golden pagoda is as sparkling as the sun, so much as to be blinding!
Golden reflections in the rain puddles and a backdrop of dark clouds made this temple look ethereal.
Admission is free.
Before going back to the hotel for a change of socks and shoes, I stepped on the grounds of a deserted temple, the Jedi Sriphuak Hong. I enjoyed some quiet five minutes right before sunset, then I walked back to Elliebum.
I had dinner in a restaurant nearby, where I ordered a very welcomed hot soup (Khao Soy, rice noodles in a chicken broth, a specialty of North).
2) Doi Inthanon National Park
On my second day in Chiang Mai I booked a guided tour to explore Doi Inthanon National Park, which is located about 60 kilometres from Chiang Mai.
Doi Inthanon is appreciated for its waterfalls, vegetation and the rain forest, and for housing Thailand’s highest peak, the 2,565 meter high Doi Inthanon.
Different altitudes mean different flora and fauna inside the park: the lower parts host the same vegetation as the rest of Northern Thailand, while the top of the mountain is covered in mist and evergreen forest: green ferns, lianas, mosses and several plants that cannot be found elsewhere in Thailand can be found here.
If Elves existed they would live close to Doi Inthanon Peak.
My guided tour (which I booked via Get Your Guide) comprised 8 people in a well kept minivan, plus guide and driver.
Once we reached the park, we first stopped to see Wachirathan Waterfall, the second biggest on the way to the summit of Doi Inthanon Mountain, and one of the most impressive.
The multi-levelled waterfall drops around 80 meters, and you get sprayed just by stand-in ten meters away. So be careful with your electronics and use a waterproof bag.
When the sun comes out, even for a second, a beautiful rainbow appears in the midst of the river.
You can stay overnight at Doi Inthanon, camping or renting one of the National Park’s bungalow, but the latter are to be booked almost one year in advance because they are in high demand. So camping looks like the easier option.
We then stopped at Sirithan Waterfall, another stunning waterfall which is named after the Queen Mother, Sirikit. (Than means Water in the old Pali language).
Due to the seasonal heavy rain, we could see the waterfalls and the river at their most powerful.
We then proceeded to the Doi Inthanon summit where we took a 45 minute walk in the forest. It was cold, though! Well, colder than expected, anyway.
At 18 degrees, this is the coldest day I’ve experienced in the last 4 years, except for the 5 freezing days in Copenhagen in October 2021.
But it was so worth it: the moss-and-fern covered forest is so beautiful I’m not sure I can describe it effectively, you must walk there by yourselves to see what I mean.
At the top of the summit there are two twin pagodas, known as The Royal Twin Pagodas. For some of my travel companions, the two pagodas were the highlight of the day, but in my opinion the enchanted forest and the Karen village deserve the first place.
The first and largest pagoda was built to honour the late King, Rama IX, on his 60th birthday, while the second, slightly smaller, pagoda is dedicated to his consort, Queen Sirikit.
More than the pagodas I appreciated the stunning view on the valley below, which came unexpected: after a foggy and rainy morning, the sky opened and the sun shone briefly while we were walking in the Queen’s gardens that encircle the two pagodas, and there it was, Chiang Mai valley and some part of the city!
3) The Hill Tribes
Doi Inthanon is home to a number of hill tribe villages, some of which can be visited on a day or multi-day excursion.
Inside the park we kept driving until we reached a Karen village of 800 inhabitants.
The White Karen are one of the three groups that make up the Karen Tribe of Tibetan descent ( the other two are the Red Karen and the Longneck Karen).
The White Karen are fierce protector of the forest, they live a symbiotic life with nature. They even bury their dead under the trees surrounding the village so that they can be one with nature.
Black piglets, cows, puppies, roosters and ducklings roamed around us while we walked in the village. We took our time to smell the flowers, pick up fruit from the trees, visit a weaver’s shop, some rice fields and a coffee roasting shop.
While tasting the very strong dark coffee of the Karen, we learned about the Doi Inthanon Royal Project which was started by the late King to educate the hill tribe people about modern agricultural techniques and how to improve their living standards.
The Royal Project aims to offer an alternative for the destructive slash and burn tactics that were used by peasants and farmers in the past and it also aims to give a profitable alternative to the production of opium, once the main product coming from these hills. Nowadays, the Karen village we visited grows coffee beans, rice and several vegetables and fruits, including avocado and strawberries. It's extremely peaceful and traditional, yet lively and beautiful.
We felt welcomed by the locals and when we left we didn't have the feeling of being in a tourist trap like the one set at the Longneck Village I've read about in several posts.
Did you know?
1) There’s a beach in Chiang Mai! In fact, you’ll likely spot some road signs pointing to Chiang Mai Beach along the road, even if the city is hundred of miles away from the ocean.
Since a few years, there has been a Chiang Mai river beach, a place where, despite the muddy coloured Ping River not being inviting for swimming, you’ll find sun chairs, swings, hammocks, a coffee shop and a beach playground for kids to play in the sand. I haven’t had time to check it out in person, but it seems to be quite popular and only a 20 minute drive from the Old City.
2) At the Wat Chedi Luang foreigners can speak daily with the local monks, and it’s a mutual learning opportunity: monks can practice their English while foreigners can expand their knowledge about Buddhism and monastic life.
3) Starbucks might not be your ideal coffee nest, however I was thrilled to learn that in Chiang Mai they buy coffee beans coming from the White Karen villages of Doi Inthanon. They go local, they pay a fair price (according to the villagers) and that’s good to know.
And that's all from Chiang Mai since tomorrow I'm going to travel to Chiang Rai, where I've never been before.
Three days in Chiang Mai is the minimum stay one should plan since there is a lot to see and experience, not too mention all the restaurants and art galleries that would require a month alone. However, a quick stay is better than nothing, and I plan to visit the city again at another time of the year.
If there is anything you would like to recommend me before my next trip, please do write it here!