Travel Tidbit #6: Chiang Mai
Everything written about Thailand is going to recommend a visit to Chiang Mai. The literature is often a list of increasingly flattering monikers, “Culture Capital,” “adventure hub,” “gateway of the North,” etc. that all mean the same thing: Chiang Mai is a must see stop. This is true, but after spending a month their, I have some practical tips conveniently left out of Lonely Planet.
All the hype and Chiang Mai love that convinced you to go there also convinced 9,000,000 other farang to head up as well. The city is a tourist haven. There are hundreds of travel agents ready to book you for hikes, rafting, zoos, mountain biking, caving, elephant camps, tiger kingdoms, jungle rides, etc. Use them smartly, you will need a fixer for some of what you want to do and you really don’t for a lot of it.
A trip to tiger kingdom or an elephant camp is a really good idea. There is something innate about wanting to get close to and touch wild animals. Especially two of the most dangerous in the world. You can cuddle with tigers and ride elephants, or sit back and watch them dance. This is also a good reason to spend some money- with the modernization of Thailand, camps are about the only reason left for traditional elephant training. Plus, you will have great pictures. Should you book it? Maybe- my opinion, figure out what time would be good to go out there and rent a motorbike for the day. The camps are barely an hour outside the city and a motorbike is all of 5 USD for the day.
If you want to go get out in nature, Chiang Mai is a good starting point for a multi-day hike. If you want to visit old, remote Thai villages or skirt the Burmese border you are going to have to book a local guide (there are several) through an agent. However, if you want to do some hiking and communing with nature just for a day, there are a couple cheap, travel agentless options: 1) Hiking Doi Suthep- the mountain is the focal point of any view in the city and after all of 10 minutes of being in Chiang Mai you will want to go up it. If you take a Songtaw halfway up the mountain you can begin a rigorous hike complete with 9 different waterfalls. The topmost one is the best, so bring some water and give yourself a couple hours to enjoy the challenge. The vines growing on the waterfalls make for a challenging free climb and the minimal trail makes the trip feel exotic and dangerous. Afterwords, you can hitch a ride the rest of the way up the mountain to Wat Phra Tat for a panoramic view of the city. Note: guidebooks really love this site, but it’s not all that fantastic. It is a crowded and fairly new wat, so don’t expect Khmer ruins or clear pictures. 2) Grab a motorbike and take a trip out of the city to one of the neighboring national parks. Shri Lanna National Park is beautiful and a boat ride can take you to a floating cottage in the middle of the lake for some swimming and lunch. Or, hike Shri Lanna’s mountains, wandering from waterfall to waterfall.
For food, Chiang Mai is unmatched. Everything it dirt cheap and delicious. I recommend sampling the various street vendors who specialize in all forms of skewered meat, eggs, curries, and papaya salads. Chiang Mai also offers an abundance of western food, so if you have been on the road for a while, you can grab a special meal. The Rose has German Weissbier on draft and for some of the best pizza in the world, head to the Duke’s. It’s an enormous, New York quality pizza that will rival anything you have had.
Chiang Mai has a pretty vibrant bar scene with so much foreign money at play. Loy Kroh Road in teh Southwest part of the city is literally a street of bars, most of which offer girlfriends on site. There are also plenty of “back-packer” bars scattered around, mostly near guest houses.
Finally, Chiang Mai is loaded with “cultural mementos.” There are plenty of cooking classes and the night market is crammed with vendors. The best opportunity though, is the Sunday walking street, where you have access to all sorts of art, clothing, jewelry, and food. If you spend your time nibbling and browsing, you can steal deals by bargaining just before the street closes and vendors are looking to liquidate.