Sorry for the brief hiatus, I’ve been traveling for the past two weeks from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to the south to Bangkok and back, with little to no wifi to work with.
I finally got my first holiday off!!! The week of July 18-20 was “Buddhist lent” or at least that’s what Thais keep telling me, so some sort of Buddhist holiday. That meant I got my first chunk of time off to travel outside of central Thailand. Seeing as no one from my orientation can leave the country yet, a couple of friends & I decided to go to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai was just rated the top underrated city in Asia, which is extremely ironic because it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand, right up there with Bangkok and the Southern Islands. So I’m not sure who thought it wasn’t known but apparently they missed the memo a while ago.
That being said, it was quite jarring how tourist-friendly the place was. Bangkok gets a lot of tourists, but the city is so congested that not everyone speaks English and not every place caters to farang. I did not have a single issue with the language barrier in Chiang Mai, and as much as I love Bangkok the people seemed to appreciate tourists a lot more in Chiang Mai.
The city also seemed to have the most western people that I’ve seen so far. I saw hordes of hippie dippy expats with dreadlocks, throngs of backpackers in elephant pants, and a surprising amount of western families that were vacationing. Although we didn’t see any Americans that were outside of our teaching program. Even though Thailand is trendy right now in the US, it seems that Thailand is much more popular with the Australian and British crowd comparatively.
It really is a great city, although the city serves more as a base for people to book day trips to mountains outside of the city and sign up for cooking classes and such. The city itself has a few temples, a decent art scene, and a few backpacker bars, but other than that everything is mostly outside the city limits.
Doi Suthep & Meditation
The first mini-day trip we did in Chiang Mai was visit a popular temple on a mountain at the edge of the city, Doi Suthep. Originally we planned on hiking it, but due to miscommunication with some stubborn Songtaew drivers we ended up just getting a ride to the temple. Although it ended up working out in our favor, as after a winding rough half hour ride up the mountain, we realized we were way too hungover to do anything that athletic and had severely underestimated the distance of the hike. But the height of the mountain did provide some sick views of the city.
The cute little girls above were running around the steps dressed like Northern Thai Karen and charging tourists for pictures, their mother/adult handler not in sight.
Dragon puking dragons ft. selfie stick.
The temple itself was very pretty, with tons of gold Buddhas and a dragon motif. The climb up the stairs to the temple was a tad rough, but again this was after a night on the town. Unfortunately it was very crowded when we went, but we dragged and didn’t leave until 11AM, so I’d recommend leaving earlier if you’re visiting.
While at Doi Suthep we happened to stumble onto a meditation center next to the monks’ quarters at the temple. There were no other tourists there, a rarity in a sea of Chinese tour groups and Thai people on holiday. The only other people in there were all clothed in white and doing yoga-esque moves mid-meditation, so to be honest I’m not really sure if we were allowed to just waltz right in and start meditating. But either way no one said anything, and we were able to bust out a brief 10 minutes of meditation. And by 10 minutes I mean 10 minutes of sitting with brief 5 second intervals where I was actually able to think about nothing. Meditation is freaking hard.
After finding the Meditation Center and trying to find our way back without climbing up the same long set of stairs, we found another cool staircase, again with no other tourists. This one featured Buddhas in old pants, and I actually think that it was a graveyard-type staircase at there were graves underneath each Buddha. We probably weren’t supposed to be here but whoops. Apparently if you follow the monks scarves wrapped around trees that are pictured above, it leads you to the next temple on the mountain. But again, we were hungover and dying of heat stroke, so next time.
Coffee Over Everything – Ristr8to
Chiang Mai is known for it’s trendy coffee scene. While strolling through the trendy Nimmahaemin neighborhood, we happened to stumble onto Ristr8to, supposedly one of the top coffee shops in the city. Being a latte geek I of course had to pop in and try it. I actually wound up having the most amazing latte of my life, both in appearance and in flavor. And that actually is saying something considering that I studied abroad in Italy. It was a flat white New Zealand blend, I would highly recommend. The whole place had a super trendy worldly black-and-white vibe going, and we were the only farang in there. That’s how you know the place is legit.
Another cute little coffee shop we found in the Nimmahaeim neighborhood.
Graffiti, Nimmahaeim Road and Other Trendy Stuff
Chiang Mai also has a decent art scene going, although they didn’t have any museums that were really highly recommended. In the Sunday night market several artists were selling their paintings, and around the entire city there’s some really sick graffiti. Next time I visit I definitely want to rent a motorbike and spend time looking for more.
Nimmahaeim Road is supposedly the trendy area in Chiang Mai. We found a few cute bars to go out to there at night, outlined in another upcoming post. While wandering around during the day they had quite a few cute coffee shops, along with some trendy clothing shops and pricey eateries. We also stumbled onto some area called the Think Park, with weird art, a weird coffee shop, and some very trendy very overpriced clothing that I had also seen for cheaper at the Sunday Night Market. Although it still is a pretty area to see.
Just for fun – we found a cute little bookstore in Nimmahaeim that sold Harry Potter Books, complete with an Asian version of Harry Potter on the cover.
Lady Boy Cabaret
This we found in the super-touristy Night Bazaar. Seeing a ladyboy show has been on my Thailand bucket list, so I was super pumped to go. PS “Ladyboy” is the Thai word for transgender male to female. Thailand is extremely accepting of ladyboys and they are very common. I have even seen several in my tiny little farming town, including teachers that work at my school and even some students who already identify with the opposite gender.
This show was clearly geared for tourists, as it was located in the touristy Night Bazaar, but it was only 280 baht so no big deal. It’s actually spooky how womanly many of the ladyboys look, if I had seen them on the street I literally wouldn’t have known the difference. The show itself was entertaining, consisting of 80s drag classics like “It’s Raining Men” and “I Will Always Love You.” The lipsyncing was less than mediocre, but I’m going to chalk that one up to the language barrier once again. It was a good show, but I definitely want to see a more legit one in Bangkok, preferably with some more modern Britney Spears and Beyonce.
On our last day in Chiang Mai we were struggling to find something to do as we couldn’t really do any day trips to Chiang Rai or Doi Inthanon and still make our busses/flights home. Our hostel owner recommended seeing the craft making and shops in San Kampaeng, about 10 meters outside the city. We had time to kill so we decided to give it a whirl, even though we didn’t really know what it was.
Apparently San Kampaeng used to have a ton of crafting factories for things like elephant poop paper, silver, and other Northern Thai crafts, but today the area is dwindling as factories are relocated and businesses die out. The only thing left really is a parasol factory, where you can go buy fancy Thai parasols and watch people make them by hand.
The umbrella factory was cool to see, and the umbrellas they were selling were gorgeous, but seeing as I lack a house to decorate them with am about 30 years too young to start collecting useless knick-knacks, all we really did was look around. But I did get a chance to get some nice pictures.
We hired a songtaew for 200 baht each to take us from stop to stop and back and forth from the city. For the second stop our driver recommended a store where they hand make jewelry. This turned out to be a huge showroom for precious gems and gold, complete with an irritating salesperson that followed our 20-something and broke selves around the whole time. All around I would not recommend taking time to see San Kampaeng, aside from the umbrella factory if you have time.
At Baan Khun 2 Hostel
A quick shout out to my hostel- if you’re headed to Chiang Mai definitely stay here. It was only 100 baht a night, cheap even by Thailand standards. Not only was it 100 baht, but it had air conditioning AND was super clean. It’s very rare to get air-con for 100 baht a night. It’s also very rare to get clean for 100 baht a night. Having both in one of the top tourist destinations in Thailand is simply unheard of.
The hostel had an awesome backpacker vibe complete with friendly backpackers, friendly staff, free coffee and bananas, and a secret rooftop garden with a great view of the city. A lot of people we met there actually had wound up staying there for a few weeks, and I can easily see why. I’ll definitely be staying there next time I’m in Chiang Mai.