After spending a wonderful month in the tropical paradise of Koh Tao, we decided to continue the trip and head to the beautiful mountain region of Northern Thailand. First stop – Chiang Mai, The Rose of the North. A place so highly recommended by so many travelers and travel bloggers, that I just had to see it for myself. For my greatest surprise though, the beautiful fairytale-like picture I’d drawn in my imagination, did not exactly match what I saw…
Arriving in Chiang Mai
It’s really easy to get to Chiang Mai, as it’s considered the northern capital of Thailand and there are plenty of transportation options. Depending on the time you have though and the place you’re traveling from, some options might be better than others.
As Koh Tao is quite far form Chiang Mai and it could take up to 48 hours to travel by bus or train, we opted in for a flight option with Air Asia, which cost around 45 Euros each. To get to Surat Thani airport, we booked a ferry and a bus transfer which took nearly 4 and a half hours and cost 1,000 Baht each from Koh Tao’s main pier.
Once we arrived, we jumped in a taxi for 150 Baht and headed towards the Old Town (very touristic, but also nice and easy to make your way by foot to a lot of the attractions in the city). We asked the taxi driver to drop us off at a hotel/hostel area, as once again, we didn’t have any accommodation sorted (adventure, adventure!), and from there we continued on our mission to…
As an adventure traveler, sometimes you can be very lucky, and meet likeminded people who are more than happy to help you out, without asking for anything in return. As we were walking on the street, looking around for nice deals, a friendly kiwi fella approached us and pointed us out to the place he and his girlfriend were staying. This is how we ended up in Julie’s Guest House, a place we absolutely loved from first sight (here’s my TripAdvisor Review).
It’s a lovely spot where we could socialize, meet great people, easily access most tourist attractions by foot, have some good vibes, good food, run our own drinks tab and have a free game of pool whenever we liked. We booked a private room, but there are so many little hotels, hostels and guest houses around, that it’s so easy to just walk around and find what you need.
Tip 1: Staying in the city center for a short time is really convenient, but for a longer stay I’d recommend the outskirts as the traffic is mad, it gets quite noisy and the air quality is not great either (not what you’d expect from The Rose of the North).
What To See in Chiang Mai
When I typed this question in Google search, 7 out of the first 10 popular results were temples. I was immediately sold. I just love the Buddhist temples! When we started walking around the town however, it turned out that it’s almost impossible not to see at least one temple every couple of blocks. On day 2 we were a bit templed out already, but there are a few places, that stood out and I particularly enjoyed.
Wat Suan Dok – in one word – different. It’s a bit far out of the city center so we rented a bike, which turned out to be a frightening but also quite rewarding experience (the traffic and driving in Chiang Mai are absolutely mad). After seeing quite a lot of similar looking temples, it was a delight for the eyes to see a field of amazing tall white structures, laid in front of massive red, blue and gold temple. Later on, I found out that the white structures are actually the Royal Cemetery, but still, the construction was beautiful.
Wat Phra Singh – the 14th century temple is a very beautiful sight to see, even if the head of the big golden Buddha inside is fake (according to legend the original head was stolen in 1922). What I found more interesting however, was the charming Buddhist garden in the back, filled with inspirational quotes pinned on the trees. While reading things like “Physical charm attracts the eyes. Goodness attracts the mind” and “Failure teaches man how to succeed”, a young Buddhist monk approached us and politely asked us to practice his English with us. Two hours later, we were still sitting in the park, chatting with the monks and exchanging knowledge about Buddhism and British sports… a surreal and exciting temple experience.
Wat Chedi Luang – to get to the temple we had to pay 40 Baht, so I was not impressed when I saw the sign on the first building – “No Women Allowed”. Thankfully, it turned out to be the city pillar and not a temple, and women are not allowed because we menstruate… a brilliant decision that the tourist guides don’t really tell you about. We continued to the back, while I was trying to swallow my feminist rage, when the ancient beauty of the temple rose in front of us. Unlike other Buddhist temples, the only golden element here was on a big Emmerald Buddha replica on the top, while the rest of the temple was a ruined chedi (a Buddhist temple structure), which gave us an approximate idea how long ago 14th century was. It might have not been the most beautiful temple we’d seen, but its antiquity gave it an incredible charm.
Once we decided we’ve had enough temples already, we thought it might be a good idea to go for an evening walk and see a bit of the night-time Chiang Mai. A few interesting events popped up in my searches, the first one of which was the …
Night Bazaar – excited by the sound of it, we walked down the street to find out the busy, buzzing atmosphere of the Night Bazaar. It was amazing to see the great variety of things you can buy there – unusual souvenirs, Thai clothing, all sorts of Asian food, etc., and all that backed up by the live music coming from the near-by bars. At first it looked fun, nice and vibrant, but the more I saw, the more I realized that this was also the Mecca of sex tourism. If it wasn’t the Thai girls screaming like horny moose after every man on the street that lead me to thit conclusion, then it was the old white men surrounded by large groups of Thai girls, or Thai boys, or ladyboys.
According to many bloggers, this is the charm of the place, and while I understand that sex tourism is a big part of the travel in the country, that was not the Thailand I wanted to see. It felt like it was the beast of Chiang Mai’s beauty.
Saturday and Sunday Walking Markets – if you happen to be in Chiamg Mai during the weekend, make sure you a pay a visit to those. They happen on different streets, but in both events you can find endless rolls of market stalls filled with all sorts of goods and foods. There were some bizarre stuff, such as giant penis bottle openers, giants bugs in frames or fried bugs to munch on, but there were also some great little finds, like the fried squid balls, which I’ve never tried before, or sushi for 5-10Baht a piece.While most of the things offered on the walking markets and the night bazaar were the same, the Saturday walking street and its relaxed atmosphere also provided us with a nice evening walk.
Tip 2: Visit the night bazaar and the walking markets on an empty belly as you’ll be tempted by the tasty delicacies on the countless food stalls.
Things To Do
Remember the friendly people ready to help that I was talking about? There are some that do have a gain though and they were mostly following us in the temples. Nicely dressed Thai gentleman, just starting a casual chat with us in a very good English, pointing us to different sightseeings and respectively, specific travel agencies. They always said they don’t work for any agency though, but somehow they all circled around the same places and had a pen ready to draw us a map.
Tip 3: Most of the offers in the tourist agencies are more expensive than usual. Just collect brochures of the activities you like from different places and you’ll find the cheaper deals. If you’re booking for more than 2 people, you can usually negotiate a discount too.
This is more or less where Chiang Mai city ends. It turned out that the best attractions and activities are quite far out in the Chiang Mai district (around 2hr drive) and they’re mostly full day trips. Good thing about long term travel though is that we were not really pressed by time, and we were happy to spread the activities throughout our travels around Northern Thailand. After checking countless brochures of trips available around the entire city – trekking, sanctuaries, canyon visits, tree parks, zip lines, waterfalls, rafting, cooking classes and what not, eventually we signed up for one of the most amazing things we’ve ever done…
Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary – words are not enough to describe the incredible experience with the elephants, followed by trekking to a beautiful waterfall and fun bamboo rafting in the Thai jungle. This was definitely the highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai and one of the best days in my life. Check out the video below for the whole experience 🙂
2 Cents on Elephant Riding and Tiger Kingdom – you can see it offered everywhere, but there are few cruel truths behind it. In order to be trained to work for humans, the elephants are being chained, hit and stressed. The tourist seats on their backs are being tied with tight ropes and cause pain to those magnificent giants who love to live in peace and quiet in the jungle. Combination of all that usually shortens the life of an elephant by 30 years, and instead of living up to 90-100 years, they live up to 60.
Same applies for the tiger kingdom. Have you ever wondered why the human eating tigers are so calm and lovely while people are lying on top of them? Well, they’re simply caged, harshly trained and sedated for most of the time. Even a domestic cat will get fussy and scratch you if you bother it for too long.
It might look like a lot of fun and some cool photos for Facebook, but there is a lot of animal cruelty behind those activities, which we can stop by simply not funding them anymore. Ok, enough with the speeches now. Our elephant-care-spa day was amazing and left us pleasantly tired and hungry, so this leads us to …
Restaurants – most of the time we ate at the hostel as the food was quite good and well priced, but there are also plenty of little restaurants around which offer great food. Personal favourite was an Indian restaurant called Taj Mahal, which served huge portions of delicious food and very friendly service. Good thing about Chiang Mai however, is that there is plenty of street food stalls, giving you the opportunity to enjoy a great Pad Thai for 40Baht, squid balls or fresh fruit shakes for 30 Baht, so we didn’t really eat in restaurants.
Night Life – There is not much late night life in the city as most of the bars and clubs close at midnight, even though it’s advertised as 2am. In the popular area around Zoe in Yellow club I saw loads of younger people, drinking as much as they can till midnight, then the music stopped, lights went on and there it was again – the beast in Chiang Mai’s fairytale. This is not exactly my type of experience, but fortunately we found a few really cute places with live music, great vibes and fun loving people. Favourite places in town were Boy Blues Bar, Roots Rock Reggae and the tiny bar next to it (no idea what the name was, so just follow the groove :)).
In less than a week I’ve had enough of Chiang Mai and I was 110% ready to move on. The amazing beauty and chilled out atmosphere I expected were replaced by vulgarity, animal cruelty, crazy traffic, pollution and loud drunken backpackers. The Rose of the North had lost its beautiful scent and unfortunately, it couldn’t offer me the Thailand I wanted to experience. We packed our bags and with a pinch of faith, a dose of adventure and a handful of excitement, we were on our way to the green paradise of Thailand, Pai…