Chiang Mai: a lovely busy city that based on our brief stays in both has more character and friendly people than bigger Bangkok.
But first – when we last wrote we were en route from Railay to Chiang Mai via the town of Krabi. We stayed there a night and it’s worth a mention and a few photos. It’s a quiet town on a river delta with lots of through-travelers but we liked it as a relaxing stopover and a good place to get a more unfiltered view into local life. Walking around the waterfront we saw plenty of folks exercising, playing, and commuting. A local park teaches the Thai alphabet to kids with small statues of animals and objects next to block letters. All sorts of boats, sharing a common well-worn appearance, puttered around the river mouth.
We happened to be there on a weekend night and were able to see the night market which was great – a packed plaza with all kinds of food (chubby kid selling fried sandwiches, dancing older man cranking out pad thai, fish being grilled inside homemade sheetmetal ovens, stalls selling icy beer) and live entertainment (music if you’re feeling generous, karaoke if you’re striving for accuracy. Click for video). A dish here takes the lead as weirdest meal eaten yet – khao yam, a funky spicy southern Thai salad with rice and fermented fish chunks and liquids. Unprepared for the level of funk Elaine ordered this for herself but quickly gave up and ate Gregor’s fried chicken instead, leaving Gregor to the salad. It’s hard to describe it as yummy – it’s quite a blast of unusual flavors – but I did enjoy it and washed it down with what counts as craft beer around here (“U” lager).
On to Chiang Mai then! We flew up since it’s really quite cheap and with Thailand being really much bigger than we realized before we got here a bus ride would have been something like 24 hours long. This time we got ourselves a nice airbnb apartment in a good location between the old town and the trendy Nimmanhaemin district. It’s nice to have a small kitchen even though (as we confirmed by doing some grocery shopping) it really is as cheap or cheaper to buy street food here than it is to cook for yourself!
While we’re on the subject of food – always one of our favorites – I’d say that Chiang Mai, while lacking the immense variety and availability found in Bangkok, generally has tastier eats when it comes to noodling around the street food and cute restaurants. We’ve had some great dishes here especially in the soup category where the broths are just awesome. It perhaps seems odd to eat spicy hot soups on hot + muggy days (it’s been regularly hitting 40C+ here or 105F and the sun is torching) but for some reason it works. Perhaps it’s because you’ve already given up on not getting all sweaty, or perhaps it’s your body simply being overwhelmed by heat on all sides, who knows, but let’s go find some more soup.
Chiang Mai also has a great coffee scene. Apparently the government has engaged in some successful programs to replace opium growth with coffee plants up here in the northern jungle and the city dwellers here are taking full advantage with lots of boutique coffee shops. Great Thai-style iced coffee yes, but also as good an espresso as I’ve had anywhere. One more tick on the register of items that makes this city livable!
Part of Chiang Mai’s character is it’s appearance, a clean mix of gardens, old city history, and brightly colored temples and buildings. While Bangkok by and large seems like you’re looking through a gray-colored filter, Chiang Mai bursts with greens and reds and yellows. The old town is surrounded by the ruins of a 700-year old brick wall and moat which is nicely integrated into the modern city structure and provides a shaded walkway. Wats (temples) are not as opulent as the capital’s but have great proximity and variety – teak walls and columns, large old ruins, bright flags and sculptures.
We checked out several wats over the span of a couple days while dodging the early afternoon scorching heat. Perhaps most unique is Wat Pha Lat, halfway up what is called the “monk’s trail” to Wat Doi Suthrep. The latter sits atop the mountain of the same name to the west of the city and is quite a popular site to visit, typically by catching a ride up the windy road that gets you there. We decided instead to get up early and hike the trail from the base of the hill. The trail is apparently regularly used by monks, though we saw none (we did, however, see plenty of ants marching in thick columns on important ant business). An hour in we reached the secluded Pha Lat. It’s quiet and subdued, lacking some of the louder decorations typical to these temples, but I appreciated how it’s woven into the surrounding forest.
We intended to carry on with our hike to the top but were thwarted. Either we were unable to find the continuing trail, or it had become overgrown through lack of use, but in either case the route was less than clear. Additionally the aforementioned ant armies had a tendency to end up on you in thick clumps when pushing through the brush, and to top it off, many trees had pretty serious multi-inch-long thorns growing on them that would make any slip or tumble on the steep hillside end rather unpleasantly. So we abandoned our hike and caught a ride-share red truck up the rest of the way to Wat Doi Suthrep. It’s a nice place with a good view but by then we were pretty watted out and I guess wouldn’t consider it the “must see” that many describe it as.
We also took a Thai cooking class here. There are innumerable options so we went with one that takes you out of town a little ways to their own organic farm for a full day of cooking, aptly named Thai Farm Cooking School. We had a great time and made some delicious stuff (curry using our own made from scratch paste, pad thai, tom yum soup, and more). We’d never really had an opportunity to use a full-powered wok before and it turns out it’s both really easy and really fun. We also realized just how simple and quick good Thai food can be to prepare. This school really had their business figured out and had multiple spacious and clean covered outdoor setups with cooking stations for everyone and fresh herbs and peppers growing right nearby.
Just as satisfying as the food at our class was fulfilling our hope of meeting some like-minded travelers and getting some good advice. We got to talking to a really nice and fun couple from southern Mexico who had lots of good suggestions for us, particularly on some upcoming legs of our journey through Cambodia and into Vietnam where they had just been. Thanks guys!
Another Chiang Mai staple is the night bazaar, really a combination of extensive street stalls and multiple large covered markets that somehow these folks have the energy to set up every single night. We wandered over after returning from our cooking class, definitely not hungry but looking for some cold beer and interesting sights. We weren’t disappointed! A lot of the stuff being sold are your run of the mill trinkets and souvenirs but there’s quite a lot of items made nearby (or on the spot) as well as some great people watching and more food sights. We finished off the night at an expat-favorite blues bar above one of these markets where we enjoyed what was really quite good guitar work along with cheap beer in ice (a common trick here to keep it cold in the heat, and it already tastes like water anyway).
Last experience worth mentioning: catching a movie mid-afternoon to beat the heat. Seats – reserved ones, no less – in a very nice theater for a big-budget film not even out in the States yet were only $3. The movie was noticeably preceded by at least half an hour of stuff: trailers, the king’s anthem (for which one stands up), and a series of advertisements including a rather graphic PSA about not riding your motorbike too fast. Yikes.
Specifics: we got an Airbnb which was great, halfway in between Nimmanahaeminda and the moat. It was run by Stay in Chiang Mai so you could book directly with them as well. For necessities in this area, the MAYA center has everything but is pricier, Tops Market has cheap groceries. Definitely use the red pickup trucks to get around town, we wish they were everywhere in Asia! We got excellent soup at East Coffee in the northwest corner of the old city. Boy Blues Bar was good for a drink after walking around the night market.