Not that we experienced Bangkok, but Chiang Mai–Thailand’s second largest city and the capital of the north–is known for feeling like the opposite. It’s less urban, less modern and less frenetic, and when you walk some of the quieter streets, it feels like you have your own world to yourself.
How I got there:
From Bangkok, we took a Thai Airways flight the night after we arrived. While getting on a plane so soon after 24+ hours of travel wasn’t optimal, we wanted to make it in time for the Sunday night market, which was well worth it. Plus, the flight was short, at 1:20. I would recommend Thai Airways to anyone–our flights were on large, clean planes that weren’t even close to fully booked, so there was plenty of room to spread out–and all this for about $40 one way.
Where I stayed:
Our hotel, Yaang Come Village, was beautiful, affordable, well-located–can’t say enough about it. Walking to your room felt like walking into a beautiful jungle. It was also an easy walk into the old city–about 15 minutes or so–and when you didn’t feel like doing it, you could take a tuk tuk for 100 THB (or $2.75).
What I did:
When we arrived, we immediately set out for the night market, which luckily for us lasted until midnight. I usually have a pretty strict “don’t buy things at markets because you’ll regret them when you get home” rule, but the wares here were something else. Rather than selling garbage knick-knacks, a lot of the people were selling beautiful decor items, and everything was insanely cheap when converting from dollars. (Note: We didn’t find the same true of the normal night bazaar that’s open every day. That was more like the typical junk you’d expect, and the Sunday market put it to shame.)
The best part was the food, though. Tables and tables and tables of street food. We walked around collecting fresh-squeezed orange juice, noodles, sushi, banana chocolate crepes (made with roti–game-changer), mango sticky rice–and there was so much more (i.e., egg rolls the size of burritos).
On our first full day Chiang Mai, we spent most of the time meandering, first through the flower market and then on to the old city.
Once in the old city, we took a couple of streets from end to end, including Rachmandoen Road. Within the city’s walls, there are plenty of little shops and cafes to explore, as well as beautiful temples pretty much everywhere you look.
As much as I enjoyed the city, though, our second day was pretty incomparable. We did a day trip to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants from all over the country.
There’s no elephant riding at the park, as it’s abusive to the animals–something most travelers don’t realize. But we spent hours up close with them, feeding them, walking with them, and bathing them in the river.
The bathing had to be the highlight–captured thanks to one of my groupmates, who kindly emailed us his GoPro photos and videos from the day after we all got home.
(This video is only 1 second long, don’t worry.)
At the end, we went to see this little guy–though we couldn’t get too close, since he’s apparently still a little wild.
Where I ate:
We did find some really good restaurants in Chiang Mai, though I’m not sure anything ever lived up to the street food from the night market. I’m also in it for the design, though, and on that front, Graph Cafe absolutely nailed it.
Beyond that, Ginger & Kafe was great–pricey for a Thai restaurant, but still ridiculously cheap for an upscale restaurant by U.S. standards (…$4.40 for my dinner). Farmstory was tucked away in the shade, which made it a nice spot to pause our wandering and grab Pad Thai.
Where I drank:
At night, we quickly found crowds at the cluster of bars near Zoe in Yellow, but the pulsing music and iffy bathroom situation put us off. We ended up drinking Leo (which we later determined was our favorite Thai beer) at At Friends Cafe, which was just across the way. Fittingly, we there befriended another traveler, and our Thai bartenders encouraged us all to go out together when they closed. So back to Zoe it was–but luckily, our bartender friends let us back in to use the bathrooms at the end of the night.
What I missed:
We didn’t get out to Wat Doi Suthep, a temple in the mountains with supposedly stunning views. We also skipped doing a cooking class, which is something I’ve found on almost every single Chiang Mai itinerary I’ve ever seen. There are tons of different options to choose from for every skill level…but if you saw us in the kitchen, you’d understand.
For nightlife, we got a recommendation for the Nimmanhaemin Road area one day too late–described to me as an area with lots of great bars and restaurants away from the madness of the old city (and also where all the expats and “posh” locals hang out). Nimmanhaemin brunch spots Smoothie Blues, Rustic and Blue and The Larder came recommended, as did Warmup Cafe for a Thai club experience.
Lastly, I heard great things from multiple people–including one of our taxi drivers–about The Whole Earth, the restaurant right next door to Yaang Come Village. And we tracked down Ponganes Coffee Roasters, only to find it closed for the day.