Thailand’s famed northern capital city, Chiang Mai, was established in 1296. Until about the 1920’s quite difficult to travel to, usually via an arduous river journey or dangerous elephant trek. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, it can be quite green and lush but with much of its old world charm still intact due to its long isolation. The urban-chic city is dramatic in its cleanliness, without feeling sterile. Many expats have fallen in love with the ancient walled historical center filled with some 30 temples, but have brought their cosmopolitan influences creating a surrounding “new city” (chiang mai) making it fantastically creative and full of artistry. You will be able to converse with a young French couple at a cafe about a spectacular hike to go on, or get a great restaurant suggestion from an Aussie. The influx of tourism and the money it brings has also helped to restore some of its ancient walls and gates that greet you as you enter the historic district. However, the outer areas and neighborhoods are just as cool and fun to explore, and no area feels too hectic or “touristy” such as it did in Bangkok. Once you cross the hanging garden lined moats surrounding the old city, great shopping and other adventures await. It is by far my favorite city of my travels in Thailand.
Getting to Chiang Mai
We traveled the 700 km from Bangkok via Bangkok Airways in about an hour and twenty minutes. You could also take a 8 hour train journey (http://thailandtrainticket.com) from Bangkok if you are up for a more leisurely, scenic travel experience. Due to time constraints we opted travel by air. By the way, I cannot recommend this airline enough! Impeccable service, ridiculously punctual, and super spacious seating. If airlines in America followed Bangkok Airways training program, I’m fairly sure we would hear a lot less complaints from its customers. (Just sayin’.)
Chiang Mai’s International airport, also quite efficient and easy to navigate, had us out the door with bags in tow within maybe 10-15 minutes of deplaning. True story, I couldn’t believe it. Now, when you get outside it is a bit more organized chaos with no real indication where you can pick up a cab or car service to take you to your hotel. Foolishly, I forgot to book a hotel transfer on this leg of the trip, so as I was searching exasperatedly through my bag for a map to our hotel, Tommy took charge of finding the taxi line and somehow grabbed someone in charge of keeping the flow of taxis moving. In fact, to this day don’t know how he figured it out, but when he yelled across the parking lot to grab the luggage, I breathed a sigh of relief. (Tip: Look for a guy across the small parking lot with a clipboard surrounded by a bunch of confused white people. That should be it!) Most taxi fare should be about 10 USD to the old city center which is about 200 Thai baht. I recommend having the address ready along with the name of the hotel, as GPS service such as Google Maps can be a bit dodgy. We didn’t encounter any scams here in Chiang Mai, so take pricing by your tuktuk or taxi drivers at their word.
Where to Stay
Finding lodging throughout Thailand is wonderfully easy, and even on a tight budget you can stay at some spectacular 3-4 star hotels especially in Chiang Mai. Prices are considerably cheaper here, and your dollar goes even further than any comparable large city. However, Tommy and I wanted 5 star hotel, with 5 star service, and in a great location. Sure, sure, call us snobs all you want. Keep in mind though, Miss Smarty Pants, we were traveling from a particularly bitter New York City Winter, after a particularly bitter and dividing National Election cycle wrought with protests, name calling, and mudslinging and we were frazzled beyond belief. We were so over it, that we skipped the Fall-Winter 2017 fashion shows, much to the dismay of some of our clients. So scoff all you want, we were damned sure we were going to get pampered.
Now, this being said we are no fools. We did have two more islands left on our Thailand dream vacation and staying at some exhorbitantly priced hotel where they basically throw orchid petals at your feet all day long, was not practical for an extended period of time. Don’t get me wrong, if I were filthy rich I would definitely stay a boutique hotel like the 137 Pillars House or The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai but we ended up falling in love with...
Designed by Thai Architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu who somehow makes luxury feel like it has been born into the landscape. I imagine it would be his study of ancient villas in Rome, or his fall-to reference point “The Mathematics of an Ideal Villa” that keeps this boutique hotel feeling almost religious and non-formulaic. Its breathtaking use of Chinese artifacts, sunbleached but still bold and masculine clay tiles, white washed columns and archways, or carved wood panels and doors, creates a sanctuary accented by the faint but sweet orchid fragrance and punctuated pops of red or blue.
You almost get the feeling distinguished explorers stayed here while traveling ancient trade routes or investigating rumours of buried treasure and jewels. There is even a 2000 plus book library you can spend hours lazily leafing through books of timeless Thai art and architecture or novels of culture and design. I almost wanted to smoke a pipe in there just to get into character.
Take a casual stroll throughout the grounds on well worn terracotta paths. Admire the nature and architecture before you come to a cool, tranquil swimming pool walled off by palms, birds of paradise, and capped by an open aired massage pavilion. Drinks or juices from the bar can be served poolside and nothing is quite as luxurious as having an enormous Thai lunch brought to your lounge chair as you catch up on your gossip mags. Our room was directly off the pool and I don’t think I heard a peep from the other guests! Cocktail hour was punctuated with dapper bartenders in crisp white shirts, using local fruits and spices for some of their specialty craft cocktails. Try the Singapore Sling, albeit labeled a cliché drink to have in Asia (as an American), it blew my socks off with its lemongrass infused gin, cherry heering, and fresh from the tree limes, über sweet pineapple, and house made bitters. Not to be missed, but stick to one...they creep up on ya.
Food is great at the hotel, but I do recommend getting out and about in Chiang Mai to really explore the local cuisine, and basically just be a gluttonous pig patronizing the street food grills and markets. Trust me, Thailand wouldn’t have nearly any of its appeal without the melange of smells wafting through the streets punctuated with grilled meats and fish, pungent spices, and burning wood. It is glorious. More on that later, and back to the hotel. I strongly recommending booking your rooms via the hotel’s live website as opposed to booking through something like Travelocity or Expedia. Great tools as those sites are, nothing compares with taking your time booking everything directly. Cut the middle man out and shop local, even if it is across the Planet. Here is, why. Often hotels offer a discount or “add-ons” booking directly through them. In this instance The Rachamankha offered us complimentary breakfast every morning and a discount for staying longer than three nights. No, not some rinky dink American “Continental” breakfast with boxes of crappy cereal in a big bucket and mediocre blueberry muffins or stale lame bagels you choke down with watery coffee from some brand named coffee house. Hell no! This breakfast was surely delivered by Buddha’s angels on golden platters every morning. It consisted of any luxurious tropical fruit you could think of precut on tiers of platters surrounded by baskets of every kind of pastry or bread imaginable. (Crusty Pumpernickel slices in Thailand is a luxury y’all.) There were probably 7 or 8 different types of nut butters (sesame and kabocha nut spread?! Yes, please!) and probably the same with juices if you were too lazy to eat the Garden of Eden of fruit. Cheeses, cured meats and crudité that would put any Italian antipasti to shame. Inky black coffee steaming hot in silver carafes, served with delicately blue painted china cups and sugar bowls await your return to the table after loading up your plate like a starving character in a Charles Dickens novel. (Word to the wise, if you ask for cream for your coffee, it shows up practically freshly milked. Saying you want cream in America usually means half and half...a weird social norm that you learn overseas.) If you dare to poo-poo your nose up at the glorious and heavenly buffet, shame on you! However, there is a delectable a la carte menu for the most discerning taste buds. The freshest eggs imaginable, so yellow you would think they dyed them. Waffles drowning in fresh berries and whip cream or yogurt and fresh fruit. It is truly the most important meal of the day, especially if you have a big day of exploring to do. This too could be all yours if you follow my advice and book direct.
I could go on and on about the wonders of The Rachamankha, its divine staff, friendly guests, super comfy beds, and huge bathrooms and complimentary mini-bar. At this point I’m fairly sure you get the point. It’s amazing, and even if you are on a super tight budget, I cannot recommend enough splurging on this one hotel for your taste of the high life. Their standard room, which is quite spectacular in its own right, will run you about $200 USD a night during high season, including taxes. I rounded up. You can thank me later.
Still a bit too pricey for your budget? Don’t crumple into a fetal position and cry, man. It’s all good, take a look at the Shewe Wana Boutique Resort and Spa and calm down. At under $100 USD a night (so many add ons booked direct), fantastic staff, and its eclectic decor you can get a great Thai experience too. I had some friends stay there on their way to Bali, and sang its praises, especially the pool. The Thai Massage from this resort will beat any stress into submission, and you will be shocked at the strength of these ladies.
Exploring Chiang Mai
So, my love and I had 4 nights and 3 full days in Chiang Mai. In retrospect, we would have loved to spend a week. It was a truly magical place easily transversed with the help of scooters we rented from a place across the street from the hotel. The exhilaration of whipping throughout the dizzying traffic was unmatched by local tuk tuks or a car. You could spend a day alone just visiting the 30 or so temples throughout the city. One the most grand and famous temples (c. 1345) is a mere minute walk from our hotel, Wat Phra Singh. Its dazzling and ornate dragons, serpents, and angels dot the well manicured grounds, with a gigantic, ornate mosaic inlaid sanctuary in the center that is in the traditional Lanna style architecture. Monks guide you to educational talks or show you the famous “Lion Buddha” image housed in the small chapel at the back of the grounds. You could easily hit up 4-5 temples before lunch to get your fill, but each one unique and special in their own way. They all humble you.
The amount of vintage shops located all around the city would leave any hipster giddy from all the amazing finds from unique classic concert tees to flowey authentic dresses from the 60’s and 70’s and Asian men’s tunics from the 50’s. Trust me, you will have to send back all your finds for pennies on the dollar. The Night Bazaar will offer you unbelievable treasures from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or the Near East. Silk rugs, handmade umbrellas, handmade jewelry and decor carved from wood from Laos, even local fisherman pants and peasant clothing line street after street. Located on the East side of the Walled City, it is open rain or shine every day of the year. Side streets lead to shopping arcades, and you wonder how it can be so vibrant and busy from dusk to midnight. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the experience of strolling through the area and people watching is amazing. If you do shop, be sure to bargain with the vendor! You can probably get 20 percent more off your goods, and is part of the fun. The place is alive with music and the smells of spice stalls, brightly lit squares. Every square inch is utilized to set up a stall to sell their wares. If you are feeling a bit homesick, this area also have some fun establishments like an Irish Pub, Daddy’s Pizza and Steakhouse, or (godforbid) the city’s first McDonalds or Starbucks. I recommend taking a break of shopping for an awesome dinner in the center of it all, a square where there is a plethora of food carts and grills serving up everything Thai from noodles to grilled banana leaves stuffed to the brim with chopped white fish and fragrant spices. Get a skewer from one vendor, a noodle dish from another, and some mango sticky rice for dessert from a grandmother sitting in the corner. The energy of everyone just having a great time listening to a local band while chowing down on your finds is infectious. Be sure to travel down the offshoots to Kalare Night Bazaar or Asunarm Markets to experience rug shops, or leather and metal workers, and fabric weavers. You may even bump into a traditional theater production with dance and song performed by actors in full glitz costumes and makeup, as we did. Shopping The Night Bazaar is truly an experience not to be missed. It is otherworldly and you truly can’t see it all in one night.
I also recommend setting up a tour of one or more of the sites outside of the city for at least one of the days you are in Chiang Mai. There is soooo much to do, so many sites to see, so many hikes. Because of our limited time we asked our hotel concierge for their recommendation of a day trip that would touch on typical touristy things. We are dead set against elephant riding, and it’s becoming more and more passe to do so. However, who the hell doesn’t want to see elephants up close and personal? So, that was a must to be included on our excursion. Anything else we were game for. So, do your research, and you can find amazing tours all through the mountains and high country with groups or just by yourself as Tommy and I did. We ended up getting picked up at our hotel bright and early by an English speaking guide and a driver. If you can afford it, go for the private tour. It is a bit more personable, and you don’t get locked up by the rest of your group needing a bathroom break or needing a snack from a stand. In fact, we pretty much beat all the big tourist busses to the popular sites and had more one on one time with the locals.
Our first stop was to a “Long Necked Tribe”. Now, a bit of history lesson here, and judge what you will. These “tribes” are now essentially tourist sites (some say traps) that rely on the tourist dollar and the countless busses filled with foreigners that trudge up the hill and giggle endlessly as they gawk at the women with their intricate neck jewelry and snapping Instagram pictures of them as if they were actors at Epcot Center. They are not. Please, for the love of all that is Holy, ASK if you can take pictures of their homes, handiwork, or themselves. The amount of times I caught myself in shock of people’s behavior towards these people was too numerous to count.
The tribes consist of the Kayan People which essentially means they are from Myanmar. In the 1980’s and 90’s, these people became refugees in Thailand to escape the brutal military regime in Myanmar. The coils, which actually push the shoulders down and do not elongate the neck, act as protection from machete wielding men wanting to rape or harm them. Granted, we can’t attribute these solely to something so negative, and it has to be remembered more as a cultural identity than anything. That being said it is still kinda cool to see how they make their blankets, hammer out their brass jewelry and carry on traditions passed from generation to generation.
Our next excursion was to white water rafting and a lazy river tour on a long bamboo raft. Now, February is towards the end of their dry season. So, white water is a little loose in the description. The water was much lower than say it would be in November, December, or January. Don’t even bother with a group more than four people, otherwise you will get stuck. That being said, we still had a blast! It was blazing hot that day so any splash (and there were plenty) was a welcome refreshment. I can only imagine how wild the trip would be with a full river fresh from the rainy season. You cannot beat the views as you roll down the river, past local fishermen casting nets off of huge boulders, or small groups of elephants splashing at the shoreline of their sanctuary. After the (kiddie) roller coaster, you come to a shallow part in the river where you transfer to a long bamboo raft and leisurely push your way down to a local village of about 4 huts for a local lunch. I ain’t gonna lie, the dirt floors and wild chickens being chased by scruffy mutts may be off putting to some, especially when you are used to eating at restaurants. I love the charm of it all and graciously accepted locally and lovingly made vegetarian pad-thai and fresh pineapple and watermelon. Simple and wonderfully delish. It was the perfect end to the morning and a welcome break before our next two stops, ziplining and the Poo Poo Paper Company.
This was our first time zip lining ever, and this may be very hard to beat, ever. We went to the Eagle Track Zipline as part of our tour and it included the “gold package”. We went screaming and laughing down the mountain, guided by two awesome dudes that can only be described as part monkey. Yes, 35 platforms with 16 ziplines over fields between ridges, bamboo bridges, abseiling, waterfalls, a flying skateboard and something called a KungFu Walk that made you feel like a kid again. I’d say it took about an hour and half and worth every damned minute. Ziplines seem to be a dime a dozen up in the hills of Chiang Mai, but I can highly recommend this one. What a blast.
Lastly, and what may be the most anti-climatic (but good for a laugh) moment of the tour was a stop at a shop called the PooPooPaper Park. Yes, paper made out of poop. Elephant Poop to be exact. Trust me, the amount of poop jokes and innuendo cannot be exhausted visiting this place. Here’s the scoop (see what I did there?). Elephants eat lots of grass every day, and quite frankly poop almost as much. Since their digestive systems don’t really break down the grass all that well, their poo has plenty of fiber. Fiber is the base material for making pulp for paper, hence the alternative source for making paper products. Sure, the place is cute and there are a couple elephants roaming around. I found its roundabout way to be eco-friendly and sustainable charming, and inventive. Everyone was having fun and you get to make your own paper or purchase every paper product under the sun. Except toilet paper, ironically. However, the next time I travel to Thailand, I will be hitting up an elephant sanctuary instead. I did want that experience of feeding or taking care of an elephant in need. The Thai people (thanks to their former King Bhumibol Adulyadej) are making strides in curtailing animal cruelty, especially elephants, often setting up sanctuaries to tend to injured or abused animals. That being said, our whole excursion was a blast and not to be missed. You get to explore the mountains that surround Chiang Mai and experience and even slower more relaxed way of life.
Food, oh glorious, Food!
I’ve had the pleasure of eating all over the world. Thailand is that place in the world where it is perfectly acceptable to load up on anything and everything you want. Yet, surprisingly, I lost weight eating my way through Thailand. Chiang Mai may be my top food paradise in the world, having some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Ever. You know in the Bugs Bunny cartoons when someone cooking something delicious (carrots!) and the smoke wafted around beckoning with a finger anyone who caught its delectable smell as if to say “Come, Come, over here”? Landing in Chiang Mai is like a live action version of that cartoon. Driving to our hotel, windows down, the sublime barbecue aroma hits your nostrils and it is just as comforting as Thanksgiving dinner. Food is everywhere in Chiang Mai. Everyone is eating, people lined up for mu ping (pork skewers) on street corners, people wolfing down a quick bite on their scooters. It is a thing here, a way of life. Those skewers will run you about 9 cents (3 baht) a piece, maybe some scrumptious grilled lemongrass, lime, garlic, and galangal sausages (sai ua) can set you back .40 cents (13 baht), so eating here is perfect for the budget traveler. Younger crowds will gather at Chiang Mai Gate or Warorot Market to sample some grilled oysters or coconut pancakes.
Fish balls or just plain whole fish can be gobbled up on your way to a shopping spree at Love 70’s vintage warehouse, but don’t forget to smother them in nam phrik noom sort of a Northern Thai salsa made with roasted green chilies, shallots, garlic and salt with a bit of cilantro or fish sauce mixed in. Salty, pungent, sour and so good. A national treasure, if I do say so myself. Tommy’s favorite pad thai dish in the ENTIRE world is in Chiang Mai, at Monsoon Tea House and that’s saying a lot, because he had a lot of pad thai. I don’t even think he will touch the stuff in America after being spoiled by their oversized prawns doused in a homemade (no prepackaged crap there!) pad thai sauce and flash wok fried rice noodles, a pile of spicy thai basil, tea, and lime leaves, wrapped elegantly in an egg “net” that must have taken years to master. Its spicy crushed nuts and dried shrimp (Thai breadcrumbs sort of…) can be cooled down with the huge cucumber chunks and salad garnished with a simple slice of lime.
I’m allergic to shellfish, but it’s the one dish I still have serious f.o.m.o. jealousy about. I myself had fried chicken marinated in fermented tea leaves and fried with a topnotch crispy coating of panko, dried Thai spices like galangal and lime leaves. The dipping sauce it came with will make you slap your momma it’s that good. Not knowing how much food they serve up, we over ordered a smokey larb gai (minced chicken seasoned with piquant chilli vinegar and fish sauce) salad. We ate it, so don’t fret. We practically licked our plates clean. With 60 types of tea to choose from, you may find the need to ask their wonderful staff to help out. We ended up with two types of iced tea that ended up being perfect for the hot day of temple touring. Lastly, if you do your own research on Chiang Mai, most if not all will tell you to get a big bowl of Khao Soi, a famous noodle soup. It is served with boiled then fried egg noodles, chicken (or beef), coconut curry broth that is lavishly rich with flavor but not oily, roasted chillis, pickled mustard greens and shallots and a few lime wedges. Use all of those condiments, they are essential to the perfect dish. Now, you can go to the well known Khao Soi Islam canteen style restaurant and fight the tourists for your own bowl of spicy molten gold, but ehhhh why bother? The Muslim-Chinese influenced dish is relatively the same everywhere you go, if you go to smaller establishments that serve it. Trust me, I had like ten bowls of the stuff while I was there. Stay away from the hotel restaurants that serve it and find a random cart or stall that has taken the time to perfect is perfect blend of sweet and spicy. Tommy and I happened upon one while walking down the main road that houses Love 70’s. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you the name of the place, but I can tell you its owner is this curmudgeonly older lady boy who barked orders at you in broken English, who scared us at first. Don’t worry you will fall in love with her (and she, us), her leopard print scarves and austentatious interior. You will also fall in love with her Khao Soi, served up in a tagine like clay bowl and some of the best condiments ever. Another highlight of my trip. I truly wish I had more time to sample some of the traditional wild game, frog, or snake accented with pungent-sour tamarind marinades. Or, perhaps hit up the now Anthony Bourdain made super famous “Cowgirl” who truly takes pride in her work, serving up to massive crowds things like stewed pork knuckle over rice. I hear there is a eggplant curry to die for at a Burmese restaurant on Nimmanhaemin Road. Maybe pairing that with a whole bbq chicken North-East style on the same street? I truly couldn’t get enough of Chiang Mai’s culture, food, and zen. It is perfect for honeymooners or fashionistas and heaven for two boys from Brooklyn.