Over the past year or so I had been seeing Chiang Mai come up more and more in the travel blogosphere, especially in relation to digital nomads relocating and living there to work remotely. The two primary qualities of praise being the very attractive cost of living, as well as the exotic and adventurous nature of simply living in Thailand. Apparently, Chiang Mai was the place to be.
Chiang Mai also boasts numerous western style cafes and small restaurants, making it an ideal spot for the digital nomad to get their fix of lattes, fresh smoothies, and seriously tasty muffins and brownies. (Check out My Secret Cafe at 175/12 Rachadamnoen Road.) And all for way less than you would see in most other tourist havens. Gotta love Thailand.
Of course this all meant I had to check it out for myself! And in fact, this is one of the forces of inspiration when I travel: I’ll read consistent praise of a location, or see drool worthy images, and I simply make a plan and go to see for myself.
And as well, I proceed with a grain of salt. I know full well everyone has different expectations, histories, and tastes, and I know what I look for in a location. Which isn’t the same for every place. Mix in chemistry, hype, and “following the herd,” and a location that social media seems to love may not be so appealing to me (or you). Either way, I was excited to finally be here!
My first morning is usually to set out and just walk around to get my bearings, and get a feel for the place. This was not the overwhelming megalopolis of Bangkok, so exploring on foot is completely feasible, at least in the old town center. Tuk tuks are of course available everywhere.
The broader area outside the old town walls will require a tuk tuk or scooter. The old town is a rectangular village about a mile on each side. It is surrounded by a canal and a high defensive wall, with several entry points on each side.
The first thing I noticed was, Wow there’s a lot of traffic here. The ring road is clogged, and with every breath I am inhaling heavy amounts of toxic exhaust. Ok that’s What I learned later in speaking with people, is that yes that may be true, but once you live here, you don’t actually spend all your time in the old town center among this snarled and toxic traffic. The town does spread out in every direction with apartment buildings, malls, other services, etc. Fair enough – it’s probably something you can manage and avoid.
One last point on the topic of exhaust. I am no expert in auto emissions, but there must be some key differences in requirements in Asian countries, because the toxic exhaust was definitely a consistent observation of mine.
One of interests in visiting Thailand was to see some Muay Thai fights. Back in Colorado I had been training in Muay Thai myself for several years, and making a pilgrimage to Thailand to see these authentic and traditional bouts was an essential goal to check off your list. There were posters everywhere advertising all the local fights, and my hostel was quickly able to book me a ticket and a pickup to the local stadium for my first evening in Chiang Mai.
This is one of the enormously convenient features of small hotels/hostels in Asia. They are so geared to accommodating an endless stream of young eager travelers that you can book practically any excursion right from the front desk.
I was the first passenger, and in this rickety rusted old open air shuttle we made the rounds to gather up other travelers. Three pale and very young Brits with thick Manchester accents and wide-eyed wonder. A tall scruffy guy from Germany. (I ended up talking to him most of the night.) A couple of American girls who couldn’t stop talking about Florida football. (Gag!)
I was definitely the oldest among the group, so I was conscious of how I would fit in to this kindergarten of backpackers. And thankfully the energy was high and as we exited art the stadium, we all stuck together to get in, get beers, and get seats.
The fights were very exciting. The Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium on Changphuak was quite small actually. Mostly other tourists in the bleachers. It was dirty, dingy, and dark, just the way a fighting hall should be! Beers were cheap. Old men were betting left and right like it was a cockfight. The place was not full, but the energy was high.
The Germany guy was the most interesting and down to Earth, and so I mostly chatted with him. It just felt more natural, he was closer to my age, and pretty laid back. We chatted for quite a while, gulping cans of cheap beer.
This is one of the most exciting aspects of traveling backpacker routes. You will meet people, and you simply have no idea who they will be. You can absolutely bond and make friends for life. Other times it’s just a fun night and you move on.
After the bouts, the shuttle dropped the others off at a nightclub, and I went back to my hostel solo. Yeah, it felt a little lame comparatively, but I was legitimately exhausted. I just don’t have the energy for all night partying, it’s not my bag. It used to be my thing in my twenties in Paris, it’s just a matter of where you are in life. Besides, I would pay for it for days!
The Scooter Day
I decided to rent a scooter. This was a highly recommended activity for setting out on your own and exploring the area. Renting a scooter in Thailand is dirt cheap. $7-10 for the day. Can’t beat that. Scooter rentals are literally everywhere, and so there is no issue in getting this done.
I had read in my earlier research that an international driving license was required for a rental. I calculated that with the volume of young tourists renting day and day out, it was impossible that they all carried international driving licenses.
The guy told me if I get pulled over, the fine would be 500 baht, and I’d be good for five days. But also “there aren’t many checkpoints, it’s kind of random, so you never know. You may not get pulled over at all.” I thought, great, no big deal, maybe I’ll get lucky.
I got sorted with my bag full of GoPro equipment, maps, water bottle, and a banana. Helmet on and secured, I pulled out onto the ring road and within 30 seconds I was flagged down by a police checkpoint. So much for that!
The police basically pull over any foreigner they see, and the checkpoints seemed to be on the major roads in town. It’s a money grab kind of thing. There was a line of ten of us paying up, sent on our way. It was actually 700 baht and three days. Just like a lot of countries, you couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone. Kind of a small hassle, but in the end though, no big deal!
Along a main artery leading out of town, I passed Chiang Mai University. Then we ascended up a windy road, making smooth flowing turns with the wind in my face. Man this is fun! I love setting out with only a vague idea of where I’m headed. Gentle curves, light traffic, trees and greenery a luscious contrast to the concrete bustle I escaped only moments before.
Along this winding route up the mountain, Sriwichai Alley, there are many places to stop and take in the culture and the sights. There are viewpoints, temples, palaces, little shops and restaurants, and short hikes to waterfalls. I didn’t actually stop much however. I just wanted to ride and look around, and not stress about where to stop and if I should see this spot or that, which is the best and aaaah I just don’t know! Sometimes that’s just how I roll.
The most popular destination at the end of the mountain road is the famous temple Doi Wat Suthep. It is an ornate, lavish temple and sacred site to the Thai people, which affords beautiful expansive views of Chiang Mai and into the distance. I would reach this site later in the afternoon.
Mostly I was ok with getting a little lost first. And very often, this is where the magic happens. Ultimately, you can’t see and do everything – you pick your spots, and the experience you have is the experience you have. You won’t regret it, whatever it is, I promise. Nothing will work out perfectly after all, but you can enjoy everything simply because it’s new and wondrous.
Other times there is a location that it is your singular mission to find, and will stop at nothing until I get there. That’s great too!
I stopped at a small cluster of services along the way where the Bhuping Palace is located. If it had a name, I have no idea. It was quiet and not terribly busy, although numerous little shops were open.
It was lunchtime, so I picked a random little restaurant to have a bite. This little gem of a spot had a quiet patio out the back that looked over a wooded hillside. And it’s very casual, as everything relateds to dining seems to be in Thailand.
The menus usually display big pictures of the dishes because the tourists simply ca possibly attempt to say anything in Thai. And sometimes these translation are quite humorous. This menu had an item called “Papaya salad with salty crap – dried shrimp.” Boy it’s been a while since I’ve had that. I’ll take two please!
Another item was “Lacal Thai style in slatternly.” Whatever the heck that might be. All in good fun of course :). That one was 50 baht. The Thai have such gentle spirits, they are such wonderful people, A for effort. Our language is probably just as odd to them as theirs is to us.
But most importantly, these dishes will be a delight far beyond any western Thai restaurant. And notices the prices – 50 baht. That is $1.56. And this was not the cheapest meal I had in Thailand. (The cheapest was at a small street restaurant in the middle of nowhere outside of Chiang Rai, a few hundred miles to the northeast.)
I ordered the fried pork with rice, a papaya salad, and a Coke. This ended up being possibly the best meal I had in Thailand during my entire month. It was the essence of what you hope for – light, fresh vegatables and other ingredients, and made with effortless Thai spirit.
Cuisine is one of the most important aspects of your cultural education in a foreign country. Short of telepathically transporting your spirit into the mind of a local, dining on their authentic cuisine is your best ticket.
A very rewarding tour to experience in Asian cities is a local market tour. I joined one on a later day, and in this activity you will be able to try foods that you simply would not understand or seek out on your own. This particular tour was even more challenging in that our guide had loose printouts of the dishes we would be having, all written in Thai, which he made us practice and actually order from the vendor (usually a smiling little old lady).
Doi Inthanon National Park
On this full day excursion, we drove to Doi Inthanon National Park, in a lush moutainous region west/southwest of Chiang Mai. This is one of the most famous parks in northern Thailand, also known as “Thailand’s Roof.” The weather here is definitely cooler as your altitude is greater.
In this area are also several villages of the local Karen and Hmong tribes. The agriculture practiced here focuses on coffe plantations, strawberry fields, flowers, rice and more.
Stopping in a Karen village I bought a handmade scarf that was full of color and simply beautiful. It was only about 250baht ($7), and I’m sure this same product would be $100 or more in some boutique in New York. I actually had the nerve to try and bargain with the lady, which I was conflicted about. On the one hand you are taught to haggle with everyone, because of course they always try and rip you off first. On the other hand, these were desperately poor mountain people, and I’m a rich American. I should just pay whatever they ask without question. Sometimes these experiences can feel awkward, though in the end it’s all just currency in your basket of travel memories and awareness. Mistakes are always made, and it is ok.
A must see in the park is the King and Queen Pagodas atop the Doi Inthanon mountain. They are two separate temples located on two adjacent hills, separateds by a beautiful garden. This was a magical place, as we were immersed in the cloud canopy. Ebbing walls of fog moved throughout the space and lent an eery and truly inspiring atmosphere in the clouds. And it’s another excellent vantage point to take in a broad and expansive valley below. All the while, above the clouds. This was a quiet and sacred place, with temple architecture that is exotic and had an almost extraterrestrial quality.