This was the sixth country we visited on our trip, and the first country in Asia! If you haven’t already, check out my posts on our other stops:
Chiang Mai Timeline: August 18th-September 16th
After our one month in Europe, we flew from Munich, Germany to Bangkok, Thailand in a long, 11-hour overnight flight. We planned to spend 1 day in Bangkok before traveling to Chiang Mai, in case of flight delays, jetlag, etc. Fortunately it was mostly smooth sailing, although we weren’t able to get very comfortable and had trouble sleeping during the flight. So we were very tired and spent most of our day/night in Bangkok sleeping! We stayed in a very low cost Airbnb close to the airport, and our hosts picked us up at the airport then drove us back there the next day for our flight to Chiang Mai, which was so awesome! We will be going back to Bangkok later in our trip, so we weren’t too worried about seeing much there.
About Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, after Bangkok. It’s located in the northern part of Thailand in the mountains, close to the borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. The temperatures are a little milder than in the south due to the elevation. It’s a popular destination for ex-pats and digital nomads due to low costs, lots of availability of coffee shops and co-working cafes, and a mix of ancient charm with new-aged technology.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai, we were so excited to slow down a bit and be spending an entire MONTH there! We had heard such great things about Chiang Mai, and it did not disappoint! Even after a month there, we were sad to leave and can’t wait to return in the future!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at an Airbnb that we had researched extensively inside the “Old City” within the 1 square mile ancient city walls, which we figured would be a good central location. We also chose this Airbnb because the hosts had hundreds of positive reviews and spoke great English, with the wife being a local from Chiang Mai and the husband being American. They also were able to help us set up some excursions, which made that process a lot easier for us! Additionally, they provided free, unlimited bottled water, which was a huge perk because we drink a lot of water and it’s not advisable to drink tap water there. Overall we had a great experience at our Airbnb. However, we figured out that next time we visit Chiang Mai, we would actually prefer to stay in the Nimman area, which was closer to a lot of things we were looking for, including coffee shops with good wifi to be able to work on our websites, restaurants, the mall, the movie theater, the gym, and a couple of the night markets.
What We Did
We did a lot in the month we were there, but we also spent quite a bit of time relaxing, catching up on sleep, being lazy (ha!) and working on the blog and our new website (TravelTherapyMentor.com). Unfortunately, I also got sick from something I ate once, which put me down for 2-3 days where we did almost nothing. That really would’ve been a bigger bummer than it already was if it had happened somewhere we were only visiting for a few days!
Here are some of the things we did while in Chiang Mai:
- Went on a full “Adventure Day” excursion where we got to go to a butterfly/flower farm; feed, bathe and ride elephants; go white water rafting; have lunch; go trekking through the jungle; and swim at a waterfall! It was an awesome experience!
- Went to a Muay Thai kickboxing match, which unfortunately wasn’t as exciting as we had hoped, but it was also a Monday night which could have made a difference.
- Hiked the “Monk Trail” through the jungle up Doi Suthep mountain to the Doi Suthep Temple (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep). This was quite the feat! There was a smaller temple along the way, and after we went to the Doi Suthep temple we took a “songthaew” (truck taxi) up the mountain further to the Bhubing Palace. We were exhausted and it was very hot and humid, so we took a taxi back into town instead of hiking back down!
- Visited the Chiang Mai Zoo, where we were able to get up close and personal with a lot of the animals. It was almost more like a safari park by US standards!
- Went to several different malls in the area, and to our surprise some of the malls were more modern and fancy than the malls we’re used to in the US!
- Saw several movies at the theater because the tickets were so much cheaper than in the US. ($2-4 depending on time of day)
- Visited several other beautiful temples around Chiang Mai.
- Had many full body massages (including traditional Thai massage that’s more like a manually assisted stretching session, oil massages, and foot “reflexology”) at very low prices! ($6-10 for an hour!)
- Went out to several different bars and night clubs, all of which were free to enter and had cheaper drinks than in the US.
- Tried lots of different restaurants, street food stands, cafes, and dessert places!
- Checked out a ton of coffee shops and “co-working spaces” which had great coffee and usually great wifi for getting work done.
- Visited a couple smaller, nearby waterfalls that were just a short hike from the city.
- Signed up for a one month gym membership and worked out 3-5 times per week. I also took advantage of some of the fitness classes that were included in the membership.
- Enjoyed a couple of pool days at the hotel where our gym was located. With our gym membership, we were able to get discounted day passes for $1.50/each!
- Went bowling, where I beat Jared at 2/3 games (and it was my first time bowling since I broke my dominant elbow a little over a year ago!) ha 😉
- Got pedicures, which was something I needed after about 6 weeks since having one before we left home (it was a gel pedicure, so I really needed a professional to take the polish off and redo it for me, otherwise I could’ve just done it myself). This was also Jared’s first pedicure ever! Unfortunately, he got a pretty infected looking ingrown toenail afterwards, which definitely put a damper on his experience. But we were able to take care of it ourselves and didn’t have to try out the Medical System there this time!
- Walked all over the town, took in the sights and local culture, and went to all the night markets and lots of local shops!
Overall Impression of Chiang Mai
So far, as of the time I am writing this (which includes after we visited Laos), Chiang Mai is our favorite place we’ve visited! There are a ton of “pros” for us there as far as somewhere we’d like to relax and stay for a few weeks or even months at a time. There’s no surprise to us now that a lot of people from the US, Europe, and Australia (“ex-pats”) visit there for extended periods or even move there permanently! But, there are certainly a few “cons” as well for me, and I don’t know if I would give up living in the US permanently to live there. So far, for me, there’s still “no place like home!”
Let me spell out a Pros vs. Cons list, as Jared and I have talked extensively about that with each place we’ve visited, ha!
- Very inexpensive
- Beautiful area (mountains, parks, temples, etc.)
- Lots of history and culture
- Amazingly nice people (now I see why they have the phrase “Thai smiles!”)
- Many “western” amenities (restaurants, malls, movie theaters, bowling alleys, gyms, etc!)
- A lot of English-speakers and things written in English
- Medium sized city with plenty to do (not TOO busy, but enough to do and see!)
- You can find just about every type of food you could want there
- Sanitation is questionable in some situations (restaurants, spas, etc.)
- Very hot and humid
- Having to worry about mosquito bites and risk of disease (although we actually didn’t see as many there as we sometimes see in Southern US!)
- Despite many things in English, the primary language is still Thai of course which can make communicating difficult in some situations!
- Sometimes “western” standard bathrooms are hard to find when out in public
- Encountered many rats and the large cockroaches/”palmetto bugs” when walking outside (although I know that all big cities in the US have rats and Palmetto Bugs are a part of daily life in Southern US…I still don’t like them!)
- Although you can find all types of foods, American foods in most cases still aren’t as good as they are in America!
- Polluted air (although, again, this would be the case in big cities in the US too!)
Despite a few negative things, the pros certainly outweigh the cons for us! We will definitely be returning to Chiang Mai, and we recommend it for others (but just don’t tell everyone 😉 ! )
Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos!
Insider Tips on Chiang Mai:
- Learn a few words in Thai. Here’s a head start:
- Hello: “Swasdi kah/kab” pronounced “Sa-wa-dee ka” (if you’re female) or “Sa-wa-dee kab” (male)
- Thank you: “Khxbkhun kah/kab” pronounced “Khap-kun ka” (female) or “khap-kun kab” (male)
- Sometimes they’ll just say “ka” or “kab” for thank you
- If you are going to stay more than a week, I would recommend booking a place for 1-2 nights, but then when you get there decide which area you’d like to stay in to book the rest of your stay!
- If you’re only staying a short time, the best areas are probably Nimman or close to the City Walls.
- In Thailand, they use the Thai Baht as currency. As of September 2018, the rate of exchange from USD to THB is 1:32. Most places are cash only. Some of the areas populated by tourists like Western restaurants and malls will take credit cards (usually only Visa), but plan to exchange or withdraw cash.
- For transportation, we normally walked everywhere, because most things are within 1 mile walking. If you need to get a ride, we found that their version of Uber called “Grab” was usually the cheapest and easiest, if you are able to use your smartphone there. Otherwise, you can hail a Tuk-Tuk (smaller motorbike-taxis) or a Songthaew (the “red trucks”), but they tend to be a little more expensive and there can be communication barriers. The Tuk-Tuks are usually private and work just like a taxi. The songthaews operate more like a bus and you have to see which direction they’re going, then they will stop and get other people along the way. Normal vehicle taxis are only available from the airport.
- Be wary of renting a motorbike unless you have an international driver’s license. They set up road blocks all the time and pull over people who look like foreigners in order to fine them! Also, just be cautious about safety. Inspect the bike before renting, read the rental agreement carefully, and be cautious on the roads.
- If you want to try a local yoga class, just be aware that most Thai people are super flexible and even the “basic yoga” classes are probably not basic. I found this out the hard way! If you’re a higher level yogi, go for it! Me, I’ll probably stay away next time haha.
- Don’t be afraid of the street food! Most encounters we had were great. Of course scope them out and decide if you trust the sanitation. But I’ve certainly had to lower my standards sometimes and hope for the best! We generally try to go to places that appear more busy/frequented to ensure the food hasn’t been sitting out a long time collecting bacteria. Also, a good rule of thumb is to order food that they’re going to cook over high heat in front of you to kill the germs! I try to avoid raw veggies that are probably rinsed in local tap water and also sit out a while.
- Be respectful and dress conservatively if you’re going to temples. Shoulders, chest and legs at least to the knees but preferably to the ankles should be covered. Be quiet and try not to turn your back to the Buddha statues.
- If you get a beverage with ice, just make sure the ice looks like the round, noodle shape with the hole in the middle. This ice is made at factories and purchased by the restaurants or vendors. It’s safe to consume.
- If you’re going to buy some local items/souvenirs, don’t get them at the Night Bazaar. The price is jacked up on everything for tourists. Go to one of the regular local street stands or shops that are open every day and/or night. Also, always haggle for a lower price on something at a street vendor or night market. If the price seems too high, don’t be afraid to walk away, because you will likely see the same exact thing somewhere else. And, if you begin to walk away, they will likely chase you down to offer a lower price! For clothing such as tshirts, local pants, dresses etc. I normally paid between 100-200 baht. Shop around and ask prices before you buy something to get a feel for what the price should be for that type of item.
- Also shop around and compare prices for massages and spa treatments.
- We went to some of the cheaper massage parlors and thought they did a pretty decent job on the oil massages. But for the traditional Thai massage, which involves a lot of manual stretching and joint manipulation, I would really recommend you go to a more legitimate spa where the masseuses are better trained, because if not they can genuinely hurt you! This is especially true if you have any pre-existing orthopedic problems. Definitely go to a place where they specifically state for you to inform them of any problems/health conditions before the massage!
- For nail or waxing services, I would also recommend really doing your homework and asking them to show you their sanitation process! You can get some really cheap services, but it’s better to pay a couple extra dollars to make sure it’s clean. Even though Jared did get an ingrown toenail/infection after our pedicures, I think it was mostly because he had never had this done before and he’s been prone to those in the past. There were no skin breaks/cuts, and they were very professional. I did extensive research online beforehand, and when I got there I asked them to show me how they clean their tools. They took me to the back and showed me the high-heat machine they used which is just like US standards.
- It’s very hot, and very humid! Also, especially during rainy season, it can rain quite a bit. Plan your wardrobe and day bags accordingly!
- I recommend getting athletic type, dry-fit clothing (check out some clothes that are made for fishing or hiking that don’t necessarily look like gym-wear but are still moisture-wicking!), or for ladies, loose fitting/breathable clothes such as long skirts and flowy tops.
- Also, ladies, your hair will probably be up most of the time, and I didn’t even bring makeup.
- A waterproof bag or bag cover is a good idea, as well as a very light rain jacket or poncho!
- A few notes on sanitation and bathroom trips (this goes for all of Southeast Asia, not just Chiang Mai):
- Especially for the ladies: I recommend carrying a ziplock baggy of supplies with you at all times. Mine includes: hand sanitizer; some tissues/toilet paper and/or napkins for toilets where they don’t have toilet paper or restaurants/street vendors where they don’t have napkins; Coleman brand “camp soap” sheets for when there’s no soap; baby wipes and/or disinfecting wipes. You’ll thank me later!
- Generally it’s not recommended to flush toilet paper or anything else in the toilets because the plumbing can’t handle it. Get used to tossing it in the provided trash bin!
- Sometimes you’ll encounter Thai style toilets or “squatting toilets” which are basins in the ground. It’s not so bad, and sometimes you won’t have another option. Just squat down like you had to go in the woods (watch your feet!); if using toilet paper make sure to toss in the trash; use the provided pot or bucket with running water or basin of water to splash inside the toilet for cleaning/flushing; use the bidet/hose if available/necessary.
- Rarely do you find a bathroom with a place to hang your bag inside the stall (unless it’s a more modern, westernized establishment). Consider this when choosing what type of purse/bag you’re carrying. Worst case scenario I’ve had to put mine on the floor, but I usually try to sling it across my chest with the strap as short as possible to keep it off the ground (especially if it’s a squatting toilet because the ground is usually wet….and questionable!)
Have you been to Chiang Mai? Let us know in the comments what your thoughts were on it! If you’re planning to travel to Chiang Mai, also leave us a comment below or send us a message and ask any questions you may have!