Wow. How time flies… Let’s see if I can fill you in on our time here in Chiang Mai (red pin on the map below).
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but it feels small. There are few high-rises and it lacks the urban edge of cities like Bangkok. On the edge of the mountains of Northern Thailand, it is a very, very popular tourist destination and there are lots of western ex-pats living here. Hundreds of years ago, Chaing Mai was the capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na and it is still at the heart of Norther Thai culture.
As you’ll recall, we took the night train from Bangkok. We booked “air-conditioned 2nd Class” tickets which gave us sleeping berths. There is a first-class option, a 2nd class non-AC option with sleeping berths, as well as regular non-berth seats. We wanted sleeping berths and figured the AC car would be quieter and more comfortable, which I think it probably was.
The train was basic but serviceable. The toilets in the car were not the cleanest and were VERY basic by western standards. This is not Switzerland, that’s for sure. Then again, it is not India either, and we don’t really mind. We can deal. They say a picture is worth a thousand words…
Toilets aside, it was a fun and fairly comfortable ride. We started with seats and after about an hour or so, the attendant came through our car, converted the seats to beds and put on nice clean linens. There were curtains to close-off each berth.
It was quite a bumpy ride for a train. That, combined with the fact that I was about 6 inches longer than the bunk made it difficult for me to sleep. I was awake when the sun began to rise a few hours before we arrived in Chiang Mai. Here’s what it looked like from my berth:
We rolled into Chaing Mai mid-morning, a couple of hours late. Mila had booked a guesthouse online and when we got of the train there was a guy holding a sign with the guesthouse name on it. He was there to pick us up. A free ride is always a nice thing.
We followed him out to the parking lot and climbed into the back of his songtaew. A songtaew is a pick-up tuck with seats in the back and a roof.
There aren’t many proper taxis in town but there are lots of songtaews and they are one of the most common ways to get around town, and even beyond. The songtaews that operate like taxis are painted red. To catch a ride, you just wave one down and tell him where you want to go. Typical fare is about 20 baht per person (at least that’s the current gringo price, locals probably pay less) for most quick trips around town. In this case, we just got a free ride to the guesthouse, which was in the northern part of the old city, a neighborhood popular with backpackers.
The guesthouse was OK, not great. It had a swimming pool, which was nice, and it was in a good location close to the typical tourist haunts of the old city. It wasn’t the cleanest place, the bathroom in particular (are you sensing a theme here?!), and they only cleaned the rooms once every three days. The bathroom lacked light and ventilation and was a haven for mildew. We spent a couple of nights there out of sheer laziness, then switched hotels.
Chiang Mai, particularly the old city, is FULL of guesthouses and hotels, so there were quite literally thousands of options. Sometimes it seems like every building in town is a guesthouse, backpacker cafe, thai massage shop, motorbike rental place, tour agency, cooking school, or all of the above. That’s pretty close to the truth in the old city and more touristy parts of town.
It would be quite easy to get “tourist overload” in Chaing Mai but somehow the town manages to retain a certain quaintness and charm. Lucky for us it is not yet high season, so while much of the town is touristy, there are not swarms of tourists…yet. The city is also quite spread out and suburban, and since we’ve stuck mostly to the touristy central neighborhoods our view of it has been limited. I think you’d need wheels – a car or motorbike or bicycle – to really explore and get to know the city beyond the typical tourist spots. We’ve been walking and taking songtaews, so our view has been somewhat limited.
There are lots of westerners living in Chiang Mai, and lots of tourists too. The culture here reflects that. For example in the old city, you can see in the graffiti an appropriation of American youth culture, mixed with a local aesthetic.
The neighborhood called the “old city” dates back to the 1200’s and was once a walled city with moats. The moats still exist, as do parts of the walls. The old city is easy to identify on the map. It’s the square in the middle!
Much of Chaing Mai follows the pattern typical of Thai towns – streets lined with concrete shophouses a few stories tall. While there are some tall buildings, Chaing Mai is very much a low-rise city. In the old city, there are lots of cute little streets and alleys barely wide enough for one car and full of little shops, restaurants and hotels. In fact almost every home or building has some offering. It is a city full of little family run businesses. I really like this aspect of Chiang Mai and Thailand. People here don’t get jobs, they start businesses. I imagine American cities used to be a bit like this.
Of course there are lots of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.
This is Thailand, so of course the food is awesome. We’ve been enjoying the cafes, but especially the street food. There is street food everywhere, and lots of markets where food carts and vendors set up in large groups, especially in the early morning and at night. That’s where you’ll find us!
One of our favorite restaurants is Kanjana – a little place in the old city.
It is a tourist joint, but really, really good. They tone down the “hot” by default, but will kick it back up to normal Thai levels on request (I like Thai hot), and everything is expertly prepared. Everything we’ve had there has been really good.
OK, enough about food. Typing this is making me hungry!
Our second hotel was on the South edge of the old city, just outside the moat. It is big 8 story building and caters to long-term stays. You can book by the month and year, but they also have some rooms available for nightly rental like a typical hotel. There are so many Westerners living in Chaing Mai, that these sorts of long-stay hotels and serviced apartments are quite common.
There are lots of old western men staying there. Some appear to permanent or semi-permanent residents stretching their retirement dollars, others just in town for a while, perhaps for medical treatment. The owner of the building is a doctor and it seems that many of the residents are likely tapping into his services or referral network for medical care. Of course there are other tourists like us too. It is quite a comfortable spot. The room is big and spotlessly clean, and there is a pool on the roof. The restaurant downstairs serves scrambled eggs on a croissant, which Jette likes and is a nice respite from Thai food overload. It is not really cheap like the backpacker dorms or really budget guesthouses, but it is not too expensive and we find it to be a very good value. A nice, air-conditioned room goes for less than $25USD. That’s easily double what a fan room in a backpacker joint might costs, but it’s worth it to us. The location is great as we are just a block away from a great market with tons of yummy food options, as well as three 7-11’s. Yep, 7-11’s are everywhere in Thailand!
We’ve been having fun exploring Chiang Mai and we spent the first few days doing just that. Although it is a bit cooler here in Northern Thailand, it is still quite hot and the sun is intense so it can be a sweaty enterprise! We’ve been enjoying the cheap and abundant Thai massages. An hour long foot massage is often less than $5 USD. Mila and Jette have stopped for foot massages a few times, and I’ve been on a quest to find the best traditional Thai massage. With my broken back, a good Thai massage can be quite a relief. A bad one could probably be dangerous. Here in Chiang Mai, we’ve been to two places that are very good. Nanthikan Massage gets my vote for the best. The owner, Nantihkan, gave me one of the best Thai massage I’ve ever had. Back in the early 1990’s I took a ten day massage class at the Wat Po medical school in Bangkok and Nantihkan’s massages are as good as the teachers there. The other place that is quite good is Om Healing Hands.
Massages, delicious Thai food, beautiful temples, and lots of dogs to pet. We’ve been living the good life. But there is more!
We went to an elephant sanctuary and learned about elephants and their plight in Thailand.
We took a fantastic Thai cooking class.
We went off the tourist path to a nearby national park and stayed at a floating hut on a lake.
But those are stories for our next blog posts…