Having visited Thailand’s beach cities a few times, I figured it was time to check out Chiang Mai. Thailand’s second largest city situated north of the country, almost 700 kms from Bangkok. You can drive if you are brave enough, however a number of low cost flights will get you there in an hour. The airport is quite small but efficient and it’s only about a 20 minutes-drive to the old city.
Chiang Mai old city: Quaint and charming marked by old buildings and pagodas all within walking distance. It’s very laid back especially in comparison to chaotic Bangkok. It is the kind of place you would want to lose yourself at if you aspired to write a book. A line of cafes and restaurants make for a relaxed stroll, it is not uncommon to stumble upon a jazz or rock band in one of the many street bars. Street food stalls are plentiful for sumptuous local delicacies which especially come to life in the evenings. Tuktuks or songthaew are the most preferred means of getting around – prices are negotiable prior to boarding. Accommodation is generally affordable, you are spoilt for choice from luxury listings to backpackers’ options.
Bazaar market: A dynamic night market for cheap bargains on anything from souvenirs, to food and clothing or even electronic gadgets. Haggling is welcomed, expected even. Situated just off the corner from a busy streets lined with bars and restaurants, the bazaar winds down at about mid- night.
Massages galore: Like all things Thai, Chiang Mai is not short of massage parlours. The women’s massage centre by ex-prisoners, a nationwide initiative to rehabilitate former prisoners, is worth a visit. Reasonably priced, friendly staff, clean environment sums it up. Do not let the name fool you – they cater for both men and women. Their speciality is obviously the Thai massage that begins with a cleansing of the feet in warm water infused by essential oils. The only downside is that it is an open space with very little privacy and the masseuse although gifted, can be noisy – but you can blissfully zone out the noise when you are not being pulled and stretched into the different yoga postures.
Temple visits: A visit to Chiang Mai is not complete without walking up the 300 steps to the magnificent Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, an ornate Buddhist temple nestled on the hills (45 minutes’ drive from the old city) boasts of having the best view of Chiang Mai. You can visit the temple during the day or night. If you’re not the fit kind, an elevator ride up the temple is also an option. Like most temples, you have to dress appropriately – no shorts or revealing clothing. You will be wowed by its serenity punctuated by the chanting sounds of Buddhist monks praying at the temple. You can book a guided tour if you are keen to learn about its history or you can otherwise find your way by taxi or tuktuk. An entrance fee is charged for foreigners. There are at least a dozen impressive temples in Chiang Mai but Doi Suthep is the most famous.
Bo Sang Handicraft Centre: The umbrella factory is just outside of Chiang Mai and is known for its exquisite paper umbrellas and parasols. The centre has plenty to offer in way of souvenirs and gift items, but the charming part is the artisans that bring all these work to life. You not only get to watch them make intricate designs on the umbrellas, you can also have custom made artwork designed on your bag, phone, and camera at a very low cost.
Other tourist attractions: If you have more time in Chiang Mai a host of half or full day activities are available including visiting the elephant park or tiger kingdom, temple tours or you can plug into the local culture by simply taking a Thai cooking class or a day trip to learn about the culture of the hill tribes.
Places to eat/stay:
David’s kitchen: Superb fine dining experience – Rated Chiang Mai’s top restaurant, David’s Kitchen does not disappoint. A beautiful stand-alone house with massive windows and stylish décor makes for a very comfortable ambience. The food is absolutely delicious with a carefully selected menu and an impressive wine collection. The staff seem to genuinely enjoy what they do and are very pleasant. They are also very knowledgeable when it comes to giving recommendations. I was impressed by the attention to detail right from the welcome note with all diners’ names placed on the table to the choice of seasonal ingredients used on the food. It is reasonably priced for the quality it offers. The restaurant also has a cosy bar area with live music in case you want to hang around after your meal. Although they were collegial enough to squeeze us in without a reservation, you are best served to make a reservation.
Cosy accommodation at an affordable rate
We had a wonderful stay at Frangipani during a brief visit to Chiang Mai. Not only is the host incredibly gracious and helpful, the bedrooms are cosy and homely with large comfortable beds, the living room is also quite spacious and the kitchen fully equipped with all amenities. It is in a quiet part of time although there was some construction going on during the day at a nearby residence. It is at an excellent location, within walking distance of the cafes and restaurants. The rooms are kept very clean and gives you the impression of a home away from home. I look forward to staying there again.