Ever heard of Chiang Mai? Known as ‘the rose of the north’, the city in the north of Thailand (just a one hour flight away from Bangkok) is considered a five star destination for anyone who’s big into culture and food. It’s also close to an incredibly beautiful ‘national park’ that’s really just a euphemism for jungle. But I’ll cover that in a separate post. Right now I want to chat Chiang Mai!
Getting there from Koh Lanta was pretty easy. I just took a minivan to Krabi airport (R145) that at one point crosses the ocean on a car ferry then flew in on Air Asia (R800 but it could’ve been R400 if I’d bought earlier) and caught a taxi to my hotel (R60) in Old Town. Old Town is the heart of the city that, if you view at it on a map, looks like a perfect square. Surrounded by a moat (yes, really), it’s filled with beautiful temples and killer good yet crazy cheap restaurants.
Weather-wise, I’d been told that Chiang Mai would be ‘cooler’ than the south of Thailand but, while it was overcast for most of my stay, I didn’t need to wear anything with long sleeves once. Sure, it was less warm than Phuket and Koh Lanta but as I consider their day time temperatures to be ‘lava’, Chiang Mai’s ‘please God, let my hotel have good air con’ was just right. I could even wear make-up at night without it running off my face!
Getting around Chiang Mai was easy peasy as you can hail a taxi or tuktuk on the street or make use of Uber or their less expensive competitor, an app called Grab. For the record, I didn’t have great experiences with Grab. Every time I’ve ordered a car it’s said ‘3 minutes away’ and then I’ve been left waiting while my car just gets further and further away before I eventually cancel.
Uber, however, is great and I was surprised to learn that it’s cheaper to use than the random street taxis and tuktuks. (Getting from my hotel to a local mall ten minutes away cost me less than R20.) The only exception is the drive from the airport to Old Town. My hotel was just seven minutes away and the moment Uber saw ‘airport’ they hiked up the price to R80 so in this instance taking a tuktuk for 100 Baht (R40) was a better option.
Just one thing – upon arrival, when you land at the airport, know that it’s easier to make use of the official airport taxis to get to your hotel and they’re a standard 150 Baht (R60). I was surprised by how many of the drivers were woman so I felt very safe landing in the dead of night and being taken to my hotel by two super friendly, chatty ladies who told me the first thing I must buy is an umbrella. They were right! Chiang Mai is known for random showers in the wet season. They pop up out of nowhere but clear fast and then it’s like they never happened. Also, as it’s so damn hot you’re actually grateful for them! I didn’t end up having to buy a brollie, however, as my hotel had them at the door, free for guests to use, along with free bicycles.
Now let’s talk food! When peeps told me Chiang Mai was the spot for incredible cheap eats they weren’t joking. The prices were so ridiculous there were times when I wondered what would arrive after I’d ordered as well as how the restaurants could possibly make any profit. I still have no answer to the latter but was blown away by the freshness, quality, deliciousness and presentation of everything I ate. You can go to a restaurant and order up a dish for 50 Baht (R20) and it’ll arrive with the most gorgeous looking garnish, be it edible flowers or carrots and cucumbers carved into a pretty shapes!
While visiting I noticed Chiang Mai serves up a huge amount of vegan, vegetarian and health food restaurants as well as awesome juice and shake bars. The whole city is on a health kick! Still, if you’re a meat eater like me you won’t go hungry. Every kind of cuisine you can think of is there for the eating, be it Mexican, Indian or Italian.
Finding amazing food is easy. It’s everywhere! Still, there are two spots I want to give a shout out to, the first being Taj Mahal. A little Indian restaurant in Ratchaphakinai road, it’s got zero game in the atmosphere department but oh boy did they make the best butter chicken I’ve ever had. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s now ruined butter chicken for me for the rest of my life.
The other spot is this tiny little place called Bistro Terrace. It serves up Thai craft beer which is more than double the price of Chang (the local beer which is about R20 in restaurants in Chaing Mai) but totally worth it as I really, really enjoyed the creamy-tasting Chiang Mai Wiezen (R70). Something else that really impressed was their pork gyoza (dumplings) that were so good I ended up eating two plates and ordered more for the people around me to try. (At just R20 per plate how could I not?)
Great food aside, I loved the laid back ‘chill’ of Chiang Mai. Like I said, it’s a temple town full of monks and it’s not odd to spot them walking around in their orange robes and Havaiana flip flops. I’m not a temple person (take me to the food and beer!) but I did pop into one of them (I can’t remember the name, it was one of many and en route to a restaurant I wanted to visit) and entry was free.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, when you visit a temple you need to ensure your knees and shoulders are covered so wearing a tee and wrapping a sarong around your waist will get you through the door. I happened to be wearing a little dress on the day I popped in but was given a loan shawl and wrap at the door which were free although I did pop 20 Baht into the donations box upon exit.
I’ve touched on the safety aspect of Thailand but Chiang Mai really took things to the next level. I loved being able to pound the streets, day or night, and not feel nervy about being a woman on my own. It’s the kind of place where you could happily drop off your gran or teen and let them wander around for hours and never have to worry about them. It would seem the people of Chiang Mai aren’t too fussed about crime either. Twice I walked into a shop and discovered the owner had disappeared to run a quick errand and hadn’t bothered to lock his door. ‘Aren’t you worried people are going to steal something?’, I’d say. ‘Nah’, they’d reply. A shrug. A smile.
Most of the time I was on foot, despite free access to bikes and cheap Uber, as it was a great way to burn off everything I ate. I’d literally eat lunch, walk a few metres, spot something amazing and then eat another dish. It was the same story for dinner except for market nights (they have a huge night market going every Saturday and Sunday eve) where I might’ve single handedly wiped out Thailand’s ‘shrimp’ population. I use inverted commas because Thailand’s idea of a shrimp is actually an enormous prawn.
I ate a lot of seafood in the markets as it’s delicious and so inexpensive but know that they serve up just about everything. From sticky pork ribs and pancakes to crocodile skewers and every type of curry under the sun.
They also had these weird ice cream ball things that I regret not trying at the time. The market was so big I couldn’t find them again!
Having done Chiang Mai and then visiting Bangkok again upon my return to South Africa the latter city’s been slightly ruined for me. Everything in Bangkok, which is still much more affordable than what it is in South Africa, suddenly felt expensive.
Next time I visit Thailand, which will be soon as I can’t seem to stay away, I’ll most definitely return to Chiang Mai to eat, eat, eat. I literally lie in bed and night and think about that butter chicken. I wonder how the city’s able to serve up such good food with most dishes costing the same or less than a beer. I miss the enormous ice coffees! I crave the myriad of crazy cheap Kauai-style smoothies on every corner and I google recipes in the hope of recreating the Khao Soi* (a creamy curry soup topped with crispy noodles) I devoured at Mr Kai’s. (It was R27 and included five enormous prawns!) There was so much I wanted to try and six days just wasn’t enough.
Before leaving the city, I booked a jungle trek which was so mind-blowingly amazing I’m going to struggle to write about it but I will attempt to do it justice in my next post. For the record, Chiang Mai was the last stop on my trip and I had to get back to Bangkok to fly home to South Africa. This was easy as cheap flights between the two cities are a dime a dozen. If you ever need to book a domestic flight in Thailand I can highly recommend Traveloka.com. It’s a website that compares the prices of Thailand’s smaller local airlines (Nok Air, Thai Smile, Air Asia etc) and you’ll be amazed as to how inexpensive it is to fly around within the country. I flew on Thai Lion for just over R400 but could’ve flown from as little as R327 on Thai Vietjet if I’d booked earlier as opposed to last minute.
Another thing that’s cool about Traveloka? It gives you multiple payment options. I was struggling with my credit card the day I booked (my one time pin kept coming through crazy late) so I used their counter payment service that allows you to pay cash within two hours at any 7Eleven. I simply walked to the 7Eleven (they’re on every corner), booked online, selected the counter option and then showed the cashier the barcode on my phone. They scanned it like any other item in the store, I handed them the cash and BOOM, my electronic ticket was sent to my phone. It was so easy and cheap and quick I almost couldn’t believe I’d just bought a flight as opposed to Green Tea Kit Kat Cornetto, something else you have to try if you’re ever in the East.
*For the record, this is the first recipe I’m going to try. I’ll just substitute the chicken for prawns.