Getting around in Thailand is easy, cheap and safe. As a female travelling solo, I love being able to arrive at an airport in the dead of night and climb into a taxi, safe in the knowledge that my driver isn’t likely to rape me. (Horrible sentence, right? And how awful that every South African woman reading this is like ‘yep, yep’.)
At many Thai airports you’ll find they’ve got an official airport taxi service with uniformed drivers in cars that go to certain areas for a set rate, which is great ‘cos then you know you’re not getting screwed over, price-wise. This is the case when you arrive in Chiang Mai. You just hop into the car (both times I’ve done it my driver has been a woman) and hand over 150 Baht (about R58) to get dropped off at the door of your hotel in Old Town AKA Old City. Ta da!
Old Town is a giant square in the middle of Chiang Mai surrounded by the crumbling remains of a castle wall and a literal moat. If you visit, this is the area you’ll want to stay. It’s a vibey, food lovers Shangri-La filled with cheap yet delicious restaurants, super hot man bun-rocking backpackers and massage parlours offering foot rubs for R80 a pop. You can literally walk from one side of the square to the other in just under 20 minutes. (I know because I did it and timed it).
When I first arrived, I stayed in a very nice guest house on the outside lip of the square (right in the very corner of it) ‘cos it had a pool and was going cheap cheap, but, while I enjoyed my stay, I wouldn’t do it again. Getting across the moat isn’t as easy as stepping over it. You enter the square via a bridge at one of the four gates in the centre of each wall so being on the outside, literally on a corner, means schlepping for ten minutes to a gate. If you’re inside the walls, it doesn’t really matter too much where you stay, everywhere is awesome or at close to something awesome.
Currently I’m living it up at Manee Guest House which is great because it’s got a nice pool, the world’s cutest bandana-rocking cat that totally thinks it’s a dog and, location-wise, it’s perfect. Just a few steps away from killer good restaurants, a 7-Eleven, the most popular bars and pubs, my fave wallet-friendly nail salon (Nail Chic, not to be confused with crazily over priced Nail City) and a zillion beauty and massage parlours.
You really can get wherever you want to go on foot – and safely so, come day or night – using google maps’ GPS which makes life super-duper easy. While free Wi-Fi is abundant, I really do recommend you get a dtac Happy Tourist SIM which gives you crazy-fast unlimited data during your stay so you can use google maps alone. Don’t bother pre-ordering it online. Just get it from one of the dtac counters at any airport when you arrive.
Still, there are days when I don’t want to walk. Like when it’s boiling hot, I’m hung like a donkey and having to drag my bags to yet another guest house. Or I’m wanting to get to a mall outside of the moat that’s a ten minutes away via car. In this case, I’ll use Grab which is Asia’s competitor to Uber. It’s doing so well actually that it’s totally bought out Uber in Chiang Mai. (Uber is still going in Bangkok, by the way. But again, I’d use Grab as it’s often half the price.)
Using the app is easy. Just download it and sign up using your cell number, be it your new Thai one (which you’ll get with your dtac SIM) or your Saffa one. You can load a credit card to use as payment (I’ve done this, it makes life a breeze) or simply pay with cash. Being used to paying through my teeth for Taxify or Uber back home, I’m always amazed by cheap it is over here. A ten minute car trip is around R24!
Something else that’s cool about the app? Your driver can chat to you via a messenger service that translates what they’re saying in Thai to English and vice versa. I use this a lot and it works a treat. Just the other day I ordered up a Grab to pick me up from Maya (one of the city’s newest malls) and the driver (another woman) was all ‘Traffic! Starbucks entrance please! See you soon!’ Easy peasy!
One thing you need to know – Grab’s GPS isn’t always 100% spot on so always double check your drop pin before hitting ‘Book’. Also, it doesn’t list as many places as Google Maps. So if I type in the name of a restaurant into Grab and it can’t find it (or ‘misses’ it because it’s using a Thai name), I then use Maps to find the actual street addie or a landmark right next to it and then enter that as my destination in the Grab app.
Lastly, every time you use Grab, you earn points that can be redeemed on little rewards. I’m a sucker for a rewards program (those Discovery Vitality FitBit Vida e Café coffees taste the bestest, yo!) so this makes me stupidly happy. Just the other day I got to swap out some Grab points for an Auntie Anne’s pretzel (So good! You’ll die! Be disgusting like me and buy two extra cheese dips and totally smother the fucker!) and I felt so smugly local and lekker about it that it was embarrassing.
Last but not least, there’s Mobike! Mobike is this super cool app that lets you find one of their little orange bicycles (with a basket so you can stash your handbag or backpack) that are parked on curbs all over the city. Once you’ve found the bike, use the app to unlock it by scanning it’s QR code, ride it to your destination and then, when you’re done, park it and lock it (again via scanning) for the next person to find. HOW FUCKING COOL IS THAT?!
When Mobike first arrived in Chiang Mai it cost a couple of Baht per kilometre or minute or whatever (the price was so negligible in Rands I can’t even bring myself to look it up) but now, for whatever reason, it’s FREE. Madness, right? This is the joy of living in a Buddhist city. You get to share bikes in a place where peeps bugger off to lunch and leave their stores empty and unlocked. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to leave a shop after discovering nobody was in it. Just loads of super stealable goods, an Ed Sheeran song blaring on the stereo and an abandoned PC/till-thing with a fat, lazy cat lying sprawled across the keyboard. Like for reals!)
I’ve been using Mobike a lot (it even tells you how many kJ you burned after your trip) on days when I just need to get somewhere within the walls and I’m too lazy (or it’s too hot!) to walk. Again, I can use my GPS to show me where to go, but even though I’m in side streets, it’s dangerous to look at your phone while pedalling so I stick to cycling to places I don’t need a map to find, or for when I just want to cycle to ‘sight see’/get lost in a previously undiscovered area.
If you knew me when I was in junior school, you’ll know I spent pretty much my entire childhood with a gang of kids living in my suburb, flying around on two wheels. This was a time before cell phones. When you’d come home from school, jump on your bike and bugger off for the entire afternoon, only coming home when your Mickey Mouse watch said quarter-to-six and you knew you had to be home for supper. And let’s not forget about hot, blue sky, cicada screaming Saturday’s, jacked up on sugary Tartrazine-addled Lekker Licks, playing Marco Polo in four different pools all in the space of a morning. (Extra points if you did this too with a face full of neon zinc sunscreen and thought you were The Shit!)
So ja. Being on a bike the last few weeks has brought back a bucket load of memories and just feels super-duper rad. If you spot me, I’m the sweaty blonde with the big, psychotic smile on her face, thinking about the time my friends and I got into kak for egging Iain Thomas’ drive way. (Yep, that’s Amazon chart-topping I Wrote This For You Iain Thomas. This punt is my penance: Buy his book, okay?.) His only crime was having the audacity to give me a pretty pearl pendant his dad had been gifted with at a conference in Japan which was obviously a terrible thing to do because ewww, boys, gross! You know what’s even worse? My girls and I didn’t just egg-blast his house. We covered the pendant in Lip-Ice (Bubblegum flavour for the win!), rolled it in pot plant soil, spray painted it BLACK and returned it in an envelope saying ‘DICKWAD’.
Sometimes I lie in bed at night at wonder why I’m single at 37 and then I remember days like that I’m all like ‘Ja. Ok. Fair enough.’