36 hours in CHIANG MAI
In January, I did a social media detox. It was so liberating that I may have taken it a step too far. Other than (very) sporadic posts on Instagram, even this blog took a break. But it cannot be denied that my SD cards have been nagging at me as they are filling up and that is a practical reason as any to slowly ease back into writing.
And so here we are. Chiang Mai. After my trip to Bhutan last fall, I had options where to spend a few days to decompress and although I had been to Thailand before, I had not yet been to the northern part. Safety, the notoriety of its regional food, the more intimate feel of it general (relative to Bangkok), and the abundance of hiking opportunities within close proximity made me decide on Chiang Mai. I'm happy to say that on all counts, Chiang Mai did not disappoint.
Chiang Mai is a relatively easy place to travel to. Options for accommodations are abundant and affordable. The city itself is fairly easy to navigate with tuktuks, rideshare (Grab is the app of choice in these parts), and walking. Compared to the hectic and massive Bangkok, Chiang Mai is less intimidating, especially perhaps to someone traveling to Asia for the first time.
Don't be deceived. Relative to most parts of the West, Chiang Mai is chaotic, bustling, and traffic-choked at times during rush hour in the way only an Asian city could be. But a few miles away from the city, and you can easily find yourself in hills and preserved national parks you would forget about the hustle of central Chiang Mai a couple hours away.
hereI will not lie - Northern Thai food has intrigued me so much and that has a lot to do with choosing Chiang Mai as my stop over on this trip. Much has already been documented about regional food in northern Thailand. I'm not going to give out recommendations here because I'm certainly not any authority on the subject. But I would trust recommendations from the likes of Chef Andy Ricker (of Pok Pok fame) which you will find in an Afar article .
The repertoire is so diverse and whatever you do, bring your appetite and do not miss going to food market where you will experience all different kinds of local delicacies aggregated under one roof. I liked Warorot, but there are plenty of others, including night markets.
If choosing what to eat ever becomes a paralyzing problem (I doubt it will), notice where the locals go and order what they eat. At Warorot, my brother and I saw this long ass queue for sausages and fried pork. We just had breakfast but we could not resist. We then had to find sticky rice because who eats sausage and pork on its own? Well, then we needed to get something to drink so we found mango smoothies, too.
Chiang Mai may be the very few places where I could claim that the mall food court had some of the freshest, most delicious, and affordable local food. I discovered that street food didn't quite agree with me (regrettably) and so I resorted to the food plaza located at Maya Shopping Center. If you also have sensitivities with food, I highly recommend casual dining here!
We didn't get to spend much time at One Nimman but I wish we did. We were just walking in the Nimmanhaemin district and literally ran into this building. It was an architecturally pleasing spot with a clock tower, an open courtyard and a brick facade. We explored inside and there were galleries, shops loaded with local pieces from artisans such as jewelry, leather goods, and such. We didn't get to eat here because we were already bursting at the seams by this time, but there were so many food choices and little joints that would make your Instagram happy.
Plenty of trendy cafes also abound in Chiang Mai and my favorite is definitely Graph Cafe in One Nimman. They got some serious specialty coffee and baristas there that rivals what I've tasted back home, plus their playlists are rather badass (and by that, I mean Y2K hiphop).
A day prior, we actually were up in the hills of Doi Inthanon National Park where we hiked through jungle, rainforest, strawberry farms, and coffee plantations, the adventure ended at a hut with free coffee tastings of locally grown coffee and it was delicious. The point is I'm not sure how many places actually serve coffee beans grown a couple hours away, but it is worth noting that Thailand coffee is pretty spectacular.
This one's a cute little cafe called Romano in the Nimman neighborhood where we stayed on our final couple days in Chiang Mai. It was right next to Kokotel where we stayed so it was super convenient.
At the prodding of my brother, we went on a hike at the Doi Inthanon National Park. I didn't book anything ahead of time (which is atypical of how I travel) but I figured I would just be returning from almost two weeks in Bhutan hiking everyday that I would play it by ear in Thailand. We ended up booking a small group tour via our hotel's concierge desk which required very little to zero amounts of stress (I like it!). There were only about a dozen or so of us on the bus, half of us are from the US/Canada which made the experience a lot more fun knowing we can participate in conversations without too much effort.
The tour lasted pretty much all day which covered a handful of sites within the Doi Inthanon National Park located right smack in the jungle and rainforests west of Chiang Mai. There was tons of walking involved, but it was nothing technical that a person with average fitness level could not do. We stopped at various waterfalls and vista points, including at the area that stands above all of Thailand - literally the highest point of Thailand!
My favorite hike though was a short but stunning adventure in the lush jungle led by a member of the local Karen Hill tribe. The tribe still lives in this area and wear traditional clothing, but what is remarkable is how they've become stewards of the mountain and it's very apparent what their efforts of conservation have amounted to. We hiked through thick vegetation, waterfall after waterfall, crossing the water on makeshift bamboo bridges, the spray mist welcome in the afternoon mugginess. The hike wove through jungle, then to strawberry fields (who knew they grew in tropical Thailand!) and down to small coffee plantations. The biodiversity was so incredible. We saw a venomous snake curled on a tree limb, a massive spider on its web overhead, lots of vegetation and plants, all sorts of insects - all identified by name by our guide, Bo.
At the end of the hike, they had a wonderful surprise waiting for us - tasting of freshly roasted coffee grown right there. I don't ever recall having that kind of a treat after a hike before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The coffee, served black in tiny cups, is absolutely delicious!
On the same tour, we also made a brief stop at a Hmong market where they sold some fresh fruit, dried fruits and nuts grown locally (which again surprised me that they grew macadamia there). Some travelers in our group even found some strawberry wines that they were going to bring home to the States.
I'm guilty of being a snob at traveling on a tour, mainly because some mass-marketed tours create fabricated experiences and therefore, expose you to commercial versions of real local life. I will admit that this tour was a different experience and in one day, we were able to cover nature, some history, food, and definitely culture. The tour was pretty standard since I keep seeing pretty much the same itinerary from various operators. The distinguishing factor is that the one we picked included "trekking" on it and if you were to go, I would highly recommend doing the same.
DOI SUTHEP & OTHER TEMPLES
In Thailand, it would seem like temples are inescapable. Having just traveled to Bhutan prior to this trip, the contrast is sharp between traditional and modern Buddhism. For one, I observed that in Bhutan, temples are more austere and have retained a distinct solemnity. My brother and I rented a private tour on those local red buses to Doi Suthep and we arrived mid-morning to a temple, while beautiful, was swarming with both tourists and local devotees.
In Old Chiang Mai, there are plenty of temples you can visit. We settled on Wat Chedi Luang because it's one of the oldest and it was close to our hotel. Built in the 1400s, some ruins still remain today.
IF YOU GO
I flew to Chiang Mai from Bangkok on Thai Smiles, the budget affiliate of Thai Airways. The flight was efficient, on time, and quite cheap. Chiang Mai's airport serves international destinations so you can fly to it from virtually everywhere. From Chiang Mai, I flew to LA via Seoul (on Korean Air).
From the airport, I already had some Thai currency (baht) with me, so I took an official taxi to my hotel.
For ride shares, make sure you have Grab on your phone. It's what's used in these parts.
For hotels, we split our time between Old City and Nimmanhaemin.
In Old City, we stayed at Cheeva Dee Hotel, a lovely boutique hotel in a quiet neighborhood. It was cozy, clean, and had beautiful design throughout. The breakfasts are a la carte and super fresh and delicious. Make time for a dip in the pool! We arranged our Doi Inthanon tour via their concierge. I would stay here again. In Nimman, we stayed at Kokotel a more low-key but minimalist and functional hotel. It's within striking distance of the trendy restaurants and modern side of Chiang Mai. Kokotel is clean and affordable, and the free breakfast is a plus.
There are tons of spas that range from budget to high end. Take time for a Thai massage - you're in Thailand after all!