Why Chiang Mai
There’s a reason why Chiang Mai is littered with expats and digital nomads alike. A low cost of living, rich culture and some of the most amazing street food in all of Southeast Asia. It’s the type of place that not only invokes dreams of breaking free but makes you realize that it’s possible! The Gem of the North is a must for any trip to this region of the world.
- Thailand is very English friendly. Though some things are lost in translation, you will have no problems getting around using and reading in English. But embracing local language is a great way to connect with locals. Learn some phrases HERE.
- The Art of the Hussle: Chiang Mai has amazing markets and food vendors. Everything is negotiable. Start with 50% off asking price and let the games begin!
- Respecting tradition: This is a very spiritual city filled with amazing Temples. Dress modestly, cover your shoulders and remove your shoes when entering a shrine. Always yield to Monks and respect their space unless you’re invited.
- Local currency is the Thai Baht and currently the exchange rate Baht:US is 35:1 so your money will go a long way. Always carry Baht as most vendors don’t accept credit card with the exception of highly trafficked vendors in the Old City and Hotels.
Getting there and getting around
CNX is an international airport 10 minutes drive from the Old City. Note that all direct flights originate from Asian cities only. From the US, the best stopover options are through Bangkok where there’s dozens of flights a day. Flights between BKK and CNX are as cheap as 1200 Baht one way. By bus, there’s one every hour from Mo Chit BTS station in Bangkok. It’s around a 10 hour drive and costs 700 Baht. I would highly recommend you fly given the cheap costs and high level of service provided by many of the Domestic carriers. Bangkok Airways was awarded “World’s Best Regional Airline” by Skytrax and they take it to heart.
TIP: Not only is Bangkok Airways affordable, they offer a free lounge with coffee, snacks and internet access at all major Thai airports. It comes in handy especially during rainy season when delays are frequent.
Getting around, you have a few options. All of these are available at or near the airport –
Scooter: though not as bad as other Asian cities, if you can brave the chaotic traffic Scooter is the best way to get around. They run around 150 Baht a day with better rates for weekly/monthly. Insurance can run as cheap as 20 Baht for peace of mind. And make sure to point out any damage prior to agreeing to terms.
Songthaews: these red trucks act as shared taxis throughout the city. Find one waiting for customers on the side of the road or wave one down moving in your desired direction. They run between 50-200 Baht depending on distance and the number of customer currently in the truck. Never pay more than 200 and negotiations are always open.
Tuk tuk: The three wheeled motor bikes that everyone has a story about. They’re convenient for short trips but can be uncomfortable and susceptible to scams. Run around 50-100 Baht and never pay more than 100.
Chiang Mai has a little bit of everything in the accommodation department. I’ll be focusing on my favorite middle of the road, private room Hostel and two/three star Hotel equivalent.
In my one week in Chiang Mai, I chose to stay around a KM south of the South Gate on Wai Lai Road, home of the famous Saturday Walking Market. I came across a Hostel by the name of Oxotel. It’s more expensive than your usual Hostel in Old City, but you get what you pay for. So if you’re a more refined Digital Nomad or Sabbatical’r looking for upscale budget options, this is for you:
- Six bed dorms, both co-ed and female only, will run you around 470 Baht a night
Privates will run between 1100-1740 a night, great for sharing for two comfortably, up to four but could get cramped.
- A Private refurbished Caravan on the property with bathroom for 1900 Baht. Very unique experience in a bustling city.
- Shared bathrooms but very clean and never had to wait for a shower.
Full outdoor kitchen and patio, great for socializing and working.
- No bar, but 40 Baht beer in the vending machine in the kitchen.
- Adjoining cafe, great coffee, pastries and room to socialize and work.
- Strong Wifi points on every level.
- Multiple hideaways with bean bags to relax.
- Scooter rentals with competitive rates.
- On site local travel bookings, English friendly.
- In the heart of the famous Saturday Walking Market with amazing quality arts, crafts and food.
The brand new Haus Hostel offers dorms for 400 Baht, located just outside of the Old City. For best value inside the Old City gates, a bed at Hug Hostel sets you back only 300 Baht a night.
Long Term Options
Almost all accommodations provide weekly and monthly rate discounts, so make sure to check if you’re staying longer than a week. Also, a quick look on AirBnb offers private rooms for an average monthly price of 2300 Baht ($680) with 120 options under 1700 Baht ($500). For some more privacy, whole homes for an average price of 4500 Baht ($1200) and 68 options under 1700 Baht ($500).
No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without a sampling the popular local dish, Khao Soi. A curry and coconut based soup with rice noodles and protein (I prefer beef). Thai’s believe that every dish should compose four flavors: sour, sweet, creamy and salty. Khai Soi definitely embodies all of these. As far as where to go, Khun Yai was by far my favorite and only 40 Baht! Arguably the best meal I had in Chiang Mai. Located near the north gate of the Old City, arrive for an early lunch as lines tend to get long and food runs out around 2pm. And give yourself enough time for seconds, yes it’s that good.
The vendors of the Chiang Mai Gate Food Market start rolling out their carts around 4pm and serving around 5pm every day and stay open well into the night. So much variety and flavors you could have a different meal every night for a month and never spend more than 150 baht on dinner! Have Pad Thai and a Dragonfruit smoothie one night, and Spicy Chicken Wings with a Banana Roti for dessert on the next.
If you get tired of Thai food but still want to be adventurous, check out The Swan for Burmese flavors from the neighbors to the West of Thailand. Different variations on papaya salad and traditional Burmese dishes like Pboo hoe goo ichwi (beef soup with a tomato base). But you’ve been warned, the Thai neighbors spice thresholds are tad bit higher.
If you’re itching to get out of the city and looking for a hands on experience, Thai Farm Cooking School is worth the 1500 Baht (prices increase November, 2016). It’s a full day excursion starting at a food market outside of town before heading to a full sustainable farm. You’ll pick your own ingredients from the garden and prepare four dishes throughout the day. You’ll leave with a cookbook, full belly and lots of laughs if you’re lucky enough to land Garnet as your instructor.
You won’t find the upscale rooftops or seedy underbelly’s that come with Bangkok, their Brethren in the north do things at a different pace. More my pace. There’s plenty of expat bars within the gates of Old City, John’s Bar and Zoe in Yellow being the most frequented. For live music, check out Bus Bar next to the river and Night Bazaar. An outside venue where patrons order beers from a (you guessed it) converted bus. And drink the night away with locals and veteran expats alike in the Riverside District while bar hopping alongside the river.
But the city really comes to life at its famous Markets. The Night Bazaar is nearly a mile long market with everything from knockoff purses to tailored suits. And check out the food court with live music and bar. If you’re staying over the weekend, the Saturday Night Market is a must. You’ll find the arts and crafts to be of better quality than the Night Bazaar and much more variety in food vendors.
I’ll be doing a dedicated post on this topic, but all travelers to Chiang Mai should spend a day with these amazing animals. Given the tourist driven exploitation leading to mistreatment of elephants, please do your research. Immediately pass on any “sanctuary” that offers riding. In my opinion, you should only book through the Elephant Nature Park either at their sanctuary or one of their affiliates. They helped bring Elephant cruelty awareness to the mainstream and set the gold standard on proper treatment.
Chiang Mai is a city that maintains its historical and religious identity which makes it a very spiritual place. Though it is difficult to find solace in the main temples and the tourist crowds that come with it, they are absolutely worth a visit. Take a scooter up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, climb it’s majestic stair and see some breathtaking views of the city. And Wat Chedi Luang is the gem of the Old City. In respect to heritage and tradition, dress modestly by covering your shoulders and wearing pants (though many do wear shorts given the heat). Many temples do provide modest robes to rent as well.
Thinking back on my week in Chiang Mai, I am incredibly grateful for my time there. It has put me down a path of thinking of my life differently. Sustainability, minimalism, entrepreneurship, individualism… all embodied by this amazing city. There’s few places where I immediately think of my next trip there (Tokyo and Lisbon are the only other two I can thing of) but it’s immediately what I did on the beaches of Koh Samui. Happy to say that I plan on returning for an extended period in the Spring of 2017 where I can provide more guidance on long term stays in this incredible city.