I still remember the moment when we left the airport in Chiang Mai to take a taxi to a yet unknown destination in the city. It was still sunny and hot on this November evening but you could actually breath well compared to the mixture of humidity and smog we were confronted with in Bangkok. When we stepped outside through the door at the small airport the first thing that caught my eyes was a big mountain. Everything surrounding the airport seemed to be rather green. In fact, it looked like the airport was placed in the middle of the jungle. It didn’t resemble anything I had seen of Thailand before. And I immediately started to like it…
Chiang Mai was our first stop in Thailand. From Bangkok we took a flight to the capital of the North and the second most important city in Thailand. The flight which we booked the day before directly in our hotel was surprisingly cheap! For less than 40e per person Bangkok Airways took us in 1.5 hours the 700km to the North. We’ve heard and read many good things about Chiang Mai before and we were eager to discover ‘the rose of the north’ as it is often called.
We ended up spending 2 months in Chiang Mai. We celebrated Christmas, New Year’s Eve and both of our birthdays there and we fell in love with this city! Here are 5 reasons why:
The first thing I remember of Chiang Mai is the food. I heard before that Chiang Mai is known as a ‘food-mad’ city which seemed to be true! Nowhere else in Thailand did we find such a variety of really good Thai (street) food for so little money. The streets are filled with food stalls and places selling delicious Northern Thai treats but you can also find a wide range of authentic international restaurants run by Thais as well as by expats from all over the world. We learned that the Northern Thai Cuisine is different from the West or East and its mostly influenced by the Lanna culture (the former kingdom of Northern Thailand) and the neighboring countries, especially Myanmar. Typically, the curries in Northern Thailand are milder and a heavier use of ginger and turmeric characterizes the food. In addition, it is more common to eat sticky instead of steamed rice with the meals. Sticky rice is usually formed to a ball with your fingers, dipped into some paste, and eaten together with a dish of meat, fish, or vegetables.
Probably the most famous Northern Thai meal is Khao Soi: yellow egg noodles in coconut milk curry topped with crispy fried noodles and served as a soup with chicken, pork, or beef. You will find many different variations of this basic recipe all over Chiang Mai. With around 30 baht for 1 bowl (about 70 euro cents) it is not only a very good but also a super cheap meal and definitely worth trying! In general, as we realized later on our trip, Chiang Mai didn’t only have the best but also the cheapest Thai food which made us really miss this place sometimes!
Our plan was to stay in Chiang Mai for at least one month. During the first week we changed hotels three times just to see different places and get oriented. However, we were trying to find a long term solution and got soon overwhelmed by the many different choices we had! We soon learned why Chiang Mai is such a popular destination for expats, retirees, and digital nomads: a number of apartments is readily available in different price categories, free wifi belongs to the basic utilities, and the costs of living in general are very low. We found out that the best option for one month would be a guest house or serviced apartment where prices are always negotiable. Since we were looking for a nicer apartment with one separate bedroom plus kitchen and possibly pool and gym we ended up paying around 18000 baht per month. For stays of 3 months or longer prices usually go down.
In general, living in Chiang Mai is not only cheap but also more laid back and relaxed than in Bangkok. The city is very compact and it is very easy to get around with public transportation. In addition to extraordinarily good Thai food there is everything you need: new and very modern shopping centers with high standard movie theaters, a fascinating culture with hundreds of Buddhist temples, and a beautiful nature inviting for outdoor activities right in front of the door.
The nature surrounding Chiang Mai is a hiker’s paradise with easily accessible mountains and natural trails that criss-cross the hills and valleys. The province Chiang Mai also includes many national parks with Doi Inthanon National Park as the biggest (482 square meters) which houses Thailands highest peak Doi Inthanon (2565m): Here, the temperature can drop down to zero degrees in winter and even in summer time it’s relatively cold up there. Doi Suthep – Doi Pui National Park starts only 12km outside of Chiang Mai and houses one of the country’s most revered Buddhist temples: Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. Both parks attract all kinds of people, from mountain bikers to bird watchers, botanists, butterfly enthusiasts, and nature trail hikers. Many beautiful waterfalls invite for swimming and picnic.
My birthday in January we spent hiking up Doi Suthep which brought us to our physical limits but some viewpoints throughout the way rewarded us with amazing sights over the surrounding landscapes. Down we went on mountain bikes in a group of people which was a lot of fun and a great experience which I can totally recommend!
One of the reasons why we came to Thailand and also why we chose Chiang Mai as our first destination was Muay Thai – the art of kick boxing Thai style. Muay Thai is the number one sports in Thailand. There are Muay Thai boxing gyms all over the country and it is very popular among tourists to join one of them for a while to get an idea of this traditional sport and improve their fitness. According to online reviews the gyms in Chiang Mai are the best and very famous for their training style. There are many of them in Chiang Mai and we tried a few different ones – me more as a visitor and photographer, my boyfriend as active participant. In a later post I will tell you more about our experiences in Muay Thai in Chiang Mai and also in other cities in Thailand.
Nightlife in Chiang Mai is less out of control than in other places like Bangkok, Phuket or Pattaya. There are plenty of decent places available; many of them offer live music. The nightlife area can easily be reached on foot around old town. The majority of bars and clubs close at around 1 am but there are certainly many afterhours-options which are open late. Way too many times we ended up at a place called Lucky Bar which officially is open until 7 am and a popular meeting place in the early morning hours when everything else is shut. The rooftop restaurant serves Thai food and became a famous spot for a late night (or early morning) snack on the way home.
Chiang Mai was our first destination in Thailand but the more places we saw the more we missed this city and the comfortable way of living we experienced there. Although not knowing what was expecting us on the rest of our trip, when we left Chiang Mai we were both sure that one day we will come back…
Have you ever been to Chiang Mai? What do you remember about ‘the rose of the North’? Let me know in the comments below!