December 15, 2019: A Chilly Welcome
Numerous people warned me about Chiang Mai. They said I was not going to like it because it’s not really Thai- rather it’s a city that today exists only for tourists.
To me, touristy isn’t necessarily a bad thing- there is often a good reason why millions of people want to go to a place. That said, a touristy place means I simply have to be more careful when choosing things to do. Some activities/places are bound to be good but there will also be others that are not good or designed for a different type of traveler.
I decided to visit Chiang Mai because: 1. It is a famous destination 2. They had direct flights to Luang Prabang, my next destination. 3. Everyone said it was a nice place. 4. Chiang Mai is a popular backpacker spot and I love the backpacker culture.
Will I discover some amazing place that nobody has ever been? No. Will I have a unique cultural encounter like the line dancing in Chiang Rai? No. Will I have a good time? Absolutely!
The bus from Chiang Rai (coming from my day in the Golden Triangle) dropped me off at the main terminal 3km outside the city center. I teamed up with the other white people on the bus to split a van to the city center.
It dropped me off a my “party” hostel which had some hilarious rules:
- We go hard. We are a party hostel, so be ready for loud, fun, drunk & likely naked people 🙂
- Rude, whiny, pushy, condescending and/or douchey guests will not be tolerated
- Tequila shots and shotgunning beers will always be tolerated.
I shared a room with 3 people in their mid-20s from St. Louis of all places! They were on their first backpacking trip and first experience in Asia (a common theme of the travelers in Chiang Mai).
Since it was Sunday I headed over to Chiang Mai’s walking street for dinner. The experience was considerably different from Chiang Rai’s walking street that I visited the night before.
This walking street was 1.2 miles long about twice the size of Chiang Rai’s. Unlike the local/tourist mix in Chiang Rai, in Chiang Mai everyone was a tourist and it was paaaaacked. Half of the tourists were white/European and the other half were Chinese. The place felt a little bit like Bourbon Street but without alcohol. Aside from the shopkeepers, I don’t think I saw a single Thai person there. The food was also noticeably different. While in Chiang Rai, they served mostly dishes I have never heard of, here I was able to recognize nearly everything at the market. Stalls served the familiar Thai foods from back home: pad thai, green curry, spring rolls, but also Belgian waffles, burgers, and even sushi. All the signs were in English or Chinese. After much searching, I found a stall selling some sort of fish salad. I went because his sign was only in Thai and it looked spicy. It was. I then went to a papaya salad stand. The guy very reluctantly added in the 2 chili’s after a couple warnings. He then added in a big scoop of sugar so, while delicious, was not as spicy as I was hoping for.
At the end of the night- around 10:30, I was questioning whether I made the right decision to come here. It seemed like the haters were right.
December 16, 2019: Temple Hopping and More
If you read a “24 hours in Chiang Mai” guide, you will most likely only have a half-day’s worth of activities plus “relax and get a massage” in the afternoon. Despite having a population of 1 million, the city center of Chaing Mai apparently has remarkably little to do. I was determined to prove the guides wrong and enjoy a full, active day.
I started out walking into the Old City, where I booked a full-day elephant sanctuary tour for tomorrow. Then I visited some of the many temples in town including Wat Chedi Luang, which has the ruins of a gigantic stupa.
I then got a late breakfast of khao soi, a Northern Thai/Burmese noodle soup at Khao Soi Kun Yai. I loved it so much I went to Khao Soi Maesai and got a second bowl.
Now that I was already well to the west of the Old City, I set my sights on a monastery in the mountains to the west of town. It took me an hour of walking to get there. Along the way I saw a fancy mall swarming with Chinese tourists taking pictures and Chiang Mai University. Out here I couldn’t help but notice that all the signs were only in thai. There were in fact Thai people living in Chiang Mai. They just didn’t go to the city center.
Eventually I reached Wat Umong temple aka the Tunnel Temple. It was serene and surrounded by trees. The temple itself has a few tunnels to explore. The tunnel network was very simple but certainly distinct from any other temple I had seen thus far in Thailand.
On the way back into the Old City I stopped at the local market for pork skins and then for a roasted chicken lunch of Michelin Guide and New York Times fame at SP Chicken.
I headed over to Chiang Mai’s most famous temple: the gold temple. It had a huge golden wat but also a main hall covered in extremely old paintings.
I had now walked over 8 miles (15 kilometers) and needed a break. I stopped at a delicious backpacker-trail smoothie shop for a sunflower, pineapple, passionfruit glass of pure goodness.
Then I wandered back to the hostel.
After a 30-minute power-nap and quick dinner, I signed up for the Hostel’s pub crawl. For $15 I got a tank top, bucket of a sugary mixed drink, random shots, and fun chaperones (aka long-term guests/employees of the hostel.
Our ratio was terrible: 9 guys and 0 girls when we reached the first stop: another hostel.
We played drinking games including flip cup and rage cage. Because the group was so international, they had to explain the rules to everyone- which honestly is so much like my experience at business school. We all had a great time and even met two guys from Barcelona!
Our group had now expanded to about 30 people including a few girls! We then crammed into a red share taxi where the chaperone poured shots in our mouths as we cheered and told jokes. Our next destination was the first of a small cluster of bars just outside the Old City. Our bar was hooker-free but all the other bars were packed with Thai ladies (and presumably some lady boys) chatting up the older white male tourists. We were there for about 45 minutes before getting shuttles to another bar.
At this new bar, there was a live band playing rock music just for us. The drinks here were very expensive $3-4 for a drink. The chaperones were aggressively encouraging us to buy drinks.
While we were drinking, two small children trying to sell us flower necklaces. The music and atmosphere was definitely damaging to these children’s hearing. Additionally, the boy has scars on his face- presumably from abuse from a parent. This was so sad. I really do not know what to do in this situation- should I buy the necklace and support child labor or not and have the kid risk injuries for not reaching his quota?
I did not buy anything.
At that point I left and walked home sober to get some sleep before my big day at the elephant sanctuary.
Chiang Mai is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of city. You can choose to stay in the touristy banana pancake fantasy land, which is very pleasant. Or, you can choose to see the real Thailand on the outskirts. While the city is pleasant enough, there is not that much to do; the main attractions are all at least an hour away. If I were to visit again as a tourist, I would spend 1 day to see the city, then quickly head to the countryside. Chiang Mai is also a major remote-working hub and for that I totally see the appeal.