Chiang Mai was one of my favourite places in Thailand, it has the perfect mix of old and new. The city has been built around the old city wall and moat, there are over 300 ancient temples to explore and plenty of trendy bars and fantastic markets to keep you busy. There is also a great hospital here, as I found out one day.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
You can get yourself a proper Thai massage – which in my experience is more like torture. I’m unbelievably ticklish, and when I wasn’t giggling into a pillow I was being mounted by a little old Thai lady while she cracked my neck and massaged my eyelids.
You can take part in a cookery class to learn how to make everyone’s favourite street food: Pad Thai. You can go on a mission to find the President Hotel and make the most of their four hours of “All You Can Drink Beer” for 150฿, then go drunk shopping at the very popular Night Bazaar.
You can also wake up one morning with a strange lump under your arm and spend a few hours in the Chiang Mai hospital. The language barrier is no problem when you point at what ails you and they hold you down, slice you open and patch you back up without so much as a hint as to what it is they are actually doing to you.
Another big attraction, but not one that I chose to take part in, is the Tiger Temple. However cool it would be to have my photo taken next to a big jungle cat, it did not interest me at all to do this posing next to a caged animal that spends its life in a drug fueled haze while being prodded by tourists. Please think about this before deciding to go, please spend your money elsewhere, please do not support these places that torture animals. Maybe just find yourself a cute kitten instead.
Hilltribe Trekking – how not to do it
One of the main reasons for most backpackers visiting Chiang Mai is to visit the hill tribes that live in the surrounding mountains. You will see countless tour operators offering “authentic” treks into the jungles to visit and/or stay in one of these “authentic” villages. Be warned, you get what you pay for, and sometimes not even that.
This is how our trek to visit the hilltribes went:
- we were driven to a genuine Thai market to pick up any supplies we needed such as household items or raw fish
- then we followed our guide and walked for three hours up a hill to the village
- which consisted of a few big houses just off the main road and a bamboo hut that we slept in while the villagers sat and watched TV
- but to be fair, the view was pretty sweet
Elephants in Chiang Mai
The highlight of the whole tour was riding an elephant. I did this before I knew any better. It was an unforgettable experience but now that I know what those poor creatures go through I regret it. I encourage anyone that wants to spend time with elephants to find a camp that really looks after them, not one who mistreats them in the search for more money. Here is some great advice that can help you figure out what to look for.
Our guide walked along beside us and mostly ignored our elephant when he decided to leave the trail in search of food. I was lucky enough to sit on the elephants neck and could pick fruit from the trees for him to take with his trunk as we plowed through the jungle, often brushing into trees swarming with fire ants, and wading through rivers. It was magical. But I feel bad. But it was amazing. But bad. I’m so conflicted.
Please find a park where you can spend time with them without riding them. Why do you need to sit on their backs? You can still enjoy their company from afar, or better yet while feeding and washing them. Elephants are broken before becoming a tourist attraction. I didn’t know that back then, but I do now. Please don’t do it.
Accommodation in Chiang Mai
There are plenty of options in the city from cheap backpacker hostels to fancier hotels to some world class resorts. I spent a few nights in Rama Guest House, it has big clean rooms and a lovely garden to relax in. I also spent a few nights after the disaster of a Hilltribe Trek at A Little Bird 2 Guesthouse, in a great location with big dorm rooms which is great if you’re a solo traveller looking to meet new people.
Getting in and out of Chiang Mai
There are a ton of buses running all day every day from the city and it’s not difficult to get where you want to go, with the VIP buses providing entertainment and snacks while being the most comfortable and usually the fastest. Another option is to rent a motorbike here and drive it to Pai, while paying to have your luggage taken ahead of you. We did this journey from Pai to Chiang Mai and it was fantastic!
You can view the full album here.