Chiang Mai: Six of Our Best Travel Tips
Chiang Mai is a city of opposites. It’s a buzzing, congested beehive full of cars - that have probably never had an oil change - surrounded by an ancient, crumbling brick wall. Be-robed monks ride motorbikes down cobbled streets talking on cellphones. Temples stand side by side with tire-repair shops and massage parlors. In spring, the stench of car exhaust is only dulled by the smoke and haze of local farmers seasonally burning their rice paddies. It is an assault on your senses. It’s a place that requires contemplation and openness. It’s a place where nothing makes sense at first, but you just go with it and then somehow after a few days it all does.
We spent almost a week in Chiang Mai and only near the end did we feel like we had a handle on the place. Hopefully these little tips help you manage the chaos, understand the irony, and eventually appreciate the uniqueness of Thailand’s holiest and second largest city.
1. Book a hotel inside the moat / square
This is crucial because it means you’re in the heart of the city and can walk virtually anywhere. It's where most of the markets, restaurants, and activities are and if you pick a place on a small side-street just off, but still inside, the main square it might actually be quiet at night.
*Tip: That said, do not forget your earplugs…there’s a ton of motor bikes and no matter where you stay, I guarantee you one will blast down your street at 2 am.
2. Make sure your hotel has a pool
Chaing Mai is HOT and after a day exploring in what feels like a million degrees, you’ll be overjoyed that you paid a few extra bucks for a cool, glistening oasis waiting for you.
*Tip: the above two recommendations do not have to be pricey. We stayed at BB Mantra and it fit the bill perfectly. It’s in a fantastic location with a beautiful pool and rocking restaurant for less than $40 USD per night! Click the link or look on Booking.com for the best deals
3. Walk your boo-tay off
Taking your Chevro-legs for a spin is the best way to explore Chiang Mai . There are literally dozens of wats (temples) scattered all over and you can see many in just a half day. Of course, there are walking and temple tours for purchase, but we didn’t think they were necessary. Just grab a map from your hotel - all the temples are marked- and head out.
*Tip 1: there are not many sidewalks or pedestrian-only areas, so WATCH OUT. Thai driving knows no boundaries and motorbikes, as well as big tourist vans, barrel around narrow corners so fast you could lose a limb if you’re not careful.
*Tip 2: To avoid the searing heat and crowds, head out around dusk. The evening light is beautiful and gives an even more sacred feeling to the temples and grounds.
*Tip 3: Ladies, don't forget you must cover your knees and shoulders when you enter a temple. You do not have to cover your head. Everyone must remove their shoes.
4. Eat Street Food
It is amazing and cheap and we ate from street carts literally every day: Pad Thai, Cashew Nut Chicken, Pad See Ew, Tom Yum Soup, all our favorites! And because I know you’re wondering, we were A-OK ‘stomach-wise’. No explosive travelers’ diarrhea for us! Just like anywhere though, make sure the set up looks legit and that it’s moderately busy.
5. Take a cooking class
After all that street food you’ll definitely want to know how to make it yourself when you get home. We did a half-day class with Asia Scenic and it was great. A half-day class, which ended closer to 2 - 3 pm was plenty and I think it worked out to be about $40 USD per person. Most places also include a cookbook with the recipes at the end of class too which is great for reference. Prepare to be stuffed and ready for a nap!
6. Pop in for (many) Thai massages
One of the best things about Thailand is that amazing massages cost a fraction of what they run stateside and there are parlors everywhere. I’m talking about $9 - 10 USD for an entire hour of bliss any time! At that rate, we did it nearly every day and our sore feet thanked us majorly!
*Tip: the fish massage looked interesting, but ask what’s included first. We opted out because the people we saw just sat there, the fish ate off all their dead foot skin, and then they left. That was it. No massaging, no Tiger Balm, no feet in your back action at all, and frankly, that’s what we were there for.