Chiang Mai is a well established part of the Banana Pancake trail, and is a veritable hub for backpackers of all varieties. Chiang Mai has everything you could want a backpacker; all except a beach. We spent 5 nights here and this is our guide of great things to do.
Chiang Mai caters for all budgets. We stayed at Hug Hostel on Sri Poom Road in the centre of Chiang Mai. Hug is a comfortable hostel, with reasonable prices and a good backpacker atmosphere. As a traveling couple, we prefer to stay in private rooms. At Hug there is only one private room, which cost us 440BHT/about £9.50 a night, and is cosy to say the least.
Still, this is not really an issue as the hostel has an entertainment room, and a bar/cafe where you can meet other travellers or backpackers. Besides that, there is so much to do in the green city that you don’t spend a whole lot of time in your room anyway. Hug also has dorm rooms for much cheaper prices, however you pay for your bed, not for your room.
General note: If you’re travelling as a couple, dorm beds often work out to be more expensive than renting a private room as you individually pay for your bed, rather than a whole room.
THINGS TO DO
Traditional Thai Massage
There is an amazing variety of things to do in Chiang Mai. We were there 5 days, a and only one of those was spent mooching around the city. On this day, we decided we would get a traditional Thai massage. Not knowing what to expect, I tentatively followed Katherine into a parlour run by ex-Prisoners. This place is designed to help rehabilitate and reintegrate former female prisoners into Thai society. It’s an honourable idea and we recommend that you visit.
Experience the elephants
Chiang Mai is famous in the backpacking world for its many opportunities to spend time with Elephants. There is much controversy about some of these activities concerning the welfare of the elephants living in the parks. It is too extensive to get into here, but please please avoid parks which offer rides on elephants using chairs they hurt the elephants and have been unofficially outlawed by the eco-friendly parts of the backpacking community.
We visited Baanchang Elephant Farm about one hour from central Chiang Mai. Our guide, named Best (for real), was a chirpy, smiley chap who made the day run as smoothly and enjoyably as possible. Baanchang offer several packages which you can find on their website, but we fed, washed, and rode the elephants bareback. The importance of ‘bareback’ cannot be understated; the neck is a much stronger part of the elephant, and no metal bars from chairs rub on its skin. We paid 5800BHT/£125 altogether for the day and although there are perhaps cheaper options, Baanchang genuinely operates with gentle care and kind attention to the elephants.
Cook some Thai grub
Thai food has been one of the best things about visiting this country. Why not have a go at cooking it for yourself? We spent a day at Thai Farm cooking school, about 45 minutes away from the city and it was superb. We chose to cook 6 dishes: Curry Paste, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Coconut Milk Soup, Pad Thai, Yellow Curry, and Mango with Sticky Rice. They were incredibly tasty and our host was hilarious; she didn’t even understand some of her own jokes. It set us back a cool 1160BHT/£25 each but it was worth every penny.
Go for a long walk in the hills
The jungle south of Chiang Mai is beautiful. Organise a trek from one of the many companies scattered around Chiang Mai; I promise you won’t be disappointed. We went on a one-day trek; visiting a Hilltribe village, a waterfall, and the Grand Canyon, through our hostel’s own adventure company, Hug Adventures. There are longer treks than can be arranged but you cannot go it alone. You need a guide to visit the hilltribe villages as they have various customs and cultures that need to be properly respected.
The viewpoints on this trek were stunning and you can see some of them in the video below; as well as some of the eccentricities of our guide. We enjoyed this experience more than any other on our trip so far. It cost us 1400BHT/about £31 each, nearly triple our overall daily budget of £25, but the experience was truly special and we loved every second.
There is a whole host of other things to do in Chiang Mai. Many people use the city as a launchpad to Chiang Rai, Pai, and the fated Golden Triangle further north. We’ve heard many stories of the beauty of Pai, though we did not get the time to visit. You can also hire scooters or bicycles and ride round the streets of Chiang Mai. Having one of these makes visiting temples such as Doi Suthep a whole lot easier.
As with most large places in Thailand, there are markets sprinkled around Chiang Mai. The night bazaar pops up every evening after about 6pm and sells the usual things you would find at a Thai market. By far the most impressive are we’ve seen though is the Sunday Walking Market which sets up at 6pm on Sunday evenings. It’s vendors sell some really cool handmade crafts and artwork, as well as some more familiar things like Chang vest tops and croaking wooden frogs.
Whatever you choose to do, you will definitely find something you enjoy.
PLACES TO EAT
Chiang Mai is full off cracking restaurants and cafes. For breakfast, you should visit Blue Diamond. The garden is beautiful and well-kept, and there is a wide variety of western or Thai foods available.
If you’re craving some more familiar dishes, you could go to Casa Italian restaurant. Western food is slightly pricier all over Thailand, but the place is run by an Italian, and as such the food tastes great.
There are also hundreds of street food vendors around the city where you you can get good food for very little money. At the Walking Market, there is a food court orientated around a central temple. This is some of the best food in the city, so if you’re around on a Sunday, I’d save your money and your appetite, and spend it all here.
Many people, particularly those travellers sticking around Chiang Mai for a while, hire scooters or motorbikes. Doing so allows you to get around without having to rely on taxis and songthaews. We don’t have any experience on bikes, nor do we have an international driving permit, so we did not hire any.
Instead we used songthaews, the red pick-up looking vehicles lining the streets outside the station. The drivers are easy to barter with, quite cheap, and it is more comfortable than a tuk-tuk. Unfortunately for the wary traveller, outside of Bangkok, you are unlikely to find taxis that operate using a meter. You should always make sure that you agree a price before getting into the vehicle.
We really enjoyed our trip to Chiang Mai and in hindsight, we wish we’d stayed longer. Hopefully these tips will help you make the most of you of your time here. Check out the video below to see how we got on:
If you have any other recommendations, or questions about Chiang Mai, please ask us below.
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