In the two and a half years we’ve lived here in Thailand, we’ve hosted close to 40 different visitors. And of course, we love to introduce family and friends to our new home. Sure, we hit up the tourist hot spots like the Night Bazaar and the day market at Warorot, do a stint at some famous temples, and ride elephants through the jungle. But my favorite things about Chiang Mai aren’t necessarily the ones you’ll find in The Lonely Planet.
What I love about Chiang Mai is that it is both exotic and cosmopolitan: between elephant rides and bamboo rafting, you can sip a world class cappuccino and nibble on macarons; after careening around in a tuk tuk and shopping for handicrafts, you can say cheers over a fabulous cocktail or a variety of fresh fruit smoothies; when you’ve finished your hour-and-a-half Thai massage (for $8), you can make a dinner selection between homestyle street food served from an old woman slinging bags from a cart, upper-crust Thai curries and fresh steamed fish at fine dining over the river, Burmese delicacies by the Sunday market, Korean BBQ, the freshest sushi you’ve ever tasted, French…Italian…Mexican…you name it. You need only know where to go.
My favorite thing to do, when friends come to town, is to share with them some hidden gems, off the tourist track. If you were to come to visit, here are 5 of my favorite things to show you:
Outside of Thailand, it’s a little known secret that coffee has become both a fad and a high art in the north here. Just a few years ago, the best coffee you could hope for in most areas of Thailand would have been Nescafe. But the king has been developing a royal project to get local farmers off of growing opium, and helped them learn how to cultivate other cash crops instead like strawberries, avocados…and coffee. Now there are large regions in the north devoted to growing, harvesting, and roasting coffee beans, and Thai beans are quickly beginning to rival Central American and African beans. A tiny little shop, called Ponganes, just off Moon Muang Road is one of our favorites–and they have excellent croissants as well.
Not only are the beans gaining recognition, so are the baristas. Our absolute favorite shop to frequent is called Ristr8o, run by a young aficionado, Arnon, and his girlfriend, Jem. They’re super friendly and humble. You’d never know he’s a world-champion latte artist who trained internationally, learning coffee from masters, if it weren’t for the superior quality of every single cup of cappuccino, latte, or macchiato he makes. His coffees seriously rival the ones I’ve had in Florence and Rome.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Thai food is amazing. And that Thai food in Thailand is even more amazing. If I haven’t already piqued your interest with the sheer variety of cuisines that are on offer here in Chiang Mai, I would whet your appetite with the boundless variety of flavors, served fresh and cheap, available within Thai cuisine itself. Everything from fresh fruit (mangos, pineapple, lychees, rambutans, papayas, guavas, custard apples, passion fruit, mangosteens, etc., often peeled and cut up for your convenience) to fresh fish (served deep fried, steamed, in curries or in soups, with countless sauces), noodle or veggie stir-fries, cool meat salads in chili, mint, and lime, coconut delights, roasted duck, and more kinds of snacks than one could possibly count.
When we take our friends out, we eat until stuffed, and rarely spend more than $20 for 4 people.
Tiger Kingdom is one of the tourist destinations, but not one you always hear about until you actually get here. But really, who can resist the opportunity to bottle feed a baby tiger?
Or watch them play…
If you’re extra brave, you can go make friends with the big boys too.
No joke, the north of Thailand is gorgeous. The beaches in the south get all the attention, but for me, nothing beats the view of a couple on a motorcycle tootling past rice paddies, with the mountains in the distance. All kinds of tropical flora and fauna present themselves throughout the year, though rainy season is when everything gets seriously lush and colorful. Most people try to come during the cool season, thinking they’ll beat the heat. But when my best friends ask me when they should come, unless they’re hoping to catch a particular festival, I always say rainy season, hands down. The rains, which are warm and tropical (not cold like in Europe or America) keep the weather on the cooler side, and help make everything smell green and fresh. Scenery-wise, I think that’s when northern Thailand is at its best. Plus, there usually aren’t quite as many tourists since everybody else came during cold season.
If you came to visit and had a little extra time on your hands, I’d take you to one of our favorite spots on the lake, nestled just below the mountains: a restaurant with little private huts that sit right out on the water (you have to walk up bamboo planks to get to the huts), where you can spend hours just lounging around, munching, and sipping beers. No time limit, no one hurrying you along. And each dish will run you only about a dollar or two.
If you’re in the mood for a little hike in the jungle, I’d take you to Wat Pa-Laad, a little temple hidden up on the mountains, just below Doi Suthep, the really famous temple in Chiang Mai. All the tourists go to Doi Suthep, but I would tell you that you can skip that temple and go to Wat Pa-Laad instead. It’s far quieter, more meditative, you don’t get jostled by a plethora of touts selling their wares, and the views are equally, if not more, stunning. If you don’t like the hike idea, it’s possible to drive straight there too. But if you’re in the mood for a tiny bit of adventure, the approach from the hike leads you up to a waterfall that opens out at the top, just at the base of temple. When you turn around from that vantage point, you see all of Chiang Mai spread out below you. It’s hard to beat that.
It’s hard to convey just how Chiang Mai feels in pictures, or even in words. It’s much like the rest of Thailand, in that the people are generous, polite, patient, kind, and they love to eat and they love to laugh. Even though Chiang Mai is a fairly large city, it differs from Bangkok in that it has still managed to retain a laid back, easy-going nature. Life moves more slowly here. Friends and family who come to visit are unfailingly impressed by how livable Chiang Mai is. There’s something for just about everyone: fun shopping, cinemas, and restaurants if you’re in the mood for city life, yoga and temples for quiet meditation, rock climbing, camping, zip lining, and hiking if you want to get back to nature, and jazz clubs for anyone wanting to get their groove on.
The part I really love about Chiang Mai is the pastiche of old and new: fancy resort malls springing up amidst the ruins of the old city, tradition living side by side with modernity. Chiang Mai is growing, and with that growth has come a vibrant, youthful, experimental spirit, where young artists and entrepreneurs are trying out food fusions, a burgeoning wine & beer scene, coffee, local farm-to-table organic farming, and international fashions. There’s almost always something new to try out, and still you can always count on that soft Thai smile and bow to welcome you.
I’ve lived here for over 2 years now and I still love every minute of life here.