City Stopover: Chiang Mai, Thailand

PLACE:  Chiang Mai

COUNTRY: Thailand

YEAR OF TRAVEL: 2013

HOW WE GOT THERE:  A local bus from Chiang Rai

BUS HIGHLIGHTS: The scenery between the two Chiangs is refreshing.

BRIEFING:

Move over Bangkok, little brother Chiang Mai is quickly becoming the most sought after urban playground in Thailand.  Chiang Mai’s location is superb.  Located in the north, the surroundings are blessed with high altitude and year-around pleasant weather.   Chiang Mai is a favorite amongst Thai locals and foreigners.  And you won’t get caught up with the floods (or riots) found 700 km south in Bangkok.

Long favored by backpackers, Chiang Mai is an alternative to the typical beach scene of Phuket, attracting visitors in search of something more. Travelers from all around the world come to Chiang Mai to enroll in Thai massage school or cooking class – ensuring a revival of your inner chi. The town also brims with artists, designers and expats, making Chiang Mai a very livable city.

TIPS:

Chiang Mai, though it can be hot, is worth traveling on foot. This is a terrific town to lose yourself in. Walk along the moat of the Old City, explore shops, see temples and gobble up plates of tasty Thai fare.

The Night Bazaar remains the top recommendation in Chiang Mai for good reasons. Where else can you stock up on hand-woven silk, home-made lemongrass soap, black and white photography, and quirky magnets? If bargaining gets the best of you (it will), wash down your retail woes with a fresh young coconut. And know there are often night markets throughout the city and it’s best to see them all, especially the ones for locals. Ask around to see if one’s happening near the Silver Market, that was our favorite one. http://www.visitchiangmai.com.au/saturday_market.html

If anything feels too, too touristy, it’s a bona fide trap. Move on, fellow whistler, there’s a lot of local flavor here.

Whilst in town, we recommend a cooking class. Most classes are 4-6 hours in duration focusing on the Thai staples like green chicken curry and pad thai.  We are partial to the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School with its own organic farm just outside the city.

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Old City Wall, Chiang Mai

FAVORITE NEIGHBORHOODS:

Nimmanhaemin for the trendy clubs and bars. It’s worth a night out here.

Lang Mor for affordable restaurants and proximity to Chiang Mai University.

Jed Yod for detached houses on leafy streets.

FAVORITE ACCOMODATIONS

137 Pillars HouseThis boutique hotel oozes of old world sophistication from the golden days of the Orient, as the venue historically housed a 19th century teak exporting company.

BaanBooLoo Guest House –If you love Jim Thompson’s house in Bangkok, then book a night at this beautiful B&B.  It has a tree-house feel, with incredibly sleek features, such as outdoor showers on the private terrace.

Four Seasons Resort  – Simply the most luxurious of hotels in Chiang Mai with its spacious teak floors.

FAVORITE RESTAURANTS/BARS/SPAS:

RESTAURANTS

Mahanaga – Situated in a traditional Thai Lanna wooden house, this contemporary restaurant features some of the most refreshing grub in town.  Reach for the house specialty Hor Mok Talay MahaNaga – a savory red curry with coconut milk souffle.

Anchan Vegetarian – This restaurant stands out for its flavorful locally grown vegetables. Their food is affordable, and made with love. They have a weekly rotating menu – look for the eggplant with miso.

Nakara JardinA charming water-side spot perfect for afternoon tea.  Their chic terrace evokes an oasis in bustling South East Asia.

BARS

While the Chiang Mai is generally known for its laid back vibes, sophisticated cocktail bars are starting to spring up.  Here are our top recommendations for watering holes

Mixology – The hip spot with beautifully exposed bricks believes in the art of mixing.  The brainchild of a former London-based restaurant consultant, the cocktails here are potent and innovative. Try their Lost in the Fruit Garden and Love Me, Love My Dog.

Beer Republic – With over a dozen draught beers, this Tuscan-inspired beerhouse is a popular spot amongst the local expat crowd. Come for the craft brews, but stay for the food, as the Republic serves up French oysters and terrific Thai specialties like grilled duck in lychee red curry.

Monkey Club – This posh club is packed for good reasons.  Located in the hip Nimmanhaemin area, Monkey Club is arguably the most expensive club in the city.  The crowd here is fashionable Thais from locally and Bangkok. Leave your Columbia hiking boots at the hostel.

MASSAGE

Fah Lanna Spa – If you’re in search for a sanctuary, look no further than Fah Lanna.  The ambiance here is serene, enveloped with tasteful Lanna decore.  The rooms are deliberately simple.  The service is impeccable.  The therapist’s angelic hands delivered me a one heck of a facial. Reservations at least a day in advance are highly recommended, and it includes free pick-up and drop-off from your hotel.

Chiang Mai Blind Massage – This no-frills place serves up deeply good massages.  For what I paid (peanuts), this rejuvenating rub-down made its place in my personal history books. It’s that good. This is a professional quality massage and your patronage supports the blind community. Warms the heart, eases the shoulders. This is a big win. (No Website. Address: 99, Ratchamanka Rd., Phra Sing, Muang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai 50000 Thailand)

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Wat Chedi Luag

SIGHTSEEING RECOMMENDATIONS:

Elephant Nature Park –  Chiang Mai and the North hosts a small army of, though slowly decreasing, Asian elephants.  At the Nature Park, the staff gives lots of love to these adorable mammals.  Be mindful of other farms that exploit elephants for entertainment purposes through arduous mountain safari, soccer games, and acrylic art painting.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – Outside Chiang Mai, this temple perched up on a hill is worth the twisty, but picturesque travel.  Hiking up to the enchanting temple, we were greeted by golden statues, open courtyards, and ringing bells. Many Thais visit the temple as often as they can.

Wat Chedi Luag – Compared to many temples in Thailand, this one feels like an ancient ruin. Impressive, yet unpretentious.  Simple, yet expansive.  Here we spotted a table where two happy monks sat with a home-made sign: ‘Monk Chat – Ask us about anything.’  Go on, you know you have something on your mind.

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Here’s a video of Germans driving around the town, quite long and amusing:

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PHOTO CREDITS
Lead-In – redcarphotography/Shutterstock.com
Old City Wall – aodaodaodaod/Shutterstock.com
Wat Chedi Luag – SantiPhotoSS/Shutterstock.com