Chiang Mai! Songkran, elephants, temples and more…
While Bangkok is by far Thailand’s largest city at over 10 million people, Chiang Mai is in the top 5 with just over 1 million. We enjoyed a total of 7 nights in Chiang Mai. Our two hotels (one before and one after our stay at Elephant Nature Park) were near the city center. Chiang Mai is safe, diverse, relatively clean, and known as a mecca for ex-pats. We enjoyed Chiang Mai, but we aren’t inclined to join the ex-pats and live there…although daily massages are tempting!
Thai New Year was in full swing when we arrived!
Thailand celebrates with Songkran, a tradition in which everybody soaks everybody else with water buckets, water guns, and hoses. It doesn’t matter if you are a stranger, a tourist, dressed in a swimsuit, or a business suit, riding in a tuk tuk or a scooter, or walking down the street – you will get soaked – and it’s VERY FUN!! If you don’t want to get wet, stay inside. It was so hot, the water was refreshing – just dress for it and bring a waterproof camera (or leave your camera inside).
We recommend both of the hotels we experienced – De Chai Colonial and Ruen Come Inn
De Chai Colonial is located within easy walking distance to the night bazaar and the old city. Ruen Come Inn is further from old town but just what we needed for space and muted luxury after a week with elephants. Both hotels are modern and clean with great service. Sa, at Ruen Come Inn, has an especially lovely personality. It’s amazing what nice accommodations you can get for $100 a night (or less) in Chiang Mai.
There’s loads to do in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area. Here’s what we did:
Doi Inthanon National Park – our tour included stops at the highest point in Thailand (8415 feet, 2565 meters), 2 very nice waterfalls (even though it was well into dry season), the King’s and Queen’s pagoda with beautiful gardens, a lunch stop with Thai food (surprise!), a hill tribe, and a farmer’s market. We enjoyed all the stops, but the best part of this tour was the air temperature – easily 20 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Centigrade) cooler than the city and very refreshing!
Temples, temples, and more temples
Chiang Mai has over 300 temples. You could easily spend months exploring the history and nuances of each. We visited Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, on a guided tour. Doi Suthep is high on the mountain overlooking the city – very pretty, but also very crowded with tourists. Unfortunately, the much touted view wasn’t possible to see thru the smoke and haze from trash burning.
Several temples in the old center of the city are worth visiting, with far fewer crowds. We meandered through Wat Chedi Luang in the late afternoon and had it almost to ourselves.
The Karen Long Neck hill tribe
You’ve seen the National Geographic photos of beautiful women and girls wearing heavy metal coils around their necks, wrists and ankles. Even wondered why? Originally, the purpose was to protect the women and young girls from tigers while the men were away hunting. If attacked, the metal gave them better odds of surviving and keeping their body parts intact. Although that purpose is no longer relevant, they continue the tradition for beauty and consider “short necks” ugly. They increase the length of the coil every year to stretch their necks over time. It’s likely the tradition also continues because it attracts tourists and gawkers to visit their humble shops. Some would say they’re being exploited; others see that it’s a viable way for an immigrant community to earn a living and maintain their preferred way of life in the mountains. We found some of them very engaging and friendly, others not so much, esp. teenage girls, but we don’t blame them for not wanting to be on display when they really just want to be on their cell phones – cracked me up how quickly they’d tuck them away as we approached to see their hand-made goods.
The Orchid Farm and Butterfly Pavilion
Small, but lovely and there is a nice gift/jewelry shop that Tom pulled me through quickly.
Street markets and street food
Much to Tom’s chagrin, Chiang Mai is a street shopper’s paradise (Night Bazaar, Saturday walking street and Sunday walking street). Fortunately, the yummy street food, cheap beer, and plenty of $5/hour foot massages made it more than tolerable for him to tag along during the marathon shopping sessions.
As for food, it’s very tasty (usually), and unbelievably cheap. Tom got fairly adventurous in trying some items that weren’t totally recognizable, but there were also the standard offerings of BBQ chicken and pork, noodle dishes, gyozas (Thai version of potstickers), and even Greek food, Italian food, and yummy fresh fruit smoothies. Squid is definitely a Thai staple. We saw, but didn’t sample from, the stands with seasoned crickets, mealworms, and their kin.
The Chiang Mai Cabaret
Loads of good fun with ladyboys wearing Vegas showgirl outfits, lip synching and dancing to choreographed numbers. Tickets are a mere 200 Bhat ($6) and drink prices are very reasonable. We went as a group after a long day of touring. No reason to be nervous, just sit back and enjoy the show. Bring earplugs if loud music bothers you. Tipping the individual dancers after the show is encouraged (a lot) and they like to pose for pictures (for a tip).
We volunteered for a week at Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for abused, abandoned, and injured elephants. It was rewarding, inspirational, educational, fun, exhausting, and frustrating all at the same time.
Read more: Photos and story.
Who doesn’t love massages, right!? And, they are so inexpensive here, why not treat yourself? We never had a bad massage, but some were better than others. For Tom’s birthday, we used Trip Advisor to find the best combination of good reviews and moderate prices and discovered the Green Bamboo Spa, in the SE corner of the old city. For three hours, they pampered the two of us with combinations of personally selected treatments for a grand total of $75 for both of us. We enjoyed it so much, we went back for three more hours after our Elephant Nature Park experience (shoveling ele poo justifies another massage, right?). Although, we also had several nice massages AT the elephant sanctuary, too!
He said: I’d love to come back to Chiang Mai again someday for a long vacation – but not to live. Next time, I’m bringing my golf clubs!
She said: Two new addictions – “Elephant” pants and daily massages, please!
Trip Date: March-April 2015 – As part of 5 1/2 weeks which included Thailand and Cambodia Overview, SCUBA Diving, Tigers in Phuket, Bareboat Sailing for 10 days, Temple ruins in Siem Reap, Volunteering with Elephants, Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
? Which of these Chiang Mai activities would you enjoy? Have you been there?
Enjoyed reading about your time in Thailand very much 🙂
Just a tip about Songkran. When it comes to cameras and electronics you can buy waterproof cases and take them with you on your water splashing adventure. They are on sale everywhere during the festival 🙂
Great tip! We used our snorkel camera which is great for boating, spraying waterfalls and, of course, Songkran!Learned our lesson after ruining a camera in the mist / rain of Scotland’s Staffa Island.
Wow what a nice trip you had and great pictures too! Lucky for you that you arrived during Songkran as that’s a great time to enjoy Thailand at it’s most festive. One tip if you visit again or any other travelers during Songkran is to take some plastic bag or water proof bag along to keep your electronics like phones and cameras dry so that you can enjoy Songkran without having the worry 😉