Reflections and suggestions for Chiang Mai Thailand

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I guess I feel a little let down by Chiang Mai Thailand.  It is not Chiang Mai’s fault…my expectations of this northern Thai city had been bolstered by reading the many reports from other travel bloggers on the internet, and the short time that we had to spend there just didn’t leave enough time for me to really get under the skin of the city.

Actually, I think the beginning of the problem started in Bangkok. Bangkok was so dirty and disgusting that by the time we got to Chiang Mai Thailand, we already had a negative impression of Thai cities and were really needing real and significant change.

For this reason, I don’t recommend that anyone go to Bangkok, Thailand unless you are looking for cheap sex, drugs or parties (I know that this will garner some backlash because there are many people who love Bangkok, and I respect their opinions, but I don’t agree with them).   There are so many other beautiful, wonderful places in Thailand to spend your precious vacation time.

Typical street scene in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai Thailand is a city of hidden gems, tucked away in the dark corners and back alleys, waiting to be discovered be the person who has adequate time to crack the outer shell of this mysterious city.

The best Thai restaurants are disguised as a dirty street cart surrounded by dingy plastic tables and chairs with half clean table cloths that we wouldn’t even think of eating at in the United States. Great shops are hidden by piles of trash and cheap junk. The good places take time to identify and locate.

It is not the city’s fault-we just didn’t plan enough time here, and after our experience in Bangkok, we weren’t as inclined to give another dingy Thai city a fair chance (to be fair, Chiang Mai is VASTLY cleaner then Bangkok).

Chiang Mai consists of endless streets “hole in the wall” shops and restaurants. While the pieces of the city walls that are left and the Wats (temples) that are spread all over the city were interesting, the best part of Chiang Mai came alive for me after dark.  Chiang Mai is a lot like a beautiful, night blooming flower.

The city comes alive at night, when the dark hides some of its dinginess and flaws, and the neon lights cast a soft glow on everything. The night here feels alive with possibilities. Should I be adventurous and try a particularly exotic looking food from a street vendor? Should I go out and party until dawn? How about a thai massage?

The beautiful thing about Thailand is that all of these things are possible and easy to arrange. We did very much enjoy the experience of wandering around the night markets, trying various street foods and immersing ourselves in the human river that is Chaing Mai at night.

Chiang Mai flower market

Chiang Mai is a great city for all of the hordes of expats and backpackers who are living there either short or long term, who have the time to discover come of Chiang Mai’s secrets, but for a nomad just passing through, its offerings take a little more work  to delve into.

If you only have a short time in Chiang Mai Thailand, I give you the following suggestions:

  • If it is really important to you to see many of the Wats and such in Chiang Mai, take a tour of the city. While many parts of Chiang Mai are walkable, it is still a relatively long ways to walk from one side of the old city to the other. Do this a couple times to get to a few different temples and you will be exhausted quickly. Negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to take you around on a tour for a couple hours. Honestly, by this point we had seen so many temples that I didn’t need to see every temple in Chiang Mai.
  • Get out of town. If all you do in Northern Thailand is see Chiang Mai, I am afraid you will be missing out on the beautiful countryside that Northern Thailand has to offer. Take a tour up to the Golden Triangle (the border between Thailand, Laos an Cambodia), take the bus to Chiang Dao and spend a night or two up there. If you like organized tours, they are very cheap in Chiang Mai. If you don’t like organized tours, look through some of the tour book ideas at the tour agency anyways. Find one you like and check on the internet to see how you can get yourself to the same locations independently, either by public bus, tuk tuk or taxi.
  • Buy the Nancy Chandler map of Chiang Mai, but don’t be surprised if you still can’t find all of the places that you are looking for. This map is great, accurate and completely worth the investment and it helped us immensely on our trip. There were a couple specific places that I went looking for on the map that I never found. I am not sure if the shop was closed, or just not there anymore. Many shops in Thailand seem to keep random hours, and when they are closed, if it is a small shop you may not have any way to even tell that it is ever there.  One could spend weeks or months searching out all of the great places on this map. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get to all of the great shopping spots or restaurants that you want to in a few days.


If you enjoyed this post, please enjoy some of my other writing about my time in Thailand:

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