The Allure of Chiang Mai, Thailand
There are some places in the world that captivate you beyond your control, luring you in with their scents, their tastes – even their sounds. Whether it’s the culture, the scenery or simply the way they make you feel, these places take hold and beg you to stay. When you’re forced to go, they send out their whispers in the wind telling you to return again soon. And like a faithful sailor, you always will. The allure is too strong to even slightly consider not going back for more.
Known as the "Rose of the North," Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city behind Bangkok. This often leads to heated debates over which is better, but I'd argue that they're too different to be put on the same playing field.
For starters, Chiang Mai isn't a big metropolitan city like Bangkok. You won't find Skytrain stations, city buses or large clusters of skyscrapers. The pace of life is much slower and temperatures are lower since the city is surrounded by mountains.
That probably sounds appealing to anyone that's sweat it out in the Bangkok heat, but as a big city girl, my loyalty still lies with Thailand's capital. Don't get me wrong - there's still a lot to love about Chiang Mai, and even though I always looked at it with a bit of a chip on my shoulder as a Bangkokian, it didn't stop me from making multiple trips up north. Here's all the reasons why you shouldn't miss heading up to check it out for yourself...
Old City Square
Back in 1296, Chiang Mai was built as a walled city surrounded by a moat. It was contained within a 1.5 km (0.9 mi) square that existed as Thailand's religious and cultural core. Most of the wall has since collapsed, but the four corners are intact and the moat is still in use today.
Walking through the Old City offers insight into the country's past with its ornate ancient temples and tantalizing Northern Thai food, drawing you in with the dizzying sights and smells that Thailand is so well known for.
If you're into temples, Chiang Mai is the place for you. Hundreds of wats are scattered throughout the Old City and beyond, most of which are still in use and occupied by Buddhist monks.
The one thing that Chiang Mai will always have up on Bangkok is the abundance of nature all around. The lush green countryside sprawls out in every direction, inviting visitors to explore its waterfalls, hot springs, rainforest reserves and unique mountain tribes.
Whether you choose to go trekking or ziplining with an adventure company or opt to rent a motorbike and explore on your own, there are endless options for getting out and enjoying the fresh mountain air. Doi Suthep National Park is a great place to start.
Most visitors come to Thailand with the dream of riding an elephant. Who wouldn't want to stomp through the jungle atop one of these beautiful beasts? I absolutely did, and even after I started to learn about the plight of Asian elephants, I still went against my better judgement and rode one anyway on my last trip to Chiang Mai.
I'm writing a whole post on why I'll never do this again, so I'll keep it short here. In a nutshell, the elephant tourism industry in Thailand is checkered with illegal capture and trade, mistreatment and torturous training methods. It's a complex issue that's highly debated, but I think we've reached a point that the evidence is too staggering to ignore. Riding elephants simply isn't sustainable and can be damaging if proper precautions aren't taken.
Fortunately, there are a number of elephant sanctuaries where you can still hang out with these sweet creatures and interact with them on an ethical level. Many offer volunteer programs, but need to be booked pretty far in advance. Boon Lot's Elephant Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are all great options to explore.
This one may seem a little quirky, but if you're looking for a unique massage experience, you've got to head to the Chiang Mai Blind Massage Association.
All of the masseuses are blind, leading to a more intense massage due to their heightened sense of touch, memory and hearing. It was definitely the strongest Thai massage I've ever had, which is saying something. I wouldn't recommend this for the faint of heart, particularly since the building itself is a bit shabby and hard to find.
But for those up for a weird adventure, add this to the list.
No visit to Chiang Mai would be complete without a visit to the Night Bazaar. Rows upon rows of stalls offer everything from traditional Thai handicrafts to cheap tourist knick-knacks.
Thanon Chang Khlan comes alive in the nighttime, so even if you don't plan to buy anything, it's fun to go for a stroll to get in on the action. Don't miss the off-shoot Kalare Night Bazaar for upscale clothing and home decor. And if you happen to be in town on a Saturday, the Wualai Saturday Night Market is great for food lovers.
Great Nightlife Scene
It may not be quite as banging as Bangkok, but Chiang Mai is actually really fun by night. Zoe in Yellow is a farang favorite that's situated within a square of other bars, each offering their own distinct vibe.
To get a feel for the local club scene, head to the northwest neighborhood of Nimmanhaeman. Grab a bottle of Sangsom and enjoy the live music at Monkey Club.
WHERE TO STAY
I stayed in a nice Airbnb across the river from the Old City when I was last in Chiang Mai with my girlfriends, but I've received loads of good recommendations for hostels closer to the main attractions.
With its large front garden and charming brick walls, Gong Kaew Huen Kum is a hotspot for backpackers that want to mix and mingle with other guests. It's location in the Old City is close to everything and you can rent bikes from the front desk to get around.
Baan Say La Guesthouse is a great choice in the Nimmanhaeman area for those that want to explore everything the trendy hood has to offer. Bonus points for being able to stumble home without worrying about finding a tuk tuk.