It all happened in a short time. Cheap flight deals and a backpacker friendly destination were enough reasons to convince a penniless me to sign up for this adventure. Tickets were booked quickly, lest prices went up. The excitement in our whatsapp group could be measured by the number of “must- visit” places shared on a daily basis. Me and a friend of mine were headed for a 2 week trip to Thailand and were later to be joined by two more of my friends in Vietnam. As we were planning on cities to visit in Thailand, there was one place which we both unanimously agreed upon and that was Chiang Mai.
Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a 700 km. ride away from Bangkok. There are frequent buses from Morchit bus station to Chiang Mai. It took a good 12 hours to cover the distance.
I found the ride very comfortable and what I found surprising was that your bus tickets could be used to redeem free noodle soups at their pit stops.
We reached Chiang Mai at 12.30 in the night. There was no point in checking in to a hotel, so we just stayed at the bus stop till 5.30 a.m. It had gotten chilly by then and we decided to search for hotels. A tuk-tuk dropped us outside the Tha Pae gate.
A square wall encloses the old city of Chiang Mai and this old city, built over 700 years ago, is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular attractions. It is one of the best places to understand Thailand’s culture and history. It was once completely barricaded on all four sides and surrounded by a moat. Today, there still stands a square wall around the old city giving us a glimpse of the olden days.
The eastern gate is the Tha Pae gate and I would say the best starting point for a tour of the place. We were lucky to get a hotel, at a stone’s throw away from this gate.
When we walked in through Tha Pae gate for the first time, all we could see was a street lined with restaurants selling western food, bars, café’s, eating joints, fancy hotels etc. On first look, it felt like a commercial hotspot. Of course, this opinion changed by the end of the day.
Chiang Mai was a place which had embraced modernity for sure, but while still retaining its quaint appeal. From fancy cafes and swanky hotels to mobile food stalls and ancient temples, it toggled on both ends of the spectrum.
Just walking along the streets here will open the door to a wealth of local experiences – be it learning how to cook delicious Thai food, learning an intense martial art like Muay Thai or being an elephant trainer for a day.
A walk from the eastern gate to the other end is almost 2 kms and once you reach the other end, you can see a natural canal running parallel to the city, lined by lush green trees. On the Tha Pae side lies a canal too and people often stop here to feed pigeons.
Life here is pretty laidback. It is exactly this vibe which makes it a paradise for backpackers from around the world. You will mostly find them exploring the city on cycles, mopeds and I even remember seeing tricycles.
The people here are some of the friendliest you will meet. They are genuine in their interactions and unlike the rest of Thailand, there are no travel touts who will pester you to buy their tours.
The landscape in this part of Thailand is blessed with lush green rainforests, mist covered mountains, gushing waterfalls and massive caves. The terrain and its close proximity to national parks lend itself to tonnes of adventures like jungle trekking, ziplining, rock climbing and river rafting.
It’s kind of overwhelming because you feel like doing it all. But you would never like rushing from one place to another. The relaxed ambience, which is so intrinsic to Chiang Mai, would make you want to just idle away in the company of nature.
The best part about Chiang Mai is its food though. Never have I been as adventurous with food as I was in Chiang Mai. There are a number of restaurants and eating joints, but the best food is always on the streets. You can literally conduct a food tour in this place for weeks and still miss out on places to eat.
Chiang Mai was once under Burmese control and even today, you can see remnants of that influence in the cuisine. You only need to taste the region’s mind-blowing signature dish, Khao Suey, to detect the unmistakable Burmese touch.
Their evening and night street stalls are some of the best ways to savour the local cuisine. Not to mention delectable desserts available on the streets. The icing on the cake (pun intended) is that the street food is extremely cheap. You can get an Egg Pad Thai for as little as 30 THB (INR 60/ USD 1).
Chiang Mai is a special place, sans the hype associated with the rest of the country. Its simplicity and old world charm will slowly but surely grow on you. Sadly, it doesn’t receive as many footfalls as the rest of Thailand.
Unfortunately during my Southeast Asia trip, I hadn’t budgeted enough time for this place. On our way back to India, we had already started making plans to visit Thailand again and both of us swore to spend at least a week in Chiang Mai.