Chiang Mai emerges from the clouds – alarmingly close for my taste – as the plane descends through the mountains.
As a Bangkok dweller, I am categorically not used to mountains any more. Or really any terrain other than endless flat plains leading to the sea. So there’s a certain novelty to flying into an airport surrounded by lush green mountains. As it turns out, there’s a certain novelty to most of Chiang Mai, and we were able to enjoy a slice of it on a recent weekend away. Here’s a mini guide to a Chiang Mai weekend.
Friday – Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a breeze. There are a ton of flights every day leaving from both Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports, with flights lasting around an hour.
We flew with Thai Airways from Suvarnabhumi as they had a big sale on. It is slightly unsettling to be on a full-sized, long haul jet for a one hour flight, surrounded by jet-lagged transfer tourists fresh from long journeys. I kept half expecting the plane to just keep flying and end up in Amsterdam, but obviously this didn’t happen. Next time we’d probably stick to Air Asia or one of the Don Mueang departures as there is less of a scrum of planes departing, which caused us to be delayed.
Your other, probably much cooler and definitely much slower option is the sleeper train leaving from Bangkok’s Hua Lumphong station. I love Seat 61 for all information on train travel, and this has your definitive guide.
We would have taken the overnight train on the way out, and flown back, but be aware that trains now seem to book up very early for Friday departures. Use 12go to book your tickets well ahead of time if you want this experience!
Assuming you come into the airport as we did, getting to Chiang Mai takes just 10-15 minutes in a taxi, costing 150THB. You cannot miss the taxis as you walk out of the airport, and there’s very little chance of getting ripped off as they all charge a flat rate which is plastered over every available surface.
Picking a Hotel
As ever, we used Agoda to find our hotel accommodation – it always seems to have the best prices and the ratings are generally on point. Here’s a handy map of places around Chiang Mai to stay, to suit pretty much any budget!
This time around we splashed out a bit and went for the 99 Heritage Hotel, and it was a great choice! Decor, service and food were all great, with big airy rooms and lots of extra goodies and freebies thrown in (or – paid for in the price, but hey it feels free).
The location was ideal – we found it was better to stay in the Old City of Chiang Mai, which is a small square shape surrounded by a moat. This is where you’ll find the temples, the night market annd tons of great places to eat and drink. It’s also very walkable in this area, one side of the Old City to the other is about 20 minutes.
Whilst we spent a little more on our hotel, Chiang Mai is equally welcoming to budget backpackers or luxury seekers.
Saturday – Culture, coffee and Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
You can experience Chiang Mai in any way you like. If you want rest and relaxation, you can easily laze around drinking great coffee and dining on local delights for a whole weekend. Whilst I wouldn’t say Chiang Mai is sleepy and quiet, it certainly has a slower, more relaxed pace of life than somewhere like Bangkok. Within the Old City, take the time to get off the main streets and you’ll suddenly find yourself in little oases of calm – the bustle melting away into something much more peaceful.
It wouldn’t be a Thai city without at least 8,000 temples to visit, and Chiang Mai doesn’t disappoint in this regard. We have seen a fair few temples since living here, so after a late and lazy Saturday breakfast we headed off in search of temples, coffee and good food at an extremely gentle pace.
Wat Chedi Luang was a highlight ornate and golden even by Thai standards! It also has a notable tall, old chedi housing a number of golden Buddha, and that’s about as much as I’m going to say about temples. Wat Dee Duang is also lovely and there was barely anybody there.
As mentioned, a key driver of this trip is my insatiable love of coffee, and Chiang Mai certainly has some fine options.
My favourite was Chiang Mai Coffee Bean – a study in minimalist interior with beautiful coffee and beans to buy. We easily spent an hour here just relaxing and enjoying some local beans. I say we, Frankie is a heathen who doesn’t drink coffee so she drank some terrifying green contraption. But I had fun, which is important.
Akha Ama is another one for the coffee buffs, as well as Ristr8o if you’re willing to venture out a little.
Another spot you should be sure to visit is Warorot Market, outside the old city. This is a bustling local market selling everything from food to fashion. It sprawls across a couple of buildings and is a great spot foor some souvenir hunting, or to pick up some local delicacies such as Sai Oua (local Chiang Mai sausage).
On the subject of food, Chiang Mai is a shining beacon of Northern Thai or Lanna cuisine – Lanna being the name of the old kingdom and meaning ‘kingdom of a million rice fields’. Apparently the neighbouring historic kingdom was called Lan Sang or Lan Chang, meaning ‘kingdom of a million elephants’, which makes you wonder if they could have avoided conquest by going halfsies on their obvious glut of rice and elephants respectively. As you can tell, history is not my strong point.
Anyhow, Lanna cuisine and is very much alive and kicking, and that’s a good thing for all. Top of the list is Khao Soi. Khao Soi is a strange dish in that it’s rarely seen outside of Thailand, and yet it’s a favourite of most or all visitors who have tried it. It’s easy to feel the love – a slow cooked piece of meat (usually chicken or beef) in a rich, thick and gently spiced coconut curry. In the sauce there are fresh egg noodles, with deep fried noodles in a heaped nest on top. Polished off with a sprinkle of coriander and a squeeze of lime, this is food to soothe the soul.
Rightly famous in Chiang Mai is Khao Soi Khun Yai, nestled on the northern edge of the old city. It’s a tiny little kitchen with covered outdoor seating serving up bowls of steaming happiness from morning to lunchtime. Like many great Thai restaurants, they’re sold out for the day by about 2pm. 50 baht nets you a bowl of loveliness such as this:
Other tasty treats to look out for around Chiang Mai:
- Gaeng hunglay – a local pork curry
- Nam prik noom – a green chilli dip/dish
- Nam prik ong – a minced pork and tomato dip/dish
The Sunday Night Market in the middle of the Old City is a great place to find Northern food, as well as art, crafts and clothes. From about 5pm they close off one of the longest streets in Chiang Mai, you really can’t miss it, and you can spend your whole afternoon and evening shopping, eating and repeating.
Fine dining on a shoestring
On Saturday evening we ventured out for a slightly more upmarket dinner; it was our joint birthday treat so we decided to spennd more than 60 baht on a meal as a special treat.
We ended up at B Samcook Home16 and found ourselves on the receiving end of uncommonly good, inventive cooking and friendly, family-run service. There will be a full writeup to come of B Samcook, but for the avoidance of doubt you should definitely book it and go like right now. A few teaser pics:
Sunday – Into the mountains
Whilst Chiang Mai is alluring on its own, the mountains and jungle surrounding it are manna from heaven to a Bangkok dweller. One thing we were interested in was the local hill tribes who dot the area. This is definitely a guide-based activity, and some fairly frantic googling led us to Thailand Hilltribe Holidays. They came with a good reputation, great reviews and a big emphasis on responsibility – it’s important as there can be an element of human zoo with some operators. The founders of the company have been working with the local hilltribes for many years in various capacities and it’s clear they know the communities and people extremely well.
Our guide Pat took us out into the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai, quickly leaving the city behind on steep, twisting mountain roads lined with thick jungle. A past version of me would have been all over these hills on a bike, but it would be a tough old climb!
We quickly progressed from the middle of nowhere to the arse end of nowhere, then into the back of beyond and finally somewhere so remote as to defy flippant classification. We’re talking half an hour down a dirt track which had been frequently washed away.
Eventually we arrived in a tiny village of stilted houses, and went to join a White Karen tribe family for lunch.
The Karen people are dotted all around the Northern Thai hills and are primarily subsistence rice farmers. There are many sub-divisions of the Karen, most famously the long-necked tribe where the women wear dozens of brass rings around their necks. Whilst most things seemed pretty modern, the cooking is still done over an open fire and the houses are all stilted engineering marvels of bamboo and woven leaves, with the livestock living under the house, including the biggest chicken I’ve ever seen which had the local dogs running scared.
While Pat went to help fix a few odds and ends and deliver a mountain of rice he’d brought with him, we sat and enjoyed the quiet surroundings and chatted in extremely broken Thai with the family. They then proceeded to emerge from the kitchen room with enough food to feed at least fifteen people, and we tucked in to an absolute feast of local goodies.
Everything we had was delicious, but particularly good were the bamboo curry and a rattan curry – yes, like they made chairs from in your grandad’s house.
After a bit more sitting and chatting we went for a stroll around the village and their rice fields, taking time out to snap a few shots of a pile of piglets sleeping.
During the day, we also visited a number of other hill tribes of various origins and styles. The views around the mountains are quite spectacular even on a cloudy day like we had!
Pat’s knowledge was excellent, as was the fact that he knows most or all of the locals so can pretty much just stroll in anywhere. It felt less like being on a set guided tour than just going for a walk with a local expert and seeing whatever was happening that day, which was nice.
We finished up the day at Baan Tong Luang, which is an odd place in many respects. The other side of the hilltribe story in Thailand is that the Karen are originally from neighbouring Myanmar, and are effectively refugees in Thailand in many cases.
At Baan Tong Luang, we were told that all of the tribes living there are refugees – for example the long-neck Karen. There’s a weird trade off, in that they effectively have to live in a tourist attraction. As refugees most of them do not have Thai ID, making it logistically tough to go elsewhere independently.
On the flip side, the tourists help them out by buying their products and conversing with them in their language. Pat was telling is that a number of the villagers have found a path to citizenship by learning good enough English (or other languages) to become ambassadors and head around the country (or the world) doing just that. There’s also an open question as to what happens if the tourist stream dried up.
Overall it’s each to their own on whether you go – it’s interesting but make up your own mind. Our guides weren’t pushy either way and they are experts on hill tribe welfare so they probably wouldn’t have offered it if they didn’t see some benefits for the villagers.
We much preferred the ‘authentic’ (groan) villages up in the hills, but if you want to visit people like the long-neck Karen, Baan Tong Luang is the only place.
Overall we had a great day out. It wasn’t cheap, we spent around 7,000THB between us – but it was a unique experience unlike anything we’ve seen before, and you really do need the expert guidance to be able to do see this side of Thailand!
So that was a weekend in Chiang Mai! A quick hop back to the airport on Monday morning (plenty of Sunday night flights are also available if you’re tight for time) and it was back to Bangkok and back to reality. Definitely a different experience to our usual go to of beaches and islands! Chiang Mai is a must-visit in Thailand – it feels so different from other parts of Thailand and has truly unique things to see do, eat and enjoy. It’s easy to do on a budget from Bangkok and makes an excellent weekend trip.