Chiang Mai, the second largest and most important city of Thailand, is located in the Northern Thailand amidst the mountains and greenery. Often considered the “traditional capital of Thailand” Chiang Mai is best suited for those who wish to experience the real Thai countryside and culture along with the hospitality and warmth of the amazing Thai people. Having said that, Chiang Mai also has its share of backpackers and club-hopping as an essential part of its lifestyle.
Most people planning on staying long term in the country end up living in Chiang Mai for it has everything that you may need – food, clubs, hospitals, universities, shopping malls, sightseeing, adventure sports, etc., and for a lot cheaper as compared to many other cities in the country such as Bangkok.
The city’s main attraction, or rather one of the three main attractions is the hundreds of magnificent and larger-than-life Buddhist Wats which are scattered all around the main city and nearby. Some of the must visit temples or Wats include Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Chiang Man. The first two are on a constant competition for “Chiang Mai’s most famous temple attraction” while the third is “Chiang Mai’s First Temple”.
The second most important attraction or reason for you to visit the town is the endless possibilities it offers for trekking, camping, rafting, and zip lining! Being situates amidst the mountains and greenery, and being surrounded by many indigenous tribes, Chiang Mai is the best spot if you are into stuff like the ones I just mentioned. Plus, it is also where you can catch a bus to nearby famous tourist locations of Pai – the love city as some call it (for what reason I am yet to figure out), and Chiang Rai – the city of the white temple! Oh and of course, all those talks about a “slow boat to Laos” – well! Chiang Mai is your place to be if the idea of spending two days on a wooden old boat with 10-20 strangers, eating, smoking, drinking, and singing, entices you.
The third not-so-important for usual tourists but very-important for slow travellers (such as me) is that Chiang Mai is the hub for the “Expat Lifestyle” as such. It is easier to find work here if you are planning to stay for long and if you have a proper visa which allows you to work. There are a lot of schools around Chiang Mai and within, which caters to children from the tribal areas and the mountains. The students mainly belong to the underprivileged class and thus, most these schools are managed by NGOs who are more than happy to hire you as a Volunteer Teacher provided you are serious about it and have a couple of months to spare.
Another reason to come here are the flea markets! Seriously, shopping is a very thoughtful business here and so is bargaining! Just step out of your hostel/hotel, walk a few metres, and you will definitely find a flea market, or a spa, or a massage centre, or a cool café/bar!
In short, whatever you need and I do stress on whatever, Chiang Mai is your place to be and trust me it will be better or equal but half the price than Bangkok or the likes!
How to get in
Chiang Mai has its own airport which is connected to many important cities around the world but in my experience, it is easier to just get a flight to Bangkok and then book a separate flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Try low-cost airlines such as Air Asia. Kolkata is much cheaper (may even be the cheapest) city as compared to New Delhi so if you have days in your hand to spare, take a train to Kolkata and then fly from there. Example, a flight from New Delhi to Bangkok will be around 20,000INR (with taxes I guess) whereas from Kolkata it took me 6,000INR (that too booked within less than a month of date of travel).
Once you are at the airport, take a cab or a songthaew (mini-van transformed into a shared transport) and ask them to take you to your hotel. Also, it is a good idea to check with your hotel if they can arrange for airport pickup as most hotel do offer the facility for an extra cost which totally depends upon the distance.
If you do not have a prior booking (which is rare in case you plan a VOA), most accommodation options are scattered around the moat and within the gates of the old city so that is where you should head to.
How to get around
I prefer walking because everything is pretty walkable within the walls of the old city (also it helps me shed the extra calories I gain from eating rice thrice a day). However, you can rent a bicycle (for around 50 BHT a day I guess), a scooty, (may be 100BHT a day), or a bike (250BHT, again I guess) and pick up one of the many free tourist maps (look for one at the reception/lobby in your hotel/hostel; or anywhere on the road, or the tourist information centres) highlighting all the important areas in the city, and get going!
You can also flag off and hop into one of the many yellow and red songthaews that frequent the streets of Chiang Mai. It is a good idea though to ensure that it is going your way. Or, let yourself be ripped off by the A drivers! Ha Ha! No, seriously negotiate with the tuk-tuks if you ever take one and keep smiling throughout it. It’s easier that way.
When everything else fails, start walking!
Best time to visit
I like to believe that wanderers all across the world have only one season – Travel, but I am an extremist so don’t bother! Thailand’s climate is pretty much like the Indian coastal region. I would say India but then we have the North – the game changer of India’s climate! So anyway, the weather is either hot and humid or pleasant and moist, if you understand what I mean. The months of July (end of June actually) to September is the rainy season. It doesn’t rain all day everyday but maybe a few minutes or even couple of hours rain here and there. Also, a good thing I observed in my one and a half month here is this – it rains mostly late night!
The months of November, December, and January, are usually busy with Christmas and New Year celebrations, however, most party lovers will be in the South I suppose so it won’t be too difficult. But, if I were you, I would at least book my accommodation in advance during these months.
Apart from these three months, the month of April is also highly important as this is the month of Thailand’s world famous Songkran festival and guess what! Chiang Mai is the epicentre of this grand festival (precisely Wat Phra Singh).
I will give it 9/10 on safety. Why not 10? Well! Because no place can ever be completely safe if we are careless. I have had the experience of walking back to my hostel from a club (around a kilometre) I were at, after 1:30 AM and too much to drink (I had to make conscious efforts to walk straight), and I reached my hostel safely. By the way, I am a solo woman traveller (in case you were wondering). So it is safe. Plus, there are so many tourists and backpackers, and locals and they all are happy to help.
I hope this helps some of you to include Chiang Mai in your list of places to see (in Thailand). Have a great time. Safe Travels!