We spent a memorable week in Chiang Mai, Thailand between the days of March 22, 2014 and March 29, 2014. Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, and has a much more manageable feel than the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, especially for families with children. It is steeped in history, and popular with the veggie/hippie/meditating/trying to figure out the meaning of life crowd. Located near the mountains in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a popular destination for many outdoor activities, as well as the cultural experience of the different hill tribes that live in the area and the customary temple gazing.
We traveled with Ethiopian Airlines. This is the only non-stop flight from Addis (daily flights) and the flight time is about 8 ½ hours. The flight leaves in the early hours of the morning and arrives in Bangkok around lunchtime. There are other options via Emirates, and while maybe a couple hundred dollars cheaper, the total trip time is much longer due to transit times via Dubai. Once in Bangkok you have a few options. From BKK airport (the main international terminal) you can fly to Chiang Mai using Thai Airways. This is the easy option and with a shorter total travel time, but when we checked tickets from BKK to CMX (Chiang Mai) they were about USD 300 per person. A much cheaper alternative is to fly to Chiang Mai using low-fare carriers such as Nok Air, Bangkok Air, and Air Asia. These carriers operate out of Dong Muang airport (DMX), however there is a free shuttle every half-hour between the two airports. The bus transfer is about 1 hour on a good traffic day, but give yourself a comfortable three hours for everything (immigration, getting your bags, etc). We looked for tickets about 3 months in advance and managed to book round-trip tickets through Air Asia for USD 29 per person including taxes and everything. As with all the low-fare carriers you get charged per piece of baggage checked, any food you might want etc – just something to keep in mind. Our flight was spot on time, service was great, and the total flight time to Chiang Mai was only 1 hour 15 minutes. Other travelers we spoke to took the overnight train from Bangkok. They loved it and called it a “cultural” experience, not sure what that means exactly, or how much it costs but another option nonetheless. A word of advice, Thailand immigration checks your yellow fever certificate so make sure it is up to date AND that you have it with you when traveling. I know from experience as I was denied entry until I got myself the shot (very professional and clean mind you) for about USD 15 per shot. Once you arrive in Chiang Mai, the taxi service is very organized and professional, with a taxi-attendant that assigns you a taxi and informs you of the approximate cost (not metered by based on location). The ride to our hotel into the old city was 150 Baht and took about 15 minutes.
Where to Stay
Chiang Mai is divided between the “old city” and the rest. An ancient moat and wall (though crumbled in most places) demarcates the old city from the rest of Chiang Mai. There are four “gates” to the north, east, west, and south which serve as landmarks, but basically the old city is an area of land measuring roughly 1.5×1.5 square kilometers. Needless to say, a lot of the old temples and alleys that give Chiang Mai it’s charm are located in the old city. Knowing that we only had a week we opted to stay within the old city limits to be within walking distance to everything. There are many lodging options, from backpacker hostel type options for about USD 10-20 per night to everything in between all the way to fancy boutique hotels for USD 200 per night. Our choice for a few days was the Top North hotel. Dated but functional – it has a pool, working air-con, comfortable beds with clean linens and very centrally located to the Sunday night market.
What to do
Wander around the old city. Walk, rent a bike, or take a tuk-tuk exploring all the little roads and back-alleys within the old-city limits. Because of the moat and walls it is impossible to get lost! If you work up an appetite you are always within reach of a street food cart selling everything from Pad Thai, to fruit and smoothies, to chicken feet and I am not sure quite what else (no parts that I knew or could recognize anyway). If the heat starts to bother you there are many quaint art-deco cafes serving up Thai ice-coffee and all the rest. Along the way, visit a few temples, we visited three and they all had their peculiar charms. I am sure you can spend hours or days at the temples, they do have a lot to offer, including a program where you can talk to monks, etc. but with a young child in tow we partake in speed-templing, which basically means running through a temple as fast as you can while being able to stop for a photo-op or two.
Sunday Night Market. By lucky coincidence more than anything else, it so happened that our “day around Chiang Mai” coincided with the Sunday Night Market. Starting around 6:00pm until the wee hours of the morning, the Sunday Night Market happens along a section of the moat just outside the east gate (literally 50 meters from the Top North hotel where we were staying) and then extending to a side road that closes for traffic. Food stalls, clothing stalls, trinkets, it seems like everything is for sale. More than a place to go shopping (which is what we did) it is the atmosphere that makes the Sunday night market special. A pleasant mix of young and old, tourists and non, the Sunday night market still maintains that retro feel of a market being a social experience where people gather for the social aspects as well. If you can work your trip to Chiang Mai to make sure you are in town for the Sunday Night Market I would highly recommend it!
Elephant Nature Park. Started by an amazing woman named Lek, the Elephant Nature Park is basically a sanctuary for Asian elephants. In the mid 80s the government of Thailand banned logging in an effort to protects it’s forest cover. An unfortunate consequence of this policy was that many of the elephants who worked in these camps became “unemployed” overnight. Many of these elephants and their owners tried finding other sources of income, hence the birth of many elephant parks, elephant rides, and elephant shows all around Thailand. The long and short of it is that elephants are very intelligent animals that will do anything to please their mahouts, but carrying tourists around and juggling balls is not the happiest way for them to spend their life. The elephant nature park offers tourists an opportunity to spend their money in a way that can positively influence the lives of elephants. This is a full day trip. You are picked up around 8:00 in a very fancy mini-van for the one hour ride to the sanctuary. Every van has about 8 people and a guide – this is your group for the day. Once there you are taught about the history and lives of elephants and also watch an educational video. Then the fun stuff begins! You get to feed, bathe, scrub, and basically spend an entire day with these amazing animals. A sumptuous all vegetarian lunch is included as well as transportation back to your hotel in Chiang Mai. Fun facts we learned: Asian elephants only have one “finger” on their trunk as opposed to African elephants that have two. An elephant trunk has 40,000 muscles (only in the trunk!) hence its amazing dexterity. Asian and African elephants have different numbers of nails in their front and back feet (though I can’t remember exactly what these numbers are)
Flight of the Gibbon. Zip-line experience extraordinaire! Apparently there are now a few options, with Flight of the Gibbon being one of the more expensive options at about USD 100 per person but it was worth every penny. The van picked us up at 9:00 for the one hour drive up the mountains into the canopy. There we were given a safety briefing, harnessed up, and down the mountain we went zip-lining all the way. The course takes about 2 hours to complete, with about 20 zip-lines, 2 abseils, and 1 mini-bungy jump. Our group was the three of us, plus four more that we picked up along the way. Each group has two “sky-rangers” that clip everyone in and out and make sure everyone stays safe. After the initial jitters you get over the feeling of losing control and enjoy zipping past tree canopy. One of the lines was 800 meters long and 100 meters up! We wore shorts and shirt sleeves and were told there might be bugs, luckily this was not the case but perhaps to be on the safe side wear long pants and long sleeves and bring some bug repellent just in case. Lunch is included in the price as well as the transfer from and back to your hotel. A great way to spend the day in the jungle and leave the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai behind for a few hours.
Rabeang Pasak Tree House. Sarah Shafer suggested we try this place. So glad she did. The tree house is about a 1 ½ hour drive from Chiang Mai. We left at 8:00 in the morning, explored a waterfall along the way and arrived by 10:00. We were the only people staying in the property that day so we were given the choice of which tree house we wanted. Each tree house has it’s own unique features, from being high up, to having a roof-top patio. We choose the bamboo house because of the loft bed and the “private” natural spring pool patio. Bikes are free to rent and you can easily spend 4 or 5 hours following marked trials to explore stalactite caves, bat caves, waterfalls etc. Mr. Lee the manager is very hospitable and super friendly. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all available on demand, though you can also bike down to the village, five or six houses really and purchase some street food from there as well. If you are with kids a day and a half is sufficient before the peace and quiet starts to get to you and you run out of things to do. A great way to relax and explore the mountains around Chiang Mai at your own pace. Definitely a stress free experience.
The Wisdom of Hindsight
So looking back what did we learn? Couple things. First, from massages, to tuk tuk rides, to street food – everything in Chiang Mai seems to be half the price of the same items in Bangkok. Apparently March is a hot and sticky month in Thailand. Temperatures in Chiang Mai didn’t bother us (30 centigrade on average), nor the humidity, but perhaps something to keep in mind. What did bother us was the haze. Apparently, large swathes of brush are burned on a daily basis around the forests of Chiang Mai in the belief that this will lead to a larger yield of mushrooms. Not sure if this is true but the haze and smoke is for sure. Some days you could look straight at the sun and all the haze would reduce visibility to only a faint glow. On another note, everyone and their uncle seems to be selling tours in Chiang Mai. From cooking and yoga classes to multi-day trekking trips, there is something for everyone. There are no fixed prices and you will find that if you go through a tour agent you might be paying substantially less than if you purchase in advance online, especially if you are a skilled negotiator. Speaking of tours, options abound for tour experiences that are both structured and authentic. However, be mindful that there are also many, such as visiting the “hill-tribes”, that are nothing more than staged tourists traps that border on exploitation. Same holds true for many of the tiger, elephant, and other animal shows. All things considered our family loved it and there isn’t anything significant that we would do different. A highly recommended way to spend a week in Asia! Locals say that for those looking for an even slower place, the Chiang Mai of 20 years ago so to speak, then Chiang Rai is the place to go. Happy travels …