When I was planning a trip abroad to Thailand to ring in the New Year, I knew I didn’t want to be in Bangkok. The noise, the people, the fireworks… I just wasn’t in to it. I was wanting something more low-key, more chill. I’m not a fan of the beach either so the islands were out of the picture. When I had decided that my friend Ceci and I were going to venture off into Myanmar in January, we had decided that a destination inbetween would be the best option. We settled on Chiang Mai.
Cooler mountain temperatures, elephant sanctuaries, and khao soi are just a few things that may come to mind when you think of Chiang Mai. These were all appealing factors to me when we were thinking of a new year’s destination. I had also discovered that there would be a lantern festival to kick off the New Year’s celebrations at the stroke of midnight – this sounded absolutely unique and a perfect way to start off 2019.
Because we had made plans so last minute (despite buying our flights ages ago!), finding reasonably-priced hotels was a little bit chaotic. Of course, just like any other large city, finding a hotel on NYE can be hectic and stressful so be smarter than us and plan wisely and ahead of time! Not to worry – we were able to find a hotel right in the heart of Chiang Mai, just around the corner from the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, at the Movenpick Chiang Mai.
As I work in hotels, I’m aware of the Movenpick brand. It’s a Switzerland-based brand that was recently bought out by AccorHotels. I’ll be honest and say that I booked on familiarity. The hotel itself was definitely a re-brand and I have to say it was way overdue for a renovation. The building was super old, small rooms, walls slightly peeling – it was worn out. However, the location simply cannot be beat and the complimentary hotel breakfast wasn’t too bad either with a wide variety of Thai, Chinese, and western breakfasts. Even if the hotel wasn’t luxury, the location was unreal. It was steps away from all of the nightmarkets, Chinatown, a short distance to the walled city with an abundance of restaurants, cafes and massage parlours around.
Getting around Chiang Mai:
Walking – Walking is a great way of exploring Chiang Mai. There are lots of markets, bazaars, cafes and streets waiting to be discovered – all you have to do is wander! The walkability of Chiang Mai is high so be sure to pick a great base location and go from there!
Songthaew – Have you seen those red long pick-up trucks strolling around the city? They are large, open-ended passenger vehicles that are by-far the cheapest way of getting around Chiang Mai. The routes are often written on the sides of the bus but always confirm the route and price with the driver before you hop in the back. Should be about 30 – 50 baht per person.
Grab – Another easy option of getting around. I used this service only when I had to go to and from the airport. Incredibly reliable and cheap – there are always discount codes to use, especially if you’re a first-time visitor.
Things to do in Chiang Mai:
Elephant Sanctuary – This was the highlight of my trip. I did extensive research on finding and selecting an ethical elephant sanctuary and went with Elephant Nature Park. You get to be up close and personal with the elephants, their owners and their caretakers. They were incredibly informative and answered all of the questions our group had. Group sizes were small and intimate and we were able to hike, feed and bathe the elephants. I’d highly recommend the full day tour as the location is atleast a one hour each way. Best experience ever!
Markets - There are SO many markets to choose from in Chiang Mai; it can be really overwhelming! The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is the largest one. I’d recommend checking that one as it is pretty much a gateway to the smaller nightmarkets, although they have quite similar offerings (ie. passport holders, woven baskets, hats, elephant ceramics, etc).
Nimmanhaemin – By far, the coolest neighbourhood in Chiang Mai. If you’re into cool coffee shops, cafes and boutique shopping, this is the place for you. We had Thai iced tea and bubble tea-hopped in this neighbourhood to escape the heat.
Temples – By this time, I was already temple’d out. We did visit a couple while we were there but didn’t find anything overly fascinating. If you must, we loved Wat Chiang Man the most – not a total tourist hub but the architecture and design was stunning.
The Walled City – There are four distinct walls that encompasses the ancient city which were built in defense due to threatening armies from Mongol and nearby Myanmar. Most people will be situated on by Tha Phae gate which is a common entry to get into the walled enclosure. Wandering around here, there are many temples are restaurants to see and dine in. Lots of hotels as well!
Food – They don’t call Chiang Mai the food capital of Thailand for a reason. Food here is outstanding. Lanna (Northern Thai) cuisine is so different than the rest of Thailand. Less spicy, creamier, and more influence from closeby Myanmar and Muslim countries. I ate so much while I was here and enjoyed it thoroughly – it was by far, one of the highlights of my trip!
What to eat in Chiang Mai:
Khao soi – Creamy coconut milk tinged with a yellow curry sauce and egg noodles. This is the dish that Chiang Mai is known for it. It’s light and mild and absolutely delicious. You’ll be able to find this at any stall here. My favourite bowl and its varying renditions may be found in the early evening market stalls in the outdoor market in Chinatown – offals included!
Roast chicken – Roast chicken is a thing here in Chiang Mai. There are a few places that boast that they have the best but I would say that SP Chicken was the best. You’ll see this huge vertical outdoor grill roasting 20 chickens or so – it was an absolutely incredible sight and an even more intoxicating smell. So good. Mouthwatering, juicy chicken with even better accompanying dipping sauces. Yum.
Oxtail soup – If you head down Muslim Street, you’ll find a couple open air Thai-Muslim restaurants. Honestly, this was one of the best dishes I had tried in Thailand. It’s a clear, meaty broth studded with tender oxtail. This isn’t super common to find but it is definitely worth it and a complete gem if you can locate a restaurant that serves it!
Tom yum – This is a pretty common find in Thailand, in general. Super spicy broth, vegetables, seafood and noodles make up this overly satisfying dish. Loved the heat in this dish – will need to recreate this at home in Vancouver!
Larb muang moo – One of my favourite Thai dishes – Thai ground pork salad. Usually accompanied with large pieces of lettuce, this spicy ground meat salad encompasses Thai food in its entirety with its complex sweet, salty, spicy and sour sauce. Completely refreshing. Best one I had was at Sorn Chai, right by the Tha Phae Gate.
Overall, my experience in Chiang Mai was significantly better than Bangkok but still possessed an overly touristy, overly saturated market which I feel all authenticity in this city has been lost. I’m really not sure that I was able to feel the pulse of Chiang Mai, or that of Thailand in its entirety. Like I said in my Bangkok post, Thailand is a great place for people who have never been to Asia before, for first-timers. It’s completely commercialized but also has enough English-speaking people for it to be comfortable for some who have never ventured out while still possessing a third worldness and cheap prices.
Will I be back again? Probably not. The elephant experience was the most touching and the food is unforgettable. Everything else…meh!