5 things to do in Chiang Mai: a laid-back green oasis of the north
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I didn’t think much of it. This chillout smallish city in the north of Thailand, surrounded by hills covered with dense cloud forest, did not impress me at first sight.
Granted, it was 7 am and I was tired from the all-night bus journey. I was also hungry. Being hungry transforms me into a nagging grumpster who is able to complain just about anything. If at that moment, a golden-horned unicorn flew out of the sky and told me he would grant me every wish, I would be like "meh, that sucks". You get the idea. So, with a deep sigh and an even deeper impression that coming here was probably a mistake, I called a taxi ride to get to my hotel.
Now, after spending 6 days in Chiang Mai, I am glad to say my first impression about it could not be more wrong.
1. Explore the Old City centre on foot
Chiang Mai grows on you. The Old City with its narrow streets, hidden temples, and exotic gardens is a wonderful place for just wandering around aimlessly, discovering random sights and secret places. The temples are also quite impressive, especially the Wat Chedi Luang with its mighty half-ruined spire, decorated with elephant statues. The people are friendly and smiling, and the relaxed vibe of the city is like a calming balm after high-revved Bangkok.
2. Get outdoorsy
The best thing about Chiang Mai is its nature. It has a lot to offer in the outdoors/adventure section. Whether you get stoked by zip-lining, white water kayaking, trekking, rock climbing, trail riding, etc., it is all available in Chiang Mai and its surroundings.
I went on a 2-day trekking in the cloud forest, where we stayed overnight in the local village. The village is set on the slope of a hill next to a river and is submerged in the green forest canopy. After a delicious dinner prepared by our guide's family, we sat on the large wooden balcony, chatting over a fire and listening to the sounds of the jungle. After a cold night (it was December) on the hardest mattress I've ever slept on, we woke up by a refreshing swim in the river. Later that day we got to experience the company of elephants during treats and bathing time. The elephants live and roam around freely in the forest, but they are accustomed to coming back to the designated place for some treats (bananas and palm tree bark) and washing/bathing.
3. Try the local delicacies
A must-try in Chiang Mai is the Kay Soey (traditional dish of northern Thailand: a spicy coconut milk soup with meat, vegetables and fried noodles on top - delicious!). But do not limit yourself - an abundance of local dishes of northern Thailand are ready for you to indulge and make your taste buds bristle with pleasure.
4. Explore on a motorbike
Since Chiang Mai is quite small, its traffic is not so chaotic and dangerous as in larger cities like Bangkok. Thus, it is possible even for less experienced riders to rent a motorbike and explore the surroundings. As soon as you leave the city centre, it becomes super enjoyable to ride a motorbike through the forests and check out the nearby sights. I really enjoyed the trip to Doi Pui peak (about 30-minute ride + another 30-minute trek). From the viewpoints near the summit, I marveled at beautiful views of the valley and surrounding hills and enjoyed utter solitude and silence, except for the birds, squirrels and other forest critters. Due to lack of time, I did not get to Don Inthanon (highest peak of Thailand), Chiang Rai, or Pai (smaller towns further to the north), but I heard all of them are super nice trips.
5. Talk with the friendly locals
One morning around 8am, when the air was still pleasantly cool, I was working out in the Buak Hard park. Despite the temperatures rising to well over 30 degrees Celsius during the day, at night time Chiang Mai was revolving around 20 degrees, which was just superb. As I was doing my exercises, an elderly Thai lady approached me with a smile and said hello, starting a conversation. I politely replied, but I couldn't help immediately becoming wary of her intentions, my mind filled with stories of intricate scams designed to take advantage of tourists. It was subconscious. I just couldn't shake off this unnerving feeling. This just goes to show how terribly distrustful we have become, of the world, of our governments, and of other people- or maybe it is just me and my lawyer mind? Anyhow, while engaging in small chat with her, I was keeping a constant eye on my belongings and when she asked me which hotel I am staying in, I deliberately gave a false answer - I mean, why would she even ask that?? I became even more suspicious. A couple of minutes later, my concerns turned out to be a false alarm, since she politely thanked me for my time and explained that she often talks to foreigners because it is interesting and it gives her a chance to practice her English - which was in fact on quite a high level for Thai standards. Having explained that, she said goodbye and left.
Afterward I felt a bit embarrassed about being so suspicious of her intentions. Then again, I think it is always better to be careful than to be sorry - not at the expense of not being polite, of course. You cannot assume that people’s intentions are always good - act as if they are, but be prepared in case they are not.
All in all, at the end of my stay I was glad I decided to come to Chiang Mai. In fact, I even extended my stay from the planned three days to six. Chiang Mai treated me exceptionally well. Like a long-lost family member which finally comes to visit, so you shower him with attention, care, and delicious food.