“It is times like these when my mind cracks open,
and a little fanciful poetry leaks in.”
~ John Dolan
The tourist industry tends to capitalize mainly on Thailand’s beautiful beaches. Brochures boast sparkling water and pristine white sand, lounge-chairs nestled amongst palm trees dotting long stretches of coastline, and shady jungle bungalows that look out onto the Andaman Sea.
But like many things in this world, we construct an image and expectation for these places that hide a much greater reality, one that is deeper and richer than we could have possibly imagined; hence, the importance of travel in revealing that first assumptions are nearly always wrong.
The wealth of Thailand lies in its immensely diverse landscape and incredible culture, and the Northern provinces of the country are no exception. Here, in the misty mountainous region, there is a wealth of history, art, and natural beauty to experience, explore, and embrace fully.
Chiang Mai, a backpacker’s hotspot, pulses with an unmistakable energy and appreciation for the arts. There is a welcoming, hipster feel to the city, created in part by the numerous universities that dot Chiang Mai and its surrounding smaller towns, and the vibrant local artistic scene. A magical blend exists here, comprised of a deep appreciation for artisanal work, a wide spectrum of culinary options, and new events and local gatherings mixed in with traditional Thai customs and balanced with the unique flavors distinctive to the province.
The Northern region of Thailand, bordered by the Mekong River in the east, is characterized by mountain ranges and river valleys. Heavy rainfall during monsoon season generates the distinctive lush greenery of the area, and while heat was still ever-present while we were there, Chiang Mai was significantly cooler in temperature and particularly at night-time, when storm-clouds would blow in and leave the mornings cool and damp.
I fell in love with the city quickly and effortlessly and immediately. Here were used bookstores and artist studios scattered throughout the narrow streets and wandering alley-ways, bright flower vines creeping up walls and disappearing over gates. Here were coffee shops next to traditional Thai restaurants, running paths along the canals, and low-lying mountains in the distance shrouded with mist.
While the beaches and islands of southern Thailand are indeed some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Northern regions hold an enchantment of their own, drawing you in and making you reluctant to leave.
Here are some places that we loved in Chiang Mai:
Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls // Located roughly an hour away from the center of the city, this amazing natural landmark is worth the drive. A unique mineral deposit makes the lime-stone rocks “sticky,” so that you can climb up the waterfall steps. At the top of the waterfall, look for a sign to Nam Phu Chet Si, a small shrine and natural spring that is believed to have healing energy. Our local guide informed us that the crystal blue water holds seven different colours that are revealed at different times of the day as the light of the sun changes.
How to get there: We got to know a friendly tour guide and driver at our hostel, who offered to take us to the waterfall and a couple of other spots around Chiang Mai for roughly 1200 baht. Many hostels offer tours to the site, but you could also rent scooters for about 200 baht/day and drive there or rent a full songtaew for 1000 baht.
Wat Phra That, Doi Suthep // This colourful temple near the top of Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep) features stunning architecture and mosaic work, historic murals and shrines, and sweeping views of the city. A Buddhist monastery built in 1383, Wat Phra That is still a working monastery today, and you will see monks in orange robes walking the grounds of the temple.
How to get there: Many tuk-tuk drivers or songtaew drivers will offer to take you up the 15 km winding mountain road to Doi Suthep. We opted for a guided tour from our hostel (roughly 700 baht each, including entrance to the temple) that took us to both the temple and a smaller mountain village along the way. Our tour guide was amazing and gave us a detailed history lesson on the Lan Na kingdom and the history behind the temple.
Hint: Transportation around Chiang Mai is wonderfully easy in comparison with other places in Thailand. The red songtaews operate basically as taxis, and you can flag any one of them down and tell the driver where you’d like to go. Depending on how many people the driver stops for, your trip could take a few extra stops, but since the city is fairly compact, it’s never too long out of the way before you reach your destination. Generally, a driver will charge 30 baht/person/ride (roughly $1).
To Eat & Drink:
Salsa Kitchen ($$)// One of the things we missed most from the States was Mexican food, and there are very few options (I wager to say, none?) in Hua Hin, where we were working. We’d heard that Chiang Mai had a few Mexican restaurants, and Salsa Kitchen came highly recommended from a friend. It did not disappoint. The food is incredible, and there is no shortage of options for vegetarians and vegans.
Rustic & Blue ($$)// Nearly every person who had been to Chiang Mai previously talked about Rustic & Blue and told us that we had to go. It was every bit as incredible as promised, with health-conscious options reminiscent of LA. The area around Rustic & Blue is full of trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and boutiques. Try: the acai smoothie bowls and eggs benedict.
Muan Hostel Restaurant ($)// We ate at this restaurant for two nights in a row, and it never disappointed. The homey atmosphere and very reasonable prices, along with the comfortable outdoor seating looking out at the square and the canals, made this restaurant one of our go-to’s. Try: the Khao Soi, a yellow curry cooked in coconut milk with egg noodles and any number of toppings. It’s a beloved dish in Northern Thailand and specific to the region.
Zoe In Yellow ($) // The ultimate back-packers’ spot in Chiang Mai, this spot is surrounded by seven other bars, each offering slightly different music and drink specials, creating a neighbourhood of spots to wander in-and-out of throughout the night. Inside one of the techno bars, a hidden door revealed a small speakeasy, with tongue-and-cheek art on the walls.
Overstand ($$) // This coffee and sandwich shop is a gathering place for young back-packers, university students, and coffee-lovers. I loved the art on the walls and the fact that kombucha is on the menu. Try: the chai latte.
Muan Hostel // This friendly, modern hostel is beautifully decorated and located right outside the walls of the city. I was always impressed by the food at the hostel restaurant, and I loved the modern décor and comfortable beds. Bonus: breakfast is included, and there is an awesome smoothie place right next door. I spent a long morning in the used bookstore right across the street.
A note about Elephant Trekking:
On the top of many travelers’ bucket lists for Thailand is riding an elephant, and the tourist industry in Thailand encourages this popular activity to boost tourism and generate profit. But elephant trekking is extremely damaging to elephants. Not only does it cause severe back problems and pain for them, but in order for them to be ridden at all, the elephants must be tamed. This is done through a terrible form of punishment in order to break the elephants’ “spirit,” and one of the cruelest forms of animal mistreatment.
There are many ways to get closer to these gentle creatures, and the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is a natural sanctuary that raises awareness for mistreated elephants rescued from tourism and logging industries. At the sanctuary, you can feed the elephants, go on walks with them, and help bathe them in the nearby river.