Exploring Chiang Mai: Thailand’s cultural capital

We’d heard a lot of great things about Chiang Mai on our travels thus far. This mountainous hub of Northern Thailand is the country’s cultural capital, and also a popular place for expats and so-called digital nomads to settle down. So after all the chaos of Bangkok, not only were we looking forward to a slightly more laid back environment, we were excited to experience this “east-meets-west” town firsthand.

Nimman: where the digital nomads go

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G surrounded by the songthaews that lined our street in Chiang Mai

Most of the expat and “digital nomad” crowd tend to settle in an area of town called Nimman. It’s northwest of the old city, and known for its great WiFi, many coffee shops, cocktail bars and vegan restaurants. This seemed right up our alley, so we booked what looked like a nice Airbnb in a very fancy full-service high-rise. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a member of the owner’s “staff”: a heavily tattooed 15-year-old who was to show us to our room. As it turns out, our room was not so nice. Even ignoring the fact that the living room was unfurnished, it contained a terrible mildew smell that started to give us a headache. After a few hours of trying to pretend it wasn’t there, we asked to be moved. Fortunately, the owner was probably some kind of Chinese investor owned about 20 units in the building. After touring several others, we were able to find one that was satisfactory.

Outside of the Airbnb issue, Nimman was very nice. It felt more local than anywhere else we had been, and we quickly found a few favorite spots to eat the local dishes and drink fancy drinks while admiring mountain views on a rooftop. And while Nimman lacked any temples or tourist attractions, we were always able hail a songthaew (red-truck transport popular in Chiang Mai) or uber in order to see the main sights.

Markets: the heart and soul of the city

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Markets are probably my favorite way to experience a city. The combination of sensory delights, people watching, and of course the opportunity to haggle makes for a great way to kill several hours. From the morning produce vendors at the Chiang Mai Gate Market, to the famous Night Bazaar, to all of the street food vendors outside the old city gates, Chiang Mai’s markets are the heart and soul of the city. You can find almost anything there, and walk away with a full stomach, a bag full of souvenirs, and some great memories. Here are a few photos I captured from the markets we visited.

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Discovering Northern Thai cuisine

I’ve always been a total sucker for Thai food. When I attended to the University of Washington in Seattle, enjoying a pad thai at one of several hole in the wall Thai restaurants lining University Ave was basically a rite of passage. But it wasn’t until we arrived in Chiang Mai, that I fully grasped the delicious variety of dishes served up in Thailand. With Chiang Mai being the center of Northern Thailand, the food tasted heartier than what we’d eaten before. In addition to the famous curries and noodle dishes, Chiang Mai is famous for dishes like Tom Yum, Chao Soi, and some of the most delicious papaya salad I’ve ever tasted. The best part is: you can get all of these amazing dishes right on the street! Of course, in addition to the standard Thai food, Chiang Mai is known for great veggie cafes and unique fusion dishes. Our favorites were a deliciously cheap spicy noodle restaurant called Crazy Noodle and the Rustic & Blue organic cafe where we got daily smoothies. Check out the rest of my recommendations on my Chiang Mai foursquare page!

Learning authentic Thai cooking

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After eating so much Thai food, I needed to learn how to make it for myself! Though I wasn’t able to convince G to take a full day cooking lesson with me, my favorite solo activity in Chiang Mai was a cooking class that I took at Thai Farm Cooking School.

They picked me up at 9am to go to the market and learn about some of the key ingredients used in Thai cooking. Once we had purchased all of the spices we’d be using, we set off for the organic farm where the lesson would be conducted. We learned how to make no less than 6 dishes, and by the end of the day I was full and happy. There are plenty of cooking schools in Chiang Mai, but I highly recommend the professionalism and quality of Thai Farm!

Doi Suthep: the most famous temple of them all

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Taking in the golden goodness of Doi Suthep

Doi Suthep is the most famous temple in Chiang Mai, and where local Thai people go regularly to pay their respects to Buddha. It’s slightly out of the main town, but was pretty easy to catch a private songthaew to take us up there and wait for us to finish exploring. While the temple itself is golden gorgeous, some of the best parts are right outside of the temple: the tall stairs to the top, the brass bells surrounding the premises, and of course the spectacular view over all of Chiang Mai. Even though multiple signs warned against it, we nonetheless rang several bells to be used as samples in a future track from G.

300 temples and counting

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Chiang Mai is the temple capital of Thailand. There are over 300 temples in the town and surrounding areas. Since we had yet to experience the “temple fatigue” that inevitably occurs to travelers in Southeast Asia, we hit up several of them. Some of our favorites in the old city walls were:

  • Wat Phra Singh: a visually impressive golden temple
  • Wat Chedi Luang: a huge, crumbling structure with beautiful, manicured grounds surrounding it
  • Wat Phan Tao: a small, intricate temple made entirely of teak wood

But outside of actually seeing the temples, we loved experiencing the culture surrounding them. One of our favorite activities was a “monk chat” with 5 Buddhist monks at Wat Chedi Luang. These chats are put on by the temples in order to help the monks learn English. Although I have to say that the experience was far more educational for us as we peppered our new friends with all types of questions relating to their religious journey and monk lifestyle.

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Monk chat at Wat Chedi Luang
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G schooling some kids in basketball outside of Wat Phra Singh

Doi Inthanon National Park

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Doi Inthanon is a massive national park a few hours from Chiang Mai. In order to go there, we hired a driver named Mister A. He originally wanted to be our tour guide, but since we preferred to explore and learn on our own, we told him we would pay him less to simply be our driver. As a result, he refused to speak a word to us the entire way, and we never learned his real name.

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The famous twin Pagodas atop Doi Inthanon

Doi Inthanon has several areas worth exploring: the twin Pagodas, a gorgeous rainforest, unique villages famous for their coffee production, and a huge waterfall. The pagodas were what I was most looking forward to. At the very top of the park, they are surrounded by colorful flower gardens, making for some gorgeous photos. The weather on the day we came, however, was foggy and not the best. I am still learning my camera and was having a hard time shooting in the fog. The sun came out a few times and I was able to capture a few usable snaps.

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Under the canopy of the Doi Inthanon rainforest

After the Pagodas, off to the rainforest we went. Doi Inthanon is the highest point in Northern Thailand, so the weather was rather cool and reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. We had a great time exploring while bundled up in our jeans and Patagonia jackets for the first time in 4+ months!

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A local coffee farmer serving us coffee from his farm

There was plenty to see at Doi Inthanon, from coffee plantations to the majestic Wachirathan Waterfall. It was nice to step away from the hustle of the city for a full day and enjoy the natural splendor that Northern Thailand has to offer.

Low key nightlife

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While Chiang Mai pales in comparison to the incredible nightlife metropolis that is Bangkok, we still found ways to have a good time after sunset. One of our favorite spots to start the night was the rooftop bar at Hotel Yayee, a hipster hangout with incredible views of the city and surrounding vistas. There are plenty of bars and clubs to be found in Nimman, as well as along the river right outside of the old city. One night, we stumbled upon The North Gate Jazz Co-Op, an incredible live jazz venue right inside the city walls. The musicians were all local and the venue was packed. Luckily we were able to claim some plastic crates on the sidewalk and enjoy a cold beer while listening to smooth jazzy tunes.

After 5 incredibly days in Chiang Mai, we were ready to bid adieu to Thailand for a bit and move on to other parts of Southeast Asia. The French colonial town of Luang Prabang in Laos was the next stop on our tour!

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