Chiang Mai is a surprisingly pleasant little walled city in northern Thailand, and the second biggest city in the ‘Land of 1,000 Smiles’.
The walled city itself is a small area in the center of town, but life revolves around it, with a constant flow of tuk-tuks, songtheows and tricycles going around and around the city walls and through the main arteries that flow through the downtown area.
Far removed from the raucous, sweaty, half naked beach bars and Carnival atmosphere of places like Phuket, Pattaya, and Koh Samui in the south, much to my surprise Chiang Mai was the most ‘normal’ place that I’ve been to in Thailand. By normal I mean that most of the people there are locals – not tourists. Chiang Mai is where they are from, and where they are raising their families, and running their businesses, and owning houses. This is contrasted with the islands in the south, where there are really only two types of people — (1) ambitious Thai women who have flocked by the thousands from the northern parts of the country to make a better living, and (2) randy retirees, nuveau-riche Russians, and nearly broke Europeans stretching their francs and deutsche marks through the winter, feeling like the king of the world with a cold Chang in one hand and a warm young body in the other.
No, in Chiang Mai you won’t have to constantly deal with Nepalese suit makers calling you from the door of their shop, or bored girls in the spas plucking their eyebrows and asking if you want a masaaaaage or pedicuuuuure, or incredibly beautiful ladyboys gyrating on the bars while wide-eyed families eat pad thai in a nearby night market.
In this lovely, normal Thai city, with its crumbling red brick walls and moat, there is a lot to see and do, and Chiang Mai definitely attracts a different kind of tourist. There is an endless number of stunning temples and cultural sites, and it is also a mecca for outdoor adventure tourists who want to do zip-lining in the forest, elephant trekking in the jungle, or buffalo cart riding through the rice paddies. There’s also a huge aquarium, a night safari, and a Tiger Kingdom, to name a few.
None of which I could really do, of course. Not with my little 2-year-old travel buddy. Maybe when she is a little bit older, and has a chance of remembering the experience, we’ll spend the money to go up on the back of an elephant. But, not this time.
We did, however, have fun riding in the tuk-tuks and songtheows, seeing the city, eating delicious mango and coconut sticky rice, and when it got too hot to stay in the relentless midday sun, we jumped in the roof top pool and had a great nap before going out again at 5pm for an iced coffee and dinner.
Our hotel, the Smith Residence, was a stone’s throw away from the south gate of the city, and near to a huge local market with lots of food and shopping. The hotel isn’t particularly fancy, but it is incredibly, weirdly, spotlessly clean. Some staff member is always cleaning, any time, night or day. I think the owner must have some serious obsessive compulsive disorder. Anyway, the location is brilliant because it’s easy to walk around the city, and you’re close to both the Saturday night market and the Sunday Night Walking Street. Also just walk out the door and there is always a tuk-tuk waiting to take you around.
Anyway, other than liming, drinking Singha, eating green curry and swimming, here are some of the main cultural and historic sights that we saw:
If you’re travelling with a baby, there isn’t that much to do in Chiang Mai compared to the effortless fun that awaits you at the beach, but here are three recommendations:
- Find a hotel that has a pool, because it is bloody hot between 12 and 4pm and even the locals find a cool place to wait out the heat
- Take a break from temple traipsing and go to Tesco Lotus to let the kids run around in the play room and ‘edutainment center’ on the 2nd floor
- Visit the beautiful and well maintained Nong Buak Hard Public Park in the south western corner inside the walled city. I met a Croatian woman there with her 2-year-old and ended up having a nice time in the park with them.
Because let’s face it — little kids are not interested in cultural relics. A room full of plastic balls is waaaaay cooler, mom.