Chiang Mai Destination Guide: A Backpacker Haven in Northern Thailand

After a strenuous 3 Day Trekking in Chiang Rai we hopped on a bus for a little over 200 baht/person and made the three-hour drive down to its big brother Chiang Mai. My online research had lead me to conclude that you either loved or hated chilling out in Thailand’s second largest city and I was curious to know what side we would fall on. Our day to day ended up a bit scattered in Chiang Mai as we both got sick to the point where a doctor/hospital visit was required (bronchial infection from trekking in Chiang Rai) so below I will give the highlights and lowlights of our time, what to do and see, where to eat, and skip the hours of pounding headaches and swollen throats.

Where to Stay: We arrived late at night and checked in to ZZ House, a chilled out guesthouse 5 minutes walk from the walls of the old city and under 10 minutes from the Sunday Night Market Bazaar, a must see night market at the Tae Pae Gate. I had heard rave reviews of the manager, Boyd, and they turned out to be 100% true. Want someone who will help get you from the airport, plan your day, take you out and drink beer(s) with you, and take you to the local hospital the next morning? This guy is amazing and no more than 10 minutes after we arrived he had sat us down with a map and began helping us plan out our 4 days in the city, asking us what we were into and what we had on our must do list. If you are after low cost accommodation, 500 baht for air-con and private bathroom, plus good quality you can’t beat the services that Boyd and ZZ House offer. As one review I read online said, “stop looking any further and go there!”.

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Boyd in his apron sans shirt as usual

What to DO

Chiang Mai Grand Canyon: This was one of the hidden gems of the city that Boyd let us in on, not once did I come across it as I went through blogs and online travel guides. An old rock quarry was flooded a few years ago and now serves as an oasis backpackers with excellent cliff jumping and swimming. The place is massive (have you ever seen a rock quarry?!?!) and is now manned by lifeguards due to some early drunken incidents when they first opened up. Easily reachable by motorbike it’s a 30-minute drive from the city, can also get tuk-tuk out to it as well. Spend an afternoon/half day here to beat the heat and get some awesome photos/videos. There is also a nearby restaurant that is worth a second look based on reviews but we didn’t end up eating there due to time.

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Thai Massage at Fah Lanna: Another excellent recommendation from Boyd, this was by far the best Thai massage of the trip and at an excellent price of 250 baht/hour! This place was perfect on all levels from the ambience of the building to the private massage rooms, music, and incredible tea at the end of the massage. You must book at least one day in advance, as they are always full. We went twice during our stay and it was worth every penny! I recommend the neck, back, and shoulder massage with tiger balm for 300 baht if you’re a bit sore from the backpack. As someone with back problems I will say that my spine has never felt so good as it did the week after getting those massages. Mon’s back cracked literally for the first time ever in her life during the massage which sounds like an odd point of confirmation but trust me, it’s heavenly!

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An hour of heaven for just $5USD!!!

Nimanheiman Road: If you like a night out on the town with the locals this is the place. Nearby the local university it’s where most of the young crowd hangs out and is full of great restaurants and bars. I would recommend checking out Warmup Café where you can bring your own liquor to the bar, always a sign of a good time.

Doi Suthep: This is one of the popular stops on the tourist trail in Chiang Mai and with good reason. I would give it an 7/10 if you can’t ride a motorbike and a 10/10 if you are skilled enough to transport yourself. The temple itself is at the top of the hillside and after a quick 300 steps up to the top you’ll find yourself surrounded by golden domes with a magnificent view of the city. The temple isn’t anything special when compared to top tier temples in Bangkok and Chiang Rai but the view and the journey are what really make it worthwhile. Trip can be made from city and back in 3 hours or so and it’s much less crowded before noon! If you want to make a day of it spend some time exploring the trails on the way up the mountain, many of which lead to some impressive waterfalls (Huey Kaew and Mon Tha Than are two of the better ones).

 

 

 

Temples in the City: I would recommend at least going to check out Wat Phra Sing, even if you’re templed out like we were by the time we got to Chiang Mai. It’s a unique pyramid like structure with a nice setting in the heart of the city. There are a handful of other temples downtown to see as well, Wat Chedi Luang is probably the second one I would recommend stopping by. Do make sure to check out images online of the other temples before going to them as some of them are sadly quite dilapidated and not worth the trip.

Monk Chats at Wat Suan Dok: If you spend even a day in Thailand chances are you’ll walk by at least a few monks. I always have been curious to see where they’re from and how they became a monk but it’s a bit awkward to approach them on the street at random. Head to Wat Suan Dok anytime during the day and you’ll find monks just as eager to chat as you are, and they will be open to speaking English! It’s a good deal for them as they get to practice the language and you get to learn more about who they really are, worth spending 1-2 hours here and don’t be surprised if they invite you to the temple for a meal or even to stay the night for free!

The Blues Boys Bar: This place was also recommended by Boyd and is a must do, even if you don’t like blues music! Tons of talented artists filter through this place and Monday night is open mic night, expect to be wowed by the perfect English accents coming out of the Thai musicians that will take the stage. Very chilled out atmosphere and good drink and food prices.

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Sunday Night Bazaar: While nearly every Thai town has their own version of a night market this is one you truly do not want to miss. The Sunday Night Bazaar is incredibly varied in what it offers and there are some incredible artists and musicians present. I would suggest planning your stay to specifically include a Sunday or you’re missing out. If we didn’t have 2-3 months left of travels I would have left with a dozen paintings and god know what else. Expect street cart food with restaurant quality and more variety, brilliant live music, and a refreshingly different selection of goods for sale. Most of the vendors will be sitting there making whatever it is they sell right in front of you which is quite cool, we saw a guy blowing glass which was quite mesmerizing and very impressive as he cranked out a new trinket every 3-5 minutes!

Chiang Mai Zoo: We had high hopes for this place but after going with the intent to make a day of it we left after no more than two hours. They seem to have a “one of every animal” policy and it’s quite depressing to see all the lonely big cats and exotic creatures staring off into space in their cages. I will say that it was pretty cool to hand feed the giraffes (there are 2). You can actually by food to feed almost everything there including hippos, cheetah, black panther, elephant, and birds but again it’s a bit of a depressing zoo given the conditions of the exhibits. The ticket for entry wasn’t too overpriced but if you want to see the two panda bears be ready to shell out around 400 baht a person, double the base entry fee. There is also an aquarium, which we decided not to go into after seeing the condition of the rest of the zoo. It too will cost you a few hundred baht more to enter. I honestly wouldn’t recommend going, this place needs to be shut down for the good of the animals and honestly for the reputation of the town, but that’s just my opinion.

 

What to EAT

Butter is Better: We will blame our craving for Western cuisine on the bout of illness Mon encountered on the first night in town. This place is set up like a 1950’s diner and pumps out some awesome dishes from all day breakfast to barbeque pulled pork mac-n-cheese and chili dogs. Highly recommend, we went twice and the service and food were excellent. Not too pricy considering the quality level, average dish 120-200 baht.

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Good Morning Chiang Mai: The best breakfast/brunch spot in town by far! Excellent western and Thai breakfast dishes. I highly recommend getting one of the breakfast sandwiches on a croissant, massive portion for the price. The pancakes are also a 10/10. The place also has accommodation offerings that looked very nice albeit a bit higher budget and if you’re a restaurant guest you can take a dip in the pool out back by the patio seating!

OKBinsgul: Bingsul is a unique dessert, a cross between ice cream and milky shaved ice. This place has awesome combinations to choose from and a small (very filling for one person) will run you around 100 baht while a massive “medium” is good for a couple and costs 140-200 baht. Highly recommend a stop here and it’s within walking distance of the night markets and the large concentration of restaurants near the Tae Pae Gate.

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Momos: This place primarily serves Thai food and is a good cheap eats option. The service is quite slow so if you do go I wouldn’t recommend sitting down if there is a crowd as you will wait 45-60 minutes for your food. If it’s not too packed then grab a seat!

Pancakes/Crepes/Roti: Throughout all of Thailand we have found the widest variety of toppings and fillings for this excellent Indian dish in Chiang Mai, I was averaging 3 a day myself (no shame). A bit more scattered about throughout the daylight hours but one pops up on almost every corner downtown once the sun sets. At 30-50 baht depending on toppings this is the best cheap dessert/snack option in my opinion. The combinations of toppings on the sign are just for suggestion so feel free to make up your own! Chocolate lovers go for the ultimate combination of Nutella, Milo powder and peanut butter. Mmmmmmm.

 

 

 

Getting In & Out

If you’re coming from another city in the north, Pai or Chiang Rai are both nearby, it’s quite easy to catch a bus at any time of day or night. If you are heading to/from Bangkok I would suggest planning ahead and buying a plane ticket as we were able to get AirAsia tickets for only 750 baht each! That’s close enough to the price of the bus ticket and I will take a 45-minute plane ride over a 10-hour bus any day. Time is money after all!


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