First Time in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city (that’s it sprawled out beneath the mist), lagging way behind the county’s capital Bangkok in terms of size and population. Thailand’s capital has a populace of over 9 million citizens and Chiang Mai about 170,000, a huge gulf which mirrors the 700 kilometres which separate the two cities.

The northern city of Chiang Mai is a place I’d always wanted to see but one which for one reason or another I thought I never would. That was until last month when Wonderful Wi and myself flew from Udon Thani to spend four days and nights in Chiang Mai.

Our hotel was in the Thapae Gate area of the city, just 300 yards from the entrance to Chiang Mai’s old walled city (photo below). Our 10-15 minute taxi ride from Chiang Mai airport to the Tapae Place Hotel cost only 120 baht which was considerably lower than a similar distanced taxi journey would be in Udon Thani.

The taxi fee was a refreshing surprise but there was still one more to come. When we checked into our hotel the room rate had been reduced to 590 baht a night from the advertised 650. Chiang Mai had given us a two-fold warm welcome for starters. If first impressions really do last forever then our ensuing four days had a cheap, charming enchantment about them.

Our time in Chiang Mai, aside from two day tours, was spent in and around the proximity of the Thapae Gate area and so I cannot give an overall opinion of the city. However what I did see didn’t fail to impress me and disappoint a little at times.

Let’s get those disappointments out-of-the-way first.

I should have known better but I thought it being low season tourism-wise in Thailand there wouldn’t be too many westerners in Chiang Mai. I was wrong, there was that many I half expected to trip over one when entering our hotel bathroom. Heaven knows what the city is like during high season.

There was also a glut of massage shops in the Thapae Gate area, everywhere you turned one came into view. I’m sure most of them were kosher but I felt that Chiang Mai’s claim to being the foremost cultural city in northern Thailand was tainted by their over the top presence.

My biggest disappointment of all was on one of our day tours which started with a visit to a Hmong village. I was expecting to see long necks, war paint, big ears and bangles, but a shiny new Nissan truck parked in front of a massive TV satellite dish set the tone for our short stay. The village looked like most others I have visited in Thailand although seeing Hmong women weaving silkware in a wooden shack factory did save the day.

However there were many more positives than negatives about Chiang Mai.

Temples were also plenteous in the Tapae Gate area, and one, Wat Bupparam (photo right), was next to our hotel. The temple was founded by King Muang Kaew in 1497 and has a Buddha image carved from teak wood which is the largest of its kind (teak wood) in Thailand. After unpacking my travel bag I headed straight there to have a good look around.

One of our day tours concluded with a visit to the most famous temple in the Chiang Mai region, Wat Doi Suthep. The temple stands atop a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai city (see top photo) and it dates back to 1393.

Wat Doi Suthep’s location was chosen by a white elephant sent into the jungle carrying a relic of the Lord Buddha on its back. The elephant climbed Doi Aoy Chang (Sugar Elephant Mountain) and when it reached the top it circled an area, trumpeted three times, then collapsed and died. King Nu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom interpreted the act as a sign from Lord Buddha and ordered a temple to be constructed there. The mountain is now called Doi (mountain) Suthep.

Below is one of many photographs I took at Wat Doi Suthep and I plan to write a post about the temple at a later date.

Getting around Chiang Mai city is easy with songthaews (small buses) regularly combing the roads but Wilai and I opted for tuk tuk rides when we needed to get somewhere quick. The fares were very cheap and again considerably lower than Udon Thani’s similar samlor transport.

Nightlife in the Tapae Gate area of Chiang Mai is lively even in low season. There were plenty of bars full of good-looking Thai girls, the occasional go-go bar and enough massage shops to relieve a fully packed fleet of Boeing 747’s. Beer and spirit prices were reasonably priced and the bar staff charmingly cordial too.

A visit to Chiang Mai wouldn’t be complete without seeing its famous Walking Street Sunday Night Market. The market starts outside Tapae Gate and heads into the old walled city down Ratchadamnoen Road further than the eye can see. Most of the goods on sale are similar to those at all Thai markets but the Walking Street Market also has many handicraft wares made locally. Silk, wood and paper craftmanship were on sale at many of the stalls.

What I liked most about the Walking Street market was the street entertainers. There were dancers, music bands and musicians all doing their bit to add to the heady, electric atmosphere along the packed one kilometre or so of Ratchadamnoen Road. And for once Chiang Mai’s vast number of western tourists were heavily outnumbered by Thais.

After half an hour of soaking up the market’s colour, noise and ambiance, I danced to my usual tune and headed for one of the market’s bars leaving the budding Vanessa Mae’s and Sanook Singwat’s to entertain their many appreciative admirers.

Wilai and myself both enjoyed are stay in Chiang Mai and intend returning again within the next year or two. We visited many other tourist attractions during our four-day stay, some of which I’ll write about in the future but our return will not be during Thailand’s peak tourist season.

Chiang Mai is a lovely city but there was too much farang presence about for my own liking in the area we stayed. For that reason I’m going to deduct one point and give northern Thailand’s cultural city a handsome nine out of ten for its quality as a holiday destination.

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

25 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Martyn thanks for that insight as we are CM bound in early July when I get to “spend” some of my blog contest winnings and free 5* accommodation for four nights. I have been before but it was a while ago.

    Did you go to see the panda? Apparently we are going!

    The Hmong village you visited is just for tourists as I guess you realised given your comment, I stopped there briefly back in 2005 on the way back from the real stuff sampled on a 3 day trek in the hills.

    Drop me a mail if you have any recommendations since I may well be away before your subsequent posts.

  2. Martyn says:

    Mike your hotel will be better than ours but the place we stayed at wasn’t too bad at all. Definitely worth the money.

    I didn’t see the panda. I’ve gone off zoo type places in Thailand after my visit to Pattaya Crocodile Farm many years ago. I sat next to a heavily drugged tiger, right next to its head, I thought it was stuffed. I couldn’t believe a live tiger would be left out in the open. TIT.

    I was really looking forward to the Hmong village, that turned out to be disappointing but the tour guide did give me some interesting background to the place.

    Chiang Mai was lovely. Email on its way.

  3. Catherine says:

    Martyn, it was fun knowing that you were in Chiang mai the same time I was. And I too was disappointed in the Hill Tribe villages. It was similar to finally meeting Santa only to find he’d switched out his Coca Cola red for 7Up green.

    I did get great pics and video (no complaints there) but next time I’ll trek WAY up into the hills for a more realistic experience. Wish me luck 😉

  4. Martyn says:

    Catherine I did wonder how you got on with your hill tribe venture, about the same as me.

    If my Thai was better I would have asked one of the villagers if there was a spare iPad about I could have used. They seemed a bit more affluent than most of the people in Wilai’s village. The brochure mentioned big ears but I think mine were the largest in the Hmong village we visited.

    Good luck.

  5. Snap says:

    Martyn, your analysis of CM is pretty accurate in my opinion. You definitely planted yourself in farang central, around the Thapae Gate area. CM certainly has it’s good sides, but the tourist aspect of the city was enough for us to reside a little further out from the centre of town.

    Unfortunately for many of the local business owners, the current low number (yes, there are usually a lot more) of tourists means very little money coming in. Of course for some of the other locals, they are probably enjoying the break from loud, obnoxious, and often drunken twerps who wander the streets as if it were their own personal playground….whoops! Did I just say that out loud?

    Take away that facet and you’re left with a not too big, or not too small, charming city.

  6. Martyn says:

    Snap thanks for the thumbs up on my analysis of the Thapae Gate area. I can imagine the mayhem that’s about in peak season.

    If myself and Wilai do return we will probably head somewhere quieter but not too far from the tourist area. When it was time for us to leave I was wishing we had a few more days in Chiang Mai. There’s so much we didn’t get around to seeing.

  7. Catherine says:

    I had a great Hill Tribe guide so I’m looking forward to writing about my adventure.

    While he was born in Thailand, he was all Hill Tribe.

    A fair number of Thais will eventually shift the conversation onto the subject of how great Thailand is. Isn’t it, they ask? Even the Thais I have known for years will do this. It’s totally amazing to me the conversations they suddenly feel this great need to highjack.

    Obviously, I don’t know the actual reason for the cultural differences but I’m guessing it’s because Hill Tribe people are outside Thai society looking in so they feel no need for a hard (or soft) country sell.

    After I realised this characteristic I relaxed instead of steeling myself for the inevitable.

  8. Martyn says:

    Catherine on the minibus at the start of the tour our guide kept saying we were going to a monk village. It took me quite a few kilometres to realise he meant Hmong. In fairness he knew his chips from his French fries and answered all the questions we gave him.

    I think the only way to meet true hill tribe people is to do as you are going to do and beat it way up in the hills. That means snakes and so I’ll settle for the satellite brigade.

  9. SiamRick says:

    Martyn, I was there in January with a visiting friend from China and the place was crawling with people like me LOL. The city has a big reputation and naturally Thailand visitors want to go. It’s for this reason I will never go to Chiang Mai in high season again, just like you. But as you found out, even off-season foreigner visitors are quite high. Throw in the huge expat population and CM becomes a bit off-putting, for me anyway.

    That said, it has great food places, some open very late; many good bars catering to all needs; lovely inner city; temples on every block; it’s very walkable and visitor friendly; and it’s within easy reach of the countryside. And it allegedly has a bit more temperate climate (except for the spring burn-off, which clouds the air).

    I await your further reports on CM.

  10. Martyn says:

    Rick I can see the attraction in Chiang Mai for expats especially for those who live in the quieter areas. A quiet life and a party one as and when they need it.

    I’ll definitely go back but I’ll arm myself with some research on a few more places to see outside the city so I can at least avoid the crowds during daylight.

  11. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I won’t lie – I’m worried about snakes and other critters (drug runners, etc). Just months ago a guide shot his customer dead. What a guide and two ‘tourists’ were doing with loaded guns, I’ll leave to you to guess.

    It’ll have to be arranged weeks in advance just to be sure it’s safe and worthwhile. I’d hate to slog through the (whatever it’s like out there) only to come across another Hill Tribe village complete with starlight dishes, mobile phones, and… I’ll think of a third one later (there’s bound to be more but my tired head can’t dredge anything up at the moment).

  12. Martyn says:

    Catherine I hadn’t thought about drug runners, I missed the story about the tour guide shooting his customer. Nasty.

    A third one…..air con, electric lawnmower, green tiled roof, pedigree dog (just read your latest post).

    What you need is bones through the nose and dirty fingernails.

  13. Jen says:

    Martyn – you paint a beautiful picture of Thailand, but some of the comments almost make me second guess going. I have heard of the Walking Street Sunday Night Market and have always wanted to see it. Thanks for your info.

  14. Martyn says:

    Jen – Thanks for your comment and please do drop by again. Walking Street Market really was a massive affair.

  15. Talen says:

    Martyn, a cracking report on Chiang Mai. I am hoping to get there in the next few months. Unfortunately many attractions have let me down too but it’s a tourist kind of country and everyone needs to make a baht.

    Many falang is a turn off but I love the idea of a quieter existence with the occasional fling with the party side when wanted.

  16. Martyn says:

    Talen I remember you’re missed trip to Chiang Mai, but you’ll enjoy it when you do eventually get there. There’s plenty of opportunities for a photo-olic like you.

    I saw for myself why the city is a big draw for many expats, party time and culture side by side, plus the city didn’t seem overly priced either.

  17. Colin says:

    I’m sat here in the UK eating a red thai curry with my excitment building for my move to Chiang Mai. You make it sound just as i remembered!

    I look forward to exploring it and when i’ve found some great spots i’ll be sure to let you know about them before you head up again.

  18. Martyn says:

    Colin I bet you can’t wait to hit Thailand you must be one excited man. Chiang Mai and its surrounding province has a lot to explore and will give you many opportunities to blog.

    It might be a good idea if you sign up with CommentLuv. They’re a big help in getting hits and backlinks.

  19. Martyn says:

    Kanadian – Thanks for the snake link although I think you’ve commented on the wrong post. Mind you that’s one cool link you’ve added to your comment.

  20. frogblogger says:

    Nice to see a good blog on ‘home’! But just to reassure (or disappoint) potential visitors, having sampled many of CM’s massage parlours, a surprisingly small number offer ‘extra services’…

    The Thapae Gate/Night Bazaar/Loi Kroh Road triangle is infamous for mysteriously disappearing baht and insatiably thirsty (thirstily insatiable?) pretty girls – but it can leave you with a false impression of Chiang Mai, in the vast majority of which you will rarely come across a farang. As Thai cities go, given its size, its nightlife scene is pretty tame.

    Oh, and please do not read anything into the fact that my comments are limited to massage and nightlife in CM, I’m far more knowledgeable about its temples and hill tribe villages, honest.

  21. frogblogger says:

    I should qualify my hastily written comment, and add the obviously intended “unsolicited”, between “offer”, and “extra services”….

    … lest anyone get the wrong idea 🙂

  22. Martyn says:

    Pete – Sorry about the delay in replying but I read your comments as I was about to leave for work.

    I was quite impressed with the bit of Chiang Mai I did see although next time I’d like to look around the farang free areas too. I passed the Spotlight Club a couple of times and thought about you and Frogblog Thaidings. How about another post or two. Your blog is missed by a lot of people for sure.

    Looking at your avatar I see the blonde hair has gone, I think both looks kind of suit you.

    Do us all a favour and hit that publish button on Frogblog Thaidings.

  23. frogblogger says:

    Well I have actually got around to posting, but – unsurprisingly – no one’s noticed 🙂

    Shame I wasn’t in CM for your visit, would have been good to share a beer or two. My next trip, if all goes to plan, will be late November through to April. By then it’ll be two years since I was last in LOS… far too long.

  24. Martyn says:

    Pete I must admit I didn’t notice your post until yesterday when I was looking at Retired in Thailand and Loving It, I noticed in Malcolm’s blogroll you had posted and I checked it out. Your Statcounter plugin should show a Swindon area hit around mid morning. When’s the next post coming?

    You’ve have been away from Chiang Mai for a long time but in some ways the catching up on old friends and what’s new will be even more fun. I bet you can’t wait to land at Suvarnabhumi.

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