Having merely visited twice, I can only describe this bohemian town as the indulgent mistress of Northern Thailand. This place is not just for the backpacker crowd but also trendy Bangkok Thais who fly down in packs during the cooler months. Everything moves with a slow grace in this laid-back place. There is no sense of rush and whilst you may have just landed from the velocity of a bustling city, there is no doubt that you will feel the relaxing boho gait of Chiang Mai! I hope you will find the list below helpful if you’re planning to visit, or otherwise tempt you to make it your next travel destination!
Best of both worlds
So there’s the old city and the new city (although a local friend corrected me that Chiang Mai means old city) *shrugs*. There is a clear distinction between what lies in the moat (old) and outside of it (new).
The biggest contrast between the both is that the old city is a lot more vast with olden day architecture and numerous wats (temples) to explore. While there’s a lot more to gander at in the old city, the new area is a lot more relaxing and quaint. Nimmanhaemin, the main street of the new city is significantly smaller than the main town area with about 17 sois (street) worth exploring. Soi 1 is a good starting point. I recommend dropping by Coffete Cafe before you begin your expedition – A Japanese inspired little shop with a small little back garden where you can enjoy an Asahi or Americano. Adorned with new retails, cafe’s, galleries and bars for the young yuppies, the new city is home to one of the biggest art/music schools in Northern Thailand. Having stayed on both sides, I suggest taking the opportunity to split up your stay to experience both fully as it only takes about 10 minutes to get to each “city” (depending on rush hour between 4-6pm which can be slow moving and chaotic).
On tuk tuk you can bring down the fee to as low as 30baht (depending how many people share the ride with you). From new city to old city, Michelle and I paid an average of 60baht, for 3 people we paid 100baht, so that should give you a gauge on reasoning with the driver. If you’re staying in the old city, I suggest you rent a bicycle to move around and discover little quaint shops, temples and cafe’s along the way as the streets can get quite narrow. Unfortunately there aren’t any bicycle rental available in the new city but you can either tuktuk to the old city to rent one and ride back, or just rent a motorbike. The reception at the hotel could easily organize it for you – it’s about 200 – 250baht a day.
If you’re going in a big group of up to 10 pax, you can book a van & driver for 1800Baht a day excluding petrol. If you have an early flight the next day, you only have to pay 500Baht. I’ve used Tony twice now. He’s pretty good and reliable: boonchuay tanu <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Currently the exchange rate is 30Baht to 1USD.
There are plenty of accommodations around and if you’re one to live on the edge and take risks then you could easily wing it over without pre-booking and still find a decent place to stay. After all, winging it makes for great experiences and stories! In the old city, I stayed at Anoma Boutique Hotel on Rajpakinai Road. If you want an exotic ambience then this is the place to stay. The rooms are relatively small but cosy and quaint. You’ll feel like you’re staying in an attic of someone’s home in a Thai village – albeit a lot more fancy with cable tv, fridge and what not. Location wise it is difficult to find on the get go (I suggest you print out the map for directions) but once you do, you will discover that it is practically on the same street as the famed Sunday Market so you merely have to stroll down the road to get good food and interesting buys. It’s about 50usd a night but on low season, you can get it down to about 40usd via agoda.com.
November to May is high season, December-February being its peak season. The rest of the months July – October are considered low season due to the heat and light rain.
During my first trip, I wanted to explore both cities so I spent the first 2 nights at Anoma and the last 2 at Baan Say La Guesthouse, a stones throw away from Ninman (short for Ninmanheimin Rd). The rooms range from 500baht to 950baht a night. It is worth every penny for its price! This place is not as fancy as Anoma but it has its olden day charm. Upon arriving you’ll feel as though you’re visiting an old friend. There are objects of nostalgia from an old telephone to a rusty typewriter and a bookshelf filled with all sorts of reads to tickle your literal brain. The common area is equipped with a mini fridge filled with mineral water (10 baht each) and beer (50baht each) as well as fridge for guest use and a complimentary coffee/tea area.
Although they do not publicize it like most other boutique guesthouses, you are eligible to a 10% discount if you stay longer than 2 nights. All you have to do is ask. Baan Say La lock the doors at 10pm so make sure you remember the lock code that they’ll pass you upon your arrival. Free wifi throughout all 3 floors. If you have the stamina to walk up 3 flights of stairs, I suggest you take the top floor room 303 or 302. You’ll get your own private balcony and a communal balcony that overlooks the street. Otherwise, take the newly refurbished room on the ground floor (there’s only one), the only major difference is the wooden flooring as opposed to carpet, and although there is a balcony, you get little to no view. If you’re not fussed with that, you’ll be rather pleased with this room.
For an arty farty stay, check out www.hallonimman.com. It’s a dorm like housing on a trendy little street tucked within the neighborhood. Great location – walking distance to cafe’s and bars. They also provide 1 bicycle per room which is great seeing as there are no rentals available in the new city. Am sure you’ll be able to rent an extra should you have a friend with you during your stay. Another place worth looking at is Yesterday Hotel, run by the same owner of Baan Say La just across the road. It’s slight a little more expensive than its sister hotel (breakfast included) and also retains that olden day charm – 19th century villa houses. Room rates here: http://www.yesterday.co.th/reservation.php
Although there are bars and restaurants at almost every turn in the old and new city, you should definitely check out Riverside for dinner and drinks.
The Riverside is a buzzing area filled with the most sought-after night spots in town. Aside from its magnificent view of the riverside, the restaurants and bars are filled with live music, good local food and cheap alcohol. Basically a night that won’t burn a hole in your pocket. If you’re a big drinker, I suggest getting a bottle and sharing it amongst friends as like most places, its cheaper than ordering by the glass.
Riverside Restaurant is a must. Remember to make reservations on weekends as it tends to get quite crowded (I went during low season and it was shoulder to shoulder). Should you decide to have dinner, make sure you reserve seats right by the pier of the riverside for a more scenic experience. There’s also a boat with a capacity of 30-40 pax strong for diners. You can pre-order your food via phone and sail down the river. Ideal for a romantic dinner. You might come across its neighbor “Good View Restaurant and Bar” which isn’t too different from Riverside aside from pricing. Personally, aside from saving a few bucks, I prefer Riverside for its more intimate setting and attentive service. Here’s a debate between the two on a forum for sake of unbias comparison.
If you’re not much for partying and drinks, check out iBerry café on Soi Sainampueng in the new city for its delicious desserts and iced coffee. Open day and night, this bungalow converted cafe is decked in all sorts of quirks, lights and plastic toy guns and basically a place to just unwind and soak in the artistic side of Chiang Mai. Nothing like some cool ice cream and sorbet to bring the heat down a notch under the shade of large trees amongst stylishly designed courtyard amongst lush greenery. Should you find things a little slow, just log on to their free wifi – password: iberrycm
There are a few markets around. Try out the massive Saturday Night Bazaar (if I’m not mistaken, its on almost every night). A good starting point would be from the main entrance of Le Meridian Hotel. If you want a less touristy experience, check out the famed Sunday Market; a great place to explore the local handicrafts, browse leather goods, try some authentic Thai street food and haggle your way through some ridiculously cheap shopping. If you’re going in a big group, I suggest splitting up and meeting after as you’ll get suffocated and lost in the human traffic. It is by far one of the most sprawled out market I’ve ever been to. Little stalls forked out into small alleys from the main street from Thapae Gate and runs along the length of Ratchadamnoen. Starts around 5pm and ends at midnight.
Tip: If you’re in Chiang Mai for a couple of days, its worth checking out a leather shop with yellow grilled gates on Rajpakinai Road. There’s a lady there in dreadlocks that speaks decent english, making it easy to communicate should you wish to customize a leather cigarette case, handbag, slippers or an ipad cover. She does it all! She’s stitching snakeskin into a friend’s guitar strap as we speak! I got my laptop bag customized for 1,000Baht without the haggling – you get the idea. Takes about a day to 3 days depending on how busy she is.
Her name is Chi, you can find her at 164 Rachapakinai Phar Singh, Muang, Chiangmai. Contact her at email@example.com Tel.0897314789
Picks and Tips for New City:
Kanae Mochi icecream – Up to 12 flavors of sweet, fruity ice cream wrapped in soft fluffy dough and dusted with a white powdery coating. It’s off the main road of Ninman between Soi 6-8. Opens between 10:30 and 8pm. *Look out for a wall of colorful post-its
Pink Pvssy – A factory outlet like jewelry store offering everything from earrings to hats, necklaces to bags. A great place to buy a few gifts for your family and friends or simply browse through in fascination.
iBerry – as mentioned above, 13 Sirimankalajarn Rd., Soi Sainampueng (opposite of See Scape). Opens between 10:30 am – 10:00 pm.
Waweé Cafe – Offers good breakfast combos, coffee, teas and cakes. A slightly cheaper alternative to most coffee shops in town, yet impeccable décor and a great atmosphere. Nimmanhaemin Rd. Soi 9, Suriwong Book center, JJ Market Assadathorn Rd. Opens between 8:00 am – 10:00 pm
Mango Tango – For your local mango and sticky rice fix! A must try local delight. Tucked away in Nimmanhaemin Soi 11.
Impressionz Cafe and a Beef noodle stall – located right opposite from one another, a few blocks in from Ninman Rd between soi 6-8. Lots of locals frequent the beef noodles so that’s got to say something. The Ice Latte at the Cafe across is not to be missed either! Free wifi, clean loo and a 80’s Mario games wall unit make for a great pit stop from the long walks!
Sausage/Pork mobile street stall – If you walk down Ninman Rd somewhere between soi 5-7, you’ll see a roadside motobike selling sausages and balls on sticks. There’s 3 flavors to choose from: Original, Spicy and Sour. Two meat: Pork or chicken. My favorite is the Spicy Pork sausage. Not to gross you out but its tom yam flavored vermicelli wrapped in pork intestines. It is seriously god damn fricken fingerlickingly awesome! This coming from someone who can’t even stomach the thought of intestines, I had it almost every night for dinner/snack with my whiskey! There’s a long que and it sells out pretty fast so be sure to make your way there before 8ish.
Picks and Tips for Old City:
Juice Box – famous for healthy and delicious Fruit juices on Ratchadumnern Road at the heart of the city. The menu is limited but choices are good. The prices for the premium juices are great, for a smoothie, juice and shake is about 120Baht. Banana Mango smoothie is a good choice but tends to be filling. You can save this for your Sunday Market walk as it is directly on the main street. It’s on the busiest junction on the left hand corner, if you’re walking from the main gate.
The Rasta Pub – The Smell of Josticks fills the air. Live Music, Dreadlocks and Drums, Fluorescent Paint, A Yellow Sofa, Is Marley Here? The Rasta Art Bar Pub & Restaurant is on the moat, just a short walk from the more popular tourist areas. It’s on the northern edge of the moat just along from the North East corner. (extracted from http://www.chiangmaiplan.com/nightlife/reggae.htm)
Chiang Mai Coffee House – 100% Arabica Coffee. Looks like a trinket shop from the front but walk on through to the back garden and you’ll find some cosy seats by the riverside under a little hut and parasols. You might want to check out the guesthouse upstairs. I myself have not explored it but would love to know if it is as quaint as it looks. 69,71,73 Charoenrat Rd, T Wat Gate. Phone: 053 2622882
Riverside Restaurant and Bar – As mentioned above. 9 – 11 Charoenrat Rd, T.Watkate, Muang. Tel: 052 – 243 239
Riverside Market – Across the river from Riverside Restaurant is a wet/dry market where the locals go. Great for photographers and curios cats.
Tiger Kingdom – Maerum on Irrigation Canal Rd. Aprox 800 m from Chiang Mai-Fang Rd. Tel” 052-860 704
It’s close by to the Elephant Sanctuary so you can make a day out of it at both places and even squeeze in some water sports in between.
Remember to bring Mosquitto repellant. If not, you can just pop into any pharmacy and buy one for about 400Baht. Carry lose change (100Baht notes for convenience) Wear slippers and shorts, bring with you some wet wipes and tissue if you’re the pedantic type and a plastic poncho if you’re going during wet season. You can buy them at most convenient stores for about 20Baht. Saves you a day from waiting at the hotel lobby for the drizzle to subside. (This is not relevant to Chiang Mai but if you like single malt, try Matisse 15 year old from the bottle shop. It’s about 1700Baht for a 750ml bottle. I have yet to see it elsewhere but its from scotland and its a real beaut!)
That’s all for now but do let me know of any more hot spots worth exploring!