Chiang Mai, Thailand, Guide

Chiang Mai is a uniquely popular city for expats to live in, as well as a popular tourist destination for both Thais and foreigners.

It is an old city founded in 1296 (actually, a Thai king took over a Mon settlement there), and has never been destroyed by an enemy, unlike Thailand's old capital Ayutthaya and some other places, though it was occupied for awhile by Burmese.

Its main attractions are:

  • Cooler climate due to its location far inland to the north (what's its elevation?)###
  • Beautiful mountain surroundings
  • Large expat population, among a very relaxed and peaceful northern subculture
  • Vast selection of authentic foreign restaurants spread around town
  • Large markets full of beautiful handicrafts
  • Lower cost of living, from rent to restaurants and other local goods and services

It is clearly the top expat destination in northern Thailand. (Over the past few decades, many have regarded Chiang Mai as the second most important city in Thailand, though I question this in view of the eastern seaboard cities, Nakhon Ratchasima, and maybe even Udon Thani.)

Located in what is technically the foothills of the Himalayas (formed by the same plate tectonics but thousands of miles away from the Himalayas), the mountains around Chiang Mai are no hills, as they are high and steep. Chiang Mai is really at the doorstep to these mountains, as they end abruptly, giving way to flatlands to the south for the most part.

The difficulty in accessing Chiang Mai has helped to preserve the culture of the region.

This region was known as the Lanna Kingdom before it was eventually absorbed into Siam. The Lanna Kingdom included parts of what is now Myanmar (especially the Shan state) and western Laos. ###

I arrived by bus around sunset, and while at the station quickly reviewed all the options for my next destination after a couple of days in Chiang Mai, which I confirmed would be Sukhuthai. Then I was picked up by a contact I met on the internet who wants to promote "medical vacations" in Thailand. He is age 60. This saved me from figuring out transport into town, though I could see that options abounded.

He drove me into town, he drove around the moat, and then we settled in for a tea at the nice green outdoor terrace of a high class hotel just past the main strip of bars. He was feverish and coughing a little, and I didn't want to get it from him, especially since travelling tends to run you down a little, so we didn't go on too long. Also, I was eager to explore.

As usual, I had no place booked in advance, and started walking around to get a general feel for the area according to the general quick orientation given to me by my associate, and also where my map had a high concentration of points of interest.

Chiang Mai is centered around the old city, which is a square of about 1.6 km (1 mile) on each side. There was a wall around the city with a moat (manmade water barrier) around it. In fact the name "Chiang" means "walled city", whereby Chiang Mai means "new walled city". You see the word "chiang" in a number of city names around Thailand, especially in the north.

The wall was scavenged for its bricks over recent centuries, but the four corners are still largely intact, much like they were more than 700 years ago. I climbed up on one and sat for awhile just soaking in Chiang Mai and relaxing.

There was a big night market a short distance inside the moat.

However, when I got up, my knee was bothering me. Fortunately, it was not the knee which was bothering me the day before, which had healed well overnight, but with my heavy backpack on, I wasn't going to push it. My associate had given me a vague general direction to look for a quiet guesthouse, so I headed back in that direction, though I had the distinct impression that he didn't have much experience with guesthouses himself, since he arrived in Thailand as a former executive with a lot more wealth than backpackers would. I had strayed quite a distance from there, but it seemed a good location inside the moat, so I headed in that direction.

My knee protested and I considered stopping for a bite to eat, scoping out the restaurants amidst some pubs. As I stood there pondering, a lady of age around 30 came out of a pub and got on her motorcycle. I smiled and she smiled back, so I asked if she could recommend anywhere nearby for a quiet guesthouse. She offered to take me around for free! Wow, so I jumped on the back and pointed to the general area my associate recommended. She was a real knee saver.

At first, I just had her drive down a few sois so I could get a feel for the ambiance, but then we went thru a quiet backpacker strip of guesthouses/tour agencies, restaurants, and low key pubs, and I spotted one which said "Free WiFi for Guests" and said stop. At 300 baht per night including warm water shower, I decided it was good enough for my first night. I thanked her very much and had a nice conversation with her, including about Thai-foreigner relationships, especially since I had been in them for more than 12 years.

(Along the way, she had gotten a call from her foreign "husband" overseas, but didn't tell him the truth about what she was doing. She seemed like a nice teddy bear sort, but not very content with her husband. She said she would try again, and try very hard, when he returns. Then zoom, she was gone.)

I unpacked, hid the computer in the hotel room, went out to get a bite to eat, returned and went to sleep early to heal my knee and recharge my brain's batteries.

The next morning, it was raining so I caught up on email until it let up for awhile. Then I rented a motorcycle for 150 baht/day, did a daytime drive around the moat to see all of the remaining wall, and headed for a few of the oldest temples.

[photo, photo]

The rain came back, so I stopped in and had a pizza, which was exceptionally good. I think the place was named Il Forno, and it employs handicapped people. A one-armed guy made my pizza, and peeking into the kitchen I could see a deformed wheelchair lady as the prep cook. My waitress seemed retarded, but so eager to get my 15 baht tip. The pizza was way too big for one person, but they offered only one size, so I packed the rest which became my dinner later and then my late night snack, a pizza-only day, but it was that good. Also, a carrot salad with olive oil, which I custom requested from the restaurant next door to my guest house, and they charged me just 45 baht.


The last stop was the mountaintop temple known as Wat Doi Suthep overlooking Chiang Mai, created in 1383. It's only about 15 km outside of the Chiang Mai city edge, and took me only about 30 minutes or so from the center of Chiang Mai, the last half on a winding highway thru the forest, even with a waterfall right next to the highway at one point. You climb to an elevation of a little over 1600 meters (5000 feet), then go up 300 steps to the temple. It has a big chedi in the center and lots of Buddhas plus Hindu elements like a Ganesh. It also has a great view of Chiang Mai.

Having unthoughtfully taken my backpack with me rather than leaving it at the guesthouse, there was no way I would haul my backpack up the hill, and especially back down, given the wear on my knees. However, I spotted a restaurant with a sign in front promoting the local favorite "must eat" food for tourists to Chiang Mai, "Khao Soy", but it was written in only Thai, no English. I stepped in, had a bowl of this, explained that they were missing a lot of foreign business by not putting the sign in English, then offered to write it for them on their sign. They were very happy about this. After that, I asked if I could leave my backpack under their watchful eye, and they were happy to do so.

Khao Soy is basically in-between a soup and a curry, with egg noodles, a couple of chicken legs, and crispy fried noodles noodles on top (I remove the latter), plus you are given a bowl of little purple onions, limes, and some pickled green leafy plant. I squeeze in the lime and toss in some onions. This local bowl was delicious, better than the copies I have eaten in Bangkok.

-=-=-=-=- > Travels > Thailand > Chiang Mai

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