Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai: A Taste of Northern Thailand

Before visiting Northern Thailand I was apprehensive – I heard so many great things that I was certain I was going to expect too much and be disappointed. Instead it exceeded my expectations and I somehow found myself continuing to extend my stay – I just didn’t want to leave! From inexpensive (and delicious) food to outdoor activities to fun nightlife, I found myself always having something more I wanted to do.

If you have extra time, be sure to visit Pai too! It’s only a 3 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai and is worth a visit.

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Sunset in Chiang Rai

CHIANG MAI

Things to Do
  • Thai Cooking Class: After ordering dozens of meals from street vendors and watching them quickly fry up some noodles, vegetables, and sauce into a tasty dish I knew I wanted to learn to do the same so when my time in Thailand ended I could attempt to re-create these lovely dishes back home. Going off the suggestion of others I opted for a full day Asia Scenic class that took place at a farm outside the city. The class started in the morning around 9am when we were picked up from our hostel and brought to a local market where our guide and chef, Indi, taught us about the ingredients we would be using as well as how to select them. While some of the ingredients come from their farm they couldn’t possibly grow enough for all the cooking they do! Once we got to the farm we were given a tour where Indi showed us the various vegetables and herbs grown and how houses can practice sustainable farming. The farm was lovely, and I was able to scout out a hammock and a rocking chair for the afternoon break.

    Each student in our group of 10 was given their own cooking station and prep station – and then we were off cooking! The menu consisted of 6 courses (starter, spring roll, salad, soup, noodle, curry, dessert), and each course had 3-5 options with everyone able to choose their own menu (with the exception of the starter and spring rolls).

    By the end of the class I was so full that I couldn’t even finish all my food! As a parting gift we were also given a small cookbook to take home with us so that we could make all of the dishes again in the future.
    Cost: 1,200 THB

  • Sticky Waterfalls: Less popular to tourists and only 1.5 hours North of Chiang Mai in Sri Lanna National Park are the Bua Thong (or Bua Tong) Waterfalls. They are better known as the Sticky Waterfalls due to the layer of algae (unfortunately an unappealing brown color) that line them creating a surface that you can walk right up! There are multiple levels of the falls but not all can be accessed or climbed, so be careful when exploring the area. Also note that areas on the falls that are black don’t have the lining of algae and will be slippery.

    Getting to the falls requires renting a motorbike/scooter and driving there (there’s free parking at the falls), or hiring a red truck. A red truck will run you about 1,400 THB depending on your negotiating skills so the bigger group that you have the more affordable it will be (the price shouldn’t change based on the number of people and a red truck can hold about 8-10 people comfortably).

    Once you’re at the top of the falls also be sure to check out the path leading to “Namphu Chet Si” which is a small pool at the end of a short nature walk. According to the signs Thai people believe that this pond holds sacred water that is good luck. You’ll notice a pole with a bucket on the end that you can use to dip into the water to fill and splash water on your face (we noticed a Thai couple doing it that encouraged us to do it as well!)

    It’s common to see Thai families sitting at the top of the falls enjoying a picnic, so feel free to bring your own food to enjoy. There’s also delicious and reasonably priced food available near the parking lot.
    Cost: Free entry, only need to pay for transportation

  • Doi Suthep via Monk’s Trail: Doi Suthep is the large mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai to the West and is mainly known for Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a highly visited temple. The main attraction of temple is the gold plated Chedi that almost blinds you on a sunny day!img_2006
    Most visitors will visit by red truck. They run regular routes from major locations (note that they won’t leave until they are full!) or you can hire a private one (but be prepared to pay a bit more if you don’t have too many people to split the costs). If you’re feeling adventurous you can also rent a motorbike which will give you the flexibility to stop and explore along the way! There’s plenty of parking at the top. We opted to hike to the top via the Monk’s Trail since the view is always better when you earn it! As a group of five we got a red truck to the trail head for 30 THB each (150 THB total) with our bargaining skills. The trail head is past Chiang Mai University and the Zoo (if you have maps.me it’s “Hiking Parking” near the “Pilgrim’s Path” trail). The driver wasn’t familiar with the location so be prepared to help with directions on your phone!img_1986
    The hike is lined with yellow pieces of cloth from monk robes, and is overall generally easy to follow if you stay on the main trail. It is steep though and you will be burning some calories and sweating in the Thai heat! I recommend starting early in the morning to hiking during mid-day. Shortly after you start you’ll reach a nice waterfall and temple, Wat Pha Lat, where you can take a break.

    Continue up the path where you’ll have to cross a paved road – this was the trickest part of the hike since the path continues across the street slightly to the left. Continue up this last section and you’ll reach another road. Here you can either walk the remaining short distance to the main drop off for Doi Suthop, or you can walk behind a house (you’ll feel like you walking onto their property) to find the trail that continues to the temple. Remember to bring clothes to cover up since you’ll be visiting a temple at the top (pants and something to cover your shoulders).

    And don’t forget to go around to the back of the temple to check out the view of Chiang Mai!

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    Cost: Transportation to trail head (dependent on number of people), transportation down (60 THB), entrance to temple (30 THB)

  • Terracotta Garden Café: If you’re looking to escape the city and enjoy a cup of coffee in a tranquil place, stop by the Terracotta Garden Café. Located inside the city walls near the South Gate, this small café has a walled sitting area where you can escape in a garden oasis and admire the various terracotta sculptures scattered throughout. Drinks are reasonably priced (70 THB for an iced caffee latte) and there is wifi. Be warned that there are some critters in there (we saw a couple rats which I’m told are less disgusting than Boston city rats).
    Cost: Drink or food purchase (60-70 THB average)
  • Thai Massage at Lila’s: Walking around the streets of Chiang Mai you will come across hundreds of places to get a massage, all varying in price and luxury. I opted for Lila Thai Massage where former woman inmates are trained and employed to give them a chance to start an honest career. Upon arriving your masseuse will wash your feet and then give you a change of clothes to put on. Here you do not have a private room, but instead are lead to a massage bed in a large room with other massages going on. This didn’t bother me (your clothes are on, your eyes are closed, and it is still quiet and relaxing), but I did almost start laughing when I heard someone snoring! My massage was incredible, though I am sure it depends on your masseuse, but I would definitely go back!
    Cost: 250 THB for 1 hour Thai massage (+ tip, although I read this wasn’t necessary)
  • Ladyboy Show: Thailand is known for its Ladyboys and in Chiang Mai there are several bars and venues that have Ladyboy shows. If you are looking for a show that is tasteful and entertaining I recommend Rambar. The show lasted approximately 2 hours and had multiple sets of performers, so acts came quickly after one another. The performers had sweet dance moves, decent lip syncing, and some even used theatrics such as fire! Get there early if you want to get a seat.
    Cost: Entry is free, need to buy at least one drink (large beer was 150 THB)
  • Monkchat 1 Day Retreat: If you are looking to get more information on Buddhism, temples, meditation, and the life of a Monk then this is exactly what you’re looking for. The session runs every Friday from 9-5pm at the Monkchat Office at MCU Buddhist University. The day is led by Monk KK who speaks excellent English and is wonderful at explaining the Buddhist philosophy and way of life as well as answering any questions. The day starts with an introduction to Buddhism where you can ask questions throughout the presentation. You are given an hour to grab lunch around 11:30, and once you return you practice your first type of sitting meditation.  To keep the class from falling into a food coma we then walked around the temple grounds where he explained the meaning behind various aspects of the temple and taught us temple etiquette. After this we went to the meditation room where we practiced walking, sitting, and lying meditation for an hour before ending with some Q&A. It was a very informative day that helped give a better perspective on Buddhism and the culture of Thailand.

In May I’ll be heading back to Chiang Mai (I just couldn’t get enough!) to check out Elephant Land (an elephant sanctuary), Doi Inthion, and a second cooking class, so check back for updates!

Accommodations
  • Stamps Hostel: By far one of the best hostels that I’ve stayed in, Stamps has something for everyone. There are 6 bed rooms available that give each bed it’s own cubby (side table, outlet, curtain and partial walls) as well as 8 bed rooms available that have bunkbeds. Each room has a separate room with a toilet and shower, and the showers are warm. The front desk and staff are helpful and want to help you make the most of your time in Chiang Mai. From cooking classes to elephant sanctuaries to trekking they have suggestions of good companies and will make the call to sign you up. They have social events each night (ladyboy show, muay thai, BBQ, music by the river, bar crawl), serve breakfast, have a bar, and create an excellent vibe for meeting other travelers. It’s located directly outside of the old city at the Northeast corner.
    Cost: $9-12/night, 2 night minimum
  • Thailandwow2: A low-budget, low-quality accommodation. The staff is friendly, but the rooms (12 bed dorm) remind me of a prison bunk and the bathroom and common area are clean but rundown.  It’s also located directly outside of the old city at the Northeast corner. The price is right if you are only staying for a night or two.
    Cost: $5/night

CHIANG RAI

Things to Do
  • White Temple: The main attraction of Chiang Rai, and for good reason, is the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). Located about 20 minutes outside of town, this is a temple worth going out of your way to see if you are in Chiang Mai. The temple is entirely white and is beautiful and delicate against a blue sky. As you cross the bridge to enter the temple you will notice that in the moat are white hands reaching up towards you. My bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai stopped here (only for about 30 minutes, but it was enough time to get through) but you can also get here via taxi or public bus.
    Cost: 50 THB entry fee
  • Blue Temple: Less famous but also striking is Ron Suea Ten Temple, also known as the Blue Temple, which sits just North of the Kok River. It’s still under construction (they’re still finishing the entrance to the grounds) but this won’t take away from the beauty of the temple. The blue and gold is a welcome change from the norm, and the inside has an otherworldly feel. Don’t forget to walk behind the temple to see the large standing Buddha. You can walk here from town, about 45 minutes with some of the walk without a side walk, or you can hire a tuk-tuk. We were lucky to get a beautiful view of the sunset over the river on our walk!
    Cost: Free
  • Phu Chi Fa Sunrise: Located 3 hours North of Chiang Rai is a small town (that I don’t even know the name of!) which is the home to Phu Chi Fa, a mountain peak located on the boarder of Thailand and Laos. The sunrise here is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen, and the entire trip can be done in 24 hours. If you have the extra day available in your itinerary I highly recommend it. For details on how to get to Phu Chi Fa read my complete guide, here.
    Cost: Free, only need to pay for transportation and accommodations
Accommodations
  • Sabaijai Hostel: We stayed at Sabaijai Hostel for 1 night and had a very pleasant experience. The room was clean and each bed had its own shelf, outlet, and reading light and curtain for privacy. There were also lockers with a lock provided. The bathrooms were exceptionally clean and the shower was great – and as a bonus towels were provided. The staff spoke minimal English but they were friendly, polite, and attentive so this didn’t end up being a problem.
    Cost: 200 THB/night

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