Chiang Mai is where tourists go to become locals—whether or not they plan on it. From temple hopping, trekking, elephant riding, and courses that run the gamut from massage, cooking, and boxing, Chiang Mai gives you plenty of reason to stay a few days. Just watch out—we've never met so many expats in one place. Perhaps it's the cooler climate?
See and Do
Plenty of people come to Chiang Mai to visit the temples, and there's no reason that can't be the main attraction. If you've been following our blog, you know we're a bit templed out after Bagan, but that didn't stop us from giving the Chiang Mai temples a passive chance. Rather than having an itinerary we simply entered the old city walls (Chiang Mai is a former walled city, of which only the moat and remnants of brick remain) and walked around. Though none of the temples were extraordinary compared to what we've seen in Bagan, in their entirety they were interesting and quite different from each other.
Our suggestion would be to do just that: lose the map and walk. The north gate wall had some beautiful temples that weren't in our guidebook and the street that went out from Thapae Gate had my favorite temple of all—with a wildlife theme and monks rebuilding some of the plaster creatures.
Want to ride an elephant? Bath an elephant? See a monkey? Hug a tiger? You can do it all, and probably more, from Chiang Mai. Because of our unexpected elephant encounter in Ayutthaya, we decided to forgo our intended visit to the Elephant Nature Park. At almost $80pp, it would have made quite a dent in our budget. That said, other tourists we ran into loved their time there. It's purely educational—no elephant rides—and a bit emotional—elephants who've stepped on mines, who've had their backs broken by irresponsible loggers, etc. All your money goes to supporting the animals and the center's director has won tons of international awards for her work.
If that all sounds interesting but a tad too pricey, you can visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center and have an elephant encounter for a lot less (200-500B depending on whether you just want to pet them or also want a ride). The other option is to do a trek that includes an elephant ride. If Thailand is the only country on your trip, then doing a trek that combines elephants, bamboo rafting, and a visit to ethnic villages isn't a bad idea. Just know that it's been done—and done and done—before, so don't expect to see anything undiscovered. All guesthouses can arrange similar treks, so shop around. Bigger groups mean cheaper and, to be honest, sometimes a better experience since your guide will often do no more than show the way.
The wildlife encounter we chose to pursue in Chiang Mai was the Tiger Kingdom. Playing with tigers was something we purposefully skipped in Kanchanaburi because of several reports that said the center there abused and drugged its tigers. We were still uncertain about visiting Tiger Kingdom because of similar accusations on the Internet but decided there was no better way to decide than to see it for ourselves.
It was a 25 minute trip outside the city (we went by motorbike, but a pickup will take you for 200-300B/pp depending on your bargaining skills) and as soon as we arrived, we automatically knew one thing: this place was a tourist attraction. The parking lot was filled with taxis and motorbikes and a staff member greeted us as soon as we walked into the pavilion. The way it works is you get to pick which size tiger you'd like to pet/play with. You buy your ticket for that size (or get a package) and then you get taken inside. You can spend as much time as you want inside the park, and even though the brochure says you only get 10-15 minutes inside each cage, we found that going in together got us at least 30 each time. We picked the big tigers and the smallest tigers, who were 1.5-4 months old (there was no package for this option, so the a la carte pricing cost us 1040B or around $35 each, with the small tigers being far more expensive than the big cats.) They also offer a photo package because the tiger handlers aren't supposed to take pictures for you.
We walked around for about an hour after getting inside the compound, just to check out the state of the tigers and get a feel for the area. All the cats are kept in big cages and while some were certainly sleeping, we saw no evidence of drugging. In fact, going in the late afternoon allowed us to see the tigers at their most active. The newborns (3-5 weeks) were getting fed from bottles, the teenage tigers were frolicking in the pool, and the slightly bigger tigers were looking on with envy.
Tiger Kingdom really is like a zoo exclusively for tigers. The staff doesn't pretend they're breeding the animals for conservation or any other aim than tourism, but at the same time, the tigers probably have better lives than zoo tigers. They live with a ton of other tigers, get plenty of attention, and seem to get along well with each other and the staff. If you're okay with zoos, then we think you'll be okay with Tiger Kingdom.
Overall, we were incredibly glad of our decision to go. Observing these animals at such close range was amazing and, in some small way, we'd like to think that we made their lives a bit better by giving money to their care. And if that's not the case then I know that I, in the least, made one large tiger's day. Let's just say that he REALLY liked his belly rub :0)
Actually want to learn something on vacation? Chiang Mai is the place. Language, massage, Thai boxing, or cooking, it's all here and readily bookable at your guesthouse or a number of travel agencies just around the corner.
We had planned on doing a cooking class, but in a bit of long-term traveling serendipitous luck, we met a guy at the Ayutthaya train station who told us about an organic farm where you could not only learn to farm and cook, but also learn from a former Buddhist monk. After much Googling with no luck, we saw a tweet from our friends at HoneyTrek with the name of said farm: Mindful Farm, about 75km away from Chiang Mai. We emailed Pi Non, the former monk, and booked our two night stay.
It was wonderful, and some of the best food we had in our three week trip in Thailand. For 150B pp/day, we received a small wooden bungalow to sleep in and three daily meals which we helped prepare.
When we weren't gathering vegetables or learning to cook them, we helped with the farm, watering the plants, making new beds, transplanting some vegetables, making compost, and picking garlic with the villagers.
It was a humbling three days, in which we realized how lucky we are to have the lives that we do, and also how much better fresh fruits and vegetables taste.
Pi Non gives you a three hour break in the middle of the day to rest, read, sleep, etc. and at night, there's a 30 minute meditation session sometimes followed by Buddhist teachings and stories. HIGHLY recommended if you want to get off the tourist trail and do so good (as well as save some money). You can take public transportation or do as we did and rent a motorbike. If you go, tell him Rob and Lina sent you!
We found Thapae Gate to have the largest range of accommodations both inside and outside the old city. We had hoped to stay at Chiang Mai Thai House on recommendation from other travelers (private room with fan and nice pool for 400B), but they were booked. Thana Hotel had similar prices and facilities, though they were also booked. Instead, we ended up at Sarah's Guesthouse the first night (not recommended) and Jimmy's Home Stay the other three. We paid 300B for an AC room though we probably would have been fine with fan.
Eat and Drink
If you've been craving Western food, you're in luck. There are plenty of Italian, Mexican, and American places to go around. They're all cheaper than they'd be at home, but do cost more than eating at the local restaurants.
The best place we found for cheap and delicious dinners was at the night market at the Chiang Mai Gate (south side). There's a spicy salad place at the far eastern end that did a spicy seafood salad—noodles, mushrooms, crab, shrimp, scallops, etc.—for 40B. Great value!
The vegetarian stall on the same side of the street also did great dishes for 30B. We had the pad si euw noodles with mushrooms three different times and I'm still craving. Across the street, Pa's Fruit Shakes does fresh smoothies for 20B. Just tell her what fruit you want and let her work her magic. The roti stand also does sugary sweet rotees, ranging from 10-30B. Yum!!
Don't make the mistake we did our first night and go to the night bazaar for food. It's mostly cheap souvenirs and random crap. If you do end up there at night and in a hungry panic, your best bet is the Galore Food Center. Though overpriced for the fare, it's still cheap and there's also nightly entertainment. Grab a beer from 7 Eleven and enjoy the (relative) cool.
You can walk around the old town without much trouble or jump on a pick-up for 10-20B to save your feet. If you take tuk-tuks to any destinations outside the city (including the bus station), remember to bargain. You should pay 30B/pp to get to the further bus station.
We left via bus to Chiang Khong to cross the border to Northern Laos. It cost 231B each for a ride that should have been 6 hours and turned out, shockingly, to be only 30 minutes longer.
More Chiang Mai
Interested in seeing the tigers, temples, and even more organic farm life without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Chiang Mai photo tour.
Share your tips for traveling Chiang Mai on a budget in the comments!