Of all the places I visited in Thailand, Chiang Mai wins the award for stealing a little piece of my heart.
For those of you who don’t know (or follow me on Instagram), I spent most of February and March in Thailand where I took part in a 200-hour yoga teacher training program. But before beginning the training, I flew in a week early to explore and make the most of the long travel adventure.
Stop one was Bangkok.
Admittedly, I was supposed to have a full day and night in Bangkok, but silly me screwed up my flight into BKK, so I ended up only getting to see the city from the airport during my six hour layover. But nonetheless I enjoyed the shops, people watching and enjoyed my first authentic pad thai which was primo.
After a brief hop, skip and jump, I landed in Chiang Mai in the AM and was pleasantly surprised by it. The first thing on my list, to find and secure a Motorbike Rental Chiang Mai to help me traverse the roads and get where I needed to go. I had thought about bringing my own bike and getting a bike delivery service, but I decided it was cheaper to just rent one from there instead.
I was picturing something more rural, more sparse, but the city was far more developed than I had anticipated and proved to be quite the mecca of boutiques, cool eateries, shops and cafes you’d expect to see in a magazine. With a young population (thanks to the university), it had a youthful energy which was a cool contrast to some of the more traditional temples and jungles that surrounded the city.
I stayed at The Laboratory Hotel in the neighbourhood of Nimmanhaemin during my time in Chiang Mai–and it was awesome. I’ll admit I chose it based on the interior design (no shame in my decision game), but it more than delivered on location, vibe and comfort as well. Nestled in a quiet, safe area, it was steps from a 7-11 and all the coolest restaurants and shops, and the lobby was more of a cafe/library setup that played the blues and offered a great spot to read or meet up with a friend.
The hotel also houses the Across The Universe Cafe which is open to the public, offering coffee shop goodies by day and live music and drinks by night.
Considering the price ($60 a night which includes breakfast), it was the perfect little spot to call home for a week. Sure, the bed was a little hard, but it was calm and quiet despite being nestled in a bustling area–and I honestly spent so little time in my actual room because of the close proximity, by-foot, to all of goodness Nimmanhaemin has to offer. Or hop on a Tuk Tuk and find yourself in the Old City within minutes for just a few bucks.
Steps from my hotel was One Nimman, a brand-new outdoor plaza brimming with shops, cafes, rentable event spaces, art installations, and an unconventional “food court” with rotating vendors. Think indie clothing boutiques, barbers, jewelry-makers and the coolest architecture and design elements (like these amazing colourful tile floors).
Another notable attraction was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (say that ten times fast). This was the only temple I visited in the mainland of Thailand, but it was such a cool experience that I didn’t feel the need to visit any others (though Im sure they’re all gorgeous)!
The morning I went I awoke at 5am to catch the sunrise and hailed an Uber (yes, Chiang Mai has Uber) to the temple which was a half hour drive.
I was the only soul there–save for a group of monks meditating and chanting–which was surreal to see and hear. I spent an hour walking around with some local stray dogs, admiring the illuminated gold temple before witnessing a slow sunrise over the city.
By 7am, the sun arrived as did buses filled with tourists which I took as my cue to leave.
I cannot recommend going for before sunrise enough. It was absolutely breathtaking and surreal being the only one there, and the gold temple is just not the same in the daylight!
To get back to the city, it’s typical to have to wait for a group at least 5 who want to head in the same direction, so while I awaited the minimum, I grabbed some 8am Khao Soi from a street side vendor.
Going into this trip, I had a vision of myself riding a motorbike through the jungle and mountains from Chiang Mai to Pai, but my dream was dashed by every single person I spoke to about it, from friends and family at home to local strangers. Apparently (as I later learned first hand) it’s quite dangerous, especially if you’ve never ridden a motorbike before.
Instead, I got my adrenaline fix by ATVing through the jungle with Take Me Tours. I booked it online one night around dinnertime and by 9am the next morning, my guide Kataii picked me up at the hotel and we scooted off to the ATV rental spot, the whole while she offered me travel tips and shared more about Chiang Mai and living there from a local perspective. It was really cool!
ATV-wise, I cannot promise this experience would be the same for everyone, but for some reason on this particular morning I was the only soul to book the AM tour, so my experience was 100% catered! We went as fast as I wanted and my guide gave me choices of where I wanted to go, what I wanted to see. Whereas if a whole group–or even just one other person–were present, we’d all have to go as slow as the slowest person.
In all, it took about 2/3 hours to ride through the mountains and villages.
Post-ATVing, Kataii picked me back up and we swung up to Mae Sa waterfall in Mae Rim to cool off.
Mae Sa is actually comprised of 10 waterfalls (levels) spread across a hike uphill of about 200 metres. There was a tiny entrance fee (equal to about $5 CAD which the tour covered for me), but once again, there was barely a soul in sight, so I enjoyed a hike up to level 6 and a dip beneath the falls.
After Mae Sa, Kataii and I enjoyed a bean-bag seated lunch by the river before we visited some of her friends and their puppies.
Another awesome experience was visiting the Orchid and Butterfly Farm in Mae Rim. It’s not somewhere you can spend a whole day, but if you’re passing through, it’ worth a pop-in. Kataii took me on my way back home after the day-tour and we enjoyed walking around for an hour before I hit up my hotel again to rest.
Coffee-wise, Ristr8to had one of the best lattes I’ve ever had. They’ve actually won title of Best Latte Art in Thailand for years and counting! There’s two locations open at different hours if you need your fix morning, noon or night, and both spots have a great atmosphere for working, meeting a pal, or just people-watching with a scone.
Frosé had great frozen yogurt (obviously), but they serve all kinds of drinks and dessert. Their pistachio rainbow cake is prettier than a picture. You can’t miss their giant neon sign!
While I didn’t enjoy their ice cream, the interior of On Cloud Nine alone is worth a peep.
By dinnertime, my go-to spot was Rustic & Blue. The vegan menu never disappointed–and neither did their neon signage! The food was fresh, local and gluten-free friendly, and the space made you feel like you were in the comfort of your own backyard.
iBerry Cafe is famous for its Thai-style ice cream, but it’s more than an eatery: It’s an outdoor cafe and hang-out spot for locals and tourists alike. Marked with its giant pink mascot, it offers tons of seating, free wifi, and a great atmosphere.
Maya Shopping Centre and Think Park isn’t a Thai tourist attraction in the traditional sense: There’s nothing old world about it. Rather, it’s brand spankin’ new and, well, a four-story mall of all things. Sure, it’s a bit out of place, but Chiang Mai is developing rapidly and that comes with the territory!
It’s worth a walk-through and directly across the street you’ll find Think Park which is home to a number of coffee shops, clothing stores and markets. Day or night, it’s a cool place to eat, chill and listen to live music.
Located just east of The Old City, the Night Bazaar makes for a solid evening. The market comes alive around 6pm, but gets packed in full swing by 10pm. You’ll find everything from food vendors to knock-off shops to art and everything in between. Go hungry and ready to barter!