Known for: Raw nature Only a short trip between CM & Pai Northern Thai cuisine Happy elephant sanctuaries 👍🏼 Adventure activities
Trees covered with burnt amber leaves line the canals surrounding the quaint city, tucked away amongst the wilderness of the jungle and forests. Lose yourself in the tranquility of Chiang Mai and take a good book, adventure spirit and an open mind for the quirkiness the northern city has to offer.
WHAT TO DO
1. Take a trip to Pai.
I know leaving the city I’m recommending is probably not the best way to begin my post, but the beautiful aspect of visiting Chiang Mai is the beauty of taking a weekend excursion to Pai, at only 4 hours by mini van, it would be rude not to!
The chances of you falling in love with the place is highly probable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you even extend your stay. Pai is a cute little hippie town full of likeminded travellers, which creates a lovely melting pot atmosphere in the evening where everyone can hang out, let their hair down and just have a good old time. It’s far from pretentious as there are no trendy stores or fancy restaurants, and the hippy scene isn’t too heeby jeeby either.
Travel tip: I don’t recommend visiting Karen Long Neck Village in Pai. As intriguing as it may look, the tradition has moved away from a proper “tradition” and become a tourist attraction, where women are seated next to tourists and forced to smile for photographs. Many women also aren’t even Thai, instead they have come from Burma to earn some money for their families back home. After talking to our lovely cooking teacher in Chiang Mai about this, she explained why it is not a good tourist attraction to support because she is the only one of her sisters who was lucky enough to not go through the horrible experience.
2. Visit elephants but don’t ride them.
We hired a scooter in Pai and rode north of our hostel, Paitopia, along the way we spotted some captive elephants that were chained up. It pained me to see this, but we decided to stop and buy them some bananas to eat and have a chat to their owner.
I felt conflicted because it appeared this man really loved his elephants, and I understand that tourism is his business and livelihood, but I still feel strongly against the process that the elephants go through to be “broken” in the first place.
Thankfully, more sanctuaries are opening now where you can walk with the elephants and wash them which is far more humane, but once they have been tamed, there is no going back into the jungle. Just something to bare in mind when making your decision…
3. Visit the Pai Canyon.
Only a 20 minute scooter ride from Pai centre, the canyon is a lovely shade of burnt ochre, which is extra striking around 5pm as the sun sets behind the cliffs. Take a picnic and your camera to snake a decent spot to enjoy the view.
4. Visit one of the many waterfalls.
Coming from New Zealand has tainted me when it comes to seeing waterfalls because we have so many magical ones back home, but there is one in particular that you can slide down if the water is deep enough and the rocks are slippery. CAUTION: Please be careful before trying this though, we saw a girl get badly injured because she started from too high up. Test the depth first and start on the lower rocks, be smart!
5. Listen to live music at Edible Jazz bar.
Both Chiang Mai & Pai are really great places for relaxing as the pace is slow, and you’ll find that people are there to just chill out.
6. Take a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai with Thai Akha. One of our favourite experiences in Chiang Mai was learning proper Thai Akha style cooking, and would be something that we could take back home, far more valuable than a some harem pants or a dinky souvenir.
Our teacher Niti was absolutely incredible. She had a witty sense of humour and warmed up the mixed bag of students, bringing us together with her passion for food and one on one mentoring. We started off by making our own vegetable spring rolls, deep frying them one by one and eating them freshly cooked from the basket with chilli sauce… Next was an Ahka style clear broth soup, followed by a pumpkin coconut soup (my favourite). Next we whipped up two different salads and chose a noodle dish and curry that we would like to prepare. I went with the classic Pad Thai and a Green Curry, David chose Red. We smashed the chilli, tamarind, garlic, ginger and lemongrass in a mp to create our own curry paste from scratch, once it turned the desired colour from some decent elbow grease, x okayed our paste and we churned out a curry, and two desserts. Together, we enjoyed our different meals at a big table in her dining room and asked x about life growing up in Thailand, different customs, her views on tourism and she also shared some great cooking tips.
We left the lesson feeling inspired and impressed by how world class the whole experience was. It was definitely my favourite experience in Chiang Mai and I would say if you don’t have long up north, try Ahka Cooking because you’ll learn skills that you will have for life (and that will impress your guests at your next dinner party).
7. Hire push bikes to explore the city.
I should add “at night” if the climate is anywhere near as hot as it was when we were there. In saying that, I would rather be perspiring on a bicycle and see cool sights than miss out altogether. It’s pretty gnarly in some parts, especially if you take back roads through people’s farms, but take an adventure spirit and you’ll be fine… trust me!
8. Visit the vegan buffet and enjoy endless food overlooking the chef’s garden and a temple.
Vegan or not, this place is iconic and not many tourists know about it yet. Keep it under wraps because it’s the best kept secret, but go and enjoy some of the best food and if you’re lucky the lovely woman might even make you up a special dish based on your favourite ingredients. It’s cheap too, around $8 NZD per person.
9. Take a gander through the night markets in Chiang Mai
The Ploen Ruedee night market is insane. Hoards of people bustling through what appears to be broad daylight at 9pm. There’s noise, traffic, heckling, strange smells, exotic food, music and all round good times. The best place to hang out is by the food and live music on hay bales (of course).
WHERE TO STAY
I’m not kidding when I say this place looks like a wedding venue, it’s super pretty with white sashes hanging from the ceiling and pretty drapes everywhere.
It’s all open plan with gorgeous colourful huts. We planned on staying in our little blue hut for one night, which turned into 5 because we made some cool friends, spent evenings drinking dark and stormy’s, eating fruit and playing cards. The pool is open 24/7 which means late night swims are totally acceptable and it’s only a 5 minute ride into the main village.
Aside from the excellent humans we met, there was also 8 puppies and 3 kittens for us to fawn over. How could you leave?
When looking for a cheap and cheerful hostel in Chiang Mai, there is a lot on offer, however many people we met complained about the conditions of their hostels. I think we got lucky with The Dorm as it was relatively clean, safe and quiet. There wasn’t much of a communal vibe, but you can head out to town for that, and the staff were lovely which made up for it.
WHERE TO EAT
Happy Green: We were SO happy at Happy Green. All you can eat vegan food for $8 NZD, and no not rabbit food kind of vegan, I’m talking hearty veggie curries, fried noodles with fresh tofu, colourful salads and black rice. This place is worth raving about. Plus the elderly lady who runs it (and does all the cooking) is an absolute doll.
Coconut Shell: If you want a super cheap meal (I’m talking $1 – $4 a dish) then you want to check out the place that serves curries in a coconut shell. It’s a family run place and loved by the locals.
Siam Pai Bistro: If you’re vegetarian and deprived of a traditional Massamun curry because they are made with meat, look no further than Siam Pai. They do a wicked veggie Massamun served with black rice. That was the only thing we ordered, but we got it three times… it was that good.
Fruit shakes: I would have no idea how to explain the right place to you, but look for the place on Eat Street in Pai that’s run by a mother with her baby son. She makes the best passionfruit, coconut milk and mango smoothies in town. I think we probably bought about 10 from her!
Earth Tone waffles: The cute organic vegan place up the hill by Paitopia is eco-friendly and even has a water refilling station. Go straight for the waffles as they are without a doubt the best seller. While you’re at it, order a scoop of vanilla coconut ice-cream on the side and some berry compote.
The falafel lady: Maybe don’t Google search “falafel lady” as she won’t come up, to those who find her, you’ll be rewarded. We got chatting to some Aussie dudes at the smoothie stall who clearly knew good food, and they led us down the little street off Eat Street to her tasty cart. Super filling and generous servings in a pita pocket with tahini and hummus, they’re vegan and very healthy.
WHAT TO WEAR
The further north, the hotter is my theory. Don’t know how true it is, but I spent my days in cotton shorts and a bandeau top, as minimal clothing is ideal! Tevas are good for trekking to waterfalls and up to the canyon.