Well, what the heck is there to do in Chiang Mai? It's an adventure sports dreamer's dream. In the mountains, there's trekking, rock climbing, zip lining, white water rafting, cave exploring...whatever. There are hundreds of temples (wats) to visit if that's what you're into. The tallest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, is here at 2500 meters. Not to mention spending time with elephants, of course - whether it be elephant riding or being a "caretaker for a day" or visiting the elephant nature preserve, etc. At night, there's the Night Bazaar full of artisanal crafts and flea market finds, plus bars and restaurants galore. Although, there may be more Thai massage parlors than bars...it's a toss up for sure.
Chiang Mai, with its mountains, international backpacker crowd, and really nice locals mixed with long-time expatriates reminds us of one of our favorite towns in South America, Baños de Agua Santa in Ecuador. We could easily see ourselves spending a lot more time here than the 7 days we have planned.
The 14-hour overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was top-notch as well. The first class tickets with private rooms were sold out so we went with the second class/air-conditioning car (versus the second class/fan cars). Seat61.com is the best resource on Thailand transportation, as well as many other places. Great website.
After a huge feast for dinner, the "bed czar", as we nicknamed him, came around and converted all the seats into bunk beds. Nevermind that it was only 8 o'clock and we wanted to stay up a while longer, but he had a job to do, you see. So, we just hung out in the lower bunk until we wanted to go to sleep.
He also woke us up bright and early at 5:30 am "in time" for our arrival to Chiang Mai at 8:30 am.
Our hotel, Bed and Terrace Guesthouse for only USD$19/double/night leaves plenty of room in our budget to spend money on area excursions. It's also in a great location, right outside of the east city walls, 10-minute walk to the Night Bazaar area, and a lively nightlife, one street over. It has an air-conditioner, refrigerator, safe, private bath, daily service, free wifi, free coffee, free bottled water, and great customer service. Can you believe that this is the mid-range cost? For true budget, there are plenty of non-airconditioned rooms with shared baths starting at $5/night. Wow.
Once in town, here's what we've been up to for the first 24 hours!
Chiang Mai was once an entirely walled city with a protective moat. There's not much left of the wall or gate, except for Thaepae Gate and the moat is more like fountains now.
There are hundreds of wats inside the Old City. We visited two of more significant ones. Wat Chedi Luang stood 86 meters tall at one point, but was damaged by a massive earthquake in the 1500s. What remains of it with the partial spire, dragons, and elephants was very impressive. In the same compound, there were other smaller temples.
We also visited the oldest wat in Chiang Mai. Wat Chiang Man, built in late 1200s and was also home to the King when he decided to build the city of Chiang Mai.
We've also indulged in some Thai massage and fish spa treatment! For those who have never been to Thailand, it is difficult to explain how ubiquitous and cheap Thai massage parlors are. Besides the traditional Thai massage of yoga-like stretching moves and deep tissue massage, most places offer oil massage (similar to Swedish massage), foot massage (reflexology), head/neck/shoulder massage, and other varieties. The going rate so far in Bangkok and Chiang Mai has been approximately 200 baht or $7/hour. At that price, we can't see any reason not to get a massage daily! The fish spa was a spontaneous novelty. We're not sure the fish nipping at our feet actually did anything except tickle, but the experience for $3, was highly entertaining.
We also found an All-American bar/restsurant called Chiangmai Saloon. Though somewhat kitschy with the western-themed decor and Thai girls dressed up in an oversized cowboy hat and a gunslinging belt, it is owned by a Texan expat and the food is just that - All-American. Thai food is great but not for every single meal. A little southern fried chicken, brats, BLT, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, etc. goes a long way to satisfy a craving.
Otherwise, we've been hanging out near the Night Bazaar. Listening to blues music, drinking cocktails at a portable roadside bar (literally), and so forth.
So there. What's not to love about Chiang Mai?