I was really looking forward to spending one month in Chiang Mai – while Craig worked I had big plans for getting fit, updating our itinerary and enjoying the culture shock that spending a month in an Asian city would bring. Chiang Mai defied my expectations somewhat.
Once we’d successfully completed our short, but successful, apartment hunt, we were safely installed in an apartment that – whilst a little less homely than I’d expected – was otherwise a-ok. While Craig hunkered down into his work, I braced myself for a culture shock that never came. If we needed groceries or toiletries, I could pop to the supermarket or Boots five minutes away. I amused myself by pottering around the stationery shops in the Mall and popping out for a coffee. We ordered delivery pizza as a treat, and headed to the cinema on Discount Wednesdays. Aside from a lack of public transport and a hell of a temperature difference, living in Chiang Mai didn’t feel a world away from West London. Ah, globalisation you shameless fiend.
What we spent our month doing
We tried to mix up our month, but the reality was Craig had to work most days. He was far better than me at routine, and would head for a gym session and be at his desk by 10am. At night, we’d usually head out for a bite to eat and once or twice a week we’d go out for a few drinks or to the cinema.
My days were a little less structured. I started out doing a morning gym session, but horrendous insomnia eventually put paid to them (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). Mornings were spent doing jobs – laundry, grocery shopping, topping up the water and cleaning – once I woke up, and then some admin and preparing lunch. Afternoons were spent writing and planning our next month of travel to Burma and Japan. Rock and roll, I know.
In short, most days weren’t terribly exciting for either of us! Every so often, we’d do something different like a food tour or a hike to prevent cabin fever.
Chiang Mai Old Town
We spent less time in Chiang Mai’s old town than I expected, and I was less taken with it than I thought I’d be. We paid a visit to the annual Flower Festival on our first weekend – admiring the intricate floral floats and gorging on street food – and joined the bustling crowds filing down the Sunday Walking Street where we shopped for cheap clothes and, once again, gorged ourselves on street food (tip: aim to arrive about 5:30 and be finished by 8pm when the crowds get a bit intense). Bar a third visit to explore some of Chiang Mai’s famous temples, we spent much of our time haunting Nimmanhaemin Road instead. We preferred this area as it was popular with local young Thais, and we enjoyed eating at the same restaurants and drinking at the same bars that they did.
Shopping in Chiang Mai
You won’t struggle to shop in Chiang Mai. From the nightly market to the weekend “walking streets”, Chiang Mai has plenty of opportunities to pick up baggy elephant pants and souvenirs.
The Old Town and Nimmanhaemin Road are both packed with cute little boutiques for clothes, silks and pricier souvenirs. The Nancy Chandler map has listings of interesting and new stores opening around Chiang Mai, although our budget and bags restricted us to essential clothing replenishments only, to my great regret and Craig’s great relief.
For groceries, the city is littered with daily “wet markets” where fresh vegetables and meat is sold, along with spices and other cooking essentials. My favourite was the San Pa Koi market, which I visited as part of my Thai cookery class. Given our limited kitchen, we couldn’t really cook at home and stuck to simple, western foods: breakfasts of cereal and sandwiches for lunch with ingredients from the local Rimping supermarket (a pricy store clearly aimed at expats and foreign visitors). It was interesting (astonishing would also be a fair word here) to see the price differences in Thai supermarkets for groceries we take for granted back in the UK. It was only after a particularly expensive supermarket shop I checked the receipt and noticed we had been paying FIVE ENGLISH POUNDS for a box of cereal. Cue interesting strangled noises when Craig happened across the receipt.
Learning about local culture
One benefit of spending one month in a place is it gives you the chance to observe at leisure. Amongst my wanderings through Chiang Mai I noticed that the Thais generally keep their shoulders covered, and generally felt most comfortable when I followed suit (short skirts and shorts seem to be ok).
I also had a go at speaking Thai – much to the amusement of the locals who generally couldn’t contain themselves when the Giant White Girl had a go at chatting to them. I didn’t mind – there is something oddly liberating about accepting yourself as an amusing spectacle.
If you want to learn to speak Thai (or a little bit, anyway!) then this free resource is immensely useful and also gives the pronunciations, which is useful as Thai uses “tones”.
One thing we did find striking was the Thai’s love of their King. Apparently the national anthem is played twice daily in some public spaces (such as railway stations) but we never encountered it. However, the King’s anthem is played in theatres before every film showing, where we had to stand in silence for the duration of the song to show our respect.
Navigating Chiang Mai
Many people choose to rent a scooter if they are spending one month in Chiang Mai, but as fairly novice riders we thought the city wasn’t the best place to cut our teeth! I’m sure the good people of Chiang Mai are thankful of that…
Without our own wheels, one of the most striking things I found during our month in Chiang Mai was the lack of public transport. Apparently the old bus network was scrapped, leaving a fleet of songthaews to fill the gap. Songthaews are privately-owned red minivans with bench seats which ply routes around the city. You flag one down, much like a taxi, and give them your destination. If feasible, they’ll add you to their existing, ever-adapting route as passengers hop in and out. If not, they’ll refuse your hopeful face and proffered bahts with a rather facetious wave of the hand.
At ฿20 – ฿40 per ride, they are far cheaper than tuk tuks, which start from around ฿150 for the same trip.
Fitness and Health
The tap water seemed ok in Chiang Mai. Our flat came stocked with about 30 giant bottles of filtered water, so we used those for drinking and topped them up with water from the UV filter machines dotted around Chiang Mai for the kettle. We used tap water for cleaning our teeth with no ill effects.
Chiang Mai has no shortage of yoga and fitness studios. Our apartment came with a pool (which Craig used a lot) and a free gym. I had big plans for a fitness blitz when I was here, which started well with a bilingual yoga class at the excellent Weena Yoga on Nimmanhaemin Road Soi 17 (although I did cause much mirth amongst the locals as I tried to fold myself into poses they did with ease) and some gym sessions. Sadly, as I got more bogged down with our Burma and Japan travel planning and suffered some terrible insomnia my good intentions fell by the wayside, but it’s the thought that counts. Right?
Costs of one month in Chiang Mai
Our basic apartment costs (the rent plus additional high-speed internet, a pool pass and water and electric charges) were around £18 per day – higher than we had paid anywhere else in Thailand. That said, we did get a lot of space for our money, and if we’d been prepared to take a smaller space we could have saved more. The cheap costs of transport and eating out meant we hovered around £42 per day for the two of us. Cheap, but not as much as we’d expected.
I enjoyed the change of pace for a time, and it was a productive and useful month for Craig – which was the most important thing. It was nice to have the luxury of time to skype friends and family back home in the privacy of our own place, and we were able to arrange some important personal admin such as our Japan Rail Passes which needed to be posted to us.
In terms of size, Chiang Mai was a perfect place to stop. A smaller town might have felt claustrophobic, and Bangkok perhaps a little too overwhelming. We had enough restaurants and bars to keep us occupied, and there were plenty of interesting activities, such as the Elephant Nature Park, to break up Craig’s long days at his desk. At the end of the month however, I was glad to be back on the road with the prospect of new places and adventures stretched out in front of me again. Next stop: Pai.