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Imagine you have 365 days a year to travel, to go anywhere you want to…if you were to go back to one place three times in five months, you must really love it, right? That’s exactly what happened to us. The love grew slowly, but we realized just how much we love Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting it three times during our stint in South East Asia this past year.

Our first visit to the northern Thai city was for the breathtaking Loy Krathong lantern festival. We came back after traveling in Laos for a few weeks and ended up spending a month in town. When we left, we thought it was a final goodbye, but ended up returning a month later again, for a third time, this time after being offered a month-long housesit.

Chiang MaiAlthough Chiang Mai doesn’t impress the way that cities like New York or Singapore might, we find the city to be an excellent place to visit, or stay in longer term. Our love of the city was a slow burn, one that took awhile but we are deeply committed to returning to again one day. We’ve put together a summary of all the reasons why we love Chiang Mai.

The size

Chiang Mai is a comfortable size for a city, large enough to stay interesting but small enough not to get lost or worry about having a car or even a scooter. We rented bicycles for a month and we were able to cycle from one end of town to the other in under one hour. For those who live more centrally, you can walk almost anywhere within 30 minutes. Although over one million people live and work in the greater Chiang Mai area, parts of the city are very spread out so that it never feels crowded at all.

Chiang Mai ThailandThe coffee shops

Thai people love coffee, and its preparation has become a bit of an art form in Chiang Mai. There are more cafes here than any other city we visited in South East Asia. Some are tiny, no more than two tables, others are trendy art cafes, plus there are large coffee shop chains as well. One of the best (read: strongest) takeaway coffees we ever had came out of a coffee truck, which had rows of flowers on a makeshift bar and a full coffee menu. One thing is certain – they all own and operate some sort of state of the art coffee machine, and most have wi-fi, which is great for the hundreds of people in Chiang Mai like us working wirelessly. Among our favorite cafes are: Old Chiang Mai Café, Coffee Zebra, Akha Ama Café, and Doi Chaang. If you’re a coffee-holic like we are, you might also enjoy this list of 30 cafes to visit in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai coffeeshopsHeaven for vegetarians

Chiang Mai is one of the most vegetarian-friendly cities in all of Thailand – we counted over thirty vegetarian restaurants. Despite making a valient effort to sample them all, there were still some that escaped us – until next time. Our friends Erin and Simon did a better job here and covered the best vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai. Our favorites are: PunPun, Beetroot Stories, Juicy4U, AUM, Dada Kafe and Khun Churn for the vegetarian lunch buffet.

Chiang Mai Thai food..and all the other food!

Chiang Mai is a food lover’s paradise! Not only can you get some of the best Thai food in the country here, but because this is a city of over one million people, its easy to get your hands on a perfectly prepared thin-crust Italian pizza, a good English breakfast, Spanish Tapas, Indian curry, Middle Eastern falafel, German sausages or Mexican quesadillas. There even is a cake buffet – can it get any better?! Some of our (non-Thai) favorites are: Bake n bite, iBerry, Beetroot Stories, Salsa Kitchen and La Lanterna di Genova.

Chiang Mai international foodThe temples

I have to admit that I am a huge temple geek, and I can spend hours walking around the ornate Buddhist temples all over Chiang Mai. Given that there are over 300 temples, there are always new temples to discover when cycling around town. The big golden Buddha statues or crumbling ancient stupas never cease to amaze me. Among our favorite temples are Wat San Duok, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Lok Moli, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Montien and Doi Suthep.

Chiang Mai templesThe monks

With the temples come the monks, and there are hundreds of Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai. In 2011, there was even one weekend with a lot more than that, when over 12,000 monks gathered in Chiang Mai. The really fun part is seeing the monks hanging off the back of motobikes, riding public transportation, topping up their cell phone credit, all with their bald heads, orange robes and peaceful smiles. When you do meet them in a temple, they are usually eager to practice their English and often strike up conversations with foreigners, making it easy to feel connected to this aspect of Thai life.

Chiang Mai monksThe markets

We can pick up a plateful of steaming hot Pad Thai for under $1 next to a stand selling T-Shirts with creative graphic designs, or walk down a few minutes for fresh fruit smoothies and a look at wood carvings or other traditional handicrafts. Chiang Mai simply has great markets, like the Saturday Night Walking Street and the huge Sunday Night Market (both admittedly very crowded after 6:30pm). What we love most, aside from the amazing street food, is that what is on sale isn’t only tourist trinkets. Thais also flock to these stands to pick up any number of creative items from clothes, jewelry and toys to paintings and furniture. One night, we also stumbled across an out of-the-way hip Thai market that reminded us a lot of the East London markets we love so much, where primarily Thai hipsters shopped for cool clothes, second-hand shoes and other accessories.

chiang mai marketsThe hipsters

Speaking of hipsters – Chiang Mai is a university town stuffed with young, trendy Thais hanging out everywhere, but especially in the area around Nimmanhaemin Road with its cool bars and cafes. The great thing about that is that unlike in many cities in the West, the Thai hipsters might be on the cutting edge, but they are still polite and low-key, so its fun to all hang out together. If looking to escape the Western tourists in the Old Town,we really recommend staying and hanging out over near Nimmanhaemin for an authentically Thai feel.

Thai hipsters Chiang MaiThe creative vibe

We also loved the creative vibe that you feel in many of the neighborhoods, starting with cool street art to innovative shop design or brilliant art exhibits in one of the many galleries located throughout the city.

Artsy Chiang MaiThe festivals

Chiang Mai has so many festivals – almost every month there is a big parade or other festival. Some top ones include the Umbrella Festival in January, Flower Festival in February, Songkran in April, Visakha Bucha in May, Yi Peng and Loi Kratong in November and the Rose Festival in December – there is always something to celebrate!

Chiang Mai festivalsThe cost of living

One thing that draws expats, retirees, and visitors alike to Chiang Mai is how cheap it is to live there. You can find a small studio apartment for $150 – $200 a month, or even rent an entire house for $300 a month outside the city center. Street food is usually less than $1, and if you sit down in a local Thai restaurant you will usually pay between $1 and $2 for a meal. In the more touristy areas, meals in a restaurant are between $2 and $4, and even the more expensive Western food is never more than $5 to $7. Seeing a movie in the theater is around $3.50, you can get (really good) massages for $4 per hour and public transportation within the city limits is $0.65. A trip to the dentist office (excellent facilities) for a teeth cleaning is under $30 and other hospital check-ups are equally as cheap. Living life to the fullest, doing as you please, it’s hard to overspend in Chiang Mai. Read these articles by fellow bloggers JetSet Citizen, A Little Adrift, Stop Having a Boring Life and Nomadic Notes for coverage on living in Chiang Mai for around $500 per month.

Chiang Mai ThailandIt’s not all roses

Of course it is not all sunshine and roses in Chiang Mai. We have to admit that apart from the temples and the historic city wall, the architecture in the city did not blow us away – there are mostly functional concrete buildings, not the charming colonial houses that we loved in other cities in South East Asia or the colorful colonial towns of Central America. The apartment building where we spent our first month seemed to be mostly inhabited by old, single Western guys and the number of young Thai girls we’d come across in the hallway or lobby was astonishing. The historic center was a bit too touristy for our taste, filled with lots of cheap hostels and backpacker bars, and we often fantasized what Chiang Mai would be like without the high number of seedy expats and tourists. The number one factor that we didn’t like about Chiang Mai though was its location. Even though the surrounding Lanna countryside is beautiful and you can easily visit places like Chiang Rai or Pai, we missed having a beach nearby, and Chiang Mai is pretty far from everything else.

Still – all the things we love about Chiang Mai are all reasons for us to go back, and we’re already looking forward to it.

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Have you been to Chiang Mai? What are the things that you love about Chiang Mai?

 

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43 Comments

  1. Agreed on all of these. We loved Chiang Mai too and think that it’s a better place to live than just visit as its charms do grow on you. Paying more for an apartment with a nice pool made up for the lack of beach for us. Although it was nice to head to the beaches when we left Chiang Mai we missed the food and culture.
    Erin recently posted..Alfama: Our Lisbon Neighbourhood

    1. Erin – you are right, having a pool was kind of a compensation for not being near the beach, but we still felt awfully far away from anywhere.

      We do miss the food and the markets a lot though and we’ll definitely be back in Chiang Mai for a while at some point 🙂

  2. I appreciate this post. Chiang Mai certainly has a reputation, both good and bad. You made it a little more real. Love the photo of “face on a plate”. The hipster area sounds fun and I have a serious monk addiction as well. Ticking boxes as I go! Marty and I both love buddhist temples as well. Must tell my vegetarian daughter about all the restaurants, she is always lamenting the lack of them in North Queensland. We have only been to Bangkok previously so plenty of Thailand to explore yet. Yay!
    jan recently posted..FANTASTIC FRIDAY – Cat Cat Village

    1. Thanks, Jan! Yes, your daughter would love the many vegetarian restaurants for sure, and I hope you will get to visit Chiang Mai one day – exploring all the temples would keep you busy for days 🙂

    1. Thanks, Denise! We realized that we had never written much about Chiang Mai, but having spent quite some time there this year we felt it deserved some more attention here 🙂

  3. What a lovely article! Living in Chiang Mai sometimes the remarkable turns into the ordinary, so it’s nice to see the impression Chiang Mai makes on visitors.

    Had to smile a little at the drawbacks; if you think there are quite a few tourists and expats now, imagine what it would be like if it WASN’T far away from everything else and had a beach.. I don’t think it’s possible to have this one both ways. 😉 Another downside I can add is that March is really a bad month to visit weather-wise, because of the haze and smog caused by annual burning of rice fields in the wider region. This applies to the entire North of the country, specifically all areas close to Burma. (Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son suffer even worse, but March is really not a time to be in the North.

    1. Thanks, Winston! And of course you are right – I can’t even imagine what Chiang Mai would be like if it was by a beach – super crowded and definitely not the laid-back city it is right now. And I agree with the smog – we were actually there in March and the smog was unbearable sometimes.

    1. Oh, I didn’t know that you have been to Chiang Mai! We could definitely spend a couple of months there each year, but not live – we love the beach too much 😉

  4. This is a great recap of the city we came to love so much over six months. One thing I would add is that the Thai people are very friendly, and if you want to make local Thai friends you can more easily than in some other countries. (There are also lots of English-speaking young adults there because of the university.) You’ll get a deeper understanding of their culture and be taken to local Thai hangouts most travelers never see.

    I do second Winston’s comment, though – don’t go during March when the rice fields are burning. The air quality is terrible and keeps you indoors most of the time.
    Betsy Talbot recently posted..How to stop fighting so damn much

    1. Thanks so much, Betsy! And you are so right about the friendly Thai people, we should definitely have mentioned it. You guys did such a good job meeting locals and immerse in Thai culture while you stayed in Chiang Mai – much more than we did while we were in town.

    1. Oh, you are going to Thailand? How awesome! Yes, definitely visit Chiang Mai, I am sure you’ll enjoy it! It’s a great place to get some work done and explore the city at the same time.

  5. Well said. We too LOVE Chiang Mai…Doi Suthep, Doi Inthanon, the markets, the moat, Muay Thai, the university’s campus, the list goes on. Hope to come back for our second visit during the lantern festival.

    1. I can’t wait to see what you think of Chiang Mai! Like I said, we liked it more and more with each time we came back, so make sure you’ll spend a few days there and don’t rush through it 🙂

  6. Hi again
    Yes have been to Chiang mai but for quite a sad reason
    A very good friend of ours had passed away and his wishes where that his ashes be scattered in the river there
    But as you say wonderfull place

    1. You have to stay for the Sunday Night Market for sure!! One of the best markets we’ve ever been to and the food is amazing 🙂 If you head to the university area, you might want to check out iBerry (great sweets and ice cream) and Salad Concept (excellent salads – you can pick all the ingredients yourself) – they are both super stylish places and filled with uni hipsters 🙂

  7. Thanks Dani! I think we’ll still be here on Sunday, so we’ll definitely go to that. We ate at the vegetarian food stall in the night market near the old city for dinner and it was fantastic! We also found a couple of Thai vegetarian restaurants near the uni and tried the stuffed steamed bun- I’m now hooked on them! Thanks for the advise on the other places in the uni area- we’ll try those tomorrow! I love Chiang Mai!
    Eloise @ Am I Nearly There Yet? recently posted..Travel Photo of the Day: Happy New Years from Chiang Mai!

    1. Chiang Mai is such a great place for vegetarians! We’re actually talking about returning next winter. We miss the food and the markets 🙂

  8. It’s so great to read about your experiences in the place we are living now. When you mention places I can easily picture them and we’ve eaten at almost all of the vegetarian restaurants you’ve mentioned here. There are some new ones that you’ll have to try when you come back some day. I completely agree about the seedy sex-pats though. So gross, especially when you’re at the table next to someone “making his moves” on a young girl. ugh!
    I too enjoy seeing so many orange-clad monks around, but I’ve been wondering about the Buddhist nuns. Where are they? I asked about this and many have said that nuns are often expected to be servants for the monks and so otherwise would-be nuns chose not to go into the nunnery after all. I’ve noticed how much respect the monks get when in public (people wai-ing them showing respect) yet just the other day I witnessed 4 nuns get off a train and no one even noticed them.
    Ligeia and Mindy :):)
    Mindy and Ligeia recently posted..Ethos Vegetarian Restaurant in Bangkok

    1. Oh, new veggie restaurants? Awesome! Can’t wait to try them, and to return to some of our old favorites. A good point about the Buddhist nuns – I have never even thought about that, but interesting that they don’t get much respect, I wonder why that is?!

    1. You’re in Chiang Mai, yay 🙂 I am kind of jealous 😉 We really miss the amazing food options we had there – it’s so easy for vegetarians in Thailand! Enjoy your stay!

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