Our First Experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand! – A Quick Story
Zach and I had 3 whole days in Chiang Mai and felt unsure where to start. There are so many things to explore in this region and plenty to read about online thanks to the numerous back-packers that frequent this area each year. It can be a bit overwhelming.. the possibilities! You can rent motorbikes, go on daily adventures, go on multi-day adventures, and even multi-week adventures if you’re up to it! You can set off on countless adventures that will take you up into the mountains, take you by stunning waterfalls, or take you to neighboring communities and towns on whatever kind of adventure you’re looking for.
You can book food tours – even cooking tours that explore local markets, teaching you about regional cuisine, and what the real Northern Thai tastes like. Then you get to cook all of those new and exciting foods, and you get to EAT the new and exciting food you just learned how to cook!
You also have the option of touring an elephant sanctuary, there are plenty to choose from if you walk around the Old City of Chiang Mai. You’ll see tour-shops devoted to the elephant sanctuary experience on almost every other street corner or road. This is a big-big-big thing to do here, and it looks like a lot of fun.
And if that isn’t enough, you could literally just get lost exploring on your own, getting lost in the tiny streets of the Old City sipping on fresh fruit smoothies (that cost less than a dollar) and be amazed at the temples and chedi’s scattered around the city. You could find one with your eyes closed, there are that many. So yes, there is a lot to do in Chiang Mai, and with 3 days to explore we had to make some decisions. (**However, we would be returning to Chiang Mai for a few more days to catch a plane to Vietnam, so if we didn’t achieve everything.. we could do it later.)
The first day, we simply walked around. As food-lovers, we knew coming in about the Khao Soi craze. You don’t know about khao soi? Well, let me explain… Khao Soi is a Northern-Thai dish that is, simply put, the BOMB. It’s a semi-sweet coconut curry broth, perfectly spiced, served with yummy egg-noodles, your choice of chicken/pork/or beef, usually topped off with cilantro, a bird’s nest of fried noodles, and comes with a side of pickled mustard greens (YES please), diced red onion, and fresh lime wedge. I can imagine no greater dish. It is creamy, spicy, noodle-y, fresh, and just too good to be true. It makes my mouth water thinking of it now! If you’re all noodled out (which.. how could you be?) by the time you make it to Chiang Mai, pull up your big girl/boy pants, and find you some because you will not want to miss it. We tried 2 khao soi spots that were highly recommended, but on the first day, we tried Khao Soi Khun Yai.
Khao Soi Khun Yai – located on the north street of the Old City perimeter, you can easily google its location. We tried this place first, and boy was that a mistake because it set our khao soi standards HIGH. It is an open-air spot with about 12 4-top tables. You have the option of khao soi, or another noodle dish that looked pretty good but didn’t even catch the name of because we weren’t there for it (sorry!). If you get the chicken.. which we did every time and I highly recommend to all.. you can get a small bowl for 45 baht (= $1.43) or a large bowl for 50 baht (= $1.59). The perfect price! You make your order by going up to the kitchen. The women working the magic speak fairly good English, and they will bring your order to your table. When you’re done, you go back up to the kitchen and pay. They’ll remember what you had. But the beauty of this place is that it caters to all, you’ll find young backpackers, older travelers, and the locals here. Everyone is treated equally, and the workers are so incredibly nice. As long as you bring a smile and respect, they will return it to you!
We then proceeded to explore the markets, the temples surrounding the area of our hotel, and relaxingly took on the sights of the old city- by the way, we stayed at Annie’s Guesthouse, you can find it on Agoda for a pretty good rate. Like I said before, you can easily spend a whole day just meandering through the winding streets. We returned to Khao Soi Khun Yai around 5:30 PM for another batch of delicious noodles, but found that they had sold out for the day. A sad defeat! However, across the major road of the Old City north gate is a night food market. It was pretty packed with locals and tourists alike, and it had a lot of options. Noodles, roasted duck, seafood, all kinds of dumplings, soft pork buns, mango sticky rice, meat on skewers, seafood on skewers, and more. We spent a total of 50 baht (= $1.59) on 1 chicken skewer (literally the best I have ever had! How can I make it at home?? Someone please tell me!), 2 cream buns, and 1 skewer of pork dumplings in a sweet sauce. It was absolutely delicious and so CHEAP. You can’t go wrong if you visit this spot!!
On our second day, which just so happened to be Valentine’s day (Awww!), we rented a motorbike so we could escape to the mountains! I did plenty of research on which company to rent from, there are many you can choose. We happened to be staying 3 store-fronts down from Mr. Mechanic, the original location. This place has been renting out bikes for a long time and has 3 different locations around the old city. They rent good bikes (not that I’m an expert, but that’s what I’ve read from people who would actually know), and at reasonable prices. They do require a deposit of either your Passport or a copy of your passport and 5,000 baht. I had read they needed 2-3,000 baht, so, unfortunately, we didn’t have enough to do the 2nd option so we offered up Zach’s passport (a little scary!). We explained to the nice people at Mr. Mechanic where we were intending to take our bike, and they knew exactly what kind of bike we would need. They filled out the paperwork, we filled out the paperwork, and 300 baht later (= $10), we had a pink motorbike for the entire day!
We decided to make the trip up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, located just Northwest of Chiang Mai. It is a 30-40 minute trip and the road there is extremely winding! The ride itself was the most exciting part of the adventure, we climbed up and up, passed look-outs of the city, saw waterfalls, and took in the beauty of the wilderness. Lots of people make the trip up to Doi Suthep, so we were certainly not alone on the road, but a lot of the time it was just us and the jungle. Thankfully, Zach had had some experience on a bike so he handled the winding, twisting, turning road like a pro, and got us to the top with no issue.
*Side Note: We had read oftentimes the local police will wave foreigner-looking bikers to the side of the road. You’re expected to have an international driver’s license or you can be fined. I actually had an international driver’s license but it expired about 8 months prior, however, the information was all the same as my Texas issued driver’s license. I wouldn’t technically be the driver, but we decided to bring it anyway. Zach did not have one. And just in case we would be pulled over, we had: both of our Texas licenses, my expired international driver’s license, our passports (we keep these on us at all times anyway), and 200 baht inside the international driver’s license (for potential bribery). We’ve read it’s a thing. The official fine is around 400 baht (I think I read that), so I guess we would be saving some if the bribe worked? I don’t condone bribery. It made me nervous, but we did it anyway. Thankfully, during our whole trip, and maybe thanks to Zach’s expert driving, we avoided being pulled over. No need for bribery! Yay!!
Back to the story — Doi Suthep was packed! There are huge tour buses, mini-buses, dozens of motorbikes, and tons of people being dropped off. The place is beautiful, and of course, the stairway leading to the temple is very cool. Who doesn’t love dragons? But I will say, if you have trouble with your knees, this is not the place for you. There is one way up, one way down, and about 300 steps in between.. and they are steep. Foreigners must each pay 30 baht (= $1.00) to enter, and when you do, you must be appropriately dressed. I forgot about the dress code. We were so excited about renting the motorbike, and did so much research on where to go, what to do, and what to bring, that I forgot about the dress code! How?? Women must be covered up, no bare shoulders, and something covering you past your knees. Some temples are strict with men as well, however, this one will let men wear shorts. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten, but thankfully there were plenty of stalls just opposite the road of the entrance selling pants, skirts, wraps, and more. SAVED! The prices here were more expensive than the ones in town, so that made it a little more aggravating, but I bought a skirt-wrap-thing for 150 baht (= $5.00) and just went with it. OH well! It happens!
After removing our shoes we entered the temple, we were amazed at the golden chedi, so bright and shimmering in the sunlight. I have never seen so much gold in my life! The chedi itself is 79 feet tall, plus its surrounded by golden Buddha’s, relics, bells, and more. It is certainly a sight to be seen! Many people pray and give offerings to the buddha’s surrounding the chedi, but you are certainly not expected to donate (plus you bought a ticket to be there anyway). You can have your official picture taken with the chedi, or you can try to get your girlfriend (me) to take one, and watch them struggle to try to get the perfect angle to fit a nearly 80-foot monument in the frame. It was hard! We had a good time just sitting on some steps watching the people, taking in the beauty of our surroundings, and to be given a sense a calm.. an effect I have found from visiting temples. Everyone is there to witness the beauty, give offering, and in return take away something of their own. Whether it’s religious or art based, you come away appreciating the time you’ve spent at Doi Suthep.
We left the temple and headed back down the mountain on our bike. Going down is a bit scarier than going up because gravity is on the side of those huge tour buses and other large vehicles toting people back and forth from the city below! We managed just fine, and upon returning to Chiang Mai, we did a few loops around the Old City before returning our bike. The lady at the desk (not as nice or smiley as the one that helped us that morning) took our copy of the rental agreement, found Zach’s passport, and safely returned it to us… *phew*!!
Our third day consisted of laundry, more khao soi (of course!), and some relaxing walks through the old town once more. We also checked out a Friday morning market located east of the old town, near the river. I found a bowl of noodles for 30 baht (=$1.00), you just can’t beat that! This market is more influenced by Chinese flavors, so it was a small break from our curry addiction. You have to take a break sometime. Plus! We went to What Chedi Luang, located in the old city, it was absolutely spectacular. Go there!
Overall, we really enjoyed Chiang Mai and felt like we did a lot in the small amount of time we had. You can certainly do more, but we would be back for those adventures! We will definitely be back to Chiang Mai for more adventures and Khao Soi! Thanks for reading!!