Chiang Mai – backpackers’ paradise

Chiang Mai is a city in northern Thailand with a beautiful old town still surrounded by city walls. It is a popular destination but, depending on the season, doesn’t get very crowded. There are also lots of stunning, old temples scattered within and outside the town. Meanwhile, Doi Inthanon National Park is just a short drive away. If you’re into activities (anything from meditation and Thai Massage to Muay Thai), Chiang Mai can keep you busy for weeks. It’s also a hippie place with an active yoga/ Thai Massage ex-pat community. 

Moat surrounding Chiang Mai’s city walls

When (not) to visit

Unknowingly, I came to Chiang Mai at the worst moment possible. I knew it would be hot. Thailand’s interior gets sizzling in March. What I didn’t know, though, was the scale of air pollution.
February-April is the burning grass season in northern Thailand and Myanmar. Therefore, a massive cloud of smoke hovers above the entire north of Thailand. It makes Chiang Mai THE most polluted city in the world. When I arrived, the 2.5PM pollution level was ‘very unhealthy’ (above 200 units), the next week it soared to 360 units, making it ‘hazardous’. I didn’t feel it when breathing, but the nearby mountains were barely visible and the sun rays had to pierce through a constant haze.

A hazy sun over Chiang Mai

As for the temperatures, they turned out to be bearable. They would rise up to 38 degrees in the middle of the day but then drop significantly at night. The night temperature would be as low as 21, making it feel almost chilly in comparison. We could also sleep comfortably in a fan room which during the daytime would become a hot as a furnace. Mornings till around 10.30 am were pleasantly cool.

Fan-room might be too hot during the day, but perfectly comfy at night in March

Chiang Mai on a budget

Chiang Mai, the ‘capital’ of the north, is incomparably cheaper than Bangkok. Northern Thailand offers way better value for money and much lower prices than the Thai coastline. Accommodation, food (both eating out and markets) and even clothes/souvenirs shopping are much cheaper than in the south.

Accommodation

I stayed in two hostels and booked two different double rooms during my fortnight in Chiang Mai. The hostels had a very high standard, were clean and modern. The beds were comfortable and had curtains for enhanced privacy. They both had a common area outdoor.

Comfy beds with curtains and plugs at one of Chiang Mai’s dorms great value for money

The first of the rooms we stayed at was funky and cosy. We slept on matresses on the floor. Its only drawback was it was getting hot during the daytime. The second one, centrally located, had a bit run-down interior and a complaining owner. Yet, it was perfectly comfortable for an unbeatable price.

Old interior, but TV, fridge and own bathroom in a super-budget room near the main avenue of the old town

Food

Finding affordable places to eat isn’t a problem. You can have a filling meal for 40 THB in many cheap restaurants. If you search well, the meal could cost you just 30 THB. That applies to both vegan and meat options.

One of mega-budget eatery with all meals for 30 THB

Meat-eaters would have plenty of choices at night at one of Chiang Mai’s markets (see below). Walking streets aren’t as affordable, in comparison. They work best for trying various snacks as portions tend to be on a small side. If you rise early, you could also make the most of morning markets (see below). Vegetarian options, although limited, can be found at the markets, too. Those large markets are also the best places to buy fruit.

Khao Soi- north Thai/Laotian dish in a vegan version

Chiang Mai’s markets

Chiang Mai has a lot of fresh markets, wholesale markets and walking streets. Whether you’re searching for food, clothes or souvenirs, you will have plenty to choose from.

Flower stalls in front of Wororot Market

Fresh markets

Chiang Mai Gate food market, located near the South Gate, is most lively from early morning till noon and then from around 5 pm till late in the evening. In the morning, you could buy fresh food, including plenty of fruit. The sellers write the prices down, so there’s no possibility of cheating. You could also have a meal at one of the numerous stalls inside the market hall. The market sprawls outside the main building into neighbouring streets. There isn’t that much food for vegetarians. You could find just barbecued veggies or rice with mixed vegetables and some vegan sweet treats. The evening market is limited to pop-up eateries. You can get a Pad Thai for 30 baht and a fruit shake (vegan) for mere 20 baht. The night stalls are much more numerous at the weekend.

Fermented green leafs, sticky red rice and barbecued peppers from the Chiang Mai food market

A similar market called Chang Phuek is on the opposite end of the old town, just outside the northern gate. In the early morning, it’s a large fresh market with some stalls selling food suitable for breakfast (e.g. hot soy milk with deep-fried doughnuts for 10 baht). In the evening, food stalls with a seated area are set up just outside the market, along the main road. You can find there mostly meat. As I’ve heard, some of those stalls sell the best quality street food in Chiang Mai.

Hot soya milk with jelly from Chang Phuek market

Walking street

Something really worth experiencing is a so-called ‘walking street’: a temporary market stretching along one or many streets, taking place in the evening. There are two such locations in Chiang Mai. Saturday walking street is on Wua Lai road while the Sunday walking street is on the main avenue of the old town: Rachadamnoen Road.

Open-air massage stalls at the Sunday walking street

The Sunday walking street is busier and more central. Apart from the stalls with souvenirs, crafts, clothes etc., there are two designated areas for food. Surprisingly, they are within the compounds of two working temples: Wat hun Ohn and Wat Sum Pow. You can eat in comfort as there is a large seating area in front of Wat Phun Ohn.

Custard sweets from the walking street market

It’s a bizarre feeling to see this temple of consumption right in front of a thriving religious site. Vegans won’t go hungry, though they’d need to browse a bit more thoroughly. My favourite dish was steamed or fried chive/taro/corn cakes for 10 baht each. I was happy to see a designated recycling area with staff helping to sort the garbage (including wasted food going for pigs).

Souvenir stalls just in front of a temple at the Sunday walking street

The Saturday walking market has lots of eating courts, but all of them are more expensive than the usual South Gate night market. There’s also a wide selection of souvenirs. It’s less exciting, with fewer massage stalls and street performers than on Sunday walking street.

Saturday walking street

There is also a night market near the river, in a posh area full of fancy bars, restaurants and clubs. This market merchandise mostly souvenirs, clothes and accessories and targets specifically tourists. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most expensive of all above mentioned.

Wholesale markets

Wororot Market in the China Town and its twin Tom Lam Yai market are two large multi-storeyed indoor markets selling mostly clothes and dry food (tea, dry fruit, etc). There are also food courts at the basements of each and plenty of stalls outside those two buildings.

Wororot Market’s dry food stalls seen from the upper floor

The upper floor is the place to buy things like Thai pants and Thai massage futons. ¾ length Thai pants go for around 80 baht per pair. Be prepared to bargain hard. The food courts sell predominantly meat dishes, but I did find rice and water spinach for just 30 baht.

Having compared the prices of the same products on Warorot market and Sunday Walking Street, I’d recommend buying clothes at the Warorot. As few tourists make their way to the upper floors of the Warorot Market, it might be easier to negotiate the price there. I found that the prices of the dry foods at the Warorot and the Walking Street are similar. Unlike Walking Streets, there aren’t any souvenirs sold at the Warorot/Tom Lam Yai, but you could get some houseware products, such as bamboo spoons.

Free (or donation -based) activities at Nong Buak Hard park

Chiang Mai is a hippie destination, where people come to learn from others and share whatever skills they have. The main hangout place and a hub for a variety of activities is Nong Buak Hard park. This small but nicely designed park at the southwest corner of the walled city is a magnet drawing the international hippie community (including ex-pats settled in Chiang Mai and travellers). Come at any time of the day, and you’ll find people practising meditation, yoga, tai chi, martial arts, juggling, slacklining and much more. Start coming every day, and you’ll soon be recognising the faces around you.

Yoga class at the park: donations welcome but not obligatory

I discovered it by chance. I came in the morning for my yoga practice and stumbled across a girl getting ready to teach a yoga class. She belonged to a FB group called Yoga in The Park- Chiang Mai, organising free yoga classes every day at 9 am. The teachers change daily and represent a variety of styles, from classics such as hatha and vinyasa to laughter yoga. The donations are welcome but in no way encouraged. I actually offered my services as a yoga teacher and ended up teaching my first class just a few days later. Those classes are more institutionalised, but you’ll see that most of the teachings in the park happens organically.

Teaching a yoga class in Nong Buak Hard park

On my first day, I met Gigit, a Filipino guy, who happened to be common friend with my best friend (they met in Dharamsala). We soon agreed on a Thai Massage swap. We hung out quite a bit as he turned out to be a fascinating person. That’s the way things go in Chiang Mai.

Thai Massage swap with Gigit

There is a sizeable acro-yoga community hanging out in the park. They’re all happy to teach you some flying (or- if you’re a big guy- being a base). Erik, an American guy who spent months, practising in the park, taught me some acro-yoga and slacklining. I got absolutely hooked with that place. Instead of sightseeing, which I would normally do, I’d spend a significant amount of my time in the park, meeting interesting people and learning lots of new things.

learning slacklining with Eric

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Chiang Mai?

By air
Chiang Mai has a large network of international flights from various destinations in south east Asia (Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmair, Laos, Cambodia) and China. It’s also connected with all Thai cities. Many of the airlines are budget carriers.

International flights to Chiang Mai are more expensive than to Bangkok. It’d be cheaper to travel to Bangkok and take a domestic flight from there.

By train
For the Bangkok-Chiang Mai travel check here.

By bus
You can travel to Chiang Mai from Sukhothai by bus in around 5 hours. Other popular destination in northern Thailand: Chiang Rai and Pai are 3.5h and 4h away respectively. If you travel to Pai, prepare for a winding road.

Prices [in Thai Baht as of March 2019]


300 THB phone top up for 30 days
280 THB a decent room with a shared bathroom
235 THB cheapest en-suite room of slightly lower standard
205 THB bus to Sukhothai
150 THB bus or AC mini-van Pai- Chiang Mai
100/110 THB night in a dorm
80 THB 3/4 lenght Thai pants at Wororot market
40 THB a vegan meal in a vegetarian eatery
30 THB simple meal in a cheap eatery
30 THB pad Thai (simplest meal) at a night market
15-20 THB city bus to a bus station
20 THB fried snack from the walking street market
20 THB fresh-squeezed juice/ shake from the street stall
10 THB one mango or one pineapple
10 THB laundry in laundromat
5 THB barbecued veggies from the fresh market
5 THB sticky rice portion from the fresh market
1 THB one drinkable water re-fill from a water-purifying vending machine on the street

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