From a small temple in Doi Saket, 40 minutes outside of Chiang Mai city, I watch the sun begin to break through the clouds illuminating the mountains and forest below. The morning mist begins to rise slowly, and I feel like I’m looking at a National Geographic double spread – only it’s much more captivating to watch in person. Chiang Mai is a place I would always want to come back to – the city feels young and happening, but relaxed and unpretentious. Outside of the city are mountain ranges and forest with countless viewpoints to appreciate.
I visited Chiang Mai in January, flying in to Bangkok and taking the overnight train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station to Chiang Mai. Arriving in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport, it was easy and cheap to take the MRT (Metro) to Hua Lamphong. Hop on the Airport Link express train to Makkasan station, and then go to Phetchaburi station to take the MRT to the last stop which is Hua Lamphong. The trip cost ฿65 ($2.50 CAD) and took less than an hour. Everyone at the train stations were very helpful, it was my first time using the MRT in Bangkok and whenever I stopped to look at the train map someone approached me to ask where I was going and helped me out. If you’re on a budget and you have time, forget the taxi and take the MRT. A really economical way to get around Bangkok.
I bought my overnight train ticket in advance online through 12goasia. The fare with all the processing fees cost ฿1,200 ($48 CAD). Their office is located outside the Hua Lamphong MRT stop and you need to pick up the actual train ticket at their office in person. You also have the option to have it mailed to you at extra cost, but it’s easy to pick it up yourself. The trickiest part was attempting to cross the giant intersection to get to Hua Lamphong, I didn’t see any traffic lights so I had to do an awkward chicken dance to cross (I felt like an unsure chicken bobbing forward/backward with the weight of my giant backpack).
I had a few hours before the train would depart at 7.35pm, so I paid ฿70 ($3 CAD) to store my backpack. There is a food canteen inside the station, and for ฿40 ($1.60 CAD) I had some pretty tasty fried rice. The canteen didn’t look the cleanest, and I see that meat is generally kept out and not refrigerated – so if you want to play it safe you can skip the meat.
The station is air conditioned and there are washrooms and showers available. There is a fee to use the showers, I forget how much it was but probably no more than ฿30. Overall it’s a comfortable place to wait for your train if you don’t mind sitting on the floor (clean!) so you can stretch your legs or sit in one of the seats.
I boarded the overnight train at 7.15pm and by 7.40pm we were off. I was surprised that things mostly run on time in Thailand (in major train and bus stations). There is a washroom between each car, and two sinks. Each car has one staff and one security guard, so the journey felt safe and smooth. A woman came by with menus for dinner, and my meal was delivered to me (what a life of luxury!). I had my first green Thai curry dish, mistaking it for soup I enthusiastically had a mouthful and realized my spicy error.
After dinner, my bed was made for the evening – a slim mattress, pillow and blanket (which was like a long towel) was provided. Drawing the curtains it felt nice to have a little private cocoon; it was a little noisy from the roll of the train along the tracks and people talking (some earplugs will help) and the train sways, but I did manage to sleep for most of the way. The lower berths are wider and longer, so if you’re tall you’d want to book a lower berth. The upper berth is narrower and shorter, and closer to the air conditioning so it’s colder. And the train was COLD. In the the morning I tell no lie, I could see my breath. The blanket/towel they provided wasn’t warm enough, and I made the mistake of not bringing socks so my feet were cold.
By 9am the train reached Chiang Mai station. The journey usually takes 12 hours, but I think we may have waited in several stops that took some extra time. The Chiang Mai train station is only 10 minutes away from the centre of the old city, and you have several transportation options. The cheapest would be to hop on a red songtheaw which is a shared taxi – a truck that has been modified with small benches to carry 10 – 12 people, and also a few more hanging out the back. Depending on your destination and how many people you share the fare with, taking a songtheaw can cost anywhere between ฿20 – ฿50 ($0.80 – $2 CAD). Show the driver the address of your destination (it’s better if it’s in Thai) and you can ask what the fare would be.
You can also hop on the ubiquitous Thai tuk tuk, but they tend to charge higher prices for short distances. Be sure to negotiate the fare before you get in, but I did find that the songtheaw or tuk tuk drivers don’t really bargain on the prices they set. They would rather wait for someone else to come along and pay their price. The average fare for a tuk tuk from the train station to the centre of the old city is ฿80 – ฿100 ($3 – $4 CAD).
If you don’t have a lot of luggage, you can opt to rent a scooter. Right across the train station are scooter rental places where you can rent a 125cc scooter for about ฿200 ($8 CAD) per day (or cheaper if you rent it for longer). It’s a really cheap and convenient way of getting around. They will ask to keep your passport as collateral or you can opt to pay a deposit in cash ranging from ฿3,000 – ฿5,000 ($118 – $195 CAD) depending on the rental place. If you know how to ride a bicycle you can ride a scooter, and the rental places never ask for a driving license. It’s pretty easy, and I was surprised that the traffic in Chiang Mai is quite calm and slow paced. Yes it does get crowded, especially during rush hour, but nobody drove around like a crazy person so it never felt dangerous. Be sure to wear a helmet; there are lots of checkpoints by Thai police in the city pulling people over, and also carry your passport and international driving license.
Accommodation is cheap in Chiang Mai. You can find a private room in a homestay or hostel anywhere between $15 – $25 CAD. Most people choose to stay in the old city, which is within the old walls containing the original Chiang Mai city area dating back to the 1200s! The roads are small and everywhere is easily walkable or you can rent a bicycle.
There are many temples you can visit, and each temple can be unique with their artwork, interior and surroundings. While the larger temples in the city are certainly more impressive, my favourite temples to visit were the ones in small villages on hilltops outside of the city. These temples would have incredible views of the countryside, surrounded by mountains.
In the compound of Wat Bupparam, there were vendors selling trapped birds that you could release for ‘good luck’. The sight of this made me sad, I knew that once you paid to have them released they would probably be recaptured and sold to another tourist for ‘luck’. Best to avoid this tourist trap and unnecessary cruelty.
If you want to do some shopping Chiang Mai is known for its night market, especially the Saturday and Sunday evening market selling lots of food, clothes (you can’t go to Thailand and not buy yourself a pair of flowy elephant pants), souvenirs, arts and handicrafts. I did notice that the prices for vendors selling clothes seemed to be on average ฿200 ($8 CAD), but if you walk around the city in the day time there are lots of shops that have ‘special deals’ where they sell the same clothes for ฿100 ($4 CAD). So buying things at the night market isn’t necessarily cheaper, but you can test your bargaining skills!
I love a good book while travelling, and the old city in Chiang Mai has several second hand book shops that sell all sorts of books in different languages too. Backstreet Books sold books in German, Spanish, Japanese and English – there could be more that I missed! My favourite bookshop was Lost Book where you could buy a book for an average ฿240 ($9.50 CAD) and when you’ve finished you bring it back. The next book you buy, you get half the value of the book you returned towards the new book. The other secondhand bookshops probably do this too, so you’re free from lugging around all those novels in your luggage already bursting to the brim with elephant souvenirs.
The food is both cheap and delicious in Chiang Mai; I was surprised that it was so easy to find fresh vegetables and fruit. There are many restaurants in the old city that serve vegetarian or vegan fare, my favourite being Taste from Heaven (try their vegan brownie with coconut ice cream) and then you can go browse for some good reads at Lost Book next door! If you want to try more traditional Thai food, the night market sells very cheap and tasty street food. I didn’t get any stomach issues during my whole stay, and I ate a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables already sliced and diced – so two thumbs up for Chiang Mai food hygiene.
What I really enjoyed about Chiang Mai is how easy it is to leave the city centre (you can hop on a chartered songtheaw or rent a scooter) and find yourself in peaceful countryside surrounded by nature. I spent most of my time in Doi Saket where I had the incredible opportunity to study classical yoga philosophy and asanas (posture) at the Wise Living Yoga Academy. While this meant I had limited time to explore, it did give me the experience of living in a small village. I saw the most amazing views of the countryside from the little temple that was a 30 minutes walk from the ashram. So go out and explore the little villages around Chiang Mai! There would be far less tourists, a more authentic experience, and beautiful viewpoints.
I visited San Kamphaeng Hot Springs which is about 35kms outside of Chiang Mai and didn’t realize how popular this place was until I got there. A lot of local Thai families enjoy going to the Hot Springs to picnic and relax, and I saw that only children swam in the small constructed pools while everyone else just dipped their feet in the water. If you’re expecting a natural hot spring spot where you can take a dip this is not the place. There is a separate mineral pool available to swim in which was nice. There is a general ฿30 ($1.15 CAD) admission fee and you pay an extra ฿30 to use the mineral pool. You can also buy a basket of eggs to boil in the hot spring water, though this also made the whole place smell of eggs. Mmmmm.
I took the overnight bus from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok to catch my flight out of Thailand. Bussing is a really cheap option to travel around Thailand, if you have lots of time and limited budget, it’s the way to go. The bus was comfortable, the seat almost fully reclines, you get water, snacks and a blanket. There are a lot of overnight buses that go to Bangkok from Chiang Mai, the bus station was filled with buses leaving every 15 minutes. I bought a cheaper ticket for ฿500 ($19 CAD) but add a few hundred baht more and you can catch a ‘premium’ bus that has plusher seats and personal TV sets. I’m not sure what plays on the TV though, Thai dramas?
The overnight bus to Bangkok took about 10 hours, and I did sleep most of the way so it didn’t feel like a long time. Once I arrived at the Bangkok Mo Chit bus station I failed to do my research on where the closest MRT station was to take the MRT back to the airport. My phone also decided to refuse to connect to the internet so no google maps. How did people travel pre-google maps? Unfathomable! Not being used to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, I got suckered into paying far too much for a 15 minute taxi ride to the ‘city centre’ where I could get on the MRT. Learn from my mistake, don’t be swept away by the touts wanting to ‘help’ you when you get off the bus, walk past them to the metered taxis. It’s an average ฿60 ($2.30 CAD) to go to Kamphaeng Phet MRT station and then to Phetchaburi station where you transfer to Makkasan Airport Link express train for another ฿65 ($2.50 CAD) to Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Or you can also take the taxi from Mo Chit to the airport for about ฿400 ($15.40 CAD).
- Rent a scooter. It’s a cheap and fun way to get around Chiang Mai and all the attractions outside of the city. Many nature reserves, waterfalls, temples, await!
- Charter a songtheaw and explore outside of Chiang Mai, you can agree on a price beforehand and most drivers will charge ฿600 and up depending on how far it is. With more people to split the cost, the cheaper.
- Stay in the old city, rent a bicycle or walk and explore the many temples, funky coffee shops, restaurants.
- Eat lots of sticky mango rice, and drink fresh coconut water everyday.
- Best time to visit is winter which is November – February. Less rain, cooler weather.
- Be prepared to inhale some smog. Air pollution can be quite bad, especially in traffic.
- There is free wifi everywhere (coffee shops, restaurants, accommodation) and the connection is generally good.
- Travelling by overnight bus is one of the cheapest ways to get around Thailand.
In all, I want to come back! There’s many things I didn’t get to do such as visit Doi Ithanon National Park which has the highest mountain in Thailand, or get some rock climbing done in Mae On. Chiang Mai is exactly my kind of city, it feels small and relaxed, but you can find yourself in one of the many funky coffee shops and eateries or something more traditional if you choose. Food and accommodation is cheap, especially compared to the South of Thailand. The city is also really safe, I never felt unsafe walking around at night. I can now see why Chiang Mai is a top choice for expats and digital nomads, and there is free wifi connection everywhere you go in the city. And if you get tired of the city, you can escape in any direction and enjoy the surrounding forests and mountains.