Chang Mai is a city in Northern Thailand. I recently spent a few nights there with my wife and eldest child as part of a 2 week trip to Thailand.
Chang Mai is easily accessible by air from Bangkok and the airfare is very cheap. Certainly it is worth the few extra € to get there in an hour rather than the overnight train from Bangkok which will inevitably cost you a chunk of your holiday either in time travelling or time recovering.
All levels of accommodation are available in the city and all of it is cheap by European standards. We booked an air bnb for three people for three nights for less than €200 in a very central location.
Chang Mai itself is best considered as a good base to explore the North of Thailand, rather than a destination in and of itself. In the city there are plenty of things to do and you will get the same array of markets and street food that you will find throughout Thailand, although Bangkok puts it in the hae’pennyplace for markets and street food.
The night market is worth a walk around for atmosphere but there is nothing particularly special about it, especially when compared to some of the larger markets in Bangkok such as Chatuchak. The food stalls are decent but not spectacular. Overall it is very touristy and the prices, while cheap compared to home, are inflated above what they are in other parts of the city.
Within the city there are a massive number of temples, so if temple gazing is your thing, you won’t be short of them in Chang Mai. You can and should visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, its one of the best temples in Thailand and the stairs going up to the entrance are worth the visit alone. The road up is twisty and windy and very steep in parts, but the surface is good. If you’re nervous about such things don’t get one of the Songteaw type taxi’s, get a proper cab instead. Either way, your fare will be cheap. The Songteaw’s are an experience in themselves, essentially they are a pickup truck with a roof and some primitive seats screwed onto the back.
There are spectacular views from the temple back over the city. Again, it is very touristy so don’t go expecting to get a half hour of peaceful contemplation on your re-incarnation prospects, its not going to happen.
If you really want to chill out in a temple find one of the ones that isn’t on a tourist map and just wander in. No-one will kick you out and you will find a lot more peace and plenty to look at, including large golden and jade Buddha’s and some pretty spectacular artwork on the walls. Chang Mai has so many temples, there is one on nearly every street so get off the tourist trail and take the time to wander round one of the quite and peaceful ones if you want to get a feel for what these places are supposed to be like.
Speaking of temples, do be aware that you will have to cover your shoulders and your legs to below the knee. You will also have to remove your shoes when you go into any of the buildings so flip-flops are a good idea for ease of use. Don’t be a jackass about it, it’s their culture and you’re a visitor so respect their way of doing things.
There are two other locations within the city that I can recommend. The first is the restaurant Blue Mango. It has a humble enough appearance, a sort of beach cafe vibe but the food is top-notch and very reasonably priced. For a fraction above street food prices you’ll be well fed with really good quality Thai cuisine. The Deep Fried fish is excellent as is the Massaman Curry and the Pad Thai. The Mango Sticky rice was the best I had in Thailand. It’s maybe a ten minute walk from the Tha Pae gate and is well worth the stroll. The Tha Pae gate is not a historic monument. It was rebuilt in the 80’s as a tourist attraction. The only thing worth doing there is strolling past and having a quite giggle to yourself at the people who let the rat-birds land on them.
The second location in the city I can recommend is the Lila Thai Massage. We got a one hour foot massage for 250 Bhat and we liked it so much we went back the next date for a full body massage. For 350 Bhat (€9) you can get an 90 minute full body massage that was the best we had in Thailand. The staff are former female convicts who have completed training and are then employed by the company in an effort to rehab them into normal society. The prices are a shade above some of the places around, but the quality and service is excellent as is the surrounding and the atmosphere.
In addition to the above locations there are no end of little coffee shops and restaurants you can sit and people watch over a smoothie, some very nice coffee or some excellent ice-cream.
There are many other things to do in the vicinity of Chang Mai, but the following two I can recommend from personal experience.
The first is zip-lining in the jungle around the city. We went with Flight of the Gibbon. They are a very professional outfit and the claim to have the longest zip in South East Asia at 800 meters. It’s about an hours drive outside the city. They will come and pick you up in an air-conditioned mini-bus, drive you to the location and back to your accommodation. Maximum group size is 12 but my personal advice is to book the earliest session you can in the day. We got a 6:30 pick up and ended up in a group of 5 people. This means that you get through the activity much faster and negate some of the standing around waiting you would have to do if you are in a large group. As a result you get more of your day back, measured in hours, to go do other stuff. Once the zip-lining is complete you are served lunch in the village restaurant. It’s not great to be honest, you definitely get the feeling they are mailing it in because us westerners don’t know the difference between good and bad Thai food. There is an opportunity to visit a large local waterfall which is worth doing for some great photos and do take the time to walk through the jungle and look at and smell the many amazing flowers that you will see. Life is better when you stop to smell the flowers.
The second activity is to visit the elephants. Please do your research and try to book with one of the ethical service providers. Don’t go to one of the places that lets you ride the elephants or any of the places that you can see along the road where the elephants are chained to a tree and are put to work in logging when the tourists aren’t around. We went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. They purport to be a rescue outfit who take elephants from the less reputable places and give them a decent standard of living. From what we saw these Elephants appear to have a great quality of life. Lots of space, plenty of food and they aren’t worked in any way, other than to stand around and let the tourists feed and photo them.
We were picked up in one of the aforementioned pick-up type vehicles and we were taken to camp two. The drive was one of the highlights of the whole trip. The Thai countryside is beautiful and you will get a taste of it as you leave the city and drive out into the jungle. The last part of the journey was on a dirt road down a steep hill, it’s a bit scary, but absolutely worth it. Just close your eyes if you’re nervous about such things once you leave the tarmac road.
I definitely recommend the full day trip. You will get to feed the elephants, spend a decent amount of time with them, give them a mud-bath and wash them off in the waterfall and stream on site. I had a great day, as did our eldest son and my wife has said repeatedly since we were there that it was one of the best days of her life.
The temples and the activities on the fringes of the city are amazing and there is lots to see and do. But the core of the city itself doesn’t have much to make it stand out from a lot of other cities and it feels a bit like a place that is searching for its identity. That is a mad thing to say about a city that is over 500 years old. It’s a temple heavy city in the mountains and you get the feel that if tourism didn’t exist, it would be largely populated by monks and people who make a living supporting the monks. You should definitely visit if you’re going to Thailand, and I’m glad I went. However I don’t see a scenario that would bring me back to Chang Mai now that I’ve been there once.