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Travel Guide: Three Nights in Chiang Mai's Old City

If you’ve been sticking with me, you know that I recently got back from a solo adventure through Singapore and Thailand. I’ve posted my recap of my Singapore trip here, and my first night in Thailand was spent at Chai Lai Orchid, which you can read a recap of here. As much as I loved, loved my time in Singapore, I was pretty excited to jet off and spend 12 nights exploring two different areas of Thailand.

While researching my trip to Singapore, I very quickly realized that flights to others destinations in Southeast Asia were very affordable, and I thought to myself “If I’m traveling all the way there, why not add another destination and make the most of it?” I narrowed down my choices to Bali, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. I know a few people who have gone to Thailand and have raved about the food, the people, the beaches and well, pretty much everything about it. As much as I was really drawn to all the destinations I had on my short list, there was just something about Thailand that felt right.

After my night at Chai Lai, which was an hour outside downtown Chiang Mai, I made my way into the city to spend three nights here. Adding Chiang Mai to this trip was the very last decision I made while putting together my itinerary because initially, I had only planned on visiting beach destinations. But so much of what I read online spoke of the amazing food in Chiang Mai, the really friendly locals, the beautiful temples and it was said to be a more authentic Thailand experience. It was hard to pass up the opportunity to explore everything Chiang Mai had to offer, and I'm so grateful that I decided to work it into my trip. It was definitely a highlight for me.

Wat Chedi Luang.

The food I had in Chiang Mai was hands down the best I had during my whole trip, and it was so inexpensive to experience (see below). I also couldn't believe how many temples were in the city - it felt like every few blocks there was another one that was just as beautiful as the last. I loved wandering the streets, had so much fun at the night markets, ate everything I could get my hands on and also, felt completely 100% safe the entire time. I could have stayed here a whole week and enjoyed every second of it. Because the beaches of Thailand were one of the biggest reasons I chose this destination, it really took me by surprise how much I fell in love with Chiang Mai, and I'm really excited to share my experience with you.

This was part of a 3-week trip which included Singapore and the islands of Krabi, Thailand. I was in Chiang Mai for four nights, and stayed in the downtown area for three nights, and spent one night outside the city in the mountains at Chai Lai Orchid, which you can read about here.

February/2019. In Thailand, this is considered the dry season, as well as peak season for tourists. Especially on the islands, this is the most expensive time to travel to Thailand. The weather was hot and humid (about 98º every day), but I will say, it wasn't as bad as Singapore. There was usually some kind of gentle breeze that made it seem less intense. I discovered very quickly on this trip that there's a reason I live in the Northeast, and that reason is that I don't do well in hot weather. I was sweaty and sticky and slimy as soon as I left my hotel room. But I certainly didn't let that stop me!

I flew from Singapore's Changi Airport via Scoot Airlines directly into Chiang Mai, and my one-way flight was $60. 

Getting around Chiang Mai was very easy, and I used a combination of walking and the Grab app. There are public taxis in Chiang Mai called Songthaews, which are red trucks, and you'll see them everywhere. However, I found the Grab app to be much easier, and honestly insanely cheap. One of my rides was $2 for 6-ish miles. Mostly, I walked to all my destinations, but "treated" myself with a few rides via Grab that I think totaled like $7 for my entire time there. 

I split my time between two locations in Chiang Mai. I did one night at a bungalow at Chai Lai Orchid, which is an hour outside the city and up in the mountains. My experience there will be it’s own post. Then I spent three nights in the Phra Singh/Old City area of downtown Chiang Mai, and stayed at the Anumat Premium Budget Hotel, which was so inexpensive. I paid $65 for all three nights (so basically, $20 a night) and had a spacious room with a private bathroom, excellent wifi, a little balcony and bottled water replenished daily. On top of all that, it was spotless and super clean, and the bed was very comfortable. I loved my stay here, and it was really well-located and walkable to a lot of great restaurants, the Sunday night market and some of the best temples. I'm still kind of shocked at its price, but that's Chiang Mai for you. 

There's quite a bit to do in Chiang Mai, but it's also easily walkable, and a great city to not have an agenda and just wander. Here are some of the top things to do while visiting.

There are so many temples, or Wats, as they're called in Thai, to visit in Chiang Mai. Wat Doi Suthep is the most popular and the most famous, so you'll probably be surprised to hear that I didn't end up going there. There's no real reason why, other than I just never made it with the time I had. I really tried hard to not have too much of a set itinerary during my time here because I really just wanted to experience the city (and I also went on a day-long tour while here, see below). And while I had all the instructions on my phone of how to get to Doi Suthep, I honestly had so much fun doing everything else there was to do, it just never happened. Doi Suthep is located up on a mountain, and the views from the top overlooking the city are supposed to be amazing. It's outside of town, obviously, which is why I never quite made it, but I'm pretty sure if I'd had just one more day, I would have gotten there. Definitely worth looking into. I believe the reason it was built back in the 1300s was to house a bone from Buddha's shoulder.

If you can't make it to Doi Suthep, no worries because you'll see plenty of temples inside of Old City. All you need to do is walk, and you'll run into quite a few.

Wat Chedi Luang.

Wat Chiang Man.

It's important to note that women have to be cognizant of what they wear if they plan to go inside a temple. Women's shoulders and knees have to be covered, and overall, everyone is expected to dress nicely and respectfully. Over 90% of Thailand's population are buddhists, and religion is a very important part of their lives.

One of the main reasons I didn't make it to Doi Suthep was because I really wanted to explore Doi Inthanon National Park. This is over an hour outside the city, and a group tour was really my only option, which was a full-day excursion. But, I absolutely loved this tour. I'm not really a big fan of organized tours in general since I prefer to do everything at my own pace. But with this particular destination being so far outside the city, I will say, it was really nice to have someone else drive us around everywhere, tell us what to do and give us all the information we needed so I could turn off my brain and just enjoy it. I met a few other solo travelers on the tour as well, which was really fun, and the tour I went on brought us to some really great sites. We got to visit two waterfalls, the King and Queen Pagodas and Royal Gardens, visit the highest point in all of Thailand and also visit a Karen Tribe village and taste their own coffee they pick, roast and brew on-site. Lunch was also included, and everything we did was a lot of fun. The tour was only $40, and included an English-speaking guide, and the van was really comfortable and air-conditioned making the trip there and back really nice. It was such a lovely day, and I'm so glad I did it.

Coffee making at a mountain Karen tribe village.

I'm not a coffee drinker, but I did taste the coffee here, and even I could appreciate the flavor. 

Close to the peak of Doi Inthanon was a shrine that holds the ashes of King Inthanon. 

The King and Queen Pagodas were one of my favorite stops on the tour. They were built in 1987 and 1992 to commemorate the King and Queen of Thailand. Their architecture is so stunning, and the gardens were absolutely beautiful.

Inside one of the Pagodas.

The royal gardens was our last stop, and also one of my favorites. It was so serene to walk around, and it felt really magical.
My photos don't do it justice, but they were absolutely stunning. 

I was told that the night markets in Thailand are not to be missed, and man, were they right! I was a little nervous to visit my first night market because I tend to get a bit overwhelmed in crowds after a while, and I'd heard that these markets are, well, chaotic. But honestly, once I was there, I was super into the whole atmosphere. You have to go into it with the mindset that you'll be bumping into people, standing in lines to wait for the best food vendors, and have to be around tons of tons of people. But, it was so much fun. I texted Josh after my first night market experience and was like, "Babe, I just spent $8 on food here and I ate more than I ever have in my life." I got a giant (and I mean giant) veggie spring roll for 60 cents, amazing stir-fried noodles for $1.50 - there was so much more but now I'm of course fuzzy on the pricing. I got a banana nutella pancake, a few different fruit juices to try, a few pieces of BBQ prawns, an ice cream thing - like, it was just so much food. And I remember I spent $8US all together.

The Sunday Night Walking Market - so packed, and so fun!

Food area of the Night Bazaar, open every night. 

Colorful lanterns at the Night Bazaar.

Roti! AKA, banana pancakes. My favorite was the banana/nutella combination.

My stir-fried noddles for $1.50US.
Giant veggie spring rolls at the bottom right, partially cut off - they were even bigger than that, only only $.60US.

I lucked out because my first night in downtown Chiang Mai was Sunday, and I was told the Sunday night walking market was the best night market in the city. I also visited the Night Bazaar, and I have to agree that the Sunday night market was much better. I would honestly fly all the way back just to go to the Sunday night market and eat. 

I'll admit it, I was pretty excited about the inexpensive massages Thailand is known for before I left for my trip. I'm an anxious person, and therefore, I have a lot of tension in my upper back and shoulder area. I don't get a lot of massages here at home because of the cost, so I knew while I was in Thailand, I'd be trying to get one as often as I could. The best massage I got during my entire trip was in Chiang Mai at Time to Massage. I happened to walk by during my "wandering the streets" time and it looked really nice inside. I spontaneously decided it was time for my first Thai massage, and friends, it was amazing. It was 400 Baht ($12USD) for a 90 minute traditional Thai massage.

How you walk into Time to Massage. You immediately begin to relax.

This place was so warm and welcoming. They start by giving you a cold cup of water infused with fresh fruits while they soak and scrub your feet in a warm foot bath with salt and fresh lime juice. Then they bring you into a room with other massage beds, close the curtains, and have you change into loose pajama-like clothing. Thai massages include stretching a lot during the massage, and most of the time, you'll be in a room with other people also getting massages, so just something to keep in mind. I've never had a Thai massage before and I had absolutely no idea what to do or expect. I just remember at one point, she had me go limp while sitting Indian style and twisted me all around, and lifted me off the bed - but it felt amazing. Toward the end of the massage, while still sitting Indian style, she used a hot compress on my back and then kneaded the crap out of my shoulder muscles, and I left feeling like a new person. 

At the very end, I was given ginger tea (which every massage place I visited during my trip offered) as well as a cute little keychain trinket as a thank you for visiting. It was such an incredible experience, and if I do ever get to go back to Chiang Mai, I'll be making a beeline for this place. 

Not the most interesting thing you'll lay your eyes on in Chiang Mai, but chances are, you'll see Pha Phae Gate if you visit. The gate is actually a protective wall that was built in the 13th century to be used as a fortress for the city. Currently, it basically houses "Old City," which is where most people stay when they visit Chiang Mai. Once you exit the gate, you're still in Chiang Mai and there are restaurants and shops (and even a mall) outside the Old City, but I found most of the things to do, including the temples, were inside the wall. Outside the gate, however, you can see the city's moat, also designed for protection around the same time period.

The original protective moat is now a really pretty river that runs through most of the city.

You know how much I loved the food at the night markets, but Chiang Mai was also a never-ending source for table-dining. I had a super long list of restaurants I wanted to check out during my stay, even though I was only there for a short time (so clearly, I didn't get to visit them all). But the places I ended up at were all amazing.

Outdoor seating at Asian Roots Cafe.

I popped into Fern Forest Cafe after my massage, so the day was already shaping up to be pretty great, and this place was the icing on the cake. The ambiance is beautiful with lush greenery everywhere outside. I got a sparkling passionfruit drink of some kind, prawn pad thai and the best banana fritters I had during my trip (complete with vanilla ice cream, of course).

For breakfast one morning, I visited Cafe de Thaan Aoan, mostly because it was somewhat close to a few temples I wanted to visit that day. I got some kind of tropical fruit juice drink, and fresh fruit pancakes. I'm not sure how, but Thailand just knows how to do pancakes. They're a bit lighter, and not as dense as our traditional buttermilk pancakes, but they have an amazing texture and are absolutely delicious and melt in your mouth.

My last night in Chiang Mai, I went to Asian Roots Cafe and got Khao Soi. I had actually not heard of Khao Soi until some really nice girls I shared a ride with to downtown Chiang Mai suggested it to me. I ordered that here, and also ordered some garlic roti (basically, Thailand's naan bread) on the side for dipping. The flavors were awesome and I loved every bite. For dessert, I got coconut dumplings with smoked coconut ice cream, and those were amazing as well.

Garlic roti.

Softshell grab Khao Soi.

Multi-colored coconut roasted coconut dumplings with coconut ice cream.

There are also street vendors all over the city, and you don't need to walk far if you're looking for some street food. You can find banana pancakes, pad Thai, BBQ, fried rice, fresh juices and smoothies - basically, all your staples - everywhere on the street. On my way back from my last dinner in Chiang Mai, even though I'd just eaten all that Khao Soi, roti and coconut dumplings, I totally got some rolled ice cream from a street vendor because I've never had it. It was also incredible. You will not starve in Chiang Mai! Especially with everything costing so little.

My time in this beautiful city is something I'm incredibly grateful for, and I'm so glad that I expanded my trip so I could visit here. Have you been to Chiang Mai? What was your favorite thing about it?

*All photos with me in the actual photos were taken by a photographer, which I booked using this experience on AirBnB.

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