Exploring the Wonders of North Thailand: Chiang Mai and Pai
Our experience of Thailand over the years includes the beautiful islands in the south (both East and West), Bangkok Capital City, Hua Hin, Ayutthaya, Krabi, and the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Pai.
We first visited Chiang Mai 7 years ago on holiday, but did not get to appreciate how vast this City is and how much it has to offer! This time, as part of our travels through Asia we lived there for 3 months on and off. We met up with friends from home, also fellow long term travellers, and later returned to enjoy more time in the city. We can both now say this is by far our favourite part of Thailand and we loved getting to know it better!
Chiang Mai, is the second-largest province (changwat) of Thailand, in the country’s north. It is bordered by Chiang Rai to the northeast, Lampang and Lamphun to the south, Tak to the southwest, Mae Hong Son to the west, and the Shan State of Burma to the north. The capital, Chiang Mai sits nearly 700 km north of Bangkok, and it is really easy to fly to from there (quickest route). take a train (approx. 13 hours) or bus (approx. 10 hours) We have tried all these methods of transport in the past, but this time we chose to fly there and take a bus back to Bangkok.
Chiang Mai City, the capital of the province, is surrounded by mountains and foot hills, attracting thousands of tourists every year. However, despite the tourism, it has managed to keep its traditional charm, whilst other southern islands have changed over time.
Chiang Mai is well known for its ancient walled city, referred to as Old Town, surrounded by fortified gates. However, there is another trendy area called Nimman, which also attracts many visitors. If you look further afield, there are numerous villages that follow and sit near the river, national parks, waterfalls and temples that will give you a trip to remember forever!
We hope this blog will give you handy tips and an insight on what to expect when you visit this part of Thailand. Some pics within this blog are courtesy of our friends Clare and Richard Nash. Search @clarenashphotography on facebook to follow their travels through Asia!
Where to stay
If you are like us and don’t want to stay in Hostels, there are plenty of lovely hotels and condo type apartments in Chiang Mai to suit a particular budget. It isn’t expensive as most double rooms go for under £25 / €28 / $32 per night. Our advice is to check out AirBnB for an apartment / condo, if you prefer privacy and self catering, or Agoda / Booking.com if you want breakfast included.
Here is a selection of accommodation that we can recommend:
Dcondo Sign Chiang Mai
Great value studio apartments, just off the Super Highway, near Central Festival shopping mall (great variety of local produce and food stalls, as well as shops in that mall). If you can imagine an Ikea type apartment, with a kitchenette, lounge, bathroom and bedroom in one, then this is it! Here they offer a free gym and the biggest swimming pool I have ever seen. We loved staying here for one month, as it gave us privacy, all the mod-cons, and the local Thai food at the mall over the road.
Villa San Pee Seua
Gorgeous villa resort, set north from the Old Town, on the other side of the river. Very modest with beautiful rustic furnishings and great value. Just be prepared to wear mosquito spray morning and early evening, as you are on the river with a lot of gardens. This goes for Thailand in general, so it shouldn’t put you off staying here!
We only had the choice of Deluxe when we stayed, which is a middle room; better than a basement room! We stayed here a few nights to surprise our friends that were travelling long term as well.
Japanese style condo in Chang Phueak, near Nimman
We rented one of the apartments for one month through Airbnb and it was fantastic. Great space, pool and small gym. As you exit the condominium car park, towards the right, you will find a family Thai restaurant on the bend (can’t miss it) with spicy food that was different to anything we had tried in other restaurants!
P21 Chiang Mai Hotel
This is a popular choice in Chiang Mai Old Town, offering similar facilities that you would find in a boutique hotel.
Transport in Chiang Mai
It is very cheap to hire a scooter or motorbike in Chiang Mai. The longer you hire it for, the cheaper it is. We hired ours long term at different times, usually 2 – 4 weeks at a time.
If you prefer to go via public transport, you have the option of buses or red taxis. Prices are usually per person if you are sharing with others.
We only used taxis when we wanted to go out in the evening for a few drinks. The rest of the time, during the day, we hired as scooter. Although I was pillion most of the time, it was my moment to shine and ride solo in the busy traffic of Chiang Mai. Best fun I’d had in ages!
Chiang Mai is worth exploring on a scooter. Many of us may be fearful of handling a two-wheeler, but take it from me, you will see so much more, spend less on transport, and avoid getting stuck in traffic.
Disclaimer: We are not giving everyone the advice to ride a bike, unless you are comfortable with the idea, have experience, confidence and a sense of responsibility, with insurance that covers this type of activity. Check out our blog Riding a Scooter in Asia for Beginners
Where to hire a bike
C&P (Old Town)
On the main road of the old town.
Opposite Chiang Mai’s Train station. The owner is lovely (guess what her name is?)
Make sure you purchase your International Driving Permit in your country before travelling, as well as taking your photo driving licence with you. We recommend that you carry your passport on you, or at least a photocopy. There are many traffic police with check points to catch tourists out and stop drink driving, so be warned.
Also, check your country’s rules for driving with your type of licence and permit, as it will depend on what scooter or bike you can hire! Expect hefty fines otherwise.
If you don’t want to ride a scooter, you can always hop on a red taxi.
Places to see and things to do in Chiang Mai
1. Visit Chiang Mai’s Old Town
The old town is charming, however one of the busiest areas as mentioned above. It offers many restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels, all dotted along roads that run parallel with each other, whilst enclosed by a surrounding wall and gates at opposite sides (i.e; North Gate, East Gate, South Gate…)
This gate, located on the southern wall of the city was first mentioned in historical records in 1545. The meaning of the name is not known. Towards the end of the 19th century, it was also called Suan Pung Gate. Traditionally, the people of Chiang Mai used this gate to transport their deceased out of the town for cremation. The gate was reconstructed in the years around 1800 but completely rebuilt between 1906-1959.Writing on the sign in the image
Relax and enjoy a traditional massage at “C&R Thai Massage”
Destiny brought us back to this place, as we had visited many years ago. We could not remember where it was, but happened to stumble upon it as we walked the streets. Possibly the best massage we have had in Thailand and we have had a few!
Thai massage is not for the faint hearted, as you will be pulled, prodded, trampled on and properly stretched. I love them, but its best when you are prepared. If you like a gentle and relaxing aromatherapy touch, don’t have one of these. As you wait, they serve the usual Lemongrass Tea and give you a warm cloth to cleanse and refresh your face, whilst they wash your feet in a bowl (Nice!)
Restaurants and Bars in Chiang Mai’s Old Town
There are too many restaurants to mention here, but you can tell the ones that are great if locals are eating there!
Great place for traditional Northern Thai food. If you want them to go easy on the chili, ask them!
Restaurant Kaow Tom 1B
Trip Advisor has it down as Khao Tom 1 Baht
This place is great! Huge menu with plenty of choice, friendly staff and delicious food. Don’t miss it! Hard to get a seat sometimes, especially when the market is on, so book if you can or go when the market isn’t on!
Our tip is to try the Khao Soi Noodle dish, traditionally from Burma, but also found in North Thailand and Laos; Usually Chichen, Pork, Beef or Veg.
Writers Club & Wine Bar
In the heart of the old town.
Lovely bar on the main road of the Old City (outside of the wall) Great stop for a beer or two!
2. Go to Nimman
The name is short for Nimmenhaeim, which is a district within Chiang Mai. It’s about 20 mins from the old city, attracting many expats and digital nomads alike (Digital Nomads: those who work online remotely and travel to various DN spots around the globe) Chiang Mai is one of the top Digital Nomad hubs!
The area is vibrant, full of restaurants, shops, bars and a large shopping Mall called Maya. There isn’t much you can’t find here for those who like their western creature comforts. The variety of food is great, from traditional Northern Thai, to Italian, to Spanish and a few others!
Maya Shopping Centre
Here you will find a few known brands, but the best bit about Maya is that it has a fab food court on the basement floor, as well as a Supermarket (best for expats/travellers) and further up on the 4th and 5th floor you will find more food to die for! Not to mention a co-working space and a cinema. Oh, and as a bonus it has bars and more restaurants on the roof terrace that opens in the evening!
This was definitely our hang out whilst staying in Nimman.
Restaurants in Nimman
KT Noodle & Hotpot
This is on the 4th floor of Maya shopping mall. Such an amazing Beef Noodle Soup, that I can guarantee you’ll be back! It’s so yummy and when we were there it had just opened, so fairly new!
The Salad Concept
Here is where we had breakfast…a lot! Best brekkie, as plenty of choice.
Korean BBQ to die for, as well as other dishes, located on Nimman Road. Staff and atmosphere are great. Definitely one to try! We met up with other travelling friends for a birthday, and enjoyed a few dishes that night.
Best Italian Pizza and Pasta in Asia (for me!) and probably could beat some European restaurants!
Lovely staff and atmosphere. One not to miss if you fancy Italian food. To be honest, after months of travelling it was a lovely change for us.
Tong Restaurant and Bar
If you want to experience spicy northern thai cuisine, then this is the place!
Outdoor restaurant with wooden table and chairs. Great atmosphere, which attracts lots of tourists and expats, so not a local restaurant. However, worth a try as the food is great!
A quaint little Pizza restaurant in an arty neighbourhood near Nimman. You will need Google maps to find it, as it’s tucked away.
3. Make friends with the locals
We enjoyed the company of some lovely people whilst in Chiang Mai. It was so nice to get to know them. We even got cooking tips and Matt had a proper lesson!
4. Need WiFi and a place to work for a few hours?
The reason why so many Digital Nomads call Chiang Mai home is due to the super fast internet. You can expect Fiber Optic 200Mbps download, and 50 Mbps upload. It’s one of the fastest in Asia, and some might argue that it beats other countries too! So, enjoy to the max whilst you are here. I know I did whilst writing my blogs!
This is on the 5th floor of Maya shopping mall in Nimman. It offers full co-working service, as well as a café.
Stylish coffee shop with enough space to sit yourself down with a laptop and surf away!
A chain of brightly lit modern coffee shops that are open 24 hours a day, for those digital nomads battling with time difference!
Hidden gem in Chiang Mai, with rustic wooden furniture, hanging plant pots and black window panes. Great menu with a variety of coffee choices.
Café de Oasis
Opposite the Chiang Mai International Convention Centre. Beautifully decorated cafe, with plenty of western options for food. This one, isn’t so much of an internet provider, like the ones above, but perfect for coffee and breakfast.
5. Visit Huay Teng Tao Lake
This is a beautiful part of Chiang Mai, and not so well known by tourists. If you love nature then this is the place to go and relax in one of the huts on the river. We didn’t really know about it until our neighbour in the condo mentioned a lake up the road, so we went to explore!
6. Go chasing waterfalls!
Chiang Mai has so many waterfalls and they are all worth a visit! So fantastic to be able to grab the scooter, drive 20-30 mins away from town and visit a waterfall or two. In our case we made 3 in one day!
Bua Tong Waterfalls (known as Sticky waterfalls)
Here you can park or get dropped off, but we’d recommend to drive / ride or get transport of some sort, as it’s outside of the city. There are also plenty of other temples to visit in the area to make your journey worthwhile.
Whilst staying in Villa San Pee Seua with our friends, we all went on a Waterfall crawl (nothing like a pub crawl, but there was plenty of water!!)
These falls are known as Sticky falls because the stone/rock face of the waterfall is sticky and enables you to climb, with the assistance of a rope! It’s fun and wet, so wear proper waterproof shoes or go barefoot. Wouldn’t recommend flipflops; I made that mistake!
You can climb quite high to the top and enjoy the views!
Tat Mok Waterfall
Part of Tat Mok National Park. Each time we went to a waterfall, I kept thinking “this is the most beautiful waterfall I have seen” to constantly exceed my expectations and surprise me! This waterfall is gorgeous and big, with a swimming pool just below it, so you can have a dip and get under it!
Mae Sa Waterfall (10 levels to explore)
Nothing quite like this waterfall, which is also part of a National Park (many are!)
Honestly, get your stamina in check first, as it’s quite a walk, sometimes up stairs or hills, but so worth the spectacular waterfalls on some of these levels.
7. Visit one of the best Temples in Chiang Mai (our favourite)
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Now try saying that really fast!! Hahaha! It’s a mouthful.
This temple is gorgeous and extremely popular with tourists, so be warned. Well worth a visit, despite the crowds of people. If you go early or late, you are likely to miss the crowds.
8. Experience the Lantern Festival in Chiang Mai
Loy Krathong and Yi Peng
Celebrated on the full moon day in November. Yi Peng is another light festival celebrated alongside Loy Krathong in Northern Thailand. The difference is they put lights inside sky lanterns.
It’s a beautiful spectacle to witness and take part in, however bad you may think it is for the environment! It’s a long held tradition and celebration where they dress in traditional clothing, or semi naked for the men, and take part in the procession. There is a timetable where there will be set times to light up the lanterns and let them fly over the river. However, many don’t make the flight, which is also quite amusing if you like people watching!
9. Travel up to Pai from Chiang Mai
Experience 762 hilly curves up the stunning landscape of Northern Thailand and stop off at some of the National Parks on the way!
Pai is the north-easternmost district (amphoe) of Mae Hong Son Province, northern Thailand. It’s main town, also called Pai, looks a bit like a Ski resort, without the snow, sitting near the Myanmar border about 146 km northwest of Chiang Mai on the northern route to Mae Hong Son. It lies on the Pai River and offers an unforgettable journey through north Thailand’s stunning mountainous landscape.
How to get there
This is an adventure worth taking, but it requires transport.
You can hire a minibus or get the public bus, however this could take at least 4 hours, if not more, depending on traffic. Either way, it can take 3-4 hours to get there with pit stops, but you may feel quite sick on a bus if your driver belts it up the mountain corners. If you want an epic adventure, then hire a motorbike.
We were crazy enough to go up the mountains on a scooter through the 762 corners, but many who like 2 wheels will opt for a more powerful motorbike with gears! It’s not for the faint hearted either, but a memory you will hold forever! We loved it and had no trouble with traffic or corners, as took it steady, letting cars and lories past (just keep to the left side of the road and you should be fine)
When riding a motorbike to Pai, whether this be a scooter or not, wear layers and long trousers to cover your legs due to it being cold in the morning and afternoon whilst going up the mountains. You also want to protect yourself from mosquito bites. Take a change of clothes so that you can change back into shorts when it gets hot!
Cover your face with a scarf or sarong, and wear a helmet (although this goes without saying!)
We went with our friends, stopping at gorgeous viewpoints, waterfalls and hotsprings along the way.
Huai Nam Dang National Park
At Huai Nam National Park, you can find a vast landscape that goes on for kilometres, a viewpoint that is famous for overlooking a gorgeous valley with mist rolling through the hills.
Pong Duet Geyser and Hot Springs
As well as visiting the National Park itself and the viewpoint, you can visit Pong Duet Geyser and Hot Springs, but be sure to google where you are going, as the Geyser is in another location altogether to the viewpoint.
A Piece of Pai
We stayed at the Heart of Pie Hotel for 2 nights, which was walking distance to all the action. We all ventured out on foot to explore Pai town, walking up the busy main street, enjoying all the market stools, shops and bars that continue all the way up that street.
Our advise would be to walk around the town’s side streets as well, as you will find some hidden gems.
We got together with another friend of ours that had come from Mae Hong Son, and was staying near a cafe called Art in Chai. This cafe is very cute, with great coffee, cakes and books to read. We opted for a beer after that long ride!
We had breakfast on our second day at a cafe which was two or three roads parallel to the main street, called Om Garden Cafe, and it was western, with all sorts of options covering eggs, organic, vegan, and gluten free choices. It was fantastic!
Did I mention we headed back down the mountain to Chiang Mai after our 2 days in Pai? So we enjoyed the journey once again!! It was a great experience that I will remember forever (or at least until my memory goes!!!!
“Hope you’ve enjoyed the read and pics, and that you get to experience Chiang Mai for yourself soon! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment and we will try to point you in the right direction!”
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