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Where We Are: Chiang Mai

We are officially on the Southeast Asia (SEA) backpacker trail, having taken our first overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

Right now, we’re basking in the glory of cheap travel, amazing food (loved the Pad Thai in Bangkok), and no schedule. Guys – we don’t even have a place to stay five days from now! But guess what? It’s going to be just fine because SEA is so well designed for the on-a-whim travelers that pass through every single day.

We’re also not sure when we’re leaving, or really where we’re heading next. The old me would be borderline-freaking-out right about now, but I’m starting to embrace the relaxed (and hot) vibes of SEA. Travel around Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia is easy and cheap enough to book trains, flights, and/or accommodations pretty last minute at cheap prices. This allows us to play fast-and-loose with our schedule.

(Update: We wound up heading to Chiang Rai next, taking the Greenbus VIP service from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai.)

But for now, we’re in Chiang Mai. Other than the fact that Chiang Mai is a must-see for anyone going to Thailand, we’re actually in Chiang Mai for two other reasons.

First and foremost – ELEPHANTS! Chiang Mai is home to over 70 elephant reservers and I simply cannot wait to hang out with these guys! Thailand has a long history with elephants. Elephants have been central to Thai culture for centuries, but in more recent history, elephant tourism (elephant riding, performing, etc) has lead to awful treatment of these incredible animals (seriously, don’t ever ride an elephant). Now, the reserves in Thailand are working to save elephants from these awful conditions and rehabilitate them, while changing the face of elephant tourism to promote the health and wellness of these gentle giants.

And second, to run the Chiang Mai marathon! This will be our third international marathon (and second on this trip) and we’re excited. We expect this to be nothing like the marathons we are used to; the race starts at 4 AM, they don’t close down the streets (we’re not sure how that’s going to work), and it was only $20 to enter. We don’t have super high expectations for this race, but we think it’s going to be a really exciting cultural experience.

We’ll also be hiking Wat Pha Lat and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which should be an adventure.

Initial Reactions on Chiang Mai

  1. Sidewalks are a luxury. We’ve been to plenty of not-very-walkable cities (Dubai and Cartagena come to mind), but Chiang Mai takes the cake when it comes to non-walkability. Sidewalks just don’t exist in much of Chiang Mai. Or sometimes you’ll be on one sidewalk, and then it will just end. Buildings will go right up to the road and then add some parked motor bikes and you’re really just walking down the street. And we’re not talking side streets either, I’m talking the main thoroughfare around the Old City. At least we’ve been around left-side drivers for a month or so now so we are getting better at knowing where to look for cars.
  2. Great coffee scene. I love a city with enough great cafes to convince me to get coffee twice a day. We can’t walk anywhere in this city without passing at least three cafes we want to try. We’ve tried several so far and have not been disappointed. We are also totally in love with the accessibility to Thai Iced Coffee at every corner.
  3. I think we’re here five years too late. I feel like there was a time when Chiang Mai was a hidden gem; a backpacker paradise that was beautiful and cheap and delicious. But I think that time has passed. I’ve just found Chiang Mai to be overly crowded and without a lot of character. I know I’m in the minority here, and I really hope I change my mind. I just feel kind of “meh” about it at the moment. (Convince me otherwise!)

What you need to know:

  • Population: 150,000
  • Altitude: 310 meters
  • Exchange Rate: 32.61 Thai Baht to $1 USD
  • Primary Language: Thai
  • Walking Tour: None.
  • Time Zone: Indochina Time Zone, UTC +7 (13 hours ahead of US Central Time)
  • Taxi: Yes, but also Tuk-Tuks, which are like motorized pedicab taxis, and Songthaews (think Uber pool, but you can hail one down on the street)
  • Uber: Yes,
  • Public Transit: None (just the Tuk-Tuks and Songthaews)
  • Emergency Number: 191 or 1155 for Tourist Police
  • Running: Chiang Mai Marathon
  • American Football: Football in Asia isn’t really fun to track because of the time difference. We can only catch the nights games in the morning our time, so we can’t really watch them at bars.
  • Starbucks: Yes, many.
  • Local Starbucks Specialty: Vanilla Nougat Latte (I didn’t love it, actually)
  • McDonald’s Veggie Burger: No, and I was really surprised by that given the number of Buddhists here.
  • Coffee Price:  Around 60-80 Thai Baht (~$1.50 – $2.50 USD) for an iced coffee at a local cafe or about 180 Thai Baht (~5.50 USD) for a grande specialty latte at Starbucks.
  • Beer Price: A large Chang (local Thai beer) will cost you around 80 – 100 Thai Baht (~$2.50– $3 USD) at a restaurant or bar.