After two failed attempts thanks to COVID in April and December 2020, we finally made it to Chiang Mai. I wasn’t sure we were going to make it this time due to the timing of Omicron (right before Christmas, just like last year…), but our flight wasn’t canceled, so we were finally on our way to our first vacation together (well, 60% together) since the Hong Kong cruise we took with my parents in December 2019.
Worchihan and I both have been to Chiang Mai multiple times. He went twice in 2015 and I went in December 2012 and January 2013. Chiang Mai wasn’t the first place Worchihan wanted to go, but I really wanted to go to Chiang Mai because I really like it and hadn’t been in nine years. I’m always interested to see how cities in Thailand change over the years. (Knowing how much Bangkok has changed in the ten years I’ve been here, I would love to see the city 50 years ago.)
Worchihan was much happier to visit Chiang Mai when his friend, Witoon, invited him to visit his village in Mae Hong Son. Mae Hong Son, the province directly west of Chiang Mai (Chiang Mai is a province and a city), borders Burma and is home to many tribal people. Witoon is Karen, which is one of the seven major hilltribes in Thailand. Because Worchihan is also a member of a hilltribe (he is Naga), he had been looking forward to this trip since his friend invited him to his village. (If I wanted to go, I would have been welcome, but I wanted to spend all of my time in Chiang Mai. Also, it turns out that it’s good to spend some time away from your spouse to keep you from taking him or her for granted.)
I didn’t do much planning in preparation for our trip. Since I’ve been to Chiang Mai before, I already had some idea of what I wanted to do; I also, like I always do, consulted Lonely Planet. I knew we needed to go to the temple at the top of Doi Suthep, the most prominent temples in the old city (there might be 8,000 temples there) and the Lanna Folklife Museum. I also wanted to do the Sunday walking street, but mostly I just wanted to walk, walk, walk around as much of the old city as possible.
Here’s a little bit of Chiang Mai’s history: The Lanna kingdom was founded by King Mengrai in the 13th century. A few years later, in 1296, the capital was moved to Chiang Mai, which means “new walled city.” The Lanna kingdom was conquered by the Burmese in 1556, who occupied the kingdom for 200 years. After Ayutthaya, then the capital of the kingdom of Siam, fell to the Burmese in 1767, the Thai army was able to free northern Thailand from Burmese control, and it was at this time that Chiang Mai became a part of the kingdom of Siam.
Chiang Mai then became an important trading center, which had a lot to do with plentiful amounts of teak; this is when the brick walls were built around the city. Chiang Mai was designated an administrative unit by Bangkok in 1892 and a Lanna princess became an official consort of King Rama V, bringing the two royal families together. Chiang Mai became a province of Siam in 1933. History lesson complete.
When I was looking at where to stay for our planned trip in April 2020, I started with Agoda, but I wanted to pay less than the rates I was seeing, so I moved over to Airbnb, where I found some really cute, centrally-located and well-priced apartments and my search ended. The host actually has 8 listings all in the same building and they’re all beautiful. For this trip, we ended up booking the townhouse for the first few nights and then a studio for me while Worchihan was in Mae Hong Son. The studio wasn’t available for on our last night, so we booked one night at Inn Oon Chiang Mai Home as it was within our budget and very highly rated on Agoda. Both our Airbnbs and Inn Oon Chiang Mai Home were beautiful.
When we arrived in CM after an hour’s flight from Bangkok, a taxi (Mr. Prasong Yano; 087-726-1047) sent by our Airbnb host picked us up. He dropped us off at Mae Pa Sri, a restaurant not far from our apartment and we ended up eating almost every meal there during the days we were together. Mae Pa Sri a family-owned restaurant with great food and good service.
Later that afternoon, we called the same driver and paid 800 baht ($24) for a round trip to the temple on Doi Suthep, where he said he would wait for us for as long as we wanted to stay. We could have taken a songtao (a red pickup truck with seats in the back that waits to fill up before it leaves) one way for 50 baht from Wat Phra Singh, but the road is very windy and the drivers do not drive slowly.
Our driver drove the 17 kilometers to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep slowly and carefully (Wat Phra That is the name of the temple; Doi Suthep is the name of the mountain). We paid 30 baht ($0.90) to enter the temple and could have paid 20 baht more to take the cable car to the top to avoid the 306 stairs. What was interesting to me at this temple was how the Thai visitors walked around the golden chedi (stupa) three times with flowers in their hands. There’s also a viewpoint behind the temple with an expansive view of the city.
The next morning, we rented a motorbike (250 baht per day plus a 3,000 baht ($90) deposit). Over the next two days, Worchihan and I celebrated Christmas with old friends and new friends and went to church. On our way to church, we drove past a rattan shop with lots of people taking pictures outside it. There were three of these kinds shops in a row, but people were taking pictures on the side of the middle one, Wye Numpueng, or “honey rattan,” which was on the corner. We definitely stopped by after church.
Later on Sunday afternoon, we visited Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai’s most sacred temple. When we visited, senior monks were chanting along the side and younger monks, seated in the middle of the temple, were repeating their words.
We walked out of the temple onto the Sunday walking street (this is referred to as Tha Pae Sunday Walking Street on Google Maps). This market runs the entire length of Ratchadamnoen Road (1.1 km), from Wat Phra Singh at the western end to Tha Phae Gate on the eastern end. It runs along some of Phra Pokklao Road as well. You’ll find clothes, scarves, bags and lots of other items, as well as lots of food. I found only about 15-20% of the stalls interesting, like those in the pictures below (the handmade clay earrings are from Yaaboon). The walking street market is open from 4-11 PM on Sundays.
On Monday morning, before Worchihan left for Mae Hong Son, we made a quick visit to Warorot Market. Since we live in Bangkok, the market was nothing special for us, but we did enjoy the northern Thai sausage from the market’s busiest stall.
We also stopped by Wat Chedi Luang, which first housed the jade buddha that’s now in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, the temple in the Grand Palace complex. The chedi (stupa) was built in 1441 and is thought to be the biggest structure in ancient Chiang Mai. The top was destroyed at some point and the structure was stabilized during a restoration project in the 1990s.
Wat Phan Tao, a temple made of teak, is right next to Wat Chedi Luang.
Worchihan spent the next few days in Mae Hong Son, leaving me to explore Chiang Mai on my own. Here’s what I did.
DAY 1: On my way to a fabric shop off of Tha Phae Road, I stumbled upon Book Zone, which I remember visiting on a previous trip to Chiang Mai. It’s packed with books on Thailand and southeast Asia, as well as some beautiful postcards.
I also walked past Raming Tea House Siam Celadon, a 116-year-old building housing a tea-centered café, a beautiful garden and several shops, including Cotton Farm, which makes beautiful products out of handwoven cotton. I ended up visiting the tea house twice, both for the atmosphere and for the strawberry crumble (110 baht / $3.30).
When I turned left onto Kuang Men Road, I found lots of shops with textiles like clothes, fabric, bags, etc. I stopped in at Rinlaya to look at their fabric. I’ve never wanted to go to a fabric shop before, but when I came across Rinlaya on Instagram, I added it to my visit list. I don’t know anything about fabric, but I liked a lot of the fabric I saw.
Later that afternoon, I got a songtao to Nimmanhaemin Road to visit Playworks. Playworks is a Chiang-Mai based art brand that I first came across at a market in Bangkok; they also have a small shop at Central World. They make beautiful bags, postcards, calendars, etc., which are the best souvenirs you can buy in Thailand.
I ate dinner with a friend at Beast Burger, which I would definitely recommend. It felt very much like an upmarket fast-food restaurant in the US. A bacon cheeseburger with fries was 200 baht ($6).
DAY 2: I visited Mengrai Kilns, a celadon factory founded in 1973. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of pottery, but my friend recommended a visit and I realized that this was the shop that I had come across a long time ago on Instagram that sold nativity sets, including Thai nativities. I was surprised by how big the complex was — there were several buildings scattered throughout the compound overflowing with pottery.
I had at early lunch at Northlands Restaurant because of its great Google reviews. I ordered chicken fried rice (40 baht / $1.20) and when it was delivered (it was double the size of a typical portion), the woman asked if I liked mango. I said yes and asked for sticky rice as well (mango sticky rice is my favorite Thai dessert). When I finished eating, the woman didn’t charge me for the mango sticky rice (which, again, was double the size of a typical portion), and when I told her I wanted to pay for it, she offered me a bottle of water. The restaurant doesn’t look like anything special, but I will remember the generosity of this woman.
For dinner, I had a chicken quesadilla (199 baht / $6) at Amigos Mexican Bistro, a small, reasonably-priced American-Mexican restaurant not far from my Airbnb. A couple days earlier, I had their chicken burrito (219 baht / $6.60) for dinner, but couldn’t finish it, so I ate the rest for lunch the next day.
DAY 3: I had a last wander around the Old City and made my third and final visit to Chiang Mai Cotton. Sisters Goi and Jeed started Chiang Mai Cotton 17 years ago and all of their products are made from local resources by local people. This is hands-down my favorite store in Chiang Mai.
I returned to the Airbnb to check out and then checked into Inn Oon Chiang Mai Home, where I spent some time talking with the very friendly owners. When Worchi and his friend Witoon arrived from Mae Hong Son, we had dinner at Mae Pa Sri. After dinner, we got foot/head/back/shoulder massages at Chiang Mai Foot Massage (250 baht / $7.50 for 1 hour) and then walked around Tae Phae Gate for the countdown to 2022 event, which just meant live music and a small market.
We ate our last breakfast at Mae Pa Sri with Witoon and our friend Scott before heading back to Bangkok.
Here are a few places I didn’t make it to:
1 Lanna Folklife Museum: I went here on a previous trip and really enjoyed it. I wanted to go again but it was closed.
2 Sun Rays Café: I went to this small Instagram-famous breakfast/brunch café for their fruit-covered French toast, but there were already 10 people waiting outside, so I left, but I’ll try again next time we visit Chiang Mai.
3 Akha Ama Coffee: I don’t drink coffee, but this place has woven fish hanging outside and was always packed.
4 Lanna Traditional House Museum: Eight houses are on display here at this outdoor museum on the campus of Chiang Mai University.
5 Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade: Before our trip, I bought a Christmas table runner from this shop online. I knew if I visited the store, I would buy too much, so I decided I would not go. Maybe next time, when I’ll take a weaving class.
I would 100% recommend a trip to Chiang Mai. After two years of Bangkok, a trip to the north was just what we needed.
Worchihan is making a series of videos from our trip, which I will link below.
1 Flying out of Bangkok for the first time in two years