Chiang Mai, My First Livable City in Southeast Asia

Chiang Mai is a bigger city than I thought it would be. When I arrived I was initially surprised by the built up busy streets and seemingly sprawling urban landscape, and the fact that it was rush hour didn’t help. But once I got to explore more on foot, especially venturing into the Old Town, I started to get a sense of why so many expats stay here longer than planned.

It’s actually a manageable, walkable city. The traffic is not nearly as overwhelming as it is in other major Southeast Asian cities, with a noticeable absence of honking horns. The food is reasonably priced and good, with a plethora of fresh fruit and cold drink options. Markets, abundant across the region, are actually pleasant to walk through. The park in the corner of the old city is, as a friend put it, “Venice beach for expat hippies,” where slacklines and acroyoga are a focal point for the people lounging on bamboo mats. I have been hard-pressed to find any city in Asia that I felt like I could live in, but Chiang Mai might be the first one.

My days in Chiang Mai were a mixture of exploring and hanging out. I happened to be there during the Flower Festival (the second Flower Festival of my trip, the first was in Medellin), so I watched some of the morning parade and checked out the floats by Thapae Gate on my way into the Old City. I entered the Old City with a plan – temples, lunch, massage – and quickly discovered that a plan was not only not necessary, but not wanted. This is a city to wander around. Everywhere I walked I passed another temple. Which one is this? No clue, most of their names are written in Thai. It doesn’t matter really, they’re all pretty. I just roamed the streets toward the one destination I knew I wanted to find, stopping in any temple that looked worth stopping at, happening upon an outdoor photography display outside the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center, and getting a sense of the city. I had the traditional soup of Chiang Mai for lunch, kow soy – which honestly was a bit disappointing, I added some extra spice to the curry but the chicken piece was fatty and it was overall a bit greasy, but at least now I know – and then reached my one destination: my first Thai massage.

There was no better way to cure the feeling my body had after a rough 24 hours cramped on minibuses than getting all my muscles worked out by a Thai prisoner. The Vocational Training Center of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Centre trains inmates in massage techniques, which is where I originally tried to go but it was all booked for the day, so I ended up at the place where the graduates work. One hour massage is just 180 baht. What a steal! A Thai massage is unlike any massage I’ve experienced before. I was bent, twisted, poked, and rubbed in all kinds of ways, and even had to participate at times, like when I was asked to lift my upper body off the bed as my arms were pulled behind me into a back bend. Different, but still felt great.

As the afternoon wound down I made it to the final big temple I wanted to see and ran into Pat and Mirco, companions from my Laos minibus adventure. We roamed the temple and went to the park – they had bicycles so I rode on the back seat of one of them – but before we got there we found a street fair with food and the Flower Festival floats. It was a happy surprise and great to walk through, plus we got snacks for the park. This solidified my opinion that just wandering through Chiang Mai is the best way to see it; you never know what you’ll discover.

My second day was unexpectedly chill; I meant to go play with some elephants but unfortunately overslept, so I joined Pat, Mirco, Ivana, Katharine, and Leon for a motorbike adventure to a nearby lake, Huay Tung Tao. Just driving around was enjoyable with this group. I rode on the back of Mirco’s bike, and this crazy Swiss wanted to see how fast he could go on the highway on our beaten up moped. We hit 100 km/h. A bit fear-inducing but fun nonetheless. We spent most of the day hanging out in bamboo bungalows suspended over a picturesque lake; it was lovely. And a good way to get over the hangovers.

My nights in Chiang Mai were unexpectedly lively. Just hours after I arrived I went to a drag cabaret show with some people in my hostel. It was entertaining, to say the least. The next two nights I went out with the group I was at the lake with. We would meet up on the street outside the tattoo shop – an odd meeting point, but the only place we all had in common since we were riding to my hostel on the bikes when we ran into Ivana who had just gotten a new tattoo, and with her injured ankle she took my place on the bike for a ride back to their hostel and I walked the rest of the way home. Random, but it worked. I should go in and thank them one day, they have no idea how helpful they were for us. We started our nights at bars near the tattoo place and twice ended it at the club Spicy. These were late, drunk nights with lots of dancing and playing with Leon’s tourist tchotchkes that he kept buying – the frog, the light-up spinning top. It was fun to have some nights out like this with new friends.

The day I left Chiang Mai for Shambhala In Your Heart Festival I planned to go from the festival to Pai then come back to Chiang Mai on Friday so I would have another day in the city before my flight on Sunday to Myanmar. As I will soon write about, those plans changed entirely. So I never did get to play with the elephants, do a cooking class, or spend more time in cafes or the park, which I don’t regret, I had a great time in Chiang Mai, it just means that I’ll have to go back. I’m already thinking that I could go back after my big plan is done. It’s a city worth revisiting for sure.

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One comment

  1. I’m right there with you! Chiang Mai was my favorite!! I went to the prisoner massage place too, haha. Sorry you didn’t do a cooking class but you can do that at almost any major city, and also gotta get your feet cleaned by fish. That ones fun. Sorry you missed the elephant park though!

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