Thailand. Where to begin. Thailand was on my “yeah, I’d like to go” list (it literally was on a list I had made in high school or college of countries I wanted to see one day), but not on my “oh my gosh, so want to go” list. How I underestimated Thailand! Seeing a culture and a country for the first time always holds a certain thrill and wonder. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything is interesting…everything is a first. But I did not love Thailand for all the excitement of a new country and a new adventure. I loved it for the people, the beauty, the food, the simplicity. It was my first trip to anywhere in Asia. And I think it was a pretty good start to travels on a new continent.
So, part one…
My sisters and I were planning a sister trip to Sicily, but when we started looking at tickets and the prices, we started opening the trip to other possibilities. We thought about swinging by England, Italy proper, France with the whole familia (all places we had all been), and then I got a call. “How about Thailand?” Totally not Europe and totally not the original intent of our trip. But it sounded just right, so after much debate and discussion, Thailand it was.
First stop, Chiang Mai. My sister, Stepheny, had connections in Chiang Mai that she wanted to visit, so we figured it was the perfect place to fly in and out of. Plus, none of us had a pressing desire to go to Bangkok, and with the ticket prices more expensive to fly there rather than flying to Chiang Mai, it was pretty easy to agree the first half of our trip would be spent exploring the cultural and international city that is Chiang Mai.
Where to Stay:
Thailand is definitely a country that you can show up and figure it out as you go (which is such a good thing because I pretty much started researching on the plane ride). However, with that said, we did travel during the shoulder season and I don’t know what peak season would be like. Our flight got in late – like around 10:30pm – so we figured it was best to book a hotel the first night rather than try to figure out where to stay when we got there. We were given a list of recommendations from Stepheny’s contact and ended up going with the Mountain View Guesthouse. It was pretty easy just to hire a taxi inside the airport and was around $4 to get to our guesthouse. The ones outside the airport definitely tried to get higher prices. But if you take a tuk tuk or public bus, it is cheaper. It might just take a while to flag one down depending on the time of day and you may have to negotiate a bit. Always confirm the price before if you are hiring one.
Mountain View Guesthouse: Nothing fancy. Just a good, simple, authentic place to stay. It was located at the Changpuak Gate along Sriphoom Road, which turned out to be a perfect location for us. It was a quick taxi ride from the airport, feet from Phrapokklao Road (which was one of the major roads in the old city), and was on the less touristy side of town. (www.mountainview-guesthouse.com)
We pretty much ate breakfast there every morning. Not that we typically would choose eating at the place we were staying, but the food was actually really good and we wanted to support them. (Plus, we always woke up starving and could not imagine heading out without any food in our bellies.) Not only were they super hospitable, sweet, and Christians, but we were paying roughly $12 a night between the three of us ($4 each!!). We got the cheapest room with a fan and no air conditioning, but it was all we needed. The room was hot during the day, but we weren’t there. At night, we opened the windows, turned on the fan, and slept with only sheets. We always seemed to spend more on breakfast then on our room. On average I think we spent around $13 for breakfast between the three of us and let me just say we were feasting like queens! We always had a hard time finishing it. Recommendations: the fruit plate, milk tea, and banana pancake. We could not get enough fruit. We lived on fruit. It was the one craving that never seemed to be satisfied. I mean, it was mango season.
Next time: Walking around the city, we passed so many great looking places to stay. These are some of the ones I would look into staying at next trip, but there is a plethora of great places. (And these are all in the old city):
- Chiang Maan Residence: An old wood house that was renovated into a boutique guest house. We had drinks and breakfast here one morning. Unfortunately, we only had one night left by the time we found this place and had already paid for our room, but we were really really tempted to take a loss on the room we already had, and just stay here (I mean $12 loss…not that big of a deal). The proprietor had lived in NY and worked at a restaurant and came back to Thailand to open her own guest house. This place was gorgeous, quaint, and so welcoming. Just thinking about it now makes me wish we had stayed at least one night. (www.chiangmaanresidence.blogspot.com) *Pictured above.
- 99 The Gallery Hotel: Oh My Gosh. This place looked amazing – gorgeous – stunning. We did not see the rooms, but it looked like the most beautiful modern hotel! It was a good picture of what Chiang Mai is culturally today. (99thegalleryhotel.com) I think this would be up there with the Chiang Maan Residence for where to stay.
- The Rim Resort: Another gorgeous hotel. The architecture, the entrance, the ambience. This was impressive from the outside. However, we did not walk in, and I have no clue what the interior is like. (www.therimchiangmai.com)
- Tamarind Village: This definitely was a good mix of traditional Thailand with modern amenities. It looked like a peaceful oasis amidst the city. Long quiet corridors, bamboo lined walkways, soft lights glowing long into the night. (www.tamarindvillage.com)
Outside the old city, I would recommend trying to stay around Nimmanheamin Road. Casa 2511 looked interesting (casa2511.com).
Where to Eat:
We ate a lot of street food in Chiang Mai and it was all so delicious. You just need to use your eyes, nose, and gut to guide you. Supposedly the vendors set up outside the Changpuak Gate along Mani Noppharat Road were more authentic and where the locals would go. We pretty much tried to steer clear of areas that just internationals were eating at. We went way too early in the night the first time – better to go later after everyone has set up and walk up and down to check out all the vendors and their customer base.
Mango Sticky Rice – The best was sold by a street vendor on Ratchaphakhinai Road right across from a noodle restaurant
Sunday Night Market – Definitely fun to get food here, although we did not find anything amazing. It was for the experience.
Beer – Singha - the best Thai beer in our opinion
As for actual food establishments:
Siam Celadon Tea House: We celebrated my birthday with a little tea party Thai style. It felt very British colonial, even though Thailand was never colonized. The “lemon” soda (really lime – they called all limes lemons) was delicious but the food was just okay (and pricey compared to everything else we had been eating). Still, a perfectly relaxing and enjoyable afternoon. We wanted to sit outside on the covered porch, rather than in the air conditioning where everyone else was seated. They seemed to think we were crazy. They brought fans out.
Mixology: Oh my gosh. That is pretty much all I said during our meal (a million times). Seriously. So delicious! We couldn’t get enough it was so good. And the atmosphere was pretty right on too. Very eclectic and a good mix of vintage, hipster, British, Thai, industrial…. Loved all the quotes around the place and “Junior”, their dog who just hung out. While we were there, two other neighborhood dogs stopped for a visit. They just pushed the door open and came in to visit Junior. And if they were not awesome already, they give 10% off to people who bike there. The toilet had lime wedges by the sink to squeeze while washing your hands. Made washing your hands an experience. Interesting and beautiful. This is a must in Chiang Mai. Seriously. If I lived in Chiang Mai, this would be my top pick for places to eat. Definite recommendations: For food, the pork burger on rice patties and the traditional northern Thai curry with fried rice balls. For drinks, “love me, love my dog” – couldn’t resist a drink with that name.
The Only Planet Cafe: Our go to place. It was right around the corner from our guesthouse and had the best roti. Banana roti, curry and roti, the list goes on and on. Plus, the guy there gave us free drinks. Frequented this place quite a bit. Definite recommendations: banana roti, milk tea, bubble tea
Stand right outside Doi Inthanon National Park: I know that is not a name, but it is worthy of noting. The lady was so sweet and friendly and made us sit down and have Som Tam (spicy green papaya salad). Literally, she made us all sit down. Valerie tried to just buy some lychee but she was like you must have some Som Tam too (this being a very loose translation, because we don’t really know what she was saying). Stepheny and I were over talking to the rangers, trying to figure out how to get a ride back to town (talking, meaning not understanding each other at all but surprisingly still communicating) The proprietor started calling and waving for us to come join Valerie. We thought Valerie must not have money or something. Nope. She was making Valerie sit down to eat and wanted us to too. You don’t just take things to go apparently. So glad she did. It was our first time trying Som Tam and it totally did not disappoint. We paid less than $3 for a ton of lychee and the salad. Lychee was one of those things that I thought was just okay before. Totally wrong. When you eat it freshly picked from a tree right below where you are eating, delicious. We couldn’t get enough of them.
Juice bar on Ratchadamnoen Road: We loved this stand and ended up frequenting it quite a bit. It made the perfect afternoon pick me up. You chose any three ingredients and she juiced them for you right then and there. We typically ordered watermelon, cucumber, lime because it seemed the most refreshing. But I did branch out and get orange, pineapple, mango one day. Oh, so good! Again, this is a must! (And the girl was the sweetest!)
Rustic & Blue: Outside the old city, Rustic & Blue is a modern teahouse. Perfect and delightful in so many different ways. The aesthetic, atmosphere, location, baked goods, tea selection…We had so much fun and would have gone back if we had not discovered this on our last day.
Ice cream shop off of Nimmanheamin – don’t remember the name but loved the lychee ice cream
Next time (in the old city):
Happy Espresso – we didn’t get to try any drinks because the water line was broken but they were so sweet and we took a million pictures and bought bag after bag of their coffee they roast in-house.
Outside the old city:
Kafe Roubaix: Looked super awesome but we had already had too much that day. Another café dedicated to biking and all things bicycles.
That’s Wine: cute little wine bar we didn’t try, but would be fun if in Chiang Mai for a longer period of time
What to Do:
Trekking (or hiking): Lesson learned. You don’t go off on your own. Or not easily. We realized quite quickly why everyone goes with organized services. However, with that said, it is still doable. Just easier if you have your own transportation (or speak Thai). It was easier getting a bus and figuring out how to get where we wanted then we thought it would be. There are a couple of national parks in relative close proximity to Chiang Mai and we decided to head to Doi Inthanon for a day trip, as it is the highest peak in Thailand (but close is relative…it took an hour and a half one way to get to the neighboring town, then we still had to get to the park entrance which ended up being the hard part). Once we arrived at the entrance, it was still a considerable distance to the peak. Way farther than we had time for unfortunately. We ended up ditching our taxi, and just started walking up the mountain to see what we could find. Again, not a good idea. Felt pretty uncomfortable with the situation. Oh well. We learned a lot of lessons that day about traveling in Thailand. (But that was the only time I felt uncomfortable and nervous – other than the earthquake.)
Massages: So, Thailand is notorious for their massages. Of course we were going to get them while there. The girls splurged on me as part of my birthday festivities and we decided to go to a fancy modern spa for our first massage in Thailand (my only). When we arrived to book our massage, they brought us tea while we looked through the catalog of options (nice start). We booked the traditional Lana massages and opted for the “mild with no stretching”. Let me just say, a Thai massage is an adventure and an experience. We came back for our two hour massages later that evening and were shown to our mats, separated by wood shutters. At first, I thought I was going to fall asleep, and then things started to crazy. It started with an earthquake. Yep, we were in the middle of the massage and my first thought was that something crazy must be going on upstairs or next to me but then the shaking continued and increased. That is when in my head I thought “this can’t be an earthquake”. But then, when my masseuse got up and ran out of the room, I realized, “yep, this is an earthquake”. My sisters and I were all in the same room, just separated by dividers. We were like, “what are we supposed to do or where should we go?!” Tons of thoughts were running through my head… Should we just stand in the door frame or should we exit the building? How sturdy is this construction? It seems safe enough. We were just about to leave when the masseuses came back and were just chill and told us to lay back down, like no worries. Needless to say, I was no longer relaxed during the remainder of the massage. But, even if there was not an earthquake, I don’t think anyone could have relaxed during my massage. Let me just say, when they said full body, they meant it…probably 97% of my body. It literally contained hair pulling and I was lifted completely off the ground at one point, like she got under me and lifted me into the air with her legs. My body was stretched and twisted in crazy ways (I don’t know what a massage with stretching would have been). Afterwards, we went down stairs and were given hot tea, almost as a transition back to the real world. Turns out neither one of my sisters got quite the same treatment I did…no hair pulling or lifting in the air or quite as extensive. I was definitely sore the next day and not in a good way.
The girls did end up getting massages again later in the trip that were not so intense. Also, we found some for only $7 an hour. Crazy good prices (we did not take advantage of those ones).
Walk: And I mean just walk…walk the streets to see and explore and stumble upon things you would not find otherwise. The old city of Chiang Mai is a labyrinth that would take ages to thoroughly explore.
Visiting a tea plantation: apparently we went during the time of year they are burning the fields…better luck next time
Elephant Trekking: We ended up not doing this. The only advice I have is it seemed worth paying more to go with a group that treated the elephants well. And plan in advance. For girls that like to just wing it and wait to the last minute, it does not work.
Where to Shop:
Gosh. We were so distracted by everything else in Thailand that shopping was the least of my priorities. Honestly, I forget the names of so many of the places we loved and bought things from. I could give vague descriptions, but I am sure they would not be of much help.
Definitely head out of the old city to Nimmanheamin Road. Best place to do some serious shopping. A days activity. The side streets off of Nimmanheamin were the best. Nimmanheamin itself felt a bit like M Street in Georgetown. M street has all the major brands but the unique boutiques are tucked off on side streets. Same with Nimmanheamin. We didn’t even take time to explore anything on it. Just spent all our time wandering up and down all the other roads.
Adorn with Studio Naenna: Beautiful! Amazing! The textiles woven with indigo were some of the most stunning pieces I have ever seen, have ever touched. I loved the abstract, modern interpretation of traditional techniques and designs. Gorgeous. A must.
Srisanpanmai: The most beautiful embroidery work. I brought home a hand woven piece, white, with no embroidery, but longed for the embroidered work. They make clothing from their material and it is stunning. Seeing the shop girl just sitting there stitching…amazing.
Mesimu: Such a sweet clothing boutique. Had the sweetest children’s and women’s clothing. This was one store that the length of the dresses did not seem too short and seemed to fit American bodies better.
In the old city…
I would spend most of my time exploring the shops along Phrapokklao Road.
Sequin and Suede: Awesome…just way too small. No way we could possibly fit into anything. But if you are a petite girl, you might have luck.
Siam Celadon: for Celadon pottery. We got a little carried away with bringing home pottery.
Mengrai Kilns: Has more variety then Siam Celadon in colors and styles. A vast store of pottery with pretty cheap prices. We arrived 10 minutes to closing and just blew through the store putting things on the counter. Good thing we didn’t have more time, because I don’t know if we could have fit another thing into our bags (opted to only have carry on bags – aka not much space for buying things).
Things of note:
Architecture: LOVED the new builds. Very modern, clean, light filled spaces. But I mostly fell in love with how most places had only one wall and a roof, the rest open air. Life was hot and sweaty, but raw and beautiful.
English: In Chiang Mai, most people knew English and communication was easy even when they did not. However, nothing was spelled the same. Looking at maps, guide books, and road signs was a bit confusing… they had hilariously different spellings. It made navigation a bit difficult at first till we caught on.
Assumptions: Don’t make them.
Drinks: Sweet. Everything was super sweet. Way too sweet. Especially iced drinks. I couldn’t drink coffee. It was too much for me. Kind of made me lose my taste for it and still have not quite gotten it back.
Food: Try everything. Loved going to the market to discover fruits I had never heard of or tried before. We had to have the vendors show us how to eat half the things we bought. New foods we loved (or foods we didn’t love until Thailand)…lychee, mangosteen, morning glory. I fell in love with curry and spicy food. I only had a mild tolerance for spice before, but now I say bring it on. Seriously had the best curry of my life (no surprise).
Motorcycles: They were everywhere and were the primary means of transportation other than public transport. Only tourists seemed to walk. Made me tempted for a motorcycle or moped…just tempted though.
Crossing the street: Crazy
Airlines: If you have to travel in Thailand by flight, highly recommend Bangkok Airways. Procrastination ended up being a blessing on this trip. Waited until the last minute to book our flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi (via Bangkok) and am so glad we did. We had to fly Bangkok Airways. They know what it means to be a boutique airline. Every passenger has access to a complimentary longue. Preflight, you can register for meals of a million different dietary restrictions (not really). I picked Raw. My sisters picked Hindu Vegetarian. And how fabulous a choice I made! Best plane food ever (even though half of it was not really raw, which I didn’t care.) Just fresh fruits and vegetables for the most part, with a side of vanilla yogurt and bread.
Overall, Thailand is a beautiful country. The people are so gentle and sweet. So kind and hospitable. They made the country what it is. They are the reason I am in love. I am so grateful for the trip, being able to spend 2 weeks with my sisters traveling, discovering, and exploring. It was so hard to leave. Only left me wanting more.