Chiang Mai - we didn't love it

Chiang Mai – we didn’t love it

Not every travel experience is amazing.

I know that we are incredibly lucky to be able to travel like we are. Taking a year off from our real lives, stuffing a backpack with the essentials and going where ever the wind takes us is a privilege and a very humbling experience. We know that loads of people back home who read this blog and see our pictures on FB, wish they had the opportunity to do what we’re doing. Knowing all this makes you feel almost guilty when you have a bad day on the road. When you have a runny nose so you lay in bed all day watching Netflix, when you can’t be bothered to try and find yet another ‘great’ place to eat so you go back to the same stall at the markets you’ve been to the last 2 nights or when you visit a new place and you don’t love it.

We didn’t love Chiang Mai. I didn’t even like it very much. I know that will be an unpopular statement since everyone else seems to love it. The city gives a great first impression, after being immersed in the crazy that is Bangkok for a week, Chiang Mai’s clean streets and slower pace were a refreshing and welcome change.

On the surface it was great. An old city hidden behind a crumbling wall, an abundance of quality Thai and western eateries, amazing walking street markets, good internet, and a cooler climate than the south. Still it just wasn’t for us.

Thapae Gate into the old city

Thapae Gate into the old city

Our first day in a new city we always try to get the feel of the place by walking the streets and seeing what we can find. We did this in Chiang Mai and apart from a few temples, which granted were nice the only other note worthy thing we found was a nice park. Everything in Chiang Mai was nice, but nothing was amazing. It felt like a curry without the spice, bland and a little boring.

We kept trying to love it, and I’m not saying that everything in Chiang Mai is awful. There are a lot of things to see and do so we tried a few to see if we just missed that ingredient to discover the universal Chiang Mai lovefest we’d read so much about.

We went out to Doi Suthep which is a temple on the mountain 15km outside Chiang Mai. The Songthaw ride up there was exhilarating if a little terrifying and when we got to the temple it was nice. You walk up some 300 odd steps to the top of the temple and you are rewarded with an incredible view across Chiang Mai.

View from Doi Suthep

View from Doi Suthep

Night markets in Chiang Mai are awesome. The street food is tasty and cheap and the stuff on display is varied unlike other markets we’ve visited where every other stall is selling the same products. If you happen to be there over the weekend there is a Saturday walking street and a Sunday walking street. Sunday is where it’s at, with vibrant stalls, hundreds of vendors and loads of visitors both locals and tourists alike there’s something for everyone.

Chiang Mai is filled with cooking classes, by day 3 we were starting to feel like we’d go crazy from boredom so we decided we may as well book a cooking class, little did we know this would turn out to be one of the best things we did in Thailand. We got picked up by the staff at Basil Cooking school early enough to go to the markets where they explained all of the produce and ingredients we were buying to us, this was really useful as many of them were unfamiliar to our western palettes. We then went back to the school and spent to day with a fabulous teacher and learnt how to make about 7 different dishes all of which were amazing. We were pretty chuffed with our efforts and in our inflated opinions now fancy ourselves Thai cooking experts – Thai party at ours when we eventually make it back to oz!

checking the produce at the markets

checking the produce at the markets

There are a lot of expats in Chiang Mai, so there are a lot of western amenities and services, this is great for convenience, bad because you sort of feel like you’re in this weird hybrid world where you can get a bowl of noodle soup for breakfast or venture to the café next door for smashed avo and poached eggs on gluten free toast. There’s a very evident juxtaposition which is probably great for a lot of people, but to me it just made the city feel unauthentic. The yoga classes are great though!

Chiang Mai is home to some fantastic festivals, the biggest Loi Kratong and Yipeng lantern festivals are held in Chiang Mai and it is definitely worth a visit to the city just to see the moment thousands of lanterns fill the night sky.

Yipeng Lantern Festival

Yipeng Lantern Festival

There are some great things about Chiang Mai and I can understand the appeal. But I realised I need something with a little more edge, the whole time I was there a voice in my head kept screaming it’s Canberra, it’s Canberra! It’s nice, it’s pleasant, it’s easy, but you know what I mean – it’s nice for a weekend but bloody boring otherwise – sorry Canberra friends but I feel like I can say this after my 4 year sentence in our nation’s capital!

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Besides a few temples everything in Chiang Mai was outside the city. There is a beautiful National Park, Doi Inthanon, but it requires a day trip and a 2 hour drive to get there. You can go trekking or visit hill tribe villages but since we were on our way to the mountains we decided to save this for there.

The other thing that was really evident in Chiang Mai? Creepy old white guys with very young Thai girls. Yes, you see this all over Thailand and so long as everyone is a consenting adult live and let live I say. But in Chiang Mai it was uncomfortable, it was everywhere, in every bar with not just old but really old white guys and not just young but really young Thai girls, maybe it’s just me but it made me sad and the feminist in me was really pissed off that these poor girls have to put up with this crap to make a living.

Truth is I’m still a little confused by Chiang Mai. Am I an expert in all things Chiang Mai- absolutely not, is it possible that I just didn’t see the Chiang Mai everyone raves about- sure maybe, but would I go back? Only if I was passing through on my way to Pai!

 

Advertisements

There’s a lot to love about Pai

Seven hundred and sixty two. That’s how many bends there are on the road to Pai. Those of you who’ve been in the car with me coming down Macquarie Pass will know how well I handled that. I may not have been enjoying the twists and turns as I moaned to Davis ‘I feel sick’ whilst turning an unnatural shade of green, but even I couldn’t ignore the stunning vistas passing us as we ascended through the mountains.

It takes 3 hours and costs 150 baht per person in a mini van from Chiang Mai to Pai, they must get a lot of queasy travellers though as just when you think you can’t take another bend they plan a strategic stop at the half way point – something everyone on our bus was very grateful for.

We arrived in Pai with intentions of doing the full Mae Hong Son loop but it quickly became apparent we wouldn’t be leaving Pai in a hurry. Originally we planned to spend just 2 days in Pai but somehow this turned into 6 and plans of trying to fit in the rest of the loop were quickly abandoned.

Pai itself is a chill little village with a hint of a hippie vibe. It has become a haven for backpackers in northern Thailand. Whilst it was once probably an exotic destination off the beaten track offering a unique insight into village life, the Pai of today has definitely been discovered.

This has both positives and negatives, on the negative side Pai is now geared toward tourism and vaguely reminded me of Bangkok’s Khao San Rd. It can get busy and there are often loads of people at the main attractions, and whilst there are plenty of places to eat, as with a anywhere that is geared towards tourists there are plenty of mediocre restaurants.

But for every negative there are ample positives! Yes, Pai is busy, but that just means there’s load of other travellers to meet and since most of the crowd are young backpackers we found that if you got out to the sites early you could still enjoy the feeling of being the only people there, there is amazing food just don’t eat on the main tourist strip and definitely try out the street food at the markets. It’s popularity meant that travel to and around Pai has become ridiculously cheap and easy, but the biggest positive? Pai has some of the most breathtaking scenery in Thailand.

We loved Pai! And no one we’ve chatted with has disliked it with almost everyone saying they ended up staying longer than planned. We probably would have stayed until our visa ran out if not for the call of the Yipeng lantern festival in Chiang Mai beckoning finally us back to the city.

Some of the things we loved most and recommend from our time in Pai-

Stay in a bungalow outside of town

Our first two nights in Pai were spent in town at a guesthouse which was a quick 2 min walk to the night market, brilliant location but otherwise nothing special. When we decided Pai was going to be home for a week we decided to splurge on a Bungalow in the mountains. Our big splurge set us back $35 AUD per night and for that we got a bungalow which overlooked rice fields and offered endless views of the mountains. We even had a pool and on top of the bungalow was a deck which was the perfect place for drinking beers and star gazing. If you’re going to Pai and you’re going to stay for a while- and you should! I definitely recommend renting a bungalow, far enough away to be completely serene and peaceful but close enough to still walk into the markets.

Tham Lod Cave

One of our definite highlights in Pai was Tham Lod Cave. We saw this as part of a tour that combined a couple of other sites and all in all ended up being cheaper than trying to get there on our own. The cave itself is insane! You are guided along the 1.6km caves by local ladies armed with just a lantern, they don’t speak much English so any information they give you about the cave is hilariously limited to pointing out stalactites and stalagmite formations that they’ve nicknamed like ‘UFO’ and ‘popcorn’. They deliver these tidbits with a little giggle making you feel like it’s comedy hour without the two-drink minimum. All up the cave tour takes about 40 minutes you walk through several areas and up loads of rickety, dark staircases which are loaded down with bat crap, I was disgusted for about 1 minute, but as I’d stupidly worn my thongs I quickly embraced those handrails, bat crap and all. Make sure you bring some hand sanitiser with you because I guarantee you’ll be gripping those hand rails too! Once you get to the end of the first cavern you’ll jump on a bamboo raft for a few mins to cross to the end of the cave, you’ll get out here and go up yet more stairs to another cavern before coming back down and beginning the walk back to the park entrance.

the entrance to the caves

the entrance to the caves

Pai Canyon

We stopped by Pai Canyon for sunset…but so did basically every other tourist in Northern Thailand, for a more serene experience try going for sunrise. Regardless of when you go, this one should definitely be on your list, the canyon is about 8km’s outside Pai and offers a lookout over Pai valley. Local’s like to claim it’s Pai’s very own Grand Canyon but that is a pretty big stretch. It does however offer stunning vistas and, if you’re not too freaked out by the impossibly thin and sheer red tinged ridges with 50m drops to the forest floor, there are some nice trail. It’s not for the faint hearted though and the viewing platform is as far as most people go and is easily reached by a set of concrete steps.

Sunset over Pai Canyon - this view makes braving the crowds worth it

Sunset over Pai Canyon – this view makes braving the crowds worth it

Hire a scooter and see what you can find

If you want to go anywhere in Pai the easiest way to get around is to rent a scooter. Whilst the road rules seem a little unobvious your biggest worry should be novice tourists drivers rather than local road rules, we saw many a tourist sporting tell tale white bandages. If you’re a semi decent driver and have minimal common sense though you should be fine and for around 150 baht a day you can rent a scooter. Some of our best times were just cruising around on the scooter and taking in the amazing scenery. Whether you’re going with or without a plan, any road will lead you to some spectacular views and the locals joke that ‘all roads lead to Pai’ so getting lost is hard.

Shane very proud after day 3 of not killing us on the scooter

Shane very proud after day 3 of not killing us on the scooter

The Land Split

The land split itself is kind of cool. Basically a farmer noticed that after an earthquake in 2008 a 2 meter wide and 11 metre deep crack had appeared in the middle of his farm. With his livelihood at stake the farmer decided to turn his farm into a tourist attraction! The owners allow you to visit the land split and taste their organically grown produce all for a donation. The people here are so lovely and continually try to give you more and more food- the rosella juice is amazing!

making rosella jam @ the landsplit

making rosella jam @ the landsplit

The Bamboo Bridge

This one doesn’t seem to be popular in the ‘must see’ lists or included in many tours but we stumbled across a picture and decided to try and find it. A 30 minute scooter ride over some pretty rough and steep roads delivered us to the Pai Bamboo Bridge or Kho Ku Su. There is no entrance fee but a donation box is placed at the entrance and you can also feed the fish for a donation. The walk itself is about 800m and winds across the rice fields that are nestled against the backdrop of the mountains. There are strategically placed huts along the way where you can stop and take in the incredible scenery or even buy a bag of food to feed the fish, proceeds of which are donated to locals in need. We got there early so we had the whole walk to ourselves but for the farmers working in the fields. The bridge ends at the entrance of a temple, which was closed when we were there. I’ve since read that the main purpose of the bridge is to be a time saver for the monks coming from the temple into town.

the bamboo bridge stretches over rice fields

the bamboo bridge stretches over rice fields

Hot Springs

Go directly to the hot springs. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 just go to the hot springs. There are two hot springs in Pai, the Tha Pai Hot Springs while closer are quite hot with stories that you can boil an egg in the 80 degree water! If you venture a little further though you’ll find Sai Ngam hot springs this is where you want to be. Crystal clear water, a lovely sandy creek bed and warm water- soooo relaxing!

Waterfalls

There are a few waterfalls that are easy to get to. Pai Mo Paeng which seems to be a favourite of backpackers keen for a few beers at the top while they find the courage to slide down the rocks into the pool below. Pam Bok, in my opinon is the nicer (and quieter) of the two, this one is secluded and requires an easy walk between high cliffs to reach it.

chasing waterfalls @ Pam Bok

chasing waterfalls

Coffee with a view

Everyone raves about Coffee in Love and while it does have good coffee and great views, it is also the stop for every tour bus that comes through Pai. Not wishing to battle the crowds, we decided to head up the road a little and found The Container. Equally impressive views, great coffee and even better a verandah full of swing chairs! We got caught here during a storm and ended up staying for a few hours, the staff were super chill and even has some decent tunes playing, all in all I can think of worse places to be stuck.

swinging @ Container cafe

swinging @ Container cafe