I’ve just spent another two months in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. In the last 1,5 years, I’ve visited Chiang Mai four times, and stayed there for six months all together. I think after all this time I now have a pretty good feel of the city’s vibe, and was lucky to become a part of it.
This will not be the typical “20 Awesome Things to Do in Chiang Mai” type of post, but instead I’ll write about how you can experience Chiang Mai from a different perspective, one that goes beyond ticking boxes on your sightseeing list. For me, I feel like opening your eyes and immersing yourself into the local culture here is a way to get a deeper sense of and connection with the city, and a much more gratifying sense of appreciation.
As a side note, I am only sharing my own experiences here, so this is a rather subjective view. Feel free to disagree or add to the list.
Get involved in the community
If you have more than just a few days in Chiang Mai, or plan your stay ahead of time, I can only encourage you to get involved in the community there. It was one of the greatest things to connect with the local people, hear their stories, and become their friend. Of course, you can get a feel for the culture by going sightseeing, but by immersing yourself in it and getting to know the people, you can take your experience to the next level.
Some ways you can do this are volunteering, joining an improv or men’s/women’s group, and finding your niche in Chiang Mai.
Care for Dogs
When I was planning my trip for summer 2015, I wanted to do more with my time there, and give something back. Now, there are a number of volunteer opportunities in and around Chiang Mai, but for most of them you have to pay (a not so small fee) to participate. I did some research and stumbled across Care for Dogs, which is called WVS Care for Dogs now. Care for Dogs is a dog shelter for abandoned, injured, and abused dogs.
Loving doggies and not having to pay an insane amount of money to help out, this was the perfect fit for me. After a couple hours of introduction, I was ready to go and allowed to come back as often as I wanted. Volunteering there was great because I got to meet many other people through it, learned a lot about the local community, and got lots of puppy love (obviously).
If you love dogs, go and make their day. There’s a constant need for support, and you will be welcomed with open arms.
Chiang Mai University
In January 2017, I got to give a joint talk about Open Science at Chiang Mai University (I wrote about organizing the talk and how it went here). Organizing and preparing a talk or a workshop might require a bit of work, but if you love what you do, sharing your passion is a great way to get involved with the local community. Rather than being a one-way conversation, we started a dialogue with the students and faculty members, and got to exchange different experiences and knowledge with them. Chiang Mai University was so welcoming and warm to us that it motivated me to try organizing more such events.
Leave the city
The city of Chiang Mai has a lot to offer, and exploring the different neighborhoods can keep you busy for a while. But if you want to escape the tourists, or simply feel like something a little different, take your bike outside the city and get lost for a while. Like, really lost – let go of of any sense of direction and just ride!
If you leave behind the horrendous tourist hole the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon has become, Hang Dong is a really nice and peaceful area. We ditched Google Maps and spent a day just scooting around in the countryside. Not only did Jon nearly scare me to death by zooming down a dirt road (nothing happened, but scooters are not really made for that sort of cruising) and being deadlocked by a herd of bulls, but we also discovered some pretty cool things along the way that we definitely wouldn’t have found otherwise. Totally worth it.
A little further away, but definitely worth the trip is Chiang Dao. I actually took the trip twice because it was pouring so bad when I tried to make my way up the mountain the first time that I was sitting on my scooter shivering and holding on with wrinkly hands after two hours of driving and decided to turn around. Again, totally worth it, but do it on a sunny day.
The ride up the mountain is easily doable with a scooter, and once you make it to the top you are rewarded with the most beautiful views. The best thing is that, unlike Mo Cham, there are not a lot of people around. When I was there, nobody was there except for the locals running the small restaurant/hostel, and I had the mountain to myself.
Join the locals
If you read the post until here, you pretty much get the idea: Stay away from tourists as far as possible, and become absorbed by the local culture. Monkey see, monkey do, and just follow the locals’ lead. For example, if you see a restaurant with only locals eating there, good bet you can get some great food and for a good price!
Places to stay away from have clearly “westernized” menus and are packed with elephant-pants-wearing farangs (white people).. And don’t even think about touching those booze buckets.
For me, experiencing a different culture through food is such an amazing way. Cooking and having someone cook for me is something really intimate to me, because when preparing a meal, people give a part of them away and share a piece of their story with you.
In Chiang Mai, there are these cute breakfast places that are crowded with locals. They are usually open from 6AM to 11AM and serve incredibly cheap breakfast. Of course, you won’t find anything fancy like poached eggs or acai bowls here; instead the menu consists of simple (yet yummy) dishes like pan fried eggs (make sure they are fully cooked, Thais like soft borderline-cooked boiled eggs), donut-like deep fried dough thingies, and rice porridge. You usually need help from the locals to order your food since everything is in Thai, so it’s an easy way to start a conversation and have a few laughs.
Chiang Mai is a very vibrant city and almost every day there is something going on. Events range from tantric yoga sessions to art exhibitions and craft workshops. You can find many of them on Facebook, on event fliers, or just by asking around. If you see something you think might be interesting, go for it! You never know how much fun you’ll have or what you might learn.
The coolest thing I went to was called Galleries Night, which was a two-day event during which many many many galleries in Nimman (my favorite part of town) opened their doors. Jon and I visited the Seescape Gallery, where they not only had free food and space art, but also gave ballroom dancing lessons. It was so much fun trying to follow the instructors and eventually dancing with them.
Another fun thing is the Farmer’s Market, which is on every Friday. You can find all sorts of healthy and homegrown food there. My favorite was the goat’s cheese (made by a German dude, obviously). The guy making the cheese is also happy to share his stories with you, and talk about what it’s like to make cheese in Thailand.
Drink all the coffee
Yes, I am guilty of naming the obvious thing here as well, but let’s be honest: No post about Chiang Mai would be complete without mentioning the f****** amazing coffee scene here. Every time I’ve come back to the city, new places popped up, not falling short of quality.
Chiang Mai has definitely raised my standards, and strengthened my love for coffee. I’m just gonna list a few places here, and which drink you should definitely try if you make your way out there. All of them are great places to work from as well, i.e. they have good wifi, power outlets, and a great atmosphere.
Graph Café – Nitro Cold Brew, it’s with a dash of fresh orange juice and orange zest. Sounds weird, plus it’s cold brew, but it’s incredibly refreshing and super tasty.
The Barn – Matcha Latte. Not coffee, but they put so much effort into making the perfect matcha here, and the place is just adorable.
Omnia Café & Roastery – Layered Mocha. I still love mochas to death, and at Omnia they make it with dark chocolate that is so rich in taste that it complements the coffee perfectly (and it’s not sweet!!). Jon got two espressos and went to coffee heaven.
Ristr8to – Doppio Ristretto. This one is straight from hell, I have never ever tasted such strong coffee, and my face definitely went through a hundred different emotions.
Asama Cafe – Gravity or Espresso Pannacotta. More like dessert, but get it for the look and the delicious taste.
Coffee or Me – Espresso. Simple, but Jon loved it so much that it’s on here. Coffee or Me is on a Western themed horse ranch, and you can pet sheep there (they don’t really like humans, so bring them food, and trick them into loving you).
Bulbul Book Cafe – Coffee on the Rock. It comes with one giant coffee ice ball, no further explanation needed.