Chiang Mai — Thoughts After Six Weeks
A collection of tips, places to see and random experiences
My wife (Bec) and I are travelling the world this year Digital Nomad style, our second stop was Chiang Mai, Vietnam. We both visited this amazing city the year before for only a few days and loved it. I remember walking around the city one morning during that trip, getting coffee for our friends back at the apartment thinking that this would be a really relaxing city to live in. At that time the idea of travelling for a whole year was just a far off idea, I never thought I would actually get to come back less than a year later and stay for six weeks.
As we were researching where to stay and what to do as while travelling and working, this city kept coming up in our research as a ‘Digital Nomad hub’ because the place is cheap, has good internet and the people are incredibly friendly. One of the websites we have used a lot is Nomad List and Chiang Mai is consistently in the top ten in their rankings of cities. We also knew that we did not want to start in Europe as we would probably have frozen to death, or worse — been cold.
So in mid-February, we landed in Chiang Mai and checked into our Airbnb apartment just off Nimmanhaemin Road. Most people call this Nimman Road or Nimman area, at least that is what we got away with when trying to explain the location to taxis. This area is lauded as somewhat hipster or ‘young’, and also has a strip of endless cafes, restaurants and cool places to check out.
The place we stayed at is actually called this, it was just one example of the oddly named places all around Chiang Mai. One cafe we went to often was called ‘Nine One Coffee’, it’s opening hours were neither 9 or 1, and the street it was on was 11.
We loved our apartment, after the somewhat frustrating unit back in Ho Chi Minh city (shower flooding, room changes and lots of noise because of the city itself). This place was blissful, the room had a balcony with a nice view and felt light and spacious. The lifts felt like they would continue to work for the duration of our stay and they even had safe fire exit stairways. The apartment complex had an ancillary building with a small gym, a foyer with desks to work at and an upstairs BBQ area all onlooking the really nice pool.
Our first cafe was the famous Ristr8to coffee, this place was a massive highlight for me from the last time we visited. Their coffee menu is a tribute to all the different styles of (mostly espresso) coffee from around the world and the place is always packed with locals, expats and tourists. The days we would work from home always started with a quick walk to this cafe and back as it was only about a five minute walk from our apartment.
Living in Chiang Mai
We stayed a total of six weeks, so we got the chance to learn some of the aspects of living like a local in Thailand. Here are some helpful tips for those considering doing the same or just funny stuff that we learned the hard way. Thankfully the language barrier was not too bad, we learned a few basic sayings in Thai which were enough to make us sound probably hilarious to those who actually knew Thai, but we tried. I learned part way through the trip that the way I was saying ‘this is delicious’ was more like a question ‘is this delicious’, but I am sure the locals knew the general gist of what I was trying to say.
A shopping centre (shopping mall) called Maya was about a ten minute walk from our unit. This place is pretty new and immaculate, lots of high priced shops to check out, a cinema and a bunch of restaurants with a massive price range to choose from. We did a quick shop for the basics at the supermarket in this store called Rimping, kind of felt like a nice IGA from back home. Rimping has higher prices than other supermarkets but you get the benefit of most things being in English and a few western products on the shelves. Fruit at this place was super expensive though, so we held off on purchasing too much.
I also had the exciting surprise of realising that the toothpaste was salty, it was one of those times where I wished I had read the packaging a few more times before buying. Over the course of the trip I kind of got used to this salty fresh feeling in my mouth, I was glad to get to the end of that tube though.
Our big fortnightly shop was at a larger store called Tesco Lotus Hypercentre , we had to get an Uber there from our unit but the prices were much cheaper than Rimping and they had a wider range of products to choose from. Including an entire aisle on both sides full of two minute noodles, after spending at least 15 minutes trying to find ‘chicken’ whatever I ended up with was far far from that flavour. The other thing about buying food in other countries, aside from the fact that the language is unreadable (at least Vietnam uses latin characters) is that the colours do not match up with our colours.
In Australia, green chips (crisps) mean chicken flavour, here it means Seaweed. Blue toothpaste means mint, not salt and red noodles mean chilli, not clam flavour. After spending a massive amount of time in this Tesco supermarket, we made our way home.
Time for first shop — this is something I completely underestimate at each new city. There is this mix of confusion regarding language, shopping conventions (for example, do we weigh the fruit/veggies before we go to the counter, do we fill our own bags, do we have to pay for bags?), store layout, colours of things and even if what we want is available. This makes the first shop take a lot of time and actually be quite draining, it is also fun to see what things are popular in each country that would not even get a single item on the shelf back in Australia. The other fact of shopping in a different country is things that you love to eat or brands that you can trust might simply not exist.
I love cheese, a lot, way too much and I find it to be a staple in our regular shop. However, in Thailand, you just can’t really buy that much cheese, there are options but they are minimal and super expensive. I ended up getting those Baby Bel cheeses and they cost a ridiculous amount so we had to ration them.
Finally, the last piece of the shopping puzzle is the markets, we love our fortnightly fresh fruit and vegetable marks back in Australia so we were glad to find (after way too much time researching) where to go in Chiang Mai.
The Muang Mai Markets are your best bet for fruit and vegetables at an awesome price in Chiang Mai. We went twice early on a Saturday morning, the vibe of the place is so intense, small alleyways with beyond WHS friendly amounts of people in them. Not only people but scooters, motorbikes and these large baskets about 1.2m tall and 1m in diameter that people walk around with to either fill for their restaurants or who knows what. All of this means a crazy fun experience and the chance to buy a massive amount of mangos. Oh man, I miss mangos.
Getting into a vehicle in a country that you don’t know, with a driver that does not speak your language and an address that you cannot pronounce is a sure-fire way to add some freshness to your day. Our first Uber trip in Chiang Mai from the airport was not too bad, Uber had only been running here for a few months and this driver had to ask us where to go (we had no idea) at one point and also went down the wrong street near our apartment.
There are a few transport options in Chiang Mai, Taxis, Red Cars (Songthaew), Tuk Tuks and Uber. You can almost guarantee that the taxis will charge you tourist tax (ie. charging you more because you don’t know you are being charged more). We tried to avoid those and mostly stuck to Uber for our trips that we could not walk, with a varied experience and probably about half our drivers not using the actual Uber map app to guide them. I assume this was because of the newness of Uber in the area and we got to where we wanted to go in the end. The price of Uber is so cheap and also predictable that it just made sense to use it whenever we could.
We had a few Tuk Tuk rides when we could arrange a good price before hand and only one or two Songthaew rides into the Old City as this was a common route. One Tuk Tuk we got into was so close to death, the vehicle stopped running at almost every intersection and was rattling so much that we were getting ready to walk the rest of the way.
Eating, Drinking and Spending Money
This is the part where I put the other things that did not fit into the previous categories but are nonetheless interesting or helpful, enjoy.
ATM Fees — This is one area I could not find a workaround, there are a few blogs online that talk about some ATMs without feel, however, they are old and no longer correct. There is no way to avoid fees by the banks in Chiang Mai and these can be between $6 and $8 AUD which is pretty full on. The best plan you can have is to get as much cash out as possible, keep it safely and ensure you do not have much left over. Most places do not take credit card, so you need cash to make life work in Chiang Mai.
Getting Non-Thai Money — We also had the fun adventure of trying to work out how to get USD as our next stop was Cambodia. This is a good example of something that is simple back ‘home’ because you know what to do. You just go to any shopping centre and find the Travelex, knowing that ‘no fees’ really means ‘bad transfer rate’. However, after going to about five currency exchange places and four banks we were pretty over it and were not sure it was even possible. Finally, after another round of research, we found out the right bank to go and got some USD out. The process to get this money out also took a while, lots of stamping, checking and double checking with their managers, we also needed our Passport (which they photocopied) to get this money out. We did get a sweet little cardboard envelope to put the money in though.
Drinking Water — The water is ok to use for brushing your teeth and boiling to do the dishes (we did not have a hot water tap in our kitchen). However, you will want to get filtered water to drink, thankfully there are filtered water machines in most back streets that dispense water really cheaply. The one outside our apartment complex was broken about a third of the time while we stayed, at one point I had to press the buttons on the LCD screen that was not working by remembering what to press. While this was happening I had an old lady yelling at me in Thai, I assume she was explaining it was broken or maybe that she was just not happy with the existence of this machine outside her residence. I saw the same lady yelling at the repair person a few days later, so probably the later issue. Anyway, these machines are great and it means you only need to get one big bottle from the store and reuse it.
Cheap Lunches — Maya has an awesome set of restaurants on the bottom floor, you can get a solid lunch for less than $4 AUD there. Most of the signage is in Thai so you have to trust the photos and your sense of smell. It is well worth it for the price and the experience of trying something different.
Unique Lunch (also quite cheap) Uncle Tigger’s — This awesome restaurant had Chicken and Waffles as their main menu item. It was amazing, just uploading this photo now makes me hungry. We went to this place probably a few times more than we should have but loved it so much.
Doi Inthanon National Park — This National park is well worth the day trip, the mountain top is actually quite cold, which was refreshing compared to the heat of the main city. The parks are beautiful, especially the Twin Pagodas which are immaculate.
Epic Street Food — Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, the street food in Chiang Mai felt much more authentic, less touristy and so different wherever we went. The best markets/street food we had were around the Wat (temple) Phan On at the Sunday Night Markets. The Sunday Night Markets are a must do in Chiang Mai and only run on Sunday (convenient name). It will take you at least two hours to get from one end to the other as there are so many people. Tucked away around one of the temples is this epic area for street food, heaps of cuisines and awesome prices.
Some of our other favourite places to eat…
- Accha Restaurant — Indian food.
- Cherng Doi Roast Chicken — Thai food, really random place but the food it awesome and crazy cheap.
- Dash — Thai food, lots of seats and always packed, well worth the trip into the Old City.
- Some Burrito Van on Nimman, I do not know the name but they were starting a store on Maya so try to find it if you are there.
- Malin Plaza (or around there somewhere) — We had read about these large markets (food and clothing) around the university. After a bit of looking around, we finally found this place and had awesome food there, the place is chaotic and crazy but well worth checking out.
I loved the chilled out vibe across the whole city, traffic was reasonably relaxed the weather was warm and pretty much everyone we encountered greeted us with a smile. The city is busy but not intense and while things do open later in the morning (most places are open after 9 am or 10 am) there is always something to do or see.
The best time in Chiang Mai is the night time, the weather means you can go out every night and this is when everyone seems to be out at markets or restaurants. We got into a really great flow of work here and while it was good to go to a new place, I do miss wearing shorts and a t-shirt every day and being able to walk anywhere we need in about ten minutes or less.
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