February 28 – March 14
We were pretty ready to leave the madness of Koh Lipe after six days on that island. Our next stop was Chiang Mai, which required a couple of boats and then a flight to get there from Lipe. Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, and was the seat of the former Lanna Kingdom—another city with an ancient walled old town! (We opted not to visit Bangkok this time around, having heard mixed review from people.)
I was especially looking forward to two weeks in Chiang Mai because it was the first place we had booked an apartment instead of a hotel or guesthouse. After almost two months of constant eating out and living out of single rooms, we were ready for some more personal space and to do some actual cooking for ourselves. Something on the Europe leg of our trip that definitely saved us from feeling too homesick and which kept us from eating out all the time was that we stayed mostly in apartments. Our Chiang Mai apartment was great and we enjoyed having a bit more personal space but it didn’t really work out to be able to cook for ourselves. The apartment itself was totally nice, but the kitchen was barely better than a hotel: a small stove, three each of utensils and dishware, one small frying pan, one chef’s knife, one electric water kettle, and one rice cooker. This combined with the higher prices of anything we were used to cooking, not really knowing where to go for the best groceries, and feeling iffy about sufficiently cleaning our produce, meant that we didn’t do nearly as much cooking as we had hoped to be able to do. Being able to have breakfasts at home made a big difference and we did make some simple one-pan meals (chicken and veggie stir fry with noodles, pasta carbonara) and had space to keep snacks around (plain instant noodles + butter + salt and pepper + parmesan shake “cheese” = surprisingly delicious!).
What we learned is that a lot of people in Chiang Mai don’t actually cook at home: Everyone eats out for every meal! It makes sense when the food from street stalls is cheaper than buying the ingredients to make it yourself, and there is unlimited availability and variety of eateries within a few steps of everywhere. We had a great time trying a lot of foods, but when you’re not used to eating out for every meal it gets really exhausting.
We had heard that the food in Chiang Mai is really good so most of our time there revolved around food and eating. We did a really great street food tour—which ended up being only us and a guide—during which we tasted about a million different foods and snacks, explored one of the city’s large indoor markets and several different street food areas. We tried so many different things that I can barely remember! I feel like I might still be in a food coma from it.
Some of the standouts were: Stewed pork leg from the famous cowboy hat lady (Anthony Bourdain went there on an episode of Parts Unknown; we got to meet her!); spicy Chiang Mai sausages, piping hot from the market; sweet potato turnover-like pastries; Burmese tamarind leaf salad; and so many random sweets, mostly variations on sticky rice and coconut. We also learned about all of the other countries and cultures that have had influence on Northern Thai cuisine: China, Portugal, Burma (Myanmar), among others. We’ve done a fair number of food tours and cooking classes by this point and have found that they are really a great way to learn not only about food but also about a place’s history and culture.
We did a couple of day tours to get out of the city and see more of the region. The first one was a day trip to see Doi Inthanon, a national park north of Chiang Mai. We had a couple of other stops as well, to see a waterfall, to do a bit of a jungle hike with a local guide, and to try some coffee and have lunch in a rural village. We made it to Doi Inthanon and followed a boardwalk through a cloud forest up to the highest point in Thailand: an oddly specific height of 2,565.3341 meters!
One of the main attractions of the day was to see the stupas for the king and queen, two modern temples nestled atop neighboring hills among perfectly manicured gardens. It was quite lovely and peaceful, and if there had been better air quality we would have had some amazing views down over Chiang Mai.
We did another super touristy day trip, which was to meet elephants! I had really wanted to see some elephants up close, and while we had seen a handful in Vietnam, Cambodia, and on the islands, they were just for giving rides to tourists, a practice which is now regarded by animal welfare groups as very harmful to the large animals. Elephants used to be used across Thailand for logging and when logging was made illegal many elephant owners turned to the tourism industry to make money. So now there are many many elephant “experiences” everywhere and most of them do not treat the elephants very well, weighing them down with too many riders, keeping them in chains, or using sharp hooks to control them; some places say that they don’t offer elephant rides just to lure in money, but often also offer other packages with elephant rides. So, while I felt like it would be an incredible experience to meet some elephants, I wanted to make sure that we went with an ethical organization that keeps the animals’ welfare at the forefront. I did a whole bunch of research and went back and forth about it, and in the end decided to go with Elephant Nature Park.
I am so glad we did end up doing a visit with elephants! We had actually hands-on time with them throughout the day, fed them, walked with them, helped them take a bath in the river, and learned about them. They are incredibly dexterous and agile for such huge creatures. They are also incredible intelligent—when we came up to their field to feed them from the fence, the eight-month old saw us coming and lifted up the gate with her trunk to come get to the food directly! And the older ones did it and filed out through the gate when they were ready to get water and go on a walk. We got to touch them and be close with them for most of the day, which was really amazing. It was also great just watching them interact and play with each other; the five-month old little male was probably the highlight and it was like watching a huge clumsy baby.
Our time in the city was mostly spent exploring temples and markets. There are so many temples in Chiang Mai, each one different from the next, and we only saw a small portion! I loved seeing all of the details and craftsmanship in each temple we visited. At several of the, you can even participate in “monk chats” where you can talk to local Buddhist monks and learn about their lives and religion while they get to practice their English; it seems like a really cool program but we didn’t do it this time around.
One of the best ones we visited was the temple at Doi Suthep, a hill outside of the city, which had a blindingly gold interior and would have had amazing views over the city if the air had been clearer that day.
Chiang Mai also has so many markets! There are several large indoor markets that have vendors selling everything from prepared food and produce, to gold jewelry and school uniforms. We were staying near the night bazaar which happens every night and is mostly geared towards tourists: The vendors there pretty much exclusively sell iterations of the same cheap clothes we’ve seen everywhere along with cheap tchotchkes and knockoff brand-name products. We grabbed dinner one evening at an outdoor area with a bunch of foodstalls near the night bazaar and enjoyed our tasty food while listening to a Thai cowboy playing Beatles songs and mumbling the lyrics, while ghouls from “Chiang Mai’s only haunted castle, escape room, and gothic bar” wandered around to entice people inside.
The biggest night markets happen every week on Saturday and Sunday, and they are huge; like, even after going several times and spending hours each time, we probably only saw half of it. The weekend markets attract a pretty diverse group of locals and tourists alike, and they get really crowded. The goods on sale at those markets tended to be more handmade and local products mixed with items anyone might need for their home or wardrobe. There was a lot of great food to try, although we steered clear of anything durian-flavored… And there were a million lines of chairs where you could sit and get a leg and foot massage when you got tired of walking! Wandering through the weekend markets was definitely an entertaining and fun way to spend an evening and we went every weekend we were in town.
Of course, we did another cooking class while we were in Chiang Mai. We each opted to make slightly different menus so we learned a bunch of dishes. It wasn’t the best cooking class we’ve done on our trip but we did come away with some basics that I’m sure we can work with at home. One thing that was certainly impressed on me by both of the cooking classes that we took was how quick and fast Thai cooking is! Other than making curry paste, which you are only supposed to by hand with a mortar and pestle and which can take an hour to get to the right consistency… We did learn how to make khao soy which was fun.
One of the dishes that Chiang Mai is famous for and which is only really found in Northern Thailand, khao soy is like a curry noodle soup and it is delicious! There is one place in North Beach in San Francisco that serves up Northern Thai cuisine and we had previously had khao soy there and really enjoyed it (they also delivered to our Cow Hollow apartment… 😋) so we were excited to try some in situ. The version we made in our cooking class wasn’t spectacular, and we didn’t get to learn how to make all of the accoutrements that make it really good, but it was a good base. We got to try several versions around Chiang Mai, including an Islamic version that is a bit soupier than the Thai version but still flavorful and yummy.
It was really good to spend two weeks in one place; I felt like we were starting to scratch a little bit further below the surface than we get to when we only spend a week or a few days in a place. There is still plenty more for us to explore in Chiang Mai for the next time we visit: The flipside of staying in a place for longer is that we often fall into the trap of saying “we can do that tomorrow” and then running out of tomorrows. We both definitely needed some downtime so it was also good to not feel like we were too rushed to fill every day to the limit. And we used the time to (try to) get in better shape for our next stop: trekking in the Nepal Himalayas!
Check out more photos from our two weeks in Chiang Mai here, and stay tuned for stories from our Himalayan adventure!