A week ago, I returned from Thailand. My husband Justin and I spent nearly two weeks traveling throughout the country, and I wanted to do a design rundown of the last portion of our trip- the Chiang Mai leg.
It’s worth noting that I went to Thailand 8 years ago as a backpacker with one of my closest girlfriends, and this excursion, barring the beautiful beaches, seemed so different from the country I remembered. At first, I was going to write it off to rolling luggage and a slightly matured travel itinerary (on the last visit, we managed $30-a-night-stays…) but in all honesty, the country’s gone through a tremendous transition, that the landscape was nearly unrecognizable. Bangkok is on the rise the fastest, but Chiang Mai is claiming it’s own in the creative arena – and there are several gems that we sought out and stumbled upon during our short stay.
This guide mostly bypasses the temples, adventure trips and tourist locations, and hones in on the gems that the local creative community seems to enjoy.
While Bangkok has a fairly sophisticated metro and taxi system, Tuk Tuks and motorbikes are the only way to get around in Chiang Mai. The city is charming, though spread out, and the congestion isn’t nearly as bad as in the south. We stayed in a neighborhood about ten minutes away from the Old City near the US Consulate. We spent about half of our time in and around the city walls – where you could see glimpses of older traditions and styles alongside a bustling economy – where morning markets served fresh produce to local restaurants and family households.
On the first full day, I signed us up for an incredible 10-course Thai Vegan cooking class. It went from 9am til 2pm and was run by Duan, who owns the business and adjoining restaurant, Morning Glory. We kicked off the day visiting the local Chiang Mai Morning Market, where she ran us through all of the ingredients we’d be buying and using. She also told us that nearly every Thai restaurant serves msg – an interesting and somewhat annoying fact – and when you request that it be held, it’s still generally added. She made that a point of differentiation between her restaurant and others.
One of the highlights was the rice station, where we tried blue flower pea and sesame sticky rice covered in coconut milk and wrapped in a banana leaf. Absolutely delicious.
The class was really an interesting experience. Justin and I have been cooking quite a bit lately – especially since joining Blue Apron earlier this year, and it was fun to be immersed in a lesson plan that’s easy to emulate back at home.
It was refreshing to see how the same base ingredients can be used to make so many different recipes. Cilantro, pumpkin, cashews, chilies, coconut milk, garlic and greens seem to accompany everything from rice noodles (pad thai) to sticky rice, to various curries, hummus dips and spring rolls.
Coming from New York, where coffee culture is it’s own beast, it’s interesting to see how different cities stack up. It’s worth noting that Chiang Mai takes it’s coffee very seriously and there are artistic cafes on every corner. We hopped in a tuk tuk to visit one in particular – Akha Ama.
They have a local coffee farm where they do tours at the end of the year – something I noticed Kinfolk was lucky enough to partake in. The cold drip is fantastic and the local grower, owner and roaster takes a lot of pride in his product. This coffee is a bit more expensive than other spots, but it’s quite good. I highly recommend stopping by one of the two locations to get a feel for where young entrepreneurial Chiang Mai is headed.
The local evening flea markets have always been overwhelming. If you’re with a friend, you better hold hands or keep your cell phone handy, as it’s nearly impossible to keep track of anyone amidst the hoards of people. Justin happened to be taller than the crowd, so whenever I looked up, I’d catch him a few tables ahead of me. Each market begins and ends with food – everything imaginable – from octopus lollipops to clams-to-go, to mango sticky rice, pad thai, roasted duck, french crepes and more.
This was the Saturday night market in the Old City, and it was filled with college kids, a blind band who was incredible, knock offs, locally made goods and fisherman pants at every other station. The cat bags were so silly and fun – very Taylor Swift meets Tavi meets Lena Dunham. At $5 a piece, I wanted to get one for every friend, but after staring at them for much too long, I just gave up and kept going…it was all too overwhelming.
We deliberated on how to spend our last day…after visiting several travel booths and considering the outdoor adventure options – ziplines, hiking tours and sky diving, I chickened out and opted to stay local. Maybe it’s part of being in your 30’s as opposed to being a 25 year old, but after looking at 50+ yelp reviews, I still couldn’t muster up the courage to do several 900 ft ziplines.
So, we kicked off the day near in the Nimman area – in the backyard of this adorable restaurant, Rustic & Blue, that had a Venice Beach backyard bungalow vibe. The crowds (which were local), instagrammed their entire meals, which was interesting to watch…families took selfies and chased their children around the backyard, snapping photos of every moment and movement in between dining at picnic tables and in and out of teepees.
It was almost surreal to watch teens, moms, and 30 somethings document everything on their camera phones and selfie sticks. I couldn’t figure out if it was cultural, generational, or simply a cool design space that warranted sharing.
Nimmanhaemin Road is the main creative drag in Chaing Mai. Coffee shops, Japanese restaurants, bookstores, vintage clothing and artisan museums all trail off this student-saturated street. Never Not Reading is a local design bookshop I found myself lingering in, and the Adidas sneaker store (with Pharrell’s limited edition collection) rivaled any other metropolitan shoe store.
Further along the road near little Japan, we stumbled upon this vibrant creative community called Gallery Seescape. It’s a multi-room museum that showcases the best and brightest from Chiang Mai. Complimenting the art, there’s a hand drawn map on the main wall called the Mip Map Project (something I wish we had discovered earlier in the trip), that pinpointed their friends and family – essentially a creative guide around town.
At that point, we realized it was time to rent a motorbike and give up on inaccessible overpriced tuk tuks. On a few occasions, we found ourselves stranded beyond local tourist spots, so we figured it was best to hand over a license and spend $5 to get a motorbike for 24 hours. Best deal going, right?
Along the way, we hit Pun Pun, a vegetarian restaurant, and Mango Tango – a fast food dessert joint. Both excellent with completely different vibes. Pun Pun is supplied by a local organic farm which is part of a learning center, and is filled with monks, locals and travelers. Mango Tango had a menu filled with sticky rice, pudding and mango shakes. At one spot, you’ll wait 45 minutes for the food while you meander the grounds, at the other, it’s about a minute or two amidst a fashionable crowd of students.
Having a motorcycle was really freeing – we couldn’t believe we waited so long to rent one. Of course we got lost a bunch and had a few near collisions while trying to navigate invisible lanes…and we nearly ran out of gas while making the trip to Doi Suthep, but it was incredibly fun.
Enroute to the mountain, we made a pitstop at another creative community called 31st Century. Make sure to visit in the early afternoon if you head on over, as the nearby food and coffee shops start closing around 4pm.
If you’re into exploring the local shopping scene, this vintage store was filled with Korean novelty accessories, fake luxury items – Comme des Garcon in particular – and more Chanel studs than one would know what to do with. It felt like Austin in Asia – which is a funny thing to say, but the assortment of glittery pieces, patterned polyester and imperfect knockoffs made it a bizarre adventure that Justin wanted no part of. The shop was in between a vespa rental store and a restaurant called Genki along Nimmanahaeminda Road.
While wandering the streets near Nimmanhaemin Road, I stopped short at the graphic 2D/3D paint job at Le Plateau Barissier. The triangular light ‘cast’ above the door was so simple and clever – and felt very Roger Rabbit.
Across the street was Dentaland, a compound devoted to dentistry and orthodonture. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was an amusement park – it felt like Candyland, come to life. So many people in and around Chiang Mai (and Bangkok) are wearing braces these days, so this makes sense. It also compliments the slew of cosmetic offices that have popped up around town as well.
This roundup wouldn’t be complete without hitting health and wellness. With two hour massages costing $20, we got them almost every other day. I was a big fan of the Thai massage – since there are no oils or creams – just intense bending and body work. It’s borderline abusive if you’re not used to deep tissue massage, but when you’re all done, everything feels better and in it’s place. The pain’s worth it and the end results are incredible. I wish bodywork was this accessible/reasonable in New York.
I’m ending things on a very American note – for better or worse. One of our best meals – when we couldn’t eat anymore Thai food, was at Dukes, a diner that could pull it’s weight in Manhattan or Brooklyn – it’s that good. I highly recommend weaving it into the mix if you’re ever visiting. We were hesitant at first, since it seemed a a cop-out to have Western fare, but honestly, everything was delicious, particularly the pizzas. Plus it’s open late. If you go, swing by the Good View Bar for a drink afterwards, will be a nice compliment to a long day.