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Chiang Mai, Thailand

My therapist thought I was going to Southeast Asia to do some soul-searching, but I really went for some search-souling.

It's totally different, okay?

For years I refused to call myself a digital nomad.

I still refuse to call myself a digital nomad, but I used to as well. (Shoutout to Mitch Hedburg, RIP.)

Anyway, tucked up in the north of Thailand is a digital nomad mecca called Chiang Mai (aka the 'Rose of the North'). It's one of the OG destinations that Westerners flocked to for doing remote work, and the locals from the 'Land of Smiles' (aka Thailand) accepted them with open arms--because like, what else were they gonna do?

Seriously though, the Thai are some of the nicest people on the planet. It's a shame that their hospitality can sometimes be taken advantage of by those who come just for the fast internet, the cheap prices, the incredible food, and the beautiful surroundings, but what was I gonna do... not visit?

Of course I was going to visit, especially when my burn rate was high and I needed to give my cost of living a breather. Wow, stop judging. Who are you, my therapist?

Relaaaax, here's my guide to Chiang Mai.

Getting in:

Here at 100 Flights the general assumption is that you're arriving at all of these places via airplane, and with that in mind I'm going to take this opportunity to say that if you don't have one of those credit cards that comes with a membership for access to airport business lounges, you're totally missing out, especially when it comes to Southeast Asia.

I mean, unlimited free food and drinks plus the occasional free 15-minute neck and shoulder massage? Yeah, I'm gonna go change into a disguise for another round of stuffing my face and getting pampered, thank you.

Anyway, once you've landed in the Chiang gang at CNX (aka Chiang Mai International Airport), you may want to make the 35-minute walk to the edge of the Old City square in order to burn off the buffet you just put out of business.

But you wont, so instead you can take a fifteen or so minute taxi, Grab, Bolt, bus, songthaew, or even a tuk-tuk (so pretty much anything except for Ubers and elephants) to wherever your destination may be, both inside and outside of the walled inner city.

Grab is the most popular Uber alternative in Southeast Asia. You can use this service for hailing car rides, motorcycle rides, and ordering takeout/delivery, among other things. Unfortunately, however, it's oftentimes very difficult to link foreign credit cards to your Grab account, so you may want to whip out some cash upon arrival at CNX. (Just be careful because many of the ATMs here spit your money out before spitting your card back out, so you may run away to catch the Grab that you called a little too early when you were trying to optimize for the perfectly timed pickup, lol.)

Bolt is essentially the same thing as Grab (with or without the food), only it's oftentimes cheaper and everything is in English (as opposed to just most things). It also works the same here as it does in Europe, so you can definitely link your credit card for payments. Not sure if they'll be expanding Bolt to other countries in Southeast Asia, but for now it's just in Thailand.

A songthaew is a big ol' red pickup truck with a roof in the back that shelters two rows of benches for passengers (hence the name songthaew, which translates to "two rows"), and is one of the most popular forms of public transportation in Chiang Mai. The way these things work is that you go up to the driver to tell him your destination, and if he's going that way (or doesn't have any passengers yet), he'll tell you the (negotiable) price per person and then instruct you to hop in. After that, you'll drive around making pickups and dropoffs along the way to your destination in whatever order makes the most sense to your driver.

Getting around in Chiang Mai:

Chiang Mai is a relatively small city that you can comfortably get around on foot if you have that kind of time. Otherwise, the Grabs, Bolts, tuk-tuks, and songthaews are very plentiful and easy to use for 99% of your needs.

That said, the most common form of transportation is motorbike, without a doubt. Now, if you've never driven a motorbike/scooter before coming to Thailand, I can't really be the guy to recommend that you rent one and learn to do so here. The same goes for motorcycles (like, manual transmission motorbikes with a clutch and foot pedals for gear shifting), because if you don't already have a license to drive a motorcycle in whichever country you live in or came from, I can't be the guy to recommend that you test your might here.

Nevertheless, I'll still go ahead and say that I think Thailand (and perhaps Chiang Mai specifically) is one of the best places in the world for riding around on a scooter and/or motorcycle for two reasons:

One, because the biggest danger to motorbike riders is always cars, and here in Chiang Mai, drivers of cars will usually have the assumption that there could be and/or is a motorbike somewhere within a full 360-degree radius of their car at all times (as opposed to drivers in a city like Los Angeles or someplace where motorbikes are practically a surprise to them every single time).

Of course, I'm not going to overlook the fact that Thailand has one of the highest motorbike fatality rates in the world, but I'm also not going to ignore how that comes with the territory of being the country with the highest motorbike use rate in the world as well. (It's like, when 80 percent of Thai households own a motorbike, it's no wonder the rates are higher. I mean, the US has one of the highest road traffic fatality rates in the world and over 90 percent of US households own at least one car.)

.......and Two, because despite all of that, Thailand consistently ranks in the top five or six countries on John Hopkins University's Global Health Security Index, which means that even if something really bad happens—like, say you're riding with a group of friends from one part of town to another when a drunk Thai man without a driver's license who is behind the wheel of his even drunker passenger's car goes speeding through a red light at an intersection only to collide with you before flipping his car on the sidewalk in front of you after you've just successfully saved the life of your date who was riding with you (and your own life) at the understandable expense of wrecking your beloved motorcycle while several witnesses begin pulling over to help and/or watch you pick up and carry your date (who is still in shock and doesn't even know if she's hurt) off the road before returning to drag your busted motorcycle out of the intersection as well, which is all just a few minutes before the Thai police show up to figure out what happened and call precautionary ambulances for both your date and the two (yes, two) passengers that were in drunk guy's car, while you and the drunk guy (and one of the Thai witnesses who speaks great English and is gracious enough to help translate for you) get taken to the police station (since this is now a crime scene rather than just an accident) because the driver was obviously drunk according to all of the people involved including the driver himself who was somewhat hysterically confessing to you over and over again in broken English that he's going to jail, especially because the whole thing was caught on the traffic camera footage at that exact intersection, which completely exonerates you of any and all fault while also completely implicating him to the point where he legally has to assume full responsibility for all medical, hospital, and administrative costs for everyone involved in addition to being responsible for the cost of buying a brand new motorcycle for the people you rented it from, who are happy to give you a new bike the very next day for free (that is, to replace the one you already paid for in your rental agreement) after watching the traffic camera footage and seeing how you did everything "right" in a split second to end up with the best possible outcome given the circumstances, despite how they can see it in your eyes that the new red motorcycle will never ever be able to replace the all-black one you loved so much even though it's the exact same model—well then at least you know you're going to be taken care of because not only is the Thai healthcare system super well-equipped to deal with motorbike accidents (for residents and visitors), but the Thai people are also honest, helpful, and they take ownership for their mistakes.

See?! Nothing to worry about, you're in good hands!

PS, always wear a helmet.

Where to stay in Chiang Mai:

Okay, so where to stay in Chiang Mai sort of depends on how long you're going to stay and what you plan to be doing there.

If you're just coming in for a few days and you're not going to have your own transportation, I'd probably recommend for you to go ahead and just stay somewhere within the walls of the Old City, or just outside it on the east side near the Tha Phae Gate. This way you'll be able to do a lot of walking to cover the most ground and see the most things in the shortest period of time, and you can also hitch a ride for anything else that's out of the way. Just get a hotel or a hostel or an Airbnb if you still can't go on a single trip without staying in an Airbnb because you've forgotten that other options exist.

Now, if you're staying for a longer period of time, and you plan on doing some remote work in cafes and/or co-working spaces, then you'll probably be better off outside of the Old City over on the west by northwest side in an area called Nimmanhaemin or Nimman for short. This is your typical digital nomad comfort zone. It's very westernized, very new, and the least Chiang Mai-like (if that makes sense, even though the name literally means 'New City').

If you're adventurous, the fun way to find a place to rent for a month here is to book something nearby for two or three days online, and then when you arrive you use those two or three days to walk around the area in search of serviced apartment buildings and asking the receptionists if they have any rooms available. Some examples to get you started are Pansook, or The Siri, or any of the Hillside Condos.

Hot tip: try to avoid visiting Chiang Mai and/or the rest of northern Thailand from February through April, as the rice-burning season creates smoke levels in the city that may be unbearable for some.

What to do and things to see (and things to do and what to see) in Chiang Mai:

Depending on how long you've been in Southeast Asia by the time you come to Chiang Mai, it's very possible that you'll have already reached your capacity for looking at temples. (The same goes for churches in Europe, am I right?)

There are about 50 temples inside the giant square of city walls that make up the Old City, varying in style from Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna. The most famous temple inside the walls is Wat Phra Singh, which features some gold plated (aka painted) elephants. I also liked Wat Saen Mueang Ma Luang as well as Wat Chu Talkin Mbout.

On the outside of the walls, the most famous temple in the area is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which sits 13km away up the Doi Suthep mountain. This one is highly advertised around town for tourists, and you can easily arrange for a songthaew to take you there. It's also a fun drive for those who have their own wheels, and you can continue upwards to Doi Pui View Point if you're keen on some extra credit.

Speaking of motorbikes again, one of Thailand's most highly regarded excursions is to do the Mae Hong Son loop, which is a two or three day road trip alongside mountains and rivers, starting and ending in Chiang Mai. This is a pretty cool thing to do that other websites will tell you more about, because I'm going to tell you about a single day trip you can do instead (and no, it's not a one-way ride up to Pai, which is a little hippie town on the Mae Hong Son loop).

I don't think my mini loop has a name, unless people call it the Samoeng loop, but I'm not sure so I'm just going to drop some pins on you. It takes two and a half hours of total driving, plus all of your stops.

Starting from Chiang Mai, your first stop is the Mae Sa Waterfall, a multi-tiered waterfall that's actually eight or ten mini waterfalls with a small hike as well as a swimming area. Bring bug spray and remember that the area closes at 5pm.

Your second stop is the Samoeng Viewpoint. The cover photo of at the top of this guide doesn't do the view justice. Pretty breathtaking. I mean, imagine that motorcycle in all black.

Okay so assuming you haven't made any other pit stops for coffee or food yet, which you should totally do whenever you feel like it, your third stop is the Wat Phra That Doi Kham temple. Here you can take a picture of the Buddha laying down in a sexy pose and send it to your friends with the famous, "Draw me like one of your French girls" line that Rose says to Jack line in the movie Titanic.

Anyway, there's your loop, modify it however you see fit. The cool part about it is if you really like it, you can do the same thing in the opposite direction the next day and have a similar but different experience.

Back in Chiang Mai proper, another nice way to spend time is to visit the Angkaew Reservoir behind the university. This is a nice, big lake that is great for walks and runs with a lot of green space for picnics and hangouts as well.

Speaking of the university, it's also worth checking out the Chiang Mai University Night Market where you'll find new and vintage clothing, food stalls, and other interesting items and/or gifts.

Speaking of night markets, Chiang Mai is all about the night markets. They're all mostly the same, but you still gotta go to at least one or two.

On Saturdays, the Wua Lai Walking Street - Saturday Night Market is a big hit and they close the roads for it. You'll find it just outside the inner walls in the middle of the south side.

On Sundays, the Rachadamnoen Road - Sunday Night Market takes over one of the main streets in the middle of the Old City. You can spend an entire day there (if you're insane), as it starts in the afternoon and goes until midnight.

For every other day (but also the weekends), the Kalare Night Bazaar and/or the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is a buzzing place to wander around and pick up some souvenirs. For example, if you want every person you see on the streets back home to know you just got back from Thailand when you return, here's where you can get those pajama pants with elephant designs on them. This one is a bit outside of the main city square on the east side.

All of the aforementioned markets have food stalls, but there are also two more night markets that are basically food-only (so I'll get to them later).

On the topic of elephants, I'm not the guy to tell you what's ethical and what's not, and it's too hard to tell how everything is done behind the scenes. Nevertheless, Chiang Mai has a lot of elephant sanctuaries where you can feed elephants and give them mud baths in the rivers.

After a long day of rescuing elephants from certain death and destruction, a classic way to unwind is with a traditional Thai Massage. I'm going to skip the jokes about coming in handy and getting a bang for your buck here, but I will say the sheer volume of massage parlors around town really keeps the price of a professional massage down to an affordable level when compared to the rest of the world.

Another thing I recommend doing in Chiang Mai is checking out some Muay Thai aka Thai Boxing matches. Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, which is also the world capital of this particular martial art. It's a one-on-one combat style of competition that typically allows for strikes with the hands/fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet. (However at the lower level promotions, there's usually an unwritten rule in place that prohibits the use of elbows in order to avoid cuts and keeping the sport more of a spectacle for the casual observer.)

Chiang Mai has three different stadiums, one at the Tha Phae Gate on the east side of the Old City square, one at the Kalare Night Bazaar even further east, and one in between those two and a bit to the south on Loi Kroh road in one of the bar districts. I've been to the first and third and thought they were both a riot. Good for some pre-game drinks and a show. You can get tickets ahead of time or at the door.

After you fall in love with Muay Thai, I would also recommend taking a class while you're in town. However, if self defense isn't your cup of Thai milk tea, you can always take a cooking class instead. Many of the cooking classes in Chiang Mai include a tour of the markets as well, so you can be taught what ingredients to buy, learn a few things about what to look for while shopping, and then learn how to prepare some classic Thai dishes at home.

Finally, if you want to get a custom suit tailored in Chiang Mai, I recommend the sweet older gentleman who runs Neramit Custom Tailoring.

Oh yeah, weed is also legal in Thailand now so if you want to get zooted and go eat junk food from 7-eleven you can do that pretty much anywhere around town.

Where to go out in Chiang Mai:

I don't want to say that going out in Chiang Mai is usually a bit of a disappointment, but the nightlife is certainly not fully developed to handle a good mix of visitors and locals in single locations, and instead you have a segregated scene while going out.

On one hand you've got the kind of sleazy bars that attract older sleazy tourists, on another you've got the kind of bars that attract young and obnoxious travelers, and on your third hand you've got the kind of bars where you'll end up being the only non-Thai person/people there--which is probably the best kind but if you don't speak Thai you're not really going to be able to integrate and meet people.

Anyway, here's some places to get you started.

The North Gate Jazz Co-Op is a great little spot on the north side of the wall for simple drinks and live music.

For rooftops, which is not Chiang Mai's specialty, Woods Bar is a laid back spot that's generally not too crowded.

For a bit fancier and an even less crowded rooftop, I recommend the one at the top of Hotel YaYee.

Some other spots to look up are Red Room, The White Rabbit, and Boy Blues Bar.

For mostly Thai populated places, go to Warm Up Cafe, The Chang Cafe, and Living Machine. Mileage may vary and you may get a predominately younger univeristy-aged crowd depending on the night.

For the sleazy bar scene I mentioned earlier, take a walk down Loh Kroi Road, then turn into Loh Kroi Road Lane 3A (where one of the boxing stadiums is located). All of these places can actually be pretty fun to go to with a big group, but I don't have any specific spots to recommend.

Okay, now that those are out of the way, it's time to turn to the place where you're probably going to end up away: The Square of Despair. This is a moniker for the collection of bars near the corner of Ratchapakhinai Road and Ratvithi Road where most of the younger, less-responsible tourist crowd ends up every night.

There's actually a lot going on in this area. You can sit down at some tables outside in the open air, you can go into some places to dance, you can sing karaoke, you can go to a stoner bar, and you can even play beer pong at one or two places.

The most popular spot here is called Zoe in Yellow, which is actually two bars separated by a street that runs in between them.

Of course, once all the bars there close, the despair continues when everybody walks over to the nightclub called The Spicy to continue dancing. You have to buy a drink at the bar in order to enter the larger area with the DJ. Surprisingly, this place may actually be the closest thing to a good mix of locals and tourists, but it still leans extremely heavily to the tourist side.

Where to eat and what to eat in Chiang Mai:

First and foremost, you should know that Thai food can be very spicy/hot, so if you can't handle the heat, may god have mercy on your soul. Alternatively, if you do enjoy spicy things, you'll be in absolute heaven on Earth.

Note: I should also point out that the Thai people are very accustomed to (mostly white European) visitors who think they can handle Thai level spicy but actually cannot, so unless you make it abundantly clear that you want Thai level spicy, they secretly may not even give it to you when you ask for spicy.

Another thing I'd like to say unsolicitedly is that you are allowed to eat Pad Thai in Thailand if you want, and nobody should shame you for it. (But here's how I would shame you for it: "Look, not everyone is adventurous enough to try new things, and it was a big leap for you to travel to Thailand in the first place. You're doing great, sweetie.")

Anyway, there are a lot of great things to try in Chiang Mai, especially because the northern food is oftentimes a bit different from what you might find down south in Bangkok.

The big dog on the northern block is most definitely a dish called khao soi, which is a coconut curry noodle soup, traditionally with chicken but can also come with beef or vegetarian options.

Some people like to be purists about whether or not the chicken is still on the drumstick, but authenticity doesn't always equate to better taste. That said, it sure as hell does at Khaosoy Maesai, which is probably my favorite. Once you score a seat at this place, you grab a pencil and a small piece of paper, write down the dish number you want from the menu, add the table number, and then pierce the paper onto the little metal spike thing next to the ladies preparing all the other orders. They also make some great Thai milk tea and coffee that I recommend.

I highly recommend doing a grand tour of khao soi during your stay in the Chiang to find your favorite because it may be one of the best things you'll ever eat.

Some of the other popular spots to try are:

Coconut Shell. (Try the coconut ice cream and/or mango smoothie here as well.)

Apart from khao soi, some other things you're encouraged to try are the papaya salad, which you can find at various food stalls and markets, as well as a restaurant I like called Cherng Doi Roast Chicken.

One of the food-only night markets I recommend is the Chiang Mai Gate Market, where you'll find a lot of the classics including a nice pad see ew (a stir-fried flat noodle dish) and of course, the famous mango sticky rice dessert, which is a huge hit.

On the exact other side of the Old City square up north you'll find the food stalls of the Chang Phuak Gate Night Market. Here you'll find a lady in a cowboy hat cooking at a place called Chang Phueak Pork Leg Rice. The dish they serve here is quite possibly my favorite thing I've ever eaten, and definitely the best taste-to-cost ratio of anything I've ever tasted. It's a pork leg dish with rice, an egg, some greens, and a sauce on your table that you ladle onto your plate.

It's so good that all you have to do is come in, sit down, and ask for "One, please."

After I had it the first time I probably went back seven of the next ten nights. I had to stop because there's too many other good things to try in Chiang Mai.

Pakorn's Kitchen is a homerun every single time you go. Get the massaman curry.

Teng Nueng is a cute and unassuming place with a tiny creek running through it. Everything I've had there was solid.

For a very cheap but amazing dish called pad kaprao/krapow (which is a holy basil stir fry of ground beef or pork with rice and a fried egg), head out here, where a lot of the students in town get it. Be careful because the hot Thai spice version of this can sneak up on you.

For a way more expensive dinner at a Michelin rated fine dining establishment, you can head to Redbox Dining Room. It's not every day that I can afford to eat at a place like this, so I gave it a go and it did not disappoint.

For surprisingly great Mexican food in Chiang Mai, Salsa Kitchen has my full endorsement. I usually have a hard time finding Mexican food I like outside of the US and Mexico. (Bonus points if you noticed this place was a stop in my map/photo of the Samoeng motorbike loop.)

Speaking of the US, I have to give a shoutout to a restaurant called Bake & Bite, which put together an incredibly well-done Thanksgiving plate when I visited during the month of November.

Alright, I can go on and on about the food in Chiang Mai because it's probably my favorite place to eat.

I'll leave you with one more recommendation for a place to get most of the Thai classics, including a good khao soi. The restaurant is called Huen Phen, and it's where I ate with some Belgian friends I had met on the island of Ko Pha Ngan, including one guy who was on his ninth time visiting Thailand. When I asked him why he kept coming back, he said that he once saw a T-shirt that said, "I don't need therapy, I need Thailand." (Which is just beautiful, isn't it?)

You hear that, [my therapist's name redacted], I don't need you any more!

Jk, see you on Thursday.


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