When we went:
May 2013. This was part of a longer South East Asian Itinerary; Flew to Hong Kong (slept one night), flew to Chiang Mai in Thailand (slept 3 nights), flew to Seim Reap Cambodia (slept 3 nights), flew to Bangkok Thailand (slept 3 nights).
There are no direct flights. If you come here you’re doing a long trip, minimum 10 days. From the east coast you’ll fly 12-15hrs to Peking, Shanghai, Hong Kong or some other major Asian airport. It will be another ~5hr flight to Bangkok or Chiang Mai or Phuket. There are also much longer (but sometimes cheaper) flights that go through the middle east. To be most efficient fly into one city and out of the other. You also have an option to make your layover city a long weekend destination.
While in Thailand, covering large distances (i.e. – from Bangkok to Chiang Mai) it’s best to fly. Getting around the cities you can use taxis, tuk tuks, communal pick-up trucks, or air trains once you’re in Bangkok.
Why we went
After our trip to Vietnam we were so impressed with South East Asia we had to go back. First thing to see on our list was Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. After looking around we decided that Angkor Wat would be a good three night side trip from a longer trip in Thailand. We chose two cities; Bangkok and Chiang Mai. We didn’t do Phuket because we’re not big beach people, and we had done some of that in Vietnam the year before. In Thailand we wanted to see the Temples, eat the food, experience the culture…and ride an elephant.
Intro to Thailand
Thailand takes up the heart of South East Asia, with a tail that extends south along the Gulf of Thailand towards Malaysia and Singapore. On the mainland it’s surrounded by Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma). Its bustling capital with an often sinister reputation, Bangkok, sits near the Gulf of Thailand in the center of the country. Bangkok is big and hot. You’ll see small wooden boats puttering up the river while high above them brand new air-conditioned sky trains wiz by. Thailand has had a somewhat turbulent recent political history, but very little of it has affected tourists. The cities and countryside still have a very safe feeling.
A couple hours flight to the north is Thailand’s spiritual capital, Chiang Mai. It’s up in the mountains and thus a bit cooler than Bangkok. This relaxed city is a great introduction to Thailand. The city center is the remnant of an old walled-in capital; there are temples on every corner, and the atmosphere is much more laid back here than in Bangkok.
We got to Chiang Mai via Hong Kong. Our hotel was right in the city center but felt like an oasis as it was tucked away behind high walls and bamboo trees. One night we walked just outside the wall for our first Thai meal. Many of the restaurants are open air, some look like empty auto mechanic garages which open up for the evening, filled with plastic chairs and tables.
Northern Thai cuisine is known to be spicy. We generally like Thai food but it’s not our favorite. As you’ll hear so often while traveling almost anywhere, the Thai food in Thailand tastes nothing like the Thai food near you.
Chiang Mai is a great city to stroll around. You can start by linking together the main temples. If you get hot or thirsty stop into one the city’s many bars or coffee shops. There is a budding coffee industry here. For a really great cup, head just out of town to Akha Ama Coffee. You can take a tuk-tuk out and a red taxi pick-up truck back (simply just flag them down and negotiate a price).
There is a budding coffee industry here. You will find coffee shops everywhere!
There are multiple blogs out there that simply focus on the Chiang Mai Coffee Culture.
We took a taxi (our hotel arranged by calling a car for us) afternoon trip to a temple high in the hills called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Covered in lots of gold leaf, it seemed to be sparkling in the reflection of the bright hot sun. When you walk into the temple complex, you have to leave your shoes at the entrance…which made me nervous but it was fine.
There are lots of elephant themed items and brands around Thailand. The local beer, Chiang, has an elephant as its logo. Most of the temples have elephants too. A must do for many visitors to Chiang Mai is spend some time with an actual elephant. There are many different elephants parks around the city. Some exploit the elephants by making them do stupid tricks like drawing pictures, playing soccer, or by strapping big saddles on their back. If you’re going to ride an elephant, go to a place that doesn’t use saddles. When you ride an elephant you should be on the back of its neck, bareback, which is much healthier for the animal. Saddles hurt their backs, they’re not horses.
We went to the Baan Chang Elephant camp for a day of learning about elephants, riding elephants, and bathing elephants. All of these animals had been rescued. It’s not uncommon for rural Thais to buy elephants as pet without realizing how expensive (or destructive) they are. At Baan Chang all the trainers seemed very interested in the elephants well-being and the elephants seemed very happy. There is no whipping or hitting but the trainers do have big hooks. They were not used. NOTE: Growing up, I showed cows at 4-H shows. Those who showed large steers used these same “hooks”…which are essential when around animals much larger than yourself.
From Chiang Mai we actually went to Cambodia before ending in Bangkok, but that’s a separate blog entry (see post on Cambodia). Bangkok is just a couple hours flight from Chiang Mai. It’s a big hot crowded metropolis. Thailand’s royalty lives there. After a boat trip down the river to survey the city, we spent time checking out the palace complex. There is a also a great massage school on the palace grounds — we made sure to make an afternoon stop there.
Just north of the city center is Bangkok’s famous flea market, Chatuchak, seemingly an entire city full of stalls selling just about anything you can imagine.
We ended up really enjoying the food – Northern Thai cuisine. Slow cooked curries, delicious sweet thai teas, crispy chicken, papaya salad, and even the pad thai!
Bangkok of course is known for its night life. Similar to Amsterdam’s red light district is Soi Cowboy, a street full of very seedy bars, but something you should walk down at least once.
Baan Chang Elephant Park; Chiang Mai. See description above. A great way to spend the day with an elephant.
Night bazaar; Chiang Mai. Great place for souvenirs and antiques.
Wat Chaing Man; Chiang Mai. Temples inside the old city walls, interesting to stop for a visit (this goes for Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Sing).
Wat Chedi Luang; Chiang Mai.
Wat Phra Sing; Chiang Mai.
Wat Phra That Doi Sutepe; 30 minutes outside of Chiang Mai. Beautiful monetary in the hills outside of Chiang Mai. You will need a car (taxi/car service) to take you there.
Chatuchak Weekend Market; accessible via Sky Train in Bangkok. Giant open air market selling everything you could imagine. It has a hip food and bar scene. There is a large indie t-shirt section.
Boats that go up the Mae Nam Chao Phraya River (the main river in Bangkok); Bangkok. Old Bangkok and many of the city’s main sights sit alongside the river. The best way to see them is to take one of these river boats that stops to see them. You can pick-up the boat from the SkyTrain station, Saphan Taksin Station.
Places/stops that you should go to on the boat
- Ko Ratanakosin; old area on the eastern side of the river.
- Thonburi; original sight of the city on the western bank of river.
- Wat Arun Temple; impressive porcelain spire in Thonburi.
- Wat Pho; famous for its 46m long Buddha made of gold.
- Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew; Bangkok. STRICT dress code (NO shoulders or knees showing). You will see lots of gold covered temples.
Just inside of the Wat Pho complex is Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School. Do yourself a favor and go here for a 30-60 minute massage (on the cheap). It’s a well-run, clean place to get a massage…and it’s a great way to escape the heat.
Tamarind Village; Chiang Mai. A little oasis in the center of the old city. It has a pool and a restaurant.
The Hansar; Bangkok. Located near Siam Square, on the RATCHADAMRI Sky Train stop. Nice modern/business hotel with an outdoor pool area and large hotel Feng Shui decorated rooms.
Aroon Rai; Chiang Mai. Just outside of the Tapae gate, is this little open air dining establishment. It’s an authentic, cheap, and delicious way to start your adventure in Thailand.
Huen Pen; Chiang Mai. We had lunch here — amazing chicken curry.
Le Spice; Chiang Mai. One night we had a craving for Indian so we stopped by this place which is located right outside of the night market.
Akha Ama Coffee; Chiang Mai. Delicious small coffee cafe located outside of the walled in town. It roasts its own beans and serves it to you however you would like it — slow drip, espresso, chemix, etc.
MBK Food Court (in Bangkok Siam Square); Bangkok. At least one day in Bangkok you should go to a food court for lunch. The food is actually quite good and they’re a cultural institution. We ordered several plates in order to sample different cuisines.
Polo Fried Chicken; Bangkok.
Poj Spa Kar; Bangkok. Located in the old section in Bang Lamp Hu. This is supposed one of Bangkok’s oldest restaurants using old recipes. I had THE BEST lemongrass soup here.
Nahm in the Metropolitan Hotel; Bangkok. Supposedly one of Bangkok’s best restaurants. We thought it was super pricey and didn’t live up to the hype. We ordered the tasting menu for dinner.
Tuk-tuks – (in Chiang Mai) a quick, though noisy way to get around. Fares are usually 40-50 baht for a short hop and 50-100 baht for longer distances, depending on the proficiency of your bargaining. As a guide, expect to pay 50-100 baht from the old city to the riverside and Night Bazaar, the railway station, and 100-150 baht to the bus station or airport. Tuk-tuks parked near the bus and train stations will ask you for something like 120-150 baht. Just haggle or walk away to the nearest road and stop a passing tuk-tuk