Chiang Mai - first impressions
Chiang Mai is the hub of Northern Thailand. With a population of over 170,000 in the city proper (but more than 1 million in the metropolitan area), it is Thailand's fifth-largest city. Located on a plain at an elevation of 316 m, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, it is much greener and quieter than the capital, and has a cosmopolitan air and a significant expat population, factors which have led many from Bangkok to settle permanently in this 'Rose of the North'.
I have heard only good things about places in Northern Thailand, most famous of which is Chiang Mai. In fact, the only 'bad' thing I have heard about it is that it is great but Chiang Rai and Pai are even better. With such raving reviews, I decided to cut my time short in Malaysia and southern Thailand so I can spend just over a week in this region. Even though I felt a bit guilty for not taking advantage of the great (and cheap!) diving opportunities in the southern part of the country, after just a few hours in Chiang Mai, I do not feel any regrets anymore. In fact, I am seriously considering pushing the rest of my trip plans out a month or two so I can spend more time here as well as travel through Laos and Cambodia.
So why do I like it so much here? I just have that feeling... But here are a few reasons in random order just to give you an idea.
It started at the airport - the taxi transportation is organized such that you pick up a voucher at one of the two taxi offices in the arrivals area and then present it to one of the taxi drivers waiting up front. The standard fare is 120 baht/$3.90 to get from the airport to the old town portion of the city - a quite reasonable amount for a 15 minute drive (which I also spilt with two girls I met at the airport). There is no haggling, no screaming, no 'where you go?' coming from all directions. Even the 'taxi' itself turned out to be a nice (new?) SUV - definitely the nicest transport I have ridden in on my trip.
The traffic in Chiang Mai is a lot less chaotic than other places in South East Asia I have been to. Of course, there are ever present motor bikes and tuk tuks, but the traffic flow seems to be very smooth and organized. No jumping back and fourth between the lanes. Almost no honking. No 'F you' attitude from other drivers.
The weather, while hot, is not humid and the light breeze is actually refreshing so I do not sweat like a pig after going outside for a minute. Even inside my room, it is nice and cool through the day with just a fan blowing on the lowest setting. Oh, and no daily rain rituals I have been going through the entire month. Maybe my clothes will actually dry up for a change.
People are truly genuine in trying to help others. Since the girls were going to a different hostel, we got dropped off there and when I asked them for directions to my hostel, they happily showed me how to get there instead of trying to get me to stay there or giving me the attitude. Same thing happened at a couple of places I stopped by along the way to ask about tours and pricing - they even told me to go and book some things online directly with the companies rather than going through them because it would be cheaper. The last 'straw' was the tuk tuk driver that instead of trying to get me to hire him, showed me the quickest way to walk to my hostel. This was an extreme contrast to what I have experienced at Ko Phi Phi where there are a ton of 'tourist information' shops and stalls which become absolutely unhelpful if you do not immediately buy a tour from them.
The two hostels I have seen so far are cheap, but very cosy with only four people per dorm with large common areas. Once I got to the Little Bird Guesthouse, I was taken to my room and told to come back and check-in with my passport once I have some rest. One of the local markets is literally across the road and through an alley from the hostel.
Everything is also much cheaper here compared to Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. Thai massage is 150 bah/$5 per hour vs 300 in Phuket and 600 on Ko Phi Phi. Standard dorm price at local hostels is 100 baht a night with free internet compared to 250-350 in Phuket and 250-700 on Ko Phi Phi. A 500ml bottle of Coca Cola at the hostel (!) is just 15 baht, compared to the 60 baht I paid for a smaller bottle of tea at the Phuket airport. And the cleaned, cut fruit is just 10 baht!
Lastly, there seem to be so many things to do here. Trekking around in the jungles, rafting down rivers, visiting local villages and temples, working with elephants and playing with tigers, exploring old town or taking a cheap 16-20 baht ride to other towns nearby, taking cooking, language, thai boxing, or massage classes... I definitely need more time to spend here!