Chiang Mai is the city of elephants, coffee shops, street markets, cooking classes, massage schools and a hub for digital nomads. It is artsy and trendy. It’s where traditional Thailand meets modern spirit.
I started this article as a compliance of my favorite places in Chiang Mai that I would like to recommend to you. My personal Chiang Mai guide. It was back in November, In the world pre-Corona. I was sitting in my lovely local café in Chiang Mai’s Nimman, writing down ideas and looking forward to the evening where I was meeting up with friends from my London-time traveling through Asia.. I have to admit, I didn’t finish the article back then. After spending a few days with my friends, I left for India, then there was Dubai, eventually I went back to Europe. There was the X-Mas time and more traveling…
Travels! What a lovely memory now in spring 2020. I’m currently sitting in my parents house in Germany, waiting for life to go back to normality and hoping that soon the lifestyle that is reflected in this article is going to become my reality once again.
But for now we can travel virtually…
Let’s travel together to Chiang Mai
Situated in the north of Thailand, close to the borders to Myanmar and Laos, surrounded by mountains, Chiang Mai (meaning ‘New City’ in Thai) seems to be the little laid-back sister of Bangkok. Thailand’s second largest city is famous for good coffee and street food. It is one of the most preferred places of the digital nomad community.
Chiang Mai is known as the elephant city. The animal being the symbol of the province can be seen on every backpacker trouser (they are very comfortable, I have to admit). From here you can book organised tours to Elephant Reservoirs where you spend time with those beautiful creatures, bathing and grooming them (please don’t ride them!).
Chiang Mai is also the culinary capital of Thailand with many cooking schools. It’s a lovely experience. I can absolutely recommend a cooking class while in the city. You will be taken to a local market or to a farm, where you first pick the ingredients and learn about the local plants and spicies. Then you cook together with a group of like-minded people. It’s FUN! Of course at the end of the day you and your new friends enjoy the menu that you have prepared. YUM!
Thai Massage training in Chiang Mai
The city is also famous for schools that teach the traditional Nuad (massage) Bo-Rarn (ancient) – the northern style Thai Massage. There are several schools but the techniques are the same. Stretching, bending, lifting, trigger points… Nuad Bo-Rarn is a mixture between Indian Yoga and Chinese acupressure. It’s reflexology, healing art and exercise at the same time. It’s also meditative.
It is ‘the real thing’, nothing to do with the treatment you get in those cheap and cheesy looking street massage places with a certain reputation. Bo-Rarn is based on ancient techniques and doesn’t involve any oils. The client is fully clothed. The massage is performed on the floor mat.
My adventure with the Thai Massage training was an ‘accident’ as it was never my intention to become a massage therapist. However I really enjoyed learning it! A friend of mine recommended the ITM school to me as ‘something fun to do on your SEA trip, where you can meet international people and feel like an Erasmus again’ (this girl was with me on the Erasmus exchange program in Spain, years ago). I took the advice and during my sabbatical in South East Asia in 2013 I went to Chiang Mai and booked myself into the ITM massage programm. Why not learning an additional skill if I have time on hand, I thought. I was basically seeking new experiences and by coincidence I discovered that I really enjoy the massage training.
There was a group of people from all over the world and indeed it reminded me of the Erasmus-lifestyle. The teachers were fun. There was a nice, chilled atmosphere. We were like one big family. Since I had already booked my consecutive trips I left Chiang Mai with the Level 1 certificate and a promise to myself that one day, I will come back and continue with this adventure.
ITM – The Foundation of Thai Massage
There are 4 Levels of Nuad Bo-Rarn plus an additional teacher training programm at the ITM.
In 2018 I stayed for a longer period of time in Chiang Mai and decided to continue with my Thai Massage-adventure. I went back to the same school and was positively surprised that I’m still on file and that I can do the Level 1 course at half price, with no need to pass the exam again. I took the opportunity to refresh my skills. It’s been 5 years and I haven’t practiced since. So this time I did Levels 1 & 2 and I returned for Level 3 & 4 a year later, in 2019.
During all of the 3 training sessions at the ITM I met awesome people and built friendships. Each time there was a great group dynamic. Since you are quite intimate with each other, touching each other’s bodies, naturally you become close to people in a very short period of time and you grow quickly into a group of friends. A great experience that I can only recommend! Even if you do it just for fun. It’s always nice to learn an additional skill. You learn about anatomy and acupressure points, which might come handy at one point if your life.
The Old City of Chiang Mai
Surrounded by the city walls, this was once all that existed of Chiang Mai. Today there are parts of walls and gates and a moat surrounding the squared shaped Old City. It is a very particular thing in fact, in conclusion, it’s quite tricky for first timers to get in and out of the Old City (with the scooter). The streets along the gout are one-way roads and sometimes you have to do some loops to be able to access your destination.
Many of the temples, which Chiang Mai is famous for, can be found in the Old City. You find here museums, galleries and other cultural sights as well as restaurants, bars and the famous Sunday Night Market. Tourists tend to stay in this part of town because it’s rather walkable.
Expats and Digital Nomads however tend to rather choose the areas outside of the wall. I personally love and recommend Nimmanhaemin (Nimman) as Chiang Mai’s coolest neighborhood.
Nimman – the hipster neighborhood of Chiang Mai
Nimmanhaemin Road – short Nimman – has emerged as Chiang Mai’s hippest area. It’s just outside of the Old City and has a particular vibe. The streets here are full of modern coffee shops, boutiques, galleries and cute little bars and restaurants. The atmosphere is hip and chic without being posh. Nimman is often described as the ‘epicentre of arty Chiang Mai’. I can only agree on that.
You find little crafts-markets here, next to a square in an Italian style, next to alternative little hand-made-souvenir shops, yoga studios and healthy food cafés. My favourite place is the art café Seescape Gallery.
If you forget about the Maya shopping mall, in the streets of Nimman you kind of feel like in Canggu, Bali. Have you ever been to Canggu, you will know what I’m talking about. No wonder there is a similarity. Canggu is together with Chiang Mai in the highest rankings of the Digital Nomad List (when I started the draft for this article in pre-Corona November, Canggu was the 1st destination, Chaing Mai the 2nd).
Chiang Mai as a hub for Digital Nomads
Actually it was here in Chiang Mai that I met my first digital-nomad-friend who inspired me to this crazy and beautiful lifestyle. It was on my first sabbatical back in 2013, that I became friends with my Airbnb neighbour – a very ambitious young man who ‘injected’ me with this idea. I got hooked from the first moment.
After that, working on a contract back in Europe, being in a committed relationship, this idea was still occupying my mind. I had moved a lot in my life, had jobs where I traveled regularly and frequently. It is however not the same as being free to travel full time. To be able to live ‘on the road’ became my dream. It took a few years and required changes in my life, for me to sit here, working from a café, saying ‘I did it’. I’ve been freelancing and traveling ‘full time’ for the past two years now and I’m still enjoying it! (More about my personal digital nomading adventure in a separate post)
Chiang Mai has emerged as an expat community. It offers great places to work from, fast internet, good quality of life, very affordable rent prices, a large culinary selection and great coffee. No wonder it is very popular among the digital nomads, being at the top of the Nomadlist rankings for some years now.
What is worth visiting/ doing in Chiang Mai?
Vist the Wats. There are many (over 300 in the city and surroundings), so choose wisely. I recommend not to overload yourself because actually they are all quite similar. Maybe visit a few in town and also the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is perched high up in the mountain, just outside the city.
- Stroll around the Old City & around the streets of Nimman
- One Nimman Square: Shopping, food market, live music, events
- Art in Paradise: 3D Art Gallery. Super fun taking crazy pictures (you are in them, as a piece of art)
- Do excursions outside the city: Sticky waterfall, Pai, indigenous villages, elephants, cooking on farms
- Nightlife: Zoe in Yellow (party zone), The North Gate (Jazz), Seven Pounds (LGBTQ events)
- Shopping: Maya Mall, One Nimman
- Last but not least: Go to the street markets! There are many. If you have time and energy, try all of them because they are all a but different. ‘Same, same but different’ as Asians tend to say : )
Chiang Mai’s street markets
- Saturday Market (in the evening): Starts at the Pratu Gate and goes all along Wua Lai Road. Crafts, gifts & bites
- Sunday Walking Street Market (in the evening): Between Wat Phra Singh and Tha Phae Gate, along Rachadamnoen Road. Crafts, gifts & bites. Try to go early as it gets very crowded around 8pm
- Chiang Mai Night Bazaar (daily in the evening): Along Changklan Road. Permanent stalls and food courts. While at weekend markets the vendors are chilled, waiting for you to approach them, here the salesmen are more aggressive
- JJ – Farmer’s & Craft Market (mornings on Saturday & Sunday): My Fav! Hipster, crafty, chilled. Artisans, coffee trucks, barbers and life music. Very unique atmosphere
- Muang Mai Market (daily): Indoor food & goods marketplace
- Warorot Market (daily): Open 24h. Fruit, vegetables & meats
- There are also plenty of other little ‘neighborhood’ markets. Usually in the evenings. Food mostly
Culinary Chiang Mai
The ‘Rose of the North’ has a variety of food to offer. As I already mentioned Chiang Mai is known for its cooking schools. Because of its proximity to Myanmar, Laos and India, the cuisine of North Thailand is influenced by those countries. Taking into consideration the many expats living here, you find in Chiang Mai not only traditional Thai food but also many restaurants serving western food. Chiang Mai combines the traditional Thailand with modern urban life. It is trendy, fashionable and arty. In conclusion, the contemporary is reflected in the cuisine.
You absolutely need to try Khao Soi, the local, northern Thai dish. It’s a smoky, coconut curry, traditionally with chicken. A mixture of Thai, Indian and Burmese curry style.
I recommend to try to eat vegan while in Thailand. The cuisine is exquisite and Chiang Mai has a lot to offer in terms of vegan food! I’m not a vegan but I have to say that I absolutely love the Thai vegan interpretation!
And don’t forget to drink coffee in Nimman’s cafés. It’s a barista city!
My personal recommendations for Chiang Mai
- Brunch at Gallery Seescape
- Saturday morning at JJ – Farmer’s & Craft market
- Desert at Mango Tango
- Dinner at Cainito
- Vegan at FreeBird Café
- Chill at Bird’s Nest café or in the garden of IMPresso
- Chose from a large coffee selection at Ristr8to
- Chiang Mai Holistic for Yoga or Meditation
Useful Tips & Websites for Chiang Mai
- You need only 20 minutes to the airport. The fare is around 200THB. ‘Grab’ is the most common App for transport
- Get a local SIM card. Super easy and cheap. Available already at the airport
- Rent a scooter (or a bicycle). CM is not a walking city. It’s pretty large and often has no pavements. If you don’t get a scooter, use Grab. Alternativ: ‘red taxis’ – converted pick-ups. Very charming!
Scooter rental: Chiang Mai Scooter Rental, Mango Bikes Rent, Bamboo Bikes Chiang Mai
- Thai Massage Training: ITM – International Training Massage School
- Thai Cooking School: Smart Cook – Thai Cookery School
- Eat street food or market food. It’s an experience (and yummy & cheap). Restaurants can wait for you back at home
- Don’t be afraid of crime. Thai people are very friendly, humble and helpful. They believe in Karma
- Bargaining is ok (especially on street markets) but be kind, there is no aggression in Thailand
Have fun in Chiang Mai guys! Please feel free to reach out to me with additional questions. Best through my Instagram account b_kosmo.
PS: If you stay longer in Thailand and if you are a spiritual soul, check out my article about Silent Meditation Retreat in Koh Samui.