Chiang Mai is said to be the most laid back city in Thailand. Founded over 700 years ago as a walled city, it is located between two mountain ranges in the Mae Ping river plain. The remnants of the old wall with its moat still ring the one square mile (2.6 sq. KM) Old City.
Serviced by an international airport, the city has three main types of ground transportation. Regular taxis and vans provide enclosed transport and Song Taews and tuk-tuks provide open-air transport. A tuk-tuk is a motorcycle with three wheels and a top and a song taew (a.k.a. baht bus) is a pick-up truck with a camper shell and two parallel benches. Although none are expensive by western standards, the cost ranges from cabs and vans as the highest priced to tuk-tuks then song taews as cheapest.
Most taxis and vans offer “tour services,” usually ranging from 1500 baht (Note: As of 15 Sep 2016 – 35 baht = $1 US) for local attractions and increasing for more distant locations. There is a difference between these services and the services of a Thai Licensed tour guide. The Licensed guides have been to school and know the history and trivia associated with each attraction. Their license gets them free access to most sites, so there are no admission costs associated with having a real guide rather than a driver.
I have had excellent experiences with the tour services at Chiang Mai Photo Tours. The owner, Kevin is a New Zealander and his wife is Thai. They offer everything from workshops to guided tour services. Their licensed guide is “Kik” who has a late model car, is an excellent driver, a well-informed guide, and a comfortable person to tour with. They can suggest an itinerary for you regardless if you’re a photo enthusiast or a tourist that wants the most bang for your tour buck. Denchai is a Nikon, Sony, and Canon dealer and Nikon warranty service center. Canon also has a factory service center on the West Wall.
Chiang Mai handles a large tourist volume, especially during the tourist season, which is from December through February. Due to Thailand’s climate, moderate temperatures and dry weather prevail through the winter months. Chiang Mai’s Flower Festival and Parade are held in February. Accommodations range from youth hostels to the stunning Dhara Dhevi Resort. Guesthouses are common and Kamala’s (ask for Da or Kamala) is a good one. Condominium monthly rentals are available at Nakornping and Hillside, two good affordable ones near the upscale Nimman area of town with swimming pools and 24 hour security.
Rental vehicles of all shapes and sizes are readily available:
- Bicycles are the most economical starting at 50 baht a day,
- Scooter (~125 cc) are 99 baht a day,
- Larger motorcycles – Cost is dependent on size [a 300 cc Honda is 900 baht a day],
- Larger motorcycles, such as a Triumph 850 cc motorcycle is around 2500 baht a day and,
- Autos start at about 799 baht a day.
Pop’s is a reliable bicycle, scooter, and car vendor with several locations in the tourist area near the Tha Pae gate. Tony’s Big Bikes, run by Brits (ask for Jeff or Duncan), is an excellent vendor with well-maintained equipment and substantial insight into motorcycle touring or Northern Thailand, Myanmar, and the Golden Triangle. Rental autos are available at the airport. Remember: Thailand is a drive on the left country.
An International driving license is required for all but the smallest scooters. Considering how quick and easy the process is, any serious traveler should obtain one. Once acquired you’re good to go in 70 different countries. Fines for not having the proper license are normally under 1000 baht ($28.00 USD) and can be handled at the checkpoint if you’re stopped. Although you will see many people riding scooters with no helmet, the fine is 200 baht and being assessed for this infraction is more common for farangs (foreigners). Motorcycles and scooters face scrutiny much more often than autos.
There are many markets in Chiang Mai and each one is well known for certain products and offerings.
- Gate Market on the south side of the city wall offers an amazing variety of street food, flowers, and clothing.
- The Waroros Market is located near the Chiang Mai Flower market next to the Mae Ping River. This is where most locals shop for electronics and specialty items.
- There are also several fruit, veggie, and meat markets in that area.
- Between the Mae Ping River and the East city wall is a tangle of shops with everything from fruits to hemp clothing. This is also the area of the city with the most bars and nightclubs.
- Finding bars and entertainment is not confined to this area and the old city has many.
- Alcohol can be purchased from 11 AM until 2PM and again from 5PM until closing. Getting several blocks off the main streets may provide options to this restriction.
In part 2 we’ll look at the famous Buddhist temples, more sight-seeing, which restaurants to visit and what you can expect from the climate.