The Dos & Don'ts of Visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand
Two months into our travels and I’ve finally suntanned enough, lounged enough & eaten enough to take a break from honeymoon bliss and share some of the tips we’ve accumulated from our time abroad. Given it’s where we started the journey, how about a few dos and don’ts of traveling to Chiang Mai, Thailand?
The beauty and privilege of visiting a destination for an entire month is how low the stakes are - not everything has to be amazing, transformative and exactly how we imagined. Each day Jack and I spent in the ancient northern city of Chiang Mai we were able to satisfy our curiosity slowly and learn how we wanted to spend our time in the following days. In thirty days we were able to cover just about everything - thus thoroughly vetting everything for you!
From relaxing spa days, encounters with elephants, a hip youthful culture & incredible cuisine (don’t worry, an entire ‘where to eat’ guide is coming next) Chiang Mai has plenty to offer. But much like any destination that has hit the tourist map, there are things to enjoy and things to avoid - including a number of important ethical considerations.
So, I’ve cut straight to the chase with these dos & don’t of visiting Chiang Mai.
Do Get Massages As Much As Possible
It’s true - spas are on nearly every street corner in Chiang Mai and yes, they’re incredibly affordable! Imploring the “you only live once” mantra in our month in Thailand, we scheduled as many spa treatments and Thai massages as possible.
It can be hard to know where to start when choosing a spa. There are hundreds of options from low-cost massages in an open room for $4 to swanky resort spas offering packages nearly as expensive as massages at home (albeit at a much higher quality).
We found our most-bang-for-your-buck option at Sense Garden Massage. Imagine a zen-like refuge in the heart of the city, offering a variety of slightly more upscale spa treatments for an affordable rate. Every treatment starts and ends with butterfly pea flower tea, puffed watermelon rice crackers (that I’m low-key obsessed with now) and a delightful lime & sugar foot scrub.
We frequently scheduled traditional Thai massages which include stretching & yoga-like positions for $9 per person. On one special occasion, we booked an all day package of body scrubs, clay masks & oil massages for $35 per person.
Don’t Ride the Elephants
While they may look massive & strong enough to carry our dainty human selves, riding elephants actually harms the animals considerably, both from the weight of the saddle & passenger as well as the abusive training involved to break the elephants. You can watch videos & and read more about the unfortunate truths of elephant riding camps (and circuses) here.
Do Visit an Elephant Sanctuary Instead
Thankfully, you’ll find elephant sanctuaries run by animal activists who rescue elephants from the perils of circuses, riding camps & other abusive captors.
Elephant Nature Park is one of the biggest & most respected rescuers of these beautiful creatures. Not only can you visit their expansive park (the home to over 200 retired elephants living work-free & stress-free lives) but the conservation group sponsors a number of smaller, family-run elephant camps who have decided to drop their training hooks & saddles and embrace a more humane approach to wildlife tourism.
Jack and I visited one of these Saddle Off projects dubbed “Elephant Pride” and it was absolutely moving. We first fed our three elephant friends a hefty sum of bananas & sugarcane, then walked alongside them through the forest (as they so mischievously tried to sneak more bananas from my bag), watched them take a mud bath and finally rinse off in the river.
The only “I’m not so sure about this” moment I had was when we were invited to rub mud & splash water all over the elephants during their baths. While not harming the elephants in the least bit, this felt a bit intrusive and far from ‘wild’ - it felt a bit ‘too much for the Instagram’. Definitely be your own judge, but the naturalist in me was compelled to step back and observe the elephants’ natural intuition rather than participate in their play. I’ve read on Elephant Nature Park’s website that this is no longer an activity offered at their main park for the same sentiment, so if you’re like me, perhaps that’s a better option.
As for the logistics, you’ll find a variety of tours, timelines & prices (starting from $78 per person) on the Elephant Nature Park’s website including half-day and full-day visits & overnight excursions. I would suggest booking a few weeks in advance to ensure you get the tour that you want (I had my heart set on one of the longer hillside walks but failed to pull the trigger in time).
Don’t Visit Tiger Kingdom
You can read all the reasons why on numerous blogs and animal conservation sites online. The animals at Tiger Kingdom are notoriously drugged and abused for tourist photo ops.
Do Buy a SIM Card When You Arrive
Make your life easy and buy a SIM card with data when you land in Chiang Mai. You can purchase one at the airport, at any shopping mall or many of the phone stores in town.
Why? With data you can call a Grab Car (the local Uber equivalent) on demand allowing you to explore more on-the-go. Most routes across the city will cost a mere $1 - $3 and provide considerably safer transportation than that rickety tuk tuk (don’t let this stop you from taking at least one tuk tuk ride for the hell of it, though!)
Not to mention you’ll want mobile internet to choose where to go next after your afternoon coffee, or research what the hell you’re going to do when your favorite restaurant Lert Ros is closed (tragic!) Our monthlong unlimited data SIMs with AIS cost $15 each, you’ll surely find cheaper options for shorter stays.
Don’t Buy Cheap Polyester Clothing You Can Find Back Home
When traveling through Southeast Asia, and the world for that matter, you’ll start to notice shops & stalls selling the same factory-made products you can find nearly everywhere - even on Canal Street back home. We noticed a vast number of Western tourists in CNX wearing polyester elephant print pants that no local Thai person seemed to be wearing themselves.
While this may put off a few, the environmentalist in me just asks that you rethink your poly or factory purchase and instead support one of the truly local artisans making responsible clothing out of sustainable materials. There’s no shortage of incredible textiles, hand stitching & printing, and unique designers that I’ll share with you now…
Do Buy Handmade Thai Clothing
Upon our first visit to Sense Garden Massage I became obsessed by the long, handprinted linen shirt dresses the ladies working at the spa wore. Unique in shape & and in very stylish prints, I started spotting these modest & carefree pieces on many Thai ladies in town - of many age groups.
While you certainly can find them sold in shops in Old Town, you’ll find the most designer-y options in the forested, artist market space in Su Thep called Baan Kang Wat. It’s truly worth the trip just for the cool Thai hipster vibes & endless excellent coffeeshops.
Chic stalls are rented by young designers taking their own spin on traditional Thai clothing. I scored a pair of handprinted, high-waisted pants (for a whopping couture price of $37) and drooled over lightweight T’s with dainty embroidery, unique textiles died with flower petals, boxy shirts with buttons made from antique ceramic pottery & those iconic Thai linen dresses.
Don’t Forget to Update Your Vaccines & Bring Medications
It’s up to you how well you want to protect yourself, and up to your doctor to advise you which vaccinations and medications you might need on your travels. As a fellow & frequent traveler I would just suggest that on any trip abroad you check the current CDC advisories for which vaccines may be recommended for your destination and decide your own path from there.
We’re pretty careful when we travel & take every reasonable preventative measure (it’s truly no fun getting sick abroad). Prior to our departure both of us updated our vaccines (Tetanus, Hep A, Typhoid, etc) and obtained a long term prescription for an anti-malaria drug taken once weekly. From experience, we would highly recommend this option against the once-daily dosage that has more intense side-effects.
The Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, on the other hand, which was advised for travelers staying longer than two weeks, cost $350 per person for two shots. Even if we agreed to shell out the cash, the vaccine was not available at our doctor’s office or pharmacy, only at a pricey Manhattan travel clinic.
We decided to weigh the risks & wait until we arrived in Thailand. After a week in CNX, we visited Health Care Medical Clinic. The entire process was super easy - $25 per person, only one dose was needed which was administered immediately upon arrival by the English speaking staff, no appointment necessary.
Chiang Mai is a dynamic city, both old-school in appearance and incredibly youthful in culture. If you happen to visit, be sure to take advantage of all the good this unique former kingdom has to offer while keeping in mind a few ethical guidelines.
Next, we’ll explore our expansive food map of the city. For now, see more from our travels in Chiang Mai (and elsewhere abroad) on Instagram.