Chiang Mai, Thailand is one of the most livable cities in the world, making it a great choice for novice travellers or those new to Southeast Asia. With a smile, a handful of local phrases and some common sense, anybody can take on the Rose of the North, but these travel tips will help you get up to speed fast so you can make the most out of your stay in Chiang Mai.
Dress modestly at temples and be respectful
If visiting Chiang Mai’s historical and richly decorated temples is on your itinerary, be sure to dress modestly. For all genders, that means shoulders should be covered and shorts or skirts should reach below the knee. Pay attention to signs, look at what locals are doing, and use common sense. Take off your shoes where you see others doing so, don’t have a picnic or smoke cigarettes and keep your voice low. Also be sure not to touch any Buddhas or shrines, and don’t point your feet towards these either! Feet are considered low and dirty in Thai culture. Besides this, behave as you would in any place of worship.
Take off your shoes
Speaking of feet, like much of Asia, shoes are not worn in the house in Thailand. While most businesses will indicate with signs whether or not shoes should be removed, if you’re invited into somebody’s home, be sure to take off your shoes before entering. (we never wear shoes inside any of the Chandra Residence buildings.) You may want to pack thong sandals or slip-on tennis shoes to save yourself a lot of time fussing with scrappy footwear or shoelaces.
Don’t overpack…Chiang Mai is a shopping paradise
If you love to shop, you will have a lot of fun in this city. Whether you plan to buy souvenirs for the entire family or you’re hunting for a new wardrobe, you’ll run out of time and energy before you run out of shops. Pack light so you have room to take everything home. For all its history and traditions, Chiang Mai is a very modern city, so you can buy most of what you’ll need when you arrive. Thanks to a longstanding expat community, you can even find many of the western brand toiletries and cosmetics you are familiar with.
Cash is king
While credit cards and even mobile payments are gaining acceptance, Thailand is by and large a cash economy. Typically, only hotels, fine dining restaurants and department stores will accept credit cards. You can exchange currency when you arrive at competitive rates or make withdrawals at bank ATMs for an additional fee. Be sure to break up your 1,000 baht bills at a chain store like 7-11 or Tesco Lotus before you go shopping; in the street markets, vendors may struggle to make change.
The weather is warm
Chiang Mai enjoys balmy weather year round and may feel quite hot for those used to temperate climates. If you’re visiting Chiang Mai during the “cool” season, which runs from November to February, you may get a chance to wear a light sweater in the evenings. That said, it can get quite cold up in the mountains, so if you plan to go trekking, bring warm clothing. During the months of May through August, be prepared for daily downpours brought by the monsoon.
Street food is delicious
Chiang Mai’s street food is not to be missed. Food here in general is cheap and locals love to eat out – you would be hard-pressed to find a bad meal in the city. Street-side stalls are common and take over many footpaths. Be sure to try khao soi noodles and sai ua sausages, as these spiced delicacies are hard to find outside Northern Thailand. Most stands and restaurants located in the city centre will be clean and safe to eat from, but take care if you are wandering off the beaten path to avoid “Thai Tummy.”
Escape to nature
One of the best things about Chiang Mai is its proximity to nature. In less than 30 minutes driving time (and even less from Chandra Residence), you can be coasting down scenic mountain roads surrounded by lush vegetation. Jungle treks are popular, but even if hiking isn’t your cup of tea, you can stop at a waterfall on the drive up to Wat Pra That Doi Suthep at the top of the mountai, or spend an afternoon at Huay Tung Tao, sipping beers and eating a delicious meal by the side of a serene lake.
Get to the Sunday Market early
The streets that run through the centre of Chiang Mai are closed to traffic every Sunday and taken over by a sprawling market. Known as the Sunday Night Walking Street, local artisans and craftspeople come out in droves to hawk their wares, and there are more bargains to be had per meter than anywhere else in the city. Food vendors take over the areas inside the temples along Ratchadamnoen Road to offer everything from phad thai and chicken satay skewers, to burgers and fried crickets. Extremely popular with visitors of all sorts, the market gets crowded fast. Arrive early (before 6:00 pm) to beat the crowd and you may even get a discount from a vendor looking to score their first “lucky” sale of the day.
Always wai back, but you don’t need to wai everyone.
You may have heard about the Thai custom of the wai: you hold your hands chest-height with the palms together and the finger-tips facing up and bow your head as an accompaniment to the local greeting. For women, this is “sawat-dee kah,”, while men say “sawat-dee kap.” The wai is a gesture of respect, but there’s no need to wai everyone you meet. The rule of thumb is if someone wai’s you, you wai back. You would also wai a monk, an elder or a senior official, but most shopkeepers and locals you’ll meet won’t expect you to stand by formalities – just a smile will do.