In Chiang Mai I was able to go through the full range of backpacker experiences: Great food, the smell of raw sewage, shoddy plumbing, and an inviting city that appears to be one-part Thai and two-parts Mediterranean.
Chiang Mai is a fantastically easy city to navigate. You can see in the map below, the bulk of the city is a large square (formerly a large wall that went around the city). As long as you understand how to find north, there is really no way you can find yourself lost in this quaint little area. For me, I knew that my hostel was in the ‘northeast’ of the square, and once I got close enough I’d start to recognize things.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve actually slept in a different place each night. When I first arrived here by train I was greeted by a man holding a sign for the S.K. Hostel 1 in Chiang Mai. This was great since I didn’t even have to worry about transportation. Ultimately that free bus turned out to be one of the highlights of my experience with this place. When I first got to my room something smelled…off. I left my bags and hit the town, knowing that the fact that I hadn’t showered in two days may have actually been the smell I was confronted with in my room. Later in the evening I came back for a nap – the smell was still there, but I was still a mess. I showered, but it was clear that the room just didn’t smell right. Very long story short, after a few drinks much later at night I was able to sleep in a room that I’m fairly sure was somehow connected to a septic tank.
My second hostel actually had much better accommodations. As you can see in the pictures below, I had air conditioning and running water! (It’s also worth mentioning that both of these setups are VERY common for South East Asia. In general any hotel/hostel you book will give you the option of a room with AC or with a fan.) In all actuality, this second hostel was quite nice for the $4-5 dollars a night I paid. Additionally the wifi was fantastic here. I mean super good. Better than you would expect to get in the USA without paying a premium. At one point I was hitting download speeds of 800kb/s. (All legal things of course.)
As a city – Chiang Mai is built for tourists. There are well over 100 hostels and guesthouses crammed into the city. On every corner there is another place to get a $6-8 massage. Every two to three corners has a coffee shop. You can’t walk for five minutes without seeing another temple and a few monks. And everywhere you go – someone is cooking something. And it’s cheap!
Yesterday morning for breakfast I paid $1.66 for a bottle of water and spicy Pad-Thai noodles with chicken. For lunch I had a shot of espresso and a piece of chocolate cake for $2.50. Dinner was slightly more expensive, as I went to an Italian place that was recommended run by a middle aged Italian woman from Sardinia. Although her meatballs were so-so, the cheese and meat plate had some amazing selections. (Specifically the pepperoni.) The Lasagna was good, and the liter of house wine was surprisingly fruity and not bitter at all. The total for dinner between two people ended up being 1050 Bhat, or $35. There is no way you’d find the quality and quantity of food we had (two pasta dishes, meat/cheese plate, bruschetta, 1 liter of wine) for $35 anywhere – even the Olive Garden.
Today I’ve had a similar food plan. Breakfast was Pad-Thai with chicken – a bit more expensive than before at $2. Lunch was a Orange-Banana-Pineapple fruit smoothy (there are stands everywhere for them!) that I paid $1.50 for. Given that I have a 3.5 hour bus coming up soon, I may regret having an all liquid lunch.
I’ve taken a ton of pictures since I’ve been here, but the ones below sort of sum up Chiang Mai (or I just liked them).