The Expat's Travel Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand
August 26, 2019
by Tayler Jenkins
Chiang Mai is a city of juxtapositions, drawing in expats and travelers from far and wide who are eager to get a taste of its unique culture.
Here, history meets modern times. Over 300 Buddhist temples reside here, many from the 13th-century ancient city. The “New City” is built within and around a still-intact moat that once protected the Lanna Kingdom. Alongside all this rich history, Thais and expats live with all the conveniences, food diversity, and nightlife of a modern city.
As an expat in Chiang Mai, you might start your day working from an upscale coffee shop, then zigzag through the Old City on your Mobike (the city’s bike-sharing company), passing both ancient and modern temples before you reach Love 70’s, a vintage thrift store. Perhaps you’ll eat $1 khao soi from a food cart for lunch. In the evening, you’ll check out one of the dozens of art galleries and get a one-hour Thai massage for $10. Your night out might consist of fancy craft beer in the Nimman district, bobbing your head to jazz music at the North Gate, or dancing the night away to electronic music with locals and expats alike at Zoe in Yellow. It’s likely you’ll cross the moat and the remnants of the ancient wall that surrounds it when you’re on your way home, either in a tuk-tuk or a Grab car (Chiang Mai’s Uber).
Just outside the city, there are over 50 national parks to explore, including Thailand’s highest peak–Doi Inthanon, at 2,565 meters. Waterfalls abound, including my favorite, Bua Tong, which people can literally climb up and down due to the “sticky” nature of the rock that has your feet feeling like sticky frog pads. The city’s most prominent temple, Wat Doi Suthep, sits on a hill out here, overlooking the modern city below.
With so many culturally rich, yet modern experiences in one place, it’s no wonder Chiang Mai has made its way into the hearts of so many travelers and nomads. If you’re excited to visit Chiang Mai and want to experience something deeper than the same three attractions from every travel guide, then these suggestions are for you. Below are four of my favorite ways you can learn about Thai culture and connect with the expat community in Chiang Mai, even if you’re only planning a short visit:
Eat (and cook) like a local
Thailand is revered around the world for its cuisine and, with its plethora of restaurants and food stalls, Chiang Mai is one of the best places to experience it. Street food is the cheapest (and often most delicious) way to get a taste of authentic Thai dishes such as pad thai, khao soi, and khao man gai. All you have to do is walk around the city, especially the night market, to be presented with more options than you can try in weeks. Vegetarians are in good hands here, too, with options ranging from expat-oriented health food restaurants to vegetarian lunch buffets where you can fill your belly for less than $2.
Once you’ve had a taste of the variety of food Chiang Mai has to offer, it’s time to learn about what you’re eating. Do you know what Thai eggplant looks like? The difference between ginger and galangal? Or when to use which type of basil? That’s right, Thais use at least 3 different kinds of basil in their cooking depending on what flavor and aroma they’re going for. The best way to gain a deeper understanding of Thai cuisine and the relationship between Thai food and culture is to attend a cooking class. My favorite is Mama Noi Thai Cookery School, where your head chef takes you to the local market to learn about Thai ingredients, then guides you through the making of several dishes of your choosing.
Go to Thai massage school
Thai massage is an ancient form of healing that combines Chinese acupressure with Indian yoga and Ayurveda. People jokingly call it “yoga for lazy people.” Unless you hate massages, it’s inevitable that you’ll get a Thai massage in Chiang Mai. But why not also learn how to give one? Chiang Mai is a mecca for Thai massage schools, and there is no shortage of affordable places to learn this healing art. For less than $200, I took a 5-day beginner’s course at ITM Massage School. There, my teachers, as well as fellow students, consisted of locals and expats alike. Not only did I learn Thai massage techniques and history (and give and receive many massages throughout the week), but I was able to connect with people that live in Chiang Mai through the school’s community.
Take a yoga class at Nong Buak Hard Public Park
Speaking of community, Yoga in the Park is a great way to connect with Chiang Mai’s expat population. Classes led and attended by expats occur at Nong Buak Hard Public Park almost every day. This a great way to benefit from free yoga classes and meet other travel-minded people living in Chiang Mai. You can make friends with other expats and get the insider’s lowdown on their favorite things to do in the city. Find out about classes via the Facebook group “Yoga in the Park – Chiang Mai.”
Explore Chiang Mai’s unique neighborhoods on foot
Chiang Mai is a great city for walking around and every neighborhood has a different feel. Most tourists stay in the Old City (inside the moat), but Chiang Mai has much more to offer than this. Try to pick a few different neighborhoods to explore on foot or bicycle. If you’re looking for upscale food, shopping, coffee, nightlife, and the digital nomad scene, head over to Nimmanheamin. At Maya Mall, you can enjoy the air conditioning and have an affordable Thai lunch in the basement food court. My favorite neighborhood is called Santitham. It’s outside of the tourist areas (but still close), so walking around is less hectic and feels more authentically Thai. Santitham is a great place to eat where locals eat, stop and talk to people on the streets, or step into a cute, low-key coffee shop. Finally, the Chang Phuak Gate on the north side of the Old City boasts authentic and cheap food stalls serving noodles, smoothies, khao soi, mango sticky rice, and almost any Thai food you can think of. Also in this area is the hip North Gate Jazz Co-Op, where locals and expats gather regularly for live jazz music.
Whether you’re heading to Chiang Mai for a few days or a few months, there is ample opportunity to get off the tourist trail, or just seek out a more local experience than the average visitor. Gain insight into Thai culture through a cooking school or Thai massage course. Connect with expats through Yoga in the Park and other community events. Experience the city like a local by walking around the different neighborhoods and making small talk with the people you meet. Once you get a taste of Chiang Mai’s alluring interplay between Thai and expat cultures, east and west, ancient and modern, city and nature, you may just find yourself extending your visa.