Chiang Mai may be a learned town, full of universities and temples. But it seems to be equally a tourists’ town. It is full of foreigners who, through some mass hysteria, all wear neon-bright pajama pants festooned with elephants or dubious mystical symbols. The main road in the Old City leading to the most venerated wat is crammed with companies offering every sort of traveler service: hotels, restaurants, shopping, massage, trekking, rafting, language courses, meditation courses, bus tickets, train tickets, air tickets, and on and on.
We are conflicted about Chiang Mai — it has such great food, wonderful coffee shops, and everything’s convenient. But it’s also pre-packaged, touristy, and as a visitor you can begin to feel like a walking dollar (or baht) sign. If you need a one-stop shop in Northern Thailand to book treks, eat, and shop, it’s handy. But we still didn’t love it — maybe we didn’t stay in the right part of town. So here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly on Chiang Mai.
The food. Chiang Mai has some great eats.
Monk Chat. At many of the wats in town, you can chat with a monk about whatever you want. You appease your curiosity on topics like the fundamentals of Buddhism or how they tie their robes so they stay on, and they get to practice their English.
Massage at the women’s prison. Really. Getting undressed and pummeled by lady inmates for an hour is really quite enjoyable at this vocational center. And it’s only about $6 US.
The Sunday Walking Street. Every Sunday night, the entire Old City transforms into a massive market, with lots of local handicrafts (and great food!) for sale. We don’t have any room for souvenirs in our packs, but there are some excellent deals and great people watching.
The night bazaar. Cheap T-shirts, pushy hawkers, no charm at all.
Touristy main road. No thanks. You can escape, though, by turning into one of the quiet sois.
You call that salsa? There are so many terrible-looking Western restaurants in town. The one that really sticks out, though, is a Tex-Mex place we passed where the salsa looked like ketchup with raw onions in it. Ick.