Bangkok > Chiang Mai
On my third morning in Thailand, I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on a very cheap Air Asia flight ($70 round trip) from Don Mueang Airport, where a lot of the budget airlines are based. Air Asia is similar to Spirit or Frontier in which you have to pay extra for everything, but I just brought a good-sized backpack that fit under my seat so I avoided that.
Once at the Chiang Mai Airport, I attempted to find a songthaew, a red pickup truck with benches in the back that serves as a shared taxi in many smaller cities in Thailand. I couldn’t find any inside the airport so I walked outside onto the main street and stopped any that came by. The first couple songthaews offered very high prices and wouldn’t negotiate, but I finally found one that would take me to my hotel for a reasonable price. We then drove into the main part of Chiang Mai, picking up and dropping off another passenger on the way. We circled around the moat that encloses the Old City, the historic city center that is filled with wats (temples), restaurants, hotels, massage parlors, and anything a tourist could need. The Old City used to also be surrounded by a wall, portions of which are still standing – quite cool to see.
My Very Nice $10 Hotel
My hotel (Royal Panerai Hotel, which I had booked before beginning my trip) was located just outside of the Old City and turned out to provide a quite nice private room and very reliable wifi considering the $10/night price (very cheap even by Thai standards and a better deal than some shared room hostels friends I met were staying at). I chatted with a local guy in the lobby and he offered to show me around the Old City.
Lots of Wats
We saw three temples – Wat Chiang Man, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra Singh. They were all beautiful and had their own character. Wat Chiang Man is on the smaller side but is free and has great Buddha statues and fewer crowds. Wat Chedi Luang was teeming with monks and had a huge, architecturally stunning interior with a giant Buddha statue and impressive murals on the walls. Wat Phra Singh has several smaller temples around the main temple which were fun to explore as well as a large historic bell-shaped structure that marked the original temple.
During our temple traversing, we stopped for lunch at Mr. Kai Restaurant in the Old City. There are tons of restaurants to choose from but you should always check prices before sitting down as some which cater to tourists are dramatically overpriced. A full meal at a casual restaurant should be less than 100 baht (under $3). I had been trying to eat things that I couldn’t get back in the U.S. but I couldn’t leave Thailand without having a curry so I ordered a green curry (70 baht) which was probably the best curry of my life, at least in part due to the fresh coconut milk in the sauce. It didn’t come very hot, but I added some peppers to fit my (spicy-loving) taste.
As we walked around, my new friend told me about how he had moved to Chiang Mai for college from a small village in the mountains. Everyone in the village, including his parents, were rice farmers who worked hard, back-breaking work and barely made enough income to get by. I was curious as to whether the homophobia and social conservatism in most American small towns manifested itself similarly in rural areas of Thailand, but he said that just like in Thai cities, queer people in villages like his come out at young ages and are widely accepted and often referred to by parents as a “daughter” instead of a “son” depending on their gender performance.
An Epic Evening
I love watching sunsets, especially while on vacation, so as the sun began to retreat I went to the somewhat aptly-named THC Rooftop Bar, a very chill hippie bar with reggae music and street art that seems to cater mostly to expats and tourists. It has cushions instead of chairs, ground-level tabletops instead of tables, and (unfortunately) stinky cigarettes instead of THC. The view was partly obstructed by buildings in the Old City, but I got to see a decent corner of the sunset over Chiang Mai’s neighboring mountains.
My goal for my evening meal was to go to a local restaurant without a single tourist and I got a recommendation for Pad Thai 5 Rod, a local spot with the best pad thai in town so I headed over there and grabbed dinner with another friend I had met. The pad thai was served on a large banana leaf and was indeed quite good.
After dinner, I hopped on the back of my friend’s motorbike as we proceeded to Ram Bar, Chiang Mai’s most popular gay bar. It’s a small, colorful spot with very friendly servers and bartenders and primarily tourist/expat clientele. I saw a Singapore Sling on the cocktail menu and had never heard of such a thing so I gave it a try – despite it supposedly containing three types of liquor, it was very sweet and didn’t even taste like alcohol (works for me!). The bar puts on a free 1.5 hour “cabaret” / ladyboy show every night except Sunday at 10pm and it is phenomenal! The dizzying variety of performers, costumes, dances, themes, and music was an incredible sight to see and I can’t recommend it enough. The songs are mostly just American tunes but they’re good ones – my favorite set was “It’s Raining Men.” Definitely the best drag show I’ve ever been to!
Click here to go on to my Chiang Mai Day 2 blog as I journey to the city’s iconic golden temple and find a hip neighborhood.
Click here for a travel guide to Chiang Mai outlining cheap, free, and local-endorsed things to see, eat, and drink.