Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Week in Chiang Mai

I arrive in Bangkok on a Saturday afternoon with absolutely no plans. My friend Theo has been travelling around Asia for a few months now, and I have decided to meet up with him for 10 days of sun, fun and much-needed relaxation. Theo doesn’t have a plan either, but it means we can shape our plans to the whims of the weather.

After an hour or so of Googling, the image of a hammock gently rocking on a tranquil white beach is shattered – every single island or coast along Thailand, or indeed Malaysia, is to be strewn with dark storm clouds, lightening bolts and all.

Chaing Mai on the other hand is forecast to be very hot and sunny for most of the week, and can be reached in an hour for a mere £30 (one-way). I promptly swap the beach for a nice hotel pool, and comfort myself with the fact that I will sample Northern Thai food in situ and see if Chiang Mai lives up to its gastronomic reputation.

In this post I cover where to stay and what to do in Chiang Mai, before paying homage to the street food (and revealing a few of the best hotspots) in my next post, and sharing my Thai cookery class experience in my third. Lastly, I will provide you with 3 of the best food recommendations for Bangkok that are genuinely some of the best things I have ever eaten.

Where to stay
We stayed in Viang Thapae, which is a 3-minute walk from the old town. The standard rooms are around £36 per night and well designed (if a little small). The hotel itself is cleverly layered with a few little sundecks and an east-facing pool that has great sun coverage. The breakfast is average but the service – and cocktails – are very good. 

Local benefits
Every night, one of Chiang Mai’s longest running roti stall sets up shop at the end of Viang Thapae’s Soi, selling delicious pancakes that I can enjoy without feeling too much like a tourist since they are very popular with the locals too (everyone loves a good banana pancake, right?!).

Also opposite the hotel's avenue is Kiyora Spa – a relatively new, and supremely relaxing establishment. Having had a rather excruciating but very cheap (£3) Thai massage from a blind masseur in the old town, I decide to have a proper pampering session at Kiyora which has excellent reviews and offers a 30% discount if you book online at selected times. 

I go for an hour-long aromatherapy massage for around 800 baht (£15) and it is perfection. Beforehand you are consulted as to which aromatherapy oil you prefer, which specific areas you would like your massage to focus on, and how much pressure you like. The masseurs themselves are very professional and attentive and the massage rooms are private, air conditioned and scrupulously clean. At the end you are given mango sticky rice and tea before being dropped off at your hotel.

Where to hang out

A friend of mine recommended Nimmanhaemin road for its cafes, bars and boutique-y atmosphere. After a quick motorbike ride up and down Theo and I were a little confused. We turn around and head down one of the avenues in the direction of our hotel and begin to get it. Dotted along, quite far down all of the avenues off the main road are little boutiques, camera accessory shops, little independent cafés, bars, artsy shops, yoga studios and so on. This place becomes our favourite haunt for breakfast, coffee or general wandering around.

Photo courtesy of Theo
Photo courtesy of Theo
Photo courtesy of Theo

Artel Hotel - looks like a fun place to stay

Our favourite part of the neighborhood was this little gallery hub which hosts a couple of clothes shops, an artist’s studio, and a shop selling his wares. Theo bought this funny little man lamp and I bought the woman as a much-belated birthday present to him.

Theo's lights

The café there does great coffee too, and I bought my sunglasses in the clothes shop.

Wat to do

Yes, that is a rubbish pun. Chiang Mai itself is a pretty touristy town with massage parlours, beauticians, farang bars and tour agents lining the streets, but there are some beautiful Wats to be visited among them.

Doi Suthep

Doi Suthep

The walk up to Doi Suthep

My obligatory tourist photo!