Everyone seems to rave about Chiang Mai (CM), Thailand. From backpackers who love the ‘chill vibe’ to digital nomads who wax poetic about its perfect setup for both productivity and adventure. It’s said to be naturey, vegan-friendly, and laid back, all things I was looking forward to after months on the road.
After a rather unpleasant 14 hour train ride, I arrived in CM at a ridiculously early, pre-dawn hour when nothing, including my hostel, was open. Not a great start, but recoverable.
Eventually, the sun came up, I checked into my hostel, and set out for a day of exploration. I scoped out a few gyms (none were impressive), inquired about weekly rates at some recommended guest houses (all way out of my budget), and tried to find the part of town that everyone was talking about (never did). Nothing was coming together the way I’d expected and the disappointments were quickly piling up.
Long story short: I bailed.
I spent just over 24 hours in CM before booking a flight back to Bangkok. I was burnt out, tired of the effort that seemed to be required for everything lately, and wanted to have some modern comforts for a while. I wasn’t in the mood to search for the charm or pretend that I loved it just because everyone else said I should.
CM From My Perspective
Chiang Mai is a very plain town. It’s honestly not even that pretty. Just boring, run-down buildings. The old town (which conjures images far more exotic and interesting than reality delivers) is surrounded by remnants of the old wall that used to protect it. That’s moderately cool, but nothing to write home about. There are some nice temples in town, but once you’ve seen a few, they all start to look the same.
The best nature-based attractions (waterfalls, hikes, etc) are apparently 45+ minutes outside of town. I wasn’t in the mood to spend the time or money finding out if these lived up to their reputation. I’m a bit bummed that I didn’t get to experience these, but I’ve learned over time that even the most amazing places require you to be in the proper head space to fully appreciate them, and I just wasn’t there.
Another thing that really bothered me about CM is that the two main attractions advertised (all over town, including within my hostel and on nearly every tuk-tuk I saw) were elephant rides and a visit to a tiger farm where you can get your picture taken with an abused animal. Super not cool.
Transportation Reality Check
If you do decide to visit Chiang Mai, here is some important info regarding transportation (to/from Bangkok):
Train – I’d heard that the train ride between Bangkok and Chiang Mai was pretty cool. Mine wasn’t, but I made a crucial mistake that impacted several key factors: I booked at the last minute and tickets were nearly sold out, leaving me no choices for which train to take.
As a result, I ended up with a second class ticket, which meant I did not have a comfy, lay-down bed. Instead, I had a regular upright seat in a train car lined with large, open windows, which served as the only ventilation in the space. This was okay during the day, but once the sun went down it turned the whole place into an icebox. I had on every long-sleeved shirt, fleece pullover, and sweatshirt in my bag and I still spent about eight hours shivering in my very uncomfortable seat.
I also left Bangkok in the early afternoon, which resulted in a pre-dawn arrival in CM. Ideally, I would have booked an overnight train and slept for most of the trip, waking in time to take in the apparently lovely scenery in the last few hours on the approach to CM. This would have saved me paying for a night’s accommodation and made the journey more pleasant.
Airplane – In a Facebook post lamenting my CM disappointment, I was told repeatedly that my first mistake was taking the train when I could have gotten a flight for $20. While those flight deals might be available sometimes, that is not the typical cost. The cheapest flight I could find for the few days around when I was trying to leave came to $55.44, including baggage fees and taxes. Maybe you can more reliably book $20 flights if you plan ahead, but that’s not how most backpackers I’ve met handle their travel. #DontOversell #KeepItReal
Will I Go Back?
Yes. I’d still like to see northern Thailand, but I think I’d do it at the start of a trip, rather than the end. I’d like to see it when I’m fresh, rather than burnt out, and when I have the energy to visit those waterfalls that are 45 minutes away or take the bus ride from hell to Pai (the one everyone gets sick on because the road is so windy). I’d like to see it when I’m not suffering from temple (or market) fatigue and would actually enjoy those experiences more.
The timing of this visit just didn’t align with what I wanted out of this stage of my travels. I don’t think I’ll ever rave about CM the way so many others do, but the region as a whole is still on my list of places to see.
Just because everyone else likes something, doesn’t mean you will too. Travel is a very personal experience and your interests, mindset, and expectations are not like anyone else’s. By all means, get input from people who have been there, read reviews, and check out blogs for ‘must do’ activities. But be sure to examine all of that info through your own lense. Do what sounds interesting to you and if it turns out that it’s not what you thought, don’t worry about it. Don’t feel obligated to do something just because everyone else says you should like it.
I expected to like Chiang Mai, but when I didn’t, I didn’t force myself to stay there and ‘give it a chance’ any longer than I felt it deserved. I walked around town, ate at a few restaurants, and tried to find a gym. When I still wasn’t into it, I got the heck out.
If you’d told me at the beginning of this trip that I’d skip northern Thailand to spend three weeks in Bangkok, I would have said you were crazy. That would have sounded like a terrible waste of time to me. But after months of traveling, I wanted the relative comforts that a big city can provide. And I got them. #MissionAccomplished #SurpriseYourself