If you’re headed to North Thailand you probably have three destinations in mind: Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai. Unfortunately a tight schedule meant I could only visit Chiang Mai, but I can’t imagine the other two being greatly different to be honest.
Don’t believe “NO RIDING”. You’ll be a good human being and throw away flyers for elephant trekking that includes riding and you’ll put in the research to visit one of the places that loves their elephants and does nothing to harm them. Good on you! Unfortunately if you go at the wrong time of day and look in the wrong direction, you might see another group of tourists riding the elephants in the distance. After talking to a few locals and other tourists, it turns out they ALL offer elephant riding, but often under a different brand identity and in a seperate section or time slot. The best you can do is try and find a place that doesn’t teach the elephants to do tricks or paint pictures and make sure you don’t get in on the elephant riding. People are far more aware these days and the locals have seen a huge drop in demand for elephant riding.
Still see the elephants. They’re incredible creatures and your entrance money is helping to give them a decent life. Poaching is still rife in Thailand so these conservation centres and sanctuaries are for the best. Hopefully elephant riding continues to drop and the low income will end it entirely, but for now just know that even though there is elephant riding going on, the places responsible are still helping the elephants overall.
Chiang Mai is somewhere to live. Whilst there’s plenty to experience in Chiang Mai, none of it really feels big enough to warrant a short-term stay. Coming to Chiang Mai to live and work, whilst enjoying the attractions on your days off would be far more suitable. There are also a LOT of good restaurants, shops, parks, gyms etc. that make Chiang Mai a great place to live.
Food is varied and tasty. Have a little explore and you’ll be able to find all kinds of different restaurants that cater to different dietary styles. Travelling with a vegan was tough at times, but not in Chiang Mai. It’s got the restaurant variety of a hipster Western city, but at half the price!
The night bus ends nowhere. Getting the night bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was a scam I saw coming, yet somehow none of the other tourists did. The bus stops a few miles out of Chiang Mai and then you have to pay 50 baht for a songthaew. It’s cheap and worth it, but don’t try and kick up a fuss when it happens. It’s your only option and the scammy bus companies work with the songthaew drivers for a cut of the profit, so there will always be one there waiting for you at least.
There are bribe cop stops. Most people hire scooters in Chiang Mai and it’s usually a good idea. If you intend to drive your scooter to Pai, you’ll likely get pulled over by the police and told you have to pay a fine. I’m not covering police bribes in this post, but it’s really annoying. Prepare yourself – it will happen.
Chiang Mai was a lot more modern than I had expected. Apparently Pai is the same nowadays and Chiang Rai is developing rapidly. It still had that natural charm about it, but cars and convenience stores are absolutely everywhere. I also expected a lot more mosquitoes and spiders, but they were never an issue. I really enjoyed Chiang Mai and there’s a lot of things I didn’t get to try during my stay so will definitely be returning!