My first night in Chiang Mai, like all good nights out in the city, began at the night market. The weekend night markets in Chiang Mai were a sight to behold, with vendors lining the streets for what must have been miles, selling crafts, trinkets, and so much flowing elephant clothing. The backpackers like me passed right by the goods, and went for the real treasures—the alcoves with all the street food, vendors making sizzling pots of Pad Thai right in front of you, or seasoning and grilling skewers of meat, or mixing together fresh fruit smoothies for less money than you’d believe. You could sit out under the open night air and eat to your heart’s content, surrounded by tourists who’d flown the world over to do the same.
The next stop on that first night was a rooftop bar overlooking the walls of the old city. To get to the top of the bar, you had to go into a shady, shabby building, and climb about four rickety flights of stairs. At one point all shoes were removed and left in a massive heap sprawling halfway across the floor. After removing both your shoes and your inhibitions about protecting your stuff, you could head up to the top floor and see the bar in all its glory, a dark room lit by a few colorful lanterns, open to the night air, walls sprawled over with graffiti, with everyone either drinking or smoking something or other. There were no chairs here, just cushions on the floor, and a few tiny tables on which to rest your drinks. As the night went on the floor filled with dancers streaked with glow-in-the-dark paint, waving their dreadlocks around like travel badges of honor.
When I first rolled up to Chiang Mai, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. The impression may have been due to my unconventional method of entering the city. See, I’d just taken the overnight train from Bangkok, which after a two-hour delay or so at boarding time had finally arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning. Taxis from the train station were being obnoxious and telling me they couldn’t bring me exactly to my hostel—just nearby—and I wasn’t sure at that point how big the city was (it’s not very big, but how was I to know? I don’t prepare for these things).
I went to the information guy for help, and he just shrugged and said, “Why don’t you walk? It’s only about an hour.” So I hefted my large backpack onto my shoulders and traipsed into the old city on foot, already beginning to sweat in the hot Thai sun.
Walking into Chiang Mai did feel really legitimate. It involved taking a bridge over a moat and then eventually approaching the ancient city walls surrounding the core of the place, which had been standing for centuries and looked like it. There also had just been a parade for the flower festival that’d been going on, and the ground was sprinkled with confetti. So it lent me the illusion that I was an ancient wanderer, entering a new city with a warm welcome.
Despite the pretty picture my mind was painting I still arrived at the hostel sweaty and worn-out, with just about no clean clothes left after my first several days in Hong Kong and Bangkok where I had done no laundry at all. Once I’d showered and changed, though, Chiang Mai became easy and fun to explore.
On my first day in the city I found the flower festival, most of which was tucked in one corner of the old city. All the floats from the parade earlier that day (which I’d apparently just missed) were out for display on the road, decorated with vibrantly colored flowers in all shades. Scenes depicted Buddhas, dragons, and praise for the King (Thai people do not mess around about the king). The floats were all really beautiful, and after the flowers was about a mile-long stretch of all the street food anyone could ever want, even more beautiful to me than the flowers.
My other favorite part of Chiang Mai was all the Buddhist temples lying around the city, which tended to be free and open to tourists. There are a lot of cool little places that are worth checking out, with ancient Buddhas and murals and jeweled decorations. Other than that, the highlight of Chiang Mai is definitely the relaxed vibe, the other travelers, and the quietly exhilarating nights out.
Chiang Mai was a place where people took the idea of backpacking pretty seriously. I think I saw more people within the city limits with dreadlocks than I have seen throughout my entire life combined. It’s like about 50% of the travelers there got their travel inspiration from a hippie’s Pinterest board which insisted wearing long, flowing clothing was the key to a successful backpacking trip. Not gonna lie, it totally helps you feel legit. But you can also get the real backpacking deal in jean shorts, I promise.
The city totally embraced that hippie vibe, though. I saw a French guy ask a street vendor for no meat on his Pad Thai and she asked if he wanted no egg too. Any Asian city that works to cater to vegans has seen its fair share of backpackers, but that wasn’t exactly a drawback for my first solo backpacking trip. From the street food everywhere, to the cheap, cheap clothes, to the overabundance of massage places and ice cream stands (best appreciated back to back) it is definitely catered to tourists, but it’s far enough away that you can still feel like a real traveler.
I did a few planned activities in Chiang Mai, including taking a cooking class and viewing a Muay Thai fight. But the rest of the time was pretty relaxed, and nothing there feels hurried or stressed. It just feels easy, and peaceful, and safe.
I think honestly feeling that way set a dangerous precedent for me, because now I’m just like, “alright, let’s take on a difficult country, like Laos, or Chad, or maybe like, Afghanistan.”
Or maybe I’ll just do Vietnam like everyone else I met in Chiang Mai…