It is an extremely popular destination for tourists visiting the country. Visitors are drawn to the region for its’ cultural attractions, ethnic diversity, and natural beauty. Although Tom and I have traveled to Southeast Asia on several occasions, and enjoy the charms that Chiang Mai offers, we always avoided the city because it appeared to be overrun with partying tourists and expats. However, on our most recent trip to the region, we decided to discover Chiang Mai on our own terms. And we are glad we did!
Here are our 7 tips to avoid tourist traps and experience Chiang Mai as a “Local”
- Go on a self-guided bike excursion
One of our favorite activities (biking) combined with our sense of adventure helped create one of our favorite travel memories…ever. Armed with a generally good sense of direction and backed up with a smartphone, we set off from our hotel to explore the countryside. Our ride gave us an insight into local life. We dined at little roadside kiosks, enjoyed watching water buffalo relaxing in a rice paddy field, visited small temples, and climbed waterfalls. In this self-guided immersion, we spent the entire day, mostly free from seeing other tourists. In fact, we biked on two different occasions because it afforded us the local immersion we crave.
- Sample foods made by locals for locals
Sure, go ahead and visit the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar (map). We did and it was pretty similar to any other night market in SE Asia. It had delicious food. Vendors sold clothing and knickknacks. However, we recommend leaving the city center to try a food market patronized by locals. We went to the local market in Mae Rim (map), located north of Chiang Mai. Here, we sampled delicious curries, sausages, and salads. During our biking excursion, we stopped off at several kiosks peddling homemade foods in addition to selling a liter of petrol. At each place, we were enamored with the offerings of Spicy food. Earthy food. Sour food. All unique food flavors and smells that many tourists don’t enjoy. But we do!
- Immerse yourself into the local life…with a local
Trekking to visit the local hill tribes is an extremely popular excursion for tourists. Although the hill tribes are still living an authentic and very unique lifestyle, we are thrown off visiting this unique culture with a multitude of other tourists. Instead, we made friends with a shuttle driver who invited us to dine in his home. We can’t think of a better way to experience a new place than to share a home-cooked meal. If you are unable to meet someone during your time in Chiang Mai, check out “with locals”.
- Visit temples, and find the “diamond in the rough”
Wat Pa Daraphirom Temple in Mae Rim was our favorite temple discovery. It was exquisitely tranquil. The beautifully kept grounds and buildings were virtually free of tourists. We were able to roam around and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. In other words, it was exactly how a temple visit should feel.
- Relax where locals visit to escape the heat and hubbub
On one of our biking excursions, we picked up some fermented sausages and veggies with a spicy chili dip (nam-rik) from a local street food vendor to enjoy while we picnicked at a locals getaway- Mae Sa waterfall (map). After a lovely 30 minute ride from town, we approached the entrance of the waterfall, which is located in the Doi Pui/Doi Suthep National Park. The fee is 100 Baht for foreigners (Lora) and 20 Baht for locals (or for those who can pass as a local..Tom!) The trek to the top of the 8-tiered waterfall is quite steep. As such, we ditched our bikes and hiked to the top. Along the way, there were a number of places for us to stop and dine on our tasty treats and to cool off in the refreshing water.
- Find and work with a reputable tour company
There are plenty of them. Online. Offline. Rows of them throughout downtown Chiang Mai. After we landed and retrieved our luggage, we walked out of the secured section of the airport and into a room with a dizzying number of tour guides and transportation companies. We hired a taxi and were even approached about a private guided tour by our driver on the drive to our hotel. Our heads were spinning with options until we realized that we were in control! And you are as well! If you can’t find them, they will eventually find you. Ask questions. Review the offerings and make the decision on how (you would like to travel-private car, bus, boat, etc.), when (is it today, tomorrow?) and where (there are so many options; choosing one determines your ultimate destination).
- Don’t forget your concierge or “local” staff
The concierge at your hotel is there for a reason. They will provide you with information that may be quite invaluable. They have maps and contacts that you can utilize for self-guided tours. They also have connections with reputable outfitters for your particular need. Our favorite source for tips and recommendations are the bartenders or servers we come in contact with. By interacting with locals, we learn how to travel like a local!
Chiang Mai is a great representation of Thailand’s diversity. With its unique culture, delicious Northern Thai style foods, and friendly Thai locals, the region is worth a visit! If you want to discover interesting things off the beaten track, just remember to travel like a local!
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Chiang Mai E-Brochure (Pdf)