Thailand: Chiang Mai

At the end of 2016, we took a family trip to Chiang Mai in the mountainous region of northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai was built right on the Ping River, and became the Thai royal capital about 700 years ago. These days, the old town remains small but the city itself is a sprawling hub with districts and shopping malls, encircled by highways. 

The old city walls are the gateway to the city. Their remnants (reinforced over the years) are still standing and are a popular place for tourists and pigeons alike. 

Inside the old city are beautiful temples, art galleries and tiny shops that are great to explore. The Thai people are wonderfully friendly, especially if you have a chubby-cheeked child in tow. 

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The town centre is also home to hotels, backpacker districts, traffic  - of both the car and tourist variety. There's also footpaths and traffic lights and the streets are very clean.  

When you travel with kids, it's the daytime hours you need to fill up; the evenings are for hopefully downing a local beer before falling into bed yourself.

So, here's how we filled our days in Chiang Mai... 

We visited many of Chiang Mai's beautiful temples in the downtown area. They're especially in the afternoons and evenings when the sun is setting. Wear suitable clothes that cover your knees and shoulders, or you'll have to rent something inside the grounds. 

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We all spent a happy time reading and browsing at the Lost Bookshop, a great little used book store. The books are all in good condition with very reasonable prices, and the owner is happy to buy them back from you during your stay. 

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And we got our nails done, which was a special highlight for the small footed-people, and caused an endless amount of giggling all round. 

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We visited the fabulous Art in Paradise, an illusion art museum. The 3D art is really quite amazing and we all had a ball. Get ready for selfies!

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And, of course, we ate.

Chiang Mai has several specialty dishes with a strong Burmese, Chinese and northern Lao influence. My favourite local dish was the Khao Soi, a curried noodle stew (pictured at the top), usually served with chicken and veggies. It's a delicious, coconut-based curry sauce with thick rice noodles. Yum. 

Plus, local food is cheap, no doubt helped in part by the large student population from the popular Chiang Mai University. 

It was a little tricky to find places that catered to Thai food enthusiasts (the grown ups) as well as bland pasta enthusiasts (the small people), so our meals were less adventurous than hoped for. Though we did come across a few gems by chance. 

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But we all loved the Su Thep area with its trendy boutique shops and restaurants. For us that meant sushi, a family favourite. We can always sniff out a great Japanese restaurant in Thailand, like Sushi Umai

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But the best way to explore food here, and to see Chiang Mai itself, is at night

Markets run every night of the week but the big ones are at the Saturday and Sunday markets in the old city. One of the main streets is closed off to traffic and stretches out 1km in length.

We visited the Saturday market. It officially kicks off at 6pm but when we arrived at 6.45 it was already hopping, so arrive early. It's busy but not too crowded and the heat of the day has receded.

There are loads of handicrafts, original art, silver jewellery, textiles and cloth bags, and creative stallholders selling their own designs. It's the perfect place to wander, shop and enjoy a relaxed, happy Thai experience. 

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There's all sorts of food on offer here, from BBQ meat skewers to the Thai superfruit, Gac juice. Lots of snacks are reminiscent of Lao: northern Thai sausage (similar to Luang Prabang sausage), kanom krok (fried rice dumplings in coconut cream), and no end of fresh watermelon, pineapple and dragon fruit. 

Perhaps the best food, and certainly the best value, was this amazing sushi street stall. Super fresh and cheap; a box of about 10 pieces cost 55 baht (about $2). Now that's good eating! 

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For accommodation, you can either stay inside the main city, on the fringes, or further away along the river. We opted for a 2 bedroom apartment at the lovely Chiang Mai Riverside Hotel, about 15 minutes from the old city.

The staff were wonderfully friendly and especially enjoyed chatting with our very sociable kids.  We had a buffet breakfast served to our room every morning (such a treat) and the pool was perfect of a morning before it got too hot. 

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Other popular things to do in Chiang Mai include trekking in the hills, jungle ziplining with gibbons, Thai cooking classes, the Chiang Mai Zoo and the Aquarium. 

We travelled around easily in red tuktuks; they're like a shared taxi. Travel around the old town costs 20 baht (about $1) per adult (kids are free), and out to our hotel was about 200 baht flat fee. 

In every tuktuk and on the street, were signs advertising Chiang Mai's more "exotic" attractions, like the tiger park, snake farm, monkey school, etc. We weren't interested. These places are known for animal exploitation and mistreatment and I'd strongly encourage people to avoid them. 

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Getting there: We flew with Lao Airlines (check out my Mekong River story in this issue on the plane!) with a stopover in Luang Prabang. Unfortunately, there's no direct flight from Vientiane.

Chiang Mai is definitely worth a visit for a few days - to explore, shop, relax and of course, to eat, Enjoy.  

Eat Drink Laos is an independent food blog created by Australian freelance writer and web designer, Lilani Goonesena. Got a foodie tip or question? Reach out or connect on social media @eatdrinklaos.