Our first stop after getting to Thailand was to Chiang Mai in the mountainous region of northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is about an hour long flight from Bangkok. We opted to fly low cost carrier VietJet Air – it was dirt cheap. VietJet charges you for everything – just like Spirit or Ryan but it was still very cheap.
Even after paying extra for seat assignments in the first few rows and 55lb bag fees, the total cost was only $131 – oh yeah, $131 was for 4 one way tickets! I think I was the only one to splurge on the $4 seat assignment as we were the only people in the first 5 rows.
Definitely download the ‘Grab’ app. Grab is Thailand’s Uber. It was so easy to use – just like Uber. You simply open the app, search for your destination, select type of ride (car, XL, etc), and confirm. In minutes a driver was pulling up to pick you up. And since you searched and entered your destination there was no language barrier to overcome. You could even select a tuk-tuk or be a passenger on a scooter if you wanted.
And again it was dirt cheap. The one $5 ride below was from the airport to our hotel in which I ordered the XL vehicle to fit our luggage, but all of the others were in a standard (small) car. Our hotel was outside of the old city – so each ride was around 15 minutes – all for less than $3!
Where to Stay
There aren’t many options to use points for hotel stays in Chiang Mai. Awardmapper.com only lists two – a Holiday Inn and Le Meridien. I was initially booked at Le Meridien using my 5 night Marriott vacation package. But like most hotels in Thailand, I would have to get two rooms for our family of four. So I booked a second room using cash.
Eventually I cancelled both reservations and planned to make Chiang Mai my first AirBNB stay. But ultimately I decided to jump on the $1000 Orbitz gift certificate for $600 during US Travel Association’s Daily Getaways promotion.
I used the $1000 voucher for a 5 night stay in a 2 bedroom suite at the boutique hotel – The Chiang Mai Riverside. The total before voucher was $1392 for 5 nights with breakfast served in our suite each morning. So my actual cost was just under $1000 since I saved $400 with the Daily Getaway. There actually weren’t very many places (maybe only a dozen) that accommodated 4 people without having 2 separate rooms, but the Chiang Mai Riverside was a nice surprise and highly rated (#11 out of 421 on Tripadvisor).
While it was a little out of the way (pink square is the walled old city where most of the attractions are), as I mentioned above rides anywhere were cheap using Grab so we didn’t mind the location.
A few photos of the Chiang Mai Riverside along with our 2 bedroom suite and included daily breakfast:
Day 1 – The Old City Walking Tour
On our first full day in Chiang Mai our plan was to get familiar with the old walled city. Our plan was to do a walking tour – I downloaded this walking tour to my phone and away we went. It started out really well, our Grab driver dropped us off right at the first point of interest – the Three Kings Monument.
Since we were too late to see the ‘Morning Alms for Monks’ , we headed to stop three – the Chiang Mai City Museum to get our history on.
After a pretty boring 30 minutes, we headed out to see some of the amazing Wats and temples.
After 3-4 Wats and temples, we were wiped (it was very humid and hot out). So we spent the rest of the day eating shaved ice sundaes, feeding pigeons, and shopping in the old city. We wanted to be well rested for Day 2’s adventure.
Day 2 – Elephant Nature Park
We were excited for our visit to the Elephant Nature Park on Day 2. I booked this excursion online about a month prior to our arrival. It costs 2500 baht (~$78) per person for the full day option.
A 15 passenger van picked us up at 8:00am for the roughly one hour and fifteen minute ride to the park (with a 15/20 minute break stop on the way). Our guide for the day was with the driver when we were picked up and there were 7 others already in the van so our total group was 11 people.
They wasted no time getting us out into the park and got to feed the first elephant we encountered.
Sadly that’s where the close interaction ended. For the next hour our group headed to different sections of the park where our guide would tell us all about the different rescued elephants but they didn’t want you to get touching the elephants.
Don’t get me wrong, we were really really close the elephants. A few almost ran into us when they were getting out of the river.
At noon, we all headed back to the entrance area for lunch and a 45-60 minute lunch break. The food was pretty good. But there was a LOT of people, lunch was a little hectic. There must have been about 200-250 other people there – all in smaller groups of 10-15 people.
After lunch, we headed back into the park to see the elephants bathing along with some baby elephants and the oldest of the 60 or so elephants at the park. This is a rescue park – so most of the elephants had something wrong with them – either their feet and legs were beat up or they had mental issues from being beaten during logging. I’ll never forget there was one elephant rescued from a circus and even though he was now free to roam about the park, all he did was walk in circles all day long like he was still at the circus ring. It was kind of sad.
All in all, we enjoyed our visit to the Elephant Nature Park but would probably try a different Elephant Sanctuary that had less visitors and some more interaction.
Day 3 – Thai Cooking School
Our third day in Chiang Mai was our Thai cooking class and my personal favorite activity of the trip. I booked the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School online for 1300 Thai Baht ($40).
Just like the Elephant Nature Park, our instructor and a driver picked us up directly at our hotel at 8:40. There was already another family from Austria in the van with two children just about the same age as ours. So our total group was only 8 people (2 families of 4).
On the way to the organic farm we stopped at a local market where our instructor brought us to different stalls in the market and explained to us the different types of rice, how to make fresh coconut milk, and all of the different seasonings. We also had time to wonder around the market on our own. The stop lasted about ~30 minutes or so.
After a 20 minute drive we were on the farm. There were 4-5 different structures for the different groups. There was only one other group (but larger with ~15 people) during our day on the farm. We ate all of the meals we cooked out on this beautiful outdoor area.
Our instructor then gave us a tour of the farm to show us the ingredients they grow on the farm and how to pick them.
After the farm tour, we dove right into cooking a five course meal. Each person gets their own cooking station. And there are slightly different menus depending on which day you visit. We started by making our own curry paste that was going to be used in a dish later on. Each person got to choice to make either Green, Red, or Yellow Curry paste.
Our first course was a soup – Tom Yam!
Next was the classic Pad Thai.
Then we moved on for a chicken with basil dish along with a curry.
Then there was a Papaya salad that the instructor had made for us to taste. And finally we ended with dessert – bananas in coconut milk.
The program then ended, they wished us well, gave us a recipe book and we were taken back to our hotel around 5:00pm.
We had an amazing time and were stuffed from eating all day. Needless to say we weren’t hungry the rest of the day. I can’t recommend this activity enough – the instructor was great and it was a memorable experience to have with your family (and well worth the $40).
Day 4 – Massages & Shopping
We were determined to get the famous cheap Thai massages on our last day. I had read about getting Thai massages at a Women’s Correctional Institution on tripadvisor – stay with me for a second – yes it’s a real thing. It’s meant to give prisoners an opportunity to learn a trade. It’s actually the #3 (out of 119) rated sights/landmarks on tripadvisor.
The reviews mentioned that the appointments get booked quickly so get there early. Unfortunately by the time we arrived around 11am all appointments for the day had been taken. And yes – you meet with prison guards in full uniform to book the appointments.
There are many massage parlors in Chiang Mai. Just down the street we hoped into a different place that was supposedly by ‘ex-prisoners’. After paying the 250 baht (~$7.50) per person for an hour long foot massage, our feet got washed before we headed inside.
The second level of the small building is where the repurposed high back office chairs were located for the foot massages.
An hour later we were all done with refreshed feet and legs. I wasn’t sure on the tipping etiquette, so I left the ladies with a 1000 baht to split. I’m guessing that was sufficient as they were very thankful and wanted to take a photo with us.
We were ready for lunch after and actually went back to the original women’s correctional facility for lunch. There was a small cafe with tables and a nice patio area.
We debated whether or not to visit ‘Tiger Kingdom’ which was marketed as a zoo for tigers. Supposedly you could get in the cages with the tigers to get your picture taken with them. There were conflicting reviews on tripadivsor – with some people saying the tigers are being drugged so they just lay in cages like zombies. We decided to skip it and spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and markets.
We loved Chiang Mai – as you’ll see in upcoming reviews of Koh Samui and Bangkok – it was so different. The Thai Farm Cooking School was the highlight for me and my kids loved the Elephant Nature Park. We stayed 5 nights so we had 4 full days to explore Chiang Mai. Four days was plenty of time for us. Actually since we aren’t big history buffs, three days would have been plenty for us.
Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did I miss that you loved?
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