The moment I stepped off the plane I could feel the hot sticky air of Chiang Mai Thailand hit my face and I automatically knew this was going to be a trip unlike any other. Located 435 miles north of Bangkok in a verdant valley on the banks of the Ping River, we started our trip in Chiang Mai where modern and ancient Thailand merge and the spirit and hospitality of the “land of smiles” can really be felt all around.
It was six in the morning local time and we arrived only to find out that our pre-planned ride from the airport to the hotel couldn’t pick us up because it was too early in the morning. Grabbing a taxi at the airport, easy we thought, they all must be lined up outside ready and waiting. It turned out that wasn’t exactly the case but after some hand signals we we hoped in a taxi van and the trip was off! Taxis or tuk-tuks are the standard way of traveling around but keep reading to hear about a modern method of transportation that has recently made its way to Thailand and made us feel right at home.
We were greeted with cold hand towels, Thai ice tea and warm hospitality upon our arrival at The Inside House, our first hotel of the trip. Just off the main road this hotel makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a king of Thailand’s palace with it’s all white decor and opulent accents. The mesmerizing tree in the hotel lobby that looked like it had been growing for centuries lent even more old world elegance to the clean and bright grounds.
Rob and I got right to exploring the streets of Chiang Mai, known as the old city. Foods carts, family-owned restaurants, and shops covered the streets in all directions as far as you could see. A gold plated temple would pop out of nowhere when you turned a corner revealing its unique colors, cultural richness and serene peace just by looking at it. No two temples that we saw on the trip looked alike but each one left me with a new look into the cultural significance of these peaceful sanctuaries.
In the name of post-flight hydration, my first order of business was finding coconut water in an actual coconut, which is very common to see at stores and on the streets all over Thailand. One thing to keep in mind is that everything sold on the streets or in family owned shops is negotiable. Most goods were sold at roughly the same price no matter where you went (i.e. shirts, pants with elephants on them, coconuts, etc.) but it never hurt to ask for a lower price. Most locals knew enough English to negotiate with your or would type the price into their calculator to show you.
Food in Chiang Mai Thailand
Our first eating experience in Chiang Mai was at a brightly colored corner restaurant that you’ll find on nearly every corner. It was early in the morning so very few people were sitting at restaurants but we liked it’s vibe, saw that they had free wifi (most places did and the hotel) and took a seat. We ordered all the things we heard we needed to try and a few things suggested by the waitress. Those things turned out to be the best, and at almost every single restaurant we went to over the course of the ten days we always asked what they recommended on the menu, something I highly recommend if you’re looking to try some quintessential Thai dishes that may be slightly out of your comfort zone.
Our first traditional pad thai and mango sticky rice along with the pork dish and coconut soup we had did not disappoint. I don’t know if it was the jet lag hunger that made everything taste so good or the fact that we were on the other side of the world about to experience things we’d never before that made every bite on our plates disappear.
Navigating Food Allergies and Intolerances in Thailand
Restaurant menus in Chaing Mai and in the other cities in Thailand that we visited all had descriptions written in english for each menu items so you could clearly see what you were ordering. No restaurant menu that I saw had allergens or specifications beyond what was in the meal denoted on the menu. I couldn’t tell you what oils or seasonings were used in any of the traditional dishes we ate which I realize is extremely challenging for those traveling with food allergies or intolerances. I did bring a lot of travel snacks which is definitely something I would recommend for anyone traveling allergies or not. Tackling family restaurants and street food may be a challenge if avoiding a particular food but I do think it is much easier to do so at restaurants located in the hotels.
A restaurant I’ll never forget in Chiang Mai is Ginger Farm Kitchen. We stumbled upon it and not only was the food great but the decor was like an Asian Antropologie inside! They even had fried pumpkin which we tried but was a little too fried for my liking. The spring rolls were perfect and it was one of the few places that had reasonably priced wine by the glass (Thailand does not do wine! Their beer is super cheap but wine is much more expensive everywhere you go)
Activities in Chiang Mai Thailand
One of the reasons I was so excited to go to Thailand was to experience a traditional Thai massage and after being on a plane for 20 hours, truly nothing sounded better. I get them all the time here in Chicago and wanted to know if it would be similar! I am up for any type of massage and loved how they knew where my tight spots where and just the overall attention given to your head and scalp, stomach, legs, and booty. I know for some people it can feel like a full body massage of being poked and prodded is too invasive and not relaxing, but I very much enjoyed it and would highly recommend the experience. We popped into one located on the same street as our hotel that was inexpensive and had the Tripadvisor seal of approval!
On our first night in Chiang Mai we set out to experience their street culture at one of their famous night markets. We downloaded Thailand’s version of Uber, called Grab which I highly recommend for traveling around the city and got a ride to that part of town. Just like with Uber the prices are fixed and at times a lot cheaper than what you would negotiate for in a taxi or tuk-tuk. It was also a great way to save our Thai Baht (their currency).
Rob and I hate crowds which was the only downside of the sprawling and lively markets. We were elbow to elbow with people slowly walking up and down the streets to see all of the foods and goods being sold. Food smells that I’ve never experience before filled my lungs as we perused everything from Thai silk scarves to handmade jewelry and all of the different ways they had to eat tropical fruits. Pad thai was being mixed in a wok as big as my stove and just the way food was displayed, cooked on sight, and presented was so interesting to see. On this first trip to the market we didn’t dabble in any food but did leave with a few Thai treasures to take back to the states.
One note on safety here because I’m sure you’re wondering is that Rob carried his wallet in his front pocket with his hand on it while we walked around at the night market and I didn’t bring a purse or have anything in my pockets. I felt completely safe but of course you’re not going to spot a pickpocket before they pick pocket you!
Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai Thailand
We were up with the sun on our second day in Thailand to spend the day at an elephant sanctuary about an hour away from the city. The tour picked us up from our hotel early in the morning and provided both a wonderful experience for us and the elephants with a traditional Thai lunch on site. The ride to the sanctuary itself was in a truck that had open benches in the back seat to sit on. We picked up a few other people along the way and once the truck was full headed out of the city and into the mountain. On the main highway I felt fine in the back of the truck but as someone who gets nauseous in the backseat of Ubers I knew it would only be a matter of time until I felt queasy from all the ride. As we twisted and turned up the mountain the nausea really started to hit me, but the allure of excitement and talking to other foreigners in the truck helped me not to think about it as much.
It took about an hour to get there and once we arrived we could smell the elephants before we saw them! The sanctuary was very nice and they took the time to explain how the day would go and that the safety and well-being of the animals (and us) was their number one priority. In order to ride an elephant they must be brutally tamed when they are young, which is why sanctuaries like this one we visited are all about the nurturing and proper care of the elephants. The Asian elephants found at this sanctuary are actually endangered because of their loss of habitat.
I won’t give away all of the details of the day in case this is one of the things you are looking forward to most about visiting Thailand, but as I’m sure you can see from the pictures, the elephants were beautiful! They were playful and down for a good time in the mud and their love for bananas was something we had in common. I’ll always cherish this memories from this part of the trip and it was fun to meet other people vacationing in Thailand also on this day trip and swap travel stories.
Surviving The 20 Hour Flight
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If traveling this long has you apprehensive about visiting Thailand or Asia for that matter, I’m detailing all of the things that helped me relax, stay busy and most importantly keep from getting sick during my journey to and from Thailand.
–Neosporin in Your Nose– Before I got on the plane I put Neosporin up both of my nostrils. This is said to protect against bacteria and viruses. I’m not sure that this method is 100% valid but I didn’t get sick and have been doing it on planes ever since!
– NEW & Fun Travel Snacks – bringing a few fun snacks that are new to you or maybe you haven’t had it a while will give you something to look forward to on the plane instead of the same bars or snacks that you eat on a daily basis. Here are some of my favorites that were great snacks in the hot climate once I got there too.
- Chomps – Perfect because they don’t take up a lot of room but pack the protein. Also heat safe to take on a long hike or to the beach. I love the beef and turkey flavors!
- Simple Mills Crackers – these were great when I felt a little nauseous during bumpy travel on a day trip and one of my go-tos at home and on-the-go.
- RX Bar Nut Butter — If you’re a nut butter lover like me and need it daily, I recommend bringing your own and these are my current favorites. All the flavors are delicious and they were great to have for the whole trip!
- GG Fiber Crackers – to keep “things moving” and to feel my best on the trip I knew I would need some extra help in the fiber department because for the first few days my body was out of whack! I brought these fiber crackers to breakfast and topped them with eggs, cheese, or smoked salmon and drank a lot of water before and after eating them.
– Podcasts, Music, & Books – I downloaded my favorite podcasts, bought two new books and a new magazine to switch back and forth with on the plane. I always say I’m going to read more when I’m at home but love taking advantage of vacation or plane time when I have the time!
– Compression Socks, Eye Mask & Ear Plugs – compression socks are recommended to improve blood flow on long flights and wearing mine kept my feet nice and cozy as I did my best to sleep with an eye mask on and ear plug ins. Some airlines will provide the ear plugs and eye mask, along with earphones too. We flew Qatar Airways on the way there and it was a very enjoyable flight!
Our next stops on this tour of Thailand were to the beautiful island of Koh Saumi and the bustling city of Bangkok! Be sure to check back next week for Thailand Part II where I detail the sights, foods, and happenings in both of those cities! And if this post has you hungry for healthy Thai food be sure to check out my recipe for spaghetti squash pad Thai!