I fell in love with Chiang Mai really quickly, and wish I could have spent more time there. I had high expectations for this northern city that has made all the “best places for digital nomads” lists for years, and it did not disappoint. Surrounded by lush mountains and filled with the best food, cafes, and vibes I found in Thailand, Chiang Mai was much smaller, hipper, and more relaxed in comparison to Bangkok. It felt as if just the Ari neighborhood was a city on its own, with the slower pace and style of the north thrown in for good measure. I felt as if I could have been in Portland or Seattle at times, and I saw more expat hipsters here who looked like they could have been from the Pacific Northwest than I did anywhere in Thailand. The local people were so kind, English was way more prevalent than any other city I visited, and I met some really cool people just being out and about working. AND – scootering is the best way to get around here too so I was in my happy place zipping around the city in minimal traffic, and the freedom really helped me enjoy my time there at the next level.
I absolutely am going to head back there this winter to spend some time working and exploring the city more so let me know if you have any tips to add!
And, in case you missed it, check out my story all about the path that led me to become a rice farmer in Chiang Mai, and what I was doing there, in my post: Reclaiming My Childhood Dreams: A Path to Thailand
From the airport, take one of the local taxis right outside the exit – GRAB will not pick you up at the airport (they will drop off though when you fly out). Once you get into town, there’s GRAB and local red shared taxi trucks everywhere, but I didn’t take any because I had my scooter!
I rented mine from an uber local place that only had 5 scooters and my odometer was broken, but I kept seeing the coolest scooters with the rental sticker from Bikky Chiang Mai – and they were all sexy matte finish Yamaha Grand Filanos. My broken scooter ran 250 baht a day, and in lieu of leaving my passport they took a copy and I left 3000 baht as a deposit.
Warning: the Chiang Mai police love to give fines if you don’t have a Thai or International Drivers Licence. Make sure you get an International one online before coming to Thailand – it will serve you well all over the world and save you the fines. Some generous and thoughtful guy that was returning his scooter was kind enough to give me his fine receipt that made you exempt from having to pay again for 3 days, just in case I got pulled over. I didn’t, but mostly because I drove at night after 5 when the police stop ticketing.
Where to stay
All the expats and cool kids live in the Nimman area, outside of the old city square you see on the map. It’s where the best cafes, restaurants, and bars were, and the neighborhood vibe felt instantly comfortable. While Chiang Mai is pretty small, it was nice to be staying where I wanted to hang so I didn’t need to drive my scooter anywhere after an end of day beer. I didn’t love my Airbnb, so I don’t have a rec for you. I didn’t see the rooms, but if the cafe at Barisotel is any indication – I would definitely say to check out the hotel.
Must eat and drink
The Laboratory Hotel / Across the Universe Cafe
I came across this neon lit bar/hotel/cafe/boutique as I scooted home one night and immediately screeched my scooter to a halt. The local craft beer was amazing, the owner and staff were so welcoming and so cool, and the decor and vibes were off the charts. I came back a couple times to shop and drink and shoot, and it had a bit of a Cheers thing going on – where everyone knew each other but were super welcoming to strangers.
This place. My god. By far the most beautiful coffee shop I’ve ever been inside with the most beautiful and creative drinks I’ve ever seen outside of a Matthew Bianconello bar. Highly recommend the espresso on the rocks with a rosemary sprig and cinnamon stick, and the matcha coconut water iced tea with coconut meat shavings. Central in Nimman, it had a ton of plugs for your phone and laptop, really great wifi, and an upstairs loft where a bunch of nomads were working away on their laptops in silence. It was my favorite place I worked while I was there.
Next to the Barisotel in Nimman, this Thai ice dessert cafe is also gorgeous in its decor and offerings. I got one of their signature bowls – a giant mound of shaved ice with Golden Longan Taro Ball, Red Bean, Taro, Boba, and Brown Jelly with herbal syrup. It was MAGIC.
Super hip indoor/outdoor “mall” with coffee shops, food stalls, and shopping right in the center of Nimman. Inside, be sure to visit GRAPH for a coffee and an insane lemon curd croissant bun thing and The Booksmith for amazing beautiful books of all kinds, a cute cafe, and cool crafty souvenirs and gifts.
The best vegan Kao Soi I had in Chiang Mai, and only second place to the one I had at that Vegetarian food club in Bangkok. Served in a gorgeous pink bowl with all the fixins on a leaf platter, I devoured it and am pretty sad I didn’t have time to get it again. I also highly recommend the Burmese Tea leaf salad – it was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten and I’m now obsessed. The space is amazing too, you’re sitting outside in a garden courtyard surrounded by plants and trees – and if you go at night there’s all natural mosquito repellant on every table. Located just inside the old city walls on the North side.
Huge portions, lively vibes, and really really good Mexcian food just north of Nimman. The vegan menu is large and delicious, I had the Baja style fried cauliflower tacos (OMG, amazing) and could barely finish them along with my Guacamole plate.
Ristr8to and Ristr8to Lab x Wallas
Latte art champions of 2017 and artisan coffee roasters, this spot had the BEST coffee. I got the award-winning unicorn latte at the main location, and then headed over to their Lab – which was a way better vibe tucked away off the main street- and had an amazing americano and a banana bread from the attached Walla’s bakery.
On the East side of the city just outside the old city walls, this local spot served up a huge variety of local craft beers in the bottle, AND there were dogs chilling in the bar which made me crazy happy.
My Beer Friend
A tiny little local craft beer spot in Nimman in the front of a hostel with excellent draft beer and chill cool vibes.
Temples Temples Temples
Inside the old city walls you’ll run into a stunning temple every other block, so I suggest you just hop on your scooter for a day and wander! There was one just outside the old city on the north that was really special but I don’t have the exact location!
This Airbnb Experience at Karen Eco Lodge was something really special to me. I was never really into rice outside of eating it with Indian food, and growing up Uncle Ben’s was not an incredibly inspiring product. But that changed the moment I arrived in Bali for the first time a couple years ago. I became obsessed with the rice fields I was surrounded by daily, watching the farmers in every stage of harvest, sunrise to sundown, and have fallen in love with eating rice out at restaurants and cooking with rice at home. As a chef and vegetarian, I have always deeply cared about where my food comes from and respected the work and love that goes into every ingredient that I cook with and eat. Since it had become a huge staple in my diet and is an essential part of the culture I have immersed myself in living in Bali, I really wanted to learn more about rice farming and experience it myself – but always felt so scared to go up to a random rice farmer and ask them to teach me. So when I found this Airbnb Experience in Chiang Mai I booked it immediately. And damn. I will never waste a single grain ever again. The amount of planning, physical labor, time, and love that goes into growing rice is intense! Head on over to my Instagram Highlights to see how it’s grown and highlights of my time there farming (spoiler- I hilariously tread around in Buffalo poop and lose control of heavy machinery!). You’ll also see my highlights from the 100 year old hidden jungle temple I was taken to after to be blessed by a master Buddhist monk.
Trekking in Doi Inthanon
On another incredible all day Airbnb Experience, my guide Happy Bird (apparently if you meet any Thai person born in the 80’s a huge portion of them will have the nickname Bird after a Thai-Scottish pop star of the time) took myself and 3 others on a day of sightseeing and trekking in Doi Inthanon National Park. We visited two waterfalls, visited an epic royal temple with an English garden, explored a real deal cloud forest at the highest point in Thailand, and were partly guided by a Hill Tribe woman and had coffee (beans grown right on her land) and lunch in her village. Bird was amazing, so fun, and taught us a ton about Thai culture and history. He’s also an incredible photographer, so I walked away with some great shots!
After all that activity, you’re going to need a massage. And ok, this is the ONLY thing I looked on Trip Advisor for since there’s a massage parlor every other shop and I couldn’t decide. This spot had great reviews and it didn’t disappoint. 1-hour Thai massage for 250 baht, and they scrub your feet in floral water before and give you delicious tea after.