CHIANG MAI: The most FAMILY FRIENDLY CITY in THAILAND
Updated: Jul 31
At first glance, Chiang Mai, population 1.76 million, does seem a little rough around the edges. Traffic congestion is a big problem, sidewalks are either crumbling apart or non-existent, there are stray animals wandering all over the streets, and walking under those cluttered, low hanging power lines can make you feel slightly uneasy. It probably lacks the polish and sophistication of some other major cities we've been to, like Osaka or Busan. But that is essentially a big part of the appeal. Give it some time, and it slowly begins to grow on you...before you know it, you won't want to leave. At least that's how we felt. The elephant tours, the Buddhist temples, and the night markets are what this city is known for. But once we transitioned from travel mode to everyday living, we began to really understand what makes Chiang Mai so darn charming.
WHY we chose CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai is just big enough of a city to have everything you might need or want. It has all the modern comforts and conveniences, like fancy malls and supermarkets, plus a wide variety of things to do for the whole family. Yet it still maintains that friendly, humble, local vibe. That has not changed since we were last here, 12 years ago. Back then, there were way more touts and lots of tiresome back and forth bargaining involved. Now fixed prices are becoming common, and with the use of GRAB, (similar to UBER) there are more options for transport without needing to haggle for fair prices. Times are changing, and whether people like it or not, Chiang Mai is rapidly evolving to a more urban city.
Compared to other cities in Thailand, like Bangkok or Krabi for instance, cost of living is cheaper in Chiang Mai. Sure you can find high end stores, restaurants and hotels, but it also offers a lot for those on a budget. Affordability is a big reason why Chiang Mai attracts so many immigrants (aka expats), digital nomads, location independent families and long term travelers like us. This international presence adds a lot of interesting diversity to the city. Even in the food scene, French bakeries, Indian restaurants, and vegan cafes are not hard to find.
It is also recognized as a WORLDSCHOOLING HUB, making it easier to meet with other traveling families, thanks to social media groups like "We are Worldschoolers" and "Worldschooling Central" on facebook. We were fortunate enough to have gotten to know a couple of wonderful families, making our days in Chiang Mai that much sweeter.
The other reason why Chiang Mai appealed to us was that it was a city surrounded by jungle and mountains. There is incredible NATURE in this part of Thailand, which we barely got to explore. That, combined with an ancient, walled city in the middle, and over 300 beautiful temples, you get a bit of everything in Chiang Mai.
We planned our trip well aware to avoid the dreadful burning season that starts early in the year (Feb-April). This occurs when farmers begin burning their fields to prep their land for the upcoming season. The air quality suffers as a result and many expats and travelers flee from the haze to the southern provinces or neighbouring countries.
We were here in late October to end of November, which is the beginning of the cooler, dry season. It was on average 30-33 degrees celsius, and we were melting at the sight of locals wearing jeans and sweaters without a single bead of sweat on their impeccable skin. There were occasional brief bursts of downpour but otherwise it was consistently hot and humid. The afternoon heat can be especially intense, but evening strolls were very pleasant. It's easy to understand why night markets are so prevalent all throughout South-East Asia. Chiang Mai was full of them.
Tree Boutique Condo was a cheap airbnb find just south of the old walled city. It was in a quiet residential area dominated only by the sound of crickets in the evenings, but still close enough that you could walk to the tourist zone within 15 minutes. With a monthly discount, it was $16 USD/$22 CAD per night for a no frills, clean, one-bedroom with a fold-out couch. Not bad, though you can find even cheaper deals for long term stays over 3 months. It had a small kitchen, laundry machine and a decent communal pool that we took full advantage of. Acclimatizing to the heat was going to be a challenge for the kids, and swimming was the best way to cool them off. And smoothies. Lots and lots of fruit smoothies!
There weren't any tourist restaurants around our area, just cheap, local eateries offering delicious, authentic Thai food and street stalls selling fruit and veggies. Over our month long stay, we got to know the produce ladies well. They were amused by our modest attempts to practice Thai and we appreciated that they always charged us local prices. There was one particularly sweet lady who sold us the BEST MANGOES in the city. She always insisted on giving the kids free treats like an extra sweet potato or an orange. It's those little local interactions that makes it easy to fall in love with a place!
We can't say that this is specific to Chiang Mai, but the Thai people in general are a very kind, easy going and hospitable bunch. Thailand is known as "The Land of Smiles" and it's obvious why. I think it was partly more noticeable in Chiang Mai because it was our longest stay in Thailand. The longer you stay in one place and you bump into the same faces, the more you get to know them and they get to know you. (Bonus, they LOVE kids, but 3 months into our trip we are realizing that this is kinda universal everywhere you go!) From the GRAB drivers, to the restaurant owners and the produce ladies, we've had nothing but pleasant interactions with the locals, sometimes with very little verbal exchange. The charm of Chiang Mai ended up being, above all else, the people.
Chiang Mai has it all: cheap eats and places to stay, friendly folks and a ton of things to do for families. It was the perfect city to introduce the kids to Thailand...just big enough for all the excitement but not quite as big as Bangkok to feel too overwhelming. A month did not feel too long. In the end, it was a bittersweet goodbye, feeling sad to leave but eager to explore the rest of the country as we headed south to Krabi.
Tuk tuks are the most expensive mode of transport now. It has become more of a tourist novelty than a local way of transport. Taking a GRAB is cheaper. The songthaews, (the public red trucks with seats in the back) are even cheaper, and they don't charge kids. There is also the RTC Chiang Mai City Bus, which we didn't get to try as we weren't staying near the bus route, but they are cheap (30 baht per ride), there is air-con and apparently free wifi.
You can't buy alcohol at a store between 2pm-5pm or after midnight, and they are very strict about it. Not even a minute before or after the times! You can still drink at the bars and restaurants at any time. This is for ALL of THAILAND.
The night markets technically start at 5pm, but they are just getting set up at this point and don't really get going until past 6pm. Something to keep in mind if you have kids and eat dinner early like us.
If you get a nice GRAB driver, ask for a business card or their phone number. It may come in handy for hiring a driver for the day. If you get a few cards, you can call each driver and see who gives you the best price.
For those who are requiring a visa extension while in Chiang Mai, getting it done at the immigration office was a breeze. You can conveniently get photocopies of your passport and photos done across the street at "The Colonel". We went mid afternoon, and wait time was less than 30 mins. It may be more expensive than doing a border run as a daytrip, but time is also money, and a whole day of being on the road with two kids didn't sound too appealing to us.