Bangkok. Bangkok. When you live there its grimy grip drags you down and tires you out sometimes. The vague sense you have whenever and wherever you are walking that you’re about to be mown down by a motorbike (I feel this even when sitting on a toilet in a shopping mall). The pavements complete with cartoon style booby trap holes. The endless drive towards consumption: eat this, buy this, drink this, buy this, buy this. The fumes and the heat and the traffic.
It’s not all bad, but it is hard. I know a little cheat for recovery though. It’s called escape to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern capital. It’s still a busy city, but it’s low rise, surrounded by mountains and has a thriving wellness scene, with juice bars on every corner. In the past few months I’ve visited it three times. Every time felt like an opportunity to take a big lungful of air. (NB I haven’t been in the March smoky season. At that time taking a big lungful of air is the last thing you’d want to do.)
There’s a lot you can do in and around Chiang Mai in terms of trekking and adventure. But when I’ve been there it’s been all about downtime, so I’m calling these my lazybones tips for the city, sticking close to the centre and spending a decent amount of time horizontal.
1. Walk round the old city
Strolling the old city in Chiang Mai I found endless little side streets virtually devoid of traffic. I took it slow and watched everyday life unfolding. I found townhouses with well tended gardens and outdoor eateries complete with corrugated iron rooves and cabinets full of fruit. I wandered in the shade of old, established trees and discovered temples round every corner. I passed many a sleepy dog, basking on the dusty roadside.
2. Eat delicious, nutritious, ethically sourced food. Loads of it
At Free Bird café all the proceeds go towards the Thai Freedom House, a charity which supports Burmese refugees. But it’s not just that you can feel good about where your money is going. It’s that you’ll be presented with truly delicious, lovingly prepared food and drink. They are fastidious about sourcing their produce, use fresh organic ingredients and all dishes are vegan or vegetarian. I had a pancake topped with fresh fruit and cacao nibs, and a black and white shake made with coconut and even more cacao. I ended up having to take half the pancake away because I couldn’t finish it but there was no way I was wasting it.
The Hideout is on one of my favourite roads in Chiang Mai – one of those side streets I mentioned earlier. I sat outside under the Bodhi tree and ate an egg and avocado bagel which was gigantic and very tasty. I found it a really nice, peaceful spot for a slow brunch.
I also had a scrumptious cucumber salad at the Bodhi Tree 2 café, tucked down a side street away from the traffic. You’ll be hard pushed to find a friendlier owner than Lotus, and it’s a nice breezy space where you can lie on the mat and stretch out your legs. Let that inner hippy reign free, this is ideal territory for them.
3. Stay at this Airbnb
If you want a quiet little spot out of town, but not too far, I found a nice little place across the river from the old town. The corner house is tucked down a residential street, in the garden of friendly owners David and Mali. You’re in a self-contained unit on the side of their house, with a glass front overlooking their lush garden. There’s a comfy bed and a writing desk. There’s even space for a spot of yoga if that’s your thing.
4. Oh my god the coffee
It seems quite hard to get a bad cup of coffee in Chiang Mai. I recently stayed at a guest house where the breakfast was 7/11 bread and some butter. The fruit that was supposed to come never did. When they plonked down a cracked mug of coffee next to me I braced myself. But it was a rich, delightful gulp of bitter perfection. The hill tribes close to the city used to grow opium. Now they grow coffee, so I guess it doesn’t come fresher than Chiang Mai’s coffee shops (although you can go and drink it straight from the picking on a plantation tour. If you’re not on a lazybones visitor like me)
I had a pretty sensational cup in a nice little corner of Pacamara. It gets busy at peak times, but us layabouts can roll in when we want to.
Fahtara grabs rave reviews too. It’s on my list for my next visit.
5. Get out into the mountains
Yeah yeah this is a lazy guide, but there are trips that can be done quickly and easily and are worth the minimal effort. I took a songthaew up to Doi Suthep, a mountain top crowned with a temple. As we pulled into the parking lot a black hen and her tiny chicks scattered into the undergrowth. We walked a steep staircase flanked with two long mosaic dragons glinting in the sun. At the top, the air felt cooler and there was a breeze rustling the lush greenery. The temple was all painted murals and shining pagodas. The views were unreal – jungle spread about us as far as the eye can see, with a bit of city thrown in for good measure.
A little further out of town is Bua Tong, or Sticky Falls – a waterfall you can climb UP. I haven’t had a chance to visit yet but my sister who lives in Chiang Mai raves about it. Here’s the lowdown.
6. Massage of course
Now I made a questionable decision when picking a masseuse. Oh, not that kind of decision, don’t worry. I was at the night market and there was a long line of wicker chairs and people begging to massage my feet. And I thought, why not – it was 150 baht which is very cheap. I’d kind of forgotten that ‘gentle’ is not a word that features in the vocabulary of a Thai masseuse, it’s filed away in the bin with ‘comfort’ and ‘relax’. Pretty soon this lady is wringing on my foot like she’s trying to squeeze the last bit of joy out of a frube. She gets right into the arch and I want to squeal. That said, it’s all necessary pain. I came away walking on air.
If you’re looking for a more holistic experience with your massage, try out Lila Thai. One of those initiatives that seems so perfectly realised – female prisoners are trained in massage techniques so they have vocational skills to put to use upon their release. There are branches all over town and praise for the experience is unanimous.
Hope this helps you have a relaxing time in one of the best cities in Southeast Asia. Add your own suggestions in the comments because there’s so much I will have missed.
Adieu for now.