When thinking of Thailand, many of us lone travelers blanch with images of the hectic capital city of Bangkok parading through our minds. Indeed as a solo traveler I found Bangkok to be so overflowing with people, traffic, sights and sounds that it was truly an assault on my senses. Yet Thailand is a country of diversity, and thankfully, located in the north is a city light years apart from the intimidating hustle and bustle of Bangkok. I am of course referring to the delightful Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand.
There are three ways of getting to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. Flights are relatively inexpensive, as is the train, but as a shoestring traveler I opted for the coach option, which in itself was a delight.
The coach (190-470 baht) came with its own “hostess” – a small Thai lady who performed typical airline duties as the coach whistled along on the Thai highways. The other passengers (who were all Thai apart from myself) were friendly to the lone English girl.
If, like myself, you choose the coach option, a sensible idea is to arrange transport to your guesthouse prior to the coach’s arrival. All reputable guesthouse proprietors are more than happy to help. Chiang Mai boasts a wealth of guesthouses all of which are low priced (100 to 800 baht), and comfortable.
Built along grid lines, Chiang Mai is easy to figure out and negotiate as a first-time solo traveler. I found that one of the best ways to get around is on foot, or, you can also hire a bicycle, safe in the knowledge you’re not going to be overpowered by excruciating traffic or fumes.
If you would like to find out a little more of the Thai people and their Buddhist beliefs, do check out some of the “Wats” (temples). Chiang Mai has over 300, intricately decorated with semi-precious stones, glass and artwork. The most important temple is peaceful Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, located high above the city on a forested mountaintop 15 kilometers from town.
The main attraction to Chiang Mai, the one that draws so many foreign travelers to this unspoiled region, is the vast array of hill trekking tours. Chiang Mai is the starting point for travelers of all descriptions wishing to trek through the luscious green rain forests. You have the chance to wander into the unknown, ride an elephant, and stay overnight with one of the many hill tribe communities, people existing in the same manner as they have for centuries, all just beyond the civilization of the city.
Personally, I thought the trek was a great way to experience first hand how the proud and fascinating hill tribe people live their lives. As well, it was a chance to meet other travelers (some solo like myself) from all four corners of the globe.
In the city of Chiang Mai there are many other options to fuel the day of any traveler. Shopping in one of its bountiful markets is a good way to find those unusual, yet exquisite souvenirs.
I found the best market by far to be the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. The market, which starts in the early evening and runs till the small hours, holds a huge range of clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, in fact anything your heart desires. The night bazaar is also a wonderful way to experience the Thai culture in a friendly, non-intimidating fashion. All stall traders expect you to barter with them for the price of an item. For a tourist this can be a great way to make contact with the locals and enjoy a friendly exchange, which sadly is often hard to do with the language barriers.
I also highly recommend indulging in a Thai massage. There are an abundance of places everywhere that offer these, all for the price of a McDonald’s. And believe me there is no better way to relax those weary limbs after a vigorous trek, or a long day of sightseeing.
Chiang Mai also happens to be one of the best places to exercise your culinary skills, Thai style. There are numerous courses on offer everywhere, to suit chefs from the amateur to haute cuisine.
Everything in Chiang Mai from food to accommodation is far cheaper than its counterpart Bangkok, so you will find (even as a solo traveler) that you get far more bang for your buck in this truly spectacular city, Chiang Mai – the gateway of the North.