But after spending 4 days there, I didn't really get it.
Don't get me wrong - we had fun in Chiang Mai and do no regret visiting - but I wouldn't describe it as the best place in Thailand, let alone the best place ever. This is probably partly due to the fact that we aren't hard partying 20-somethings, and we didnt' try everything Chiang Mai had to offer.
To be specific, here is a list of what we did & didn't do in Chiang Mai, starting with what we did:
Siam Rice Thai Cookery School
This was the highlight of our visit to Chiang Mai and I highly recommend it to everyone, even if you are like me and hate to cook. I enjoyed it so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it! It's a great way to meet new people, learn a new skill and enjoy a delicious meal.
Markets are big in Chiang Mai, so if you enjoy handicrafts, street food and hippie clothes - this is your mecca. And it's cheap. Real cheap. We are not big shoppers but, nevertheless, we enjoyed strolling through the markets. Vendors were selling similar items, most of which were knick-knacks, but every now and then we'd spot something a little different.
Thailand boasts a plethora of tailors. Originally, Chris wanted to purchase a custom suit in Hong Kong, but passed on the opportunity because the prices were much higher than expected for the type of material he wanted. He decided to give it another go in Chiang Mai and we visited a tailor called Scandy Collection which received rave reviews online. Here we met Paul, who was very helpful and laid back (not pushy at all, which we appreciated). He had a nice variety of fabrics to choose from, offered us a good price and said he could get a suit done before we left so Chris decided to give it a try. We first visited Paul in the morning, where Chris chose his fabrics and got measured. By 7 o'clock that night, he had his first fitting where he tried out the nearly finished slacks and an initial shell of the jacket. By the next evening, the suit was almost done! It fit Chris so well that he decided to order another suit and have them both sent home.
Chiang Mai is known for it's large supply of delicious and inexpensive restaurants. Most of the restaurants serve delicious food, but they were very similar to each other in terms of taste and ambiance (note: we are not Thai food connoisseurs so many people might beg to differ).
Here are a couple of places that stood out among the crowd:
Toru Bar @ Mo Rooms - We stumbled upon this bar after eating at the restaurant next door. The people were very friendly and the interior was pretty cool. We later learned that it was part of an artsy hotel called Mo Rooms where each room is the artist's interpretation of a Chinese zodiac sign. The rooms are pretty wild! Chris and I are both born in the year of the monkey, and based on the pictures, that might be the coolest room in the hotel. We'd try staying at this this place if we ever come back to Chiang Mai.
Bamboo Bee Vegetarian Restaurant - There are tons of vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai. We are not vegetarians, but enjoy vegetarian meals and this place was no exception. It's a tiny hole in the wall - maybe 4 tables - with an outdoor kitchen in front. They serve delicious fresh juices which they blend right in front of you.
We did enjoy our hotel - VC@Suanpaak. It's located a little further out of town - about a 10 minute/$3 tuk-tuk ride to the town center. The rooms and pool were really nice, and the included breakfast was delicious! They have three restaurants and grow all the produce next door.
One of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai. Tourists either ride an elephant or take care of one for a day. While in South Africa, our jeep was chased by a wild elephant. Our guide, Scotch - a big, burly tough guy who spent his life in the African bush - was a little freaked out and drove us away at lightning speed. This left us a little leery of the animals. I know the elephants in Chiang Mai are "tame", but after reading a few tourist reviews about falling off runaway elephants, or elephants getting spooked by something and going nuts, we decided to pass. This may have been a mistake.
Here tourists can cuddle with or spoon tigers (which seem to be drugged). We love animals, but decided to pass on spooning a massive predator. Plus we felt bad that they were drugged all the time :(
Tiger Kingdom did spark a rather odd debate at a bar one night. Chris and I spent some time debating the merits of spooning a drugged, somewhat wild tiger vs a sober domesticated one. Chris was of the opinion that he'd rather spoon the sober tiger because he doesn't see the point in spooning a drugged animal. What's the fun in that? Also, he thought the sober tiger would make for a much more interesting photo. I prefer keeping my head in tact, and I think my chances of doing so would be greater if the tiger was a little groggy.
Either way, we have no regrets about passing on tiger spooning.
There are lots of beautiful temples or wats in Chiang Mai. However, after 4 days of visiting temples in Cambodia we were tapped out.
Loi Krathong Festival (Lantern Festival)
Missing this festival in Chiang Mai is one of my biggest regrets of the entire trip, second only to missing out on the Whitsundays in Australia because of inclement weather. This is the famous lantern festival where everyone gathers in close proximity and releases lanterns into the sky, a symbol for letting go of negative thoughts. We ended up celebrating it in Koh Samui, but it just wasn't the same because the people there focus more on releasing floating offerings into water vs. releasing lanterns into the sky. Had I planned better, I would have switched our visit to Chiang Mai with Samui so we'd be in Chiang Mai for the festival. It would have been a lot more expensive since people travel here from all over the world to participate, but I think it would have been worth the extra cost to see the sky lit up with floating lanterns.
If we are ever back in Thailand again, I'd give Chiang Mai another chance and try to time it during the Loi Krathong Festival. I'd also take some time to visit neighboring Chiang Rai, which received rave reviews from travelers we met in Chiang Mai and Koh Lanta.