Chiang Mai is possibly my least favourite place in Thailand and I don’t understand why it’s so highly rated among “non touristy” Travelers. In this post i’m going to highlight some of the reasons why i don’t like it but basically it’s for the following reasons:
- Not Pedestrian Friendly
- Lack of greenery
For those who haven’t been to Chiang Mai the moat is probably the most prominent architectural & historical feature of the city. It was originally built just outside the old city walls as a defensive feature. While the wall is for the most part gone today, you can still see it’s remnants on the four corners of the old city. The moat itself is pretty cool, and if you saw a picture of it you might think it’d make for a really pleasant stroll around the city.
The problem is that the sidewalk surrounding the moat is only about 1 meter wide, plus with trees planted right in the middle of the sidewalk, there’s pretty much nowhere to walk, especially if you’re with a couple of friends, in which case single file is the only way to do it.
Then there’s the fact that the roads immediately inside and outside of the moat are saturated to capacity with traffic at all hours of the night and day. Apart from it being quite a noisy and stressful experience having to walk literally less than 1 yard away from passing traffic, the pollution is also quite bad.
Try crossing the moat at anytime of day, you’ll be waiting at least a few minutes, before realizing there isn’t going to be a lull in oncoming traffic and deciding to take the plunge and dodge your way through.
The sidwealks in general are way too narrow to accommodate pedestrians, and that’s if there are even sidewalks, plenty of places don’t even have them. Then some of the local shop owners think it’s ok to appropriate the majority of what little sidewalk there is remaining to display their merchandise. Sure, they’ve been there since 1940 but the city has grown, there’s lot more people here now, they can obviously see they are restricting the flow of pedestrian traffic but they still do it, and the local municipality don’t seem to think it’s a problem.
There are places in Chiang Mai that employ qualified staff who will give you an excellent massage. But there are also hundreds of shitty places where some woman with an entrepreneurial spirit rents a room, stuffs as many mattresses in as she can, employs her friends from the village , none of whom know the first thing about massage, and away they go fleecing the tourists. Because of the language barrier, the fact that tourists are easy going, and many of them aren’t experienced enough to know the difference between a real massage and some bullshit hand stroking, they get away with it. Wasting a couple hundred baht and an hour is one thing, but one needs to be careful as some of these ladies can damage you! They seem to have the notion that strong is good, and up north they have a preference for using their thumbs as opposed to the palms of their hands, All it takes is one “masseuse” who doesn’t know what they are doing to rupture the fascia in your calf and you’ll be hobbling for a week.
Pollution & Smoke
The pollution here is pretty bad and while it might not be Mexico City or Cairo, if you’re coming from a developed country, even a big city, you might not be pleasantly surprised breathing the air here. There’s basically two reasons for this; firstly, the city has grown beyond what it’s infrastructure can handle and there are just too many cars on the roads. Secondly, the geniuses in the farmlands surrounding Chiang Mai burn their fields yearly because it’s easier than clearing the land manually. While that’s great for them the entire city is enveloped in a perpetual bubble of smoke for a few months of the year, Usually between Feb- April. Granted, it hasn’t been noticeable in 2014 like it was in 2013, but i’d be surprised if this age-old practice was abandoned in it’s entirety anytime soon.
For a place that has somehow become synonymous with being laid back and replete with nature, there isn’t a whole lot of it here. Sure, there are plenty of national parks around Chiang Mai province, but they are all over an hour away from the city. There really aren’t any significant green spaces in the city, the closest i can see is the moat and the yard of sloping grass on it’s banks, where you’ll be sandwich by traffic. The national parks around Chiang Mai are definitely beautiful, natural and everything you could hope for. But it’s quite a trek to get there, and there’s no decent public bus service with clearly signed routes. The best you can do is rent a motorbike, which obviously isn’t for everyone, and ride about 30-40 minutes up into the hills where you’ll find some waterfalls (don’t expect water year round though). But getting there on the moped is damn stressful. Otherwise you can hire out a tuk-tuk privately which isn’t cheap, and to get to some of the better parks you either have to buy a tour or rent your own car. I really don’t think that’s good enough for an international tourist destination.
This is one instance where Thailand’s other tourist destinations, like Pattaya and Phuket, have a clear advantage over Chiang Mai. In those places you can leave your hotel and pretty much walk to some type of beach nearb.Sure they’ll screw you if you want to get around the Island in Phuket, but you can reach a nearby beach without having to get a tuk-uk.
In the City
Assuming you aren’t brave enough to rent a moped and battle through traffic for 45 minutes to see some greenery, you’re going to be in the Old city. What is there to do here really? Massage? Ok, that’s 1 hour, temples? Great, how long are you going to pretend that is interesting? Sure there are hundreds, but do you really need to visit a hundred temples? Do Asian tourists visit every little Church in your country? Hang out in the cafes? How many coffees are you going to drink in those little corrugated tin shacks on the side of the noisy polluted street with Bob Marley flags up designed to attract the “spiritual” tourist.
Chiang Mai appeals toa certain type of tourist. I’ve never seen so many Caucasian people with dreadlocks anywhere, and everyone wears those MC hammer trousers with little prints of elephants on them. Chiang Mai gains it’s tourist sustenance to a large degree from people that shun Phuket and Pattaya as being too commercial and for old sex tourists . They are probably right atleast to some degree, but even in those places (even Pattaya!) it’s easier to get somewhere quiet and natural.
I don’t understand what these people enjoy about this place? There are other places in Thailand, certain beaches on Koh Phangan for example, that attracts a similar crowd, but i get that; they are on a nice little secluded beach with good weather and nature surrounding them.
There are a few new malls around Chiang Mai; again no decent public transport to take you there. The malls are pretty ok, the usual foreign stuff that you can get cheaper in your own country anyway.
Then there’s the night bazar, which i cannot understand why anybody, even a tourist only here for a week, would want to go to, other than the fact that it’s mentioned in the guidebook (reminds me of the Russian Bazar in Pnom Pen, what a load of shit that was) . Firstly, there are about a thousands stalls all selling the same stuff; either baby clothes, t-shirts, dvds (so obsolete), then there’s the one that sells knuckle dusters and ninja throwing stars and all that stuff that you could never get through airport customs even if you were the type of disturbed psycho that would want to buy that kind of stuff. But again, there is literally about 18 inches of pavement for humans to walk on. I’m not exaggerating when i say you cant put more than two people shoulder to shoulder here, and this is supposed to be the main shopping attraction of one of Thailand’s major tourist destinations? What the hell! All it takes is one person to stop and look at something in a stall and the entire column of pedestrian traffic grinds to a halt, i find that quite annoying and would frankly take the spacious air conditioned malls over this “authentic” Experience any day.
City of Culture
For some reason Chiang Mai has this reputation. I cannot see how anyone who comes from even a mid sized city anywhere in the western world would be bowled over by the culture here. I don’t even know what they are talking about when they say this. Is it the tribal people walking round in those jester hats trying to sell you trinkets that’s so endearing? Perhaps the “authenticity” of eating noodles at a road side stall-sometimes literally in the road- where hygiene standards are non existent makes one feel like they have some credibility as a hardcore traveler. Those places are infested with rats, if you think i’m exaggerating just sit there for a bit in the daytime and watch the gutter openings. Having said that, i’ve eaten there and never gotten sick, probably because the food is hot and fresh, but still i don’t see the appeal. Whether it’s the museums, the unis, the art exhibitions, even the zoo; even a mid sized city in the West offers more in all these fields.
So, in conclusion i don’t think Chiang Mai is anything special, and one major reason tourists keep coming is the snowball effect. It probably was great 10 or 20 years ago, but so was everywhere else. Now it’s just crowded and your cultural interaction will be limited to dealing with Thais who work in the tourist industry in one way or another and will be taking money from you ( they are really nice, until you have even a minor complaint, then you’ll see the other side) . But because of those stories from years ago there’s always going to be a fresh supply of gap year girls and Spiritual twenty somethings (some older) coming here. The fact that there’s been an explosion in people creating travel blogs, the majority of whom seem to have that annoying habit of being overly positive about everything ( they have to sell things up- after all how exciting can eating a bowl of noodles on the side of the street be?) seems to have perpetuated things.