This post was updated Nov. 12, 2018.
If you’re contemplating a visit to Chiang Mai, the truth about the city is that it’s sadly now paradise lost.
Twenty-five years ago, this city was still quaint, clean and historic. Nowadays, it’s only historic. Uncontrolled growth and ever-increasing tourists, especially from China, have cursed the city with traffic jams and air pollution that can rival Bangkok.
There is an irrepressible and unfortunate truth about Chiang Mai and I intend to say it. But I also highly recommend you visit. It still remains today a fascinating touchstone of Thai culture.
Chiang Mai Today
Chiang Mai is a city. A large city. A large polluted city. A large polluted, traffic choked city. And it’s over run with tourists.
Accept this reality and your time spent here will be more enjoyable.
The municipal population of Chiang Mai exceeded 1 million several years ago and now approaches 1.5 million. This province is home to another million inhabitants. Chiang Mai is besieged with almost 10 million foreign tourists annually as of 2016.
Much of the skyrocketing tourism is due to Chinese tourism which has exploded over the last 5 years. There are streets in Chiang Mai bustling with people…of whom hardly any are Thai.
Chiang Mai is a historic city that reaches back centuries. Golden wats dot the city like almost no where else in The Kingdom. The Thai food you’ll find here, especially the northern Thai dishes, are superb. Fabric shopping throughout the city is great. There are many, many good aspects to the old city.
BUT! Growth and tourism have extracted a heavy toll on its livability. AND, it’s not that cheap anymore. A condo in Chiang Mai is often about the same price as a condo in much of the U.S.
(I wrote a post “The Golden Era of Thai Tourism: 1947-1979” which details the amount and consequences of mass Thai tourism.)
The Old City
The city was founded 722 years ago (1296) and has probably changed more in the last 30 years than it has in the last seven centuries. The same holds true for much of Thailand.
The old original city was surrounded by a fortress style wall and a mote. The mote and much of the original walls still exist today. That makes understanding and navigating Chiang Mai easy. Everything inside the mote is old city, and everything outside is new city.
This town really isn’t part of the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). It belongs to the old Kingdom of Lanna and wasn’t incorporated into Siam until about 1900. (For a more info about the Lanna Kingdom please see my post: Chiang Rai: Old Lanna Lives.)
You’ll never understand Chiang Mai unless you understand the Lanna Kingdom (Lanna means a million rice fields.)
Although Chiang Mai looks more and more like Bangkok everyday, culturally it is not. The dialect, cuisine, and architecture are “Lanna-ese”, not Siamese. In Bangkok, sticky rice, kao soi and nam (a fermented raw sausage) are considered foreign food. In Chiang Mai they are part of a common diet that northern Thais have eaten since they were kids.
(Kao Soi is Chiang Mai’s most famous northern Thai food specialty. I wrote a post about it that you can find here. I also wrote another post “Northern Thai Food” that helps explain Chiang Mai’s cuisine.)
One hundred years ago, it took about a month to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. It was a very isolated place and so its Lanna culture held intact. But technology and easy travel have eroded the cultural differences between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. They still exist, but are often overlooked by the casual tourist.
My Chiang Mai
My roots to the city go back 19 years as of this writing. During that time, I have stayed, lived, and come and gone from the city for business and family reasons and a few times to see the sights as a tourist.
My connection to Chiang Mai comes from my Thai wife, Jenny. (Waranya is her Thai name.) She was born and raised in Pasang, which is about 40 kilometers southeast of Chiang Mai in Lamphun Province. She went to boarding school in Chiang Mai in the 70s as did most of her current friends. She speaks the same northern dialect as in Chiang Mai and eats the same Northern Thai food.
My wife and I live part of the year in Pasang in the old family home built from teak and laterite (That’s the same stone block the ancient Khmer used to build Angkor Wat.). We still frequently go into the city to shop, eat and see friends.
Her old Chiang Mai school chums are now my friends too. We think of Chiang Mai as home turf. I like Chiang Mai, but I’m also realistic.
False Advertisement (I’m calling B.S.)
Just listen to what some pretty big websites claim about Chiang Mai:
“The former seat of the Lanna kingdom is a blissfully calm and laid-back place to relax and recharge your batteries.” -Lonely Planet
“[T]he historic centre of Chiang Mai still feels overwhelmingly residential, more like a sleepy country town than a bustling capital.” -Lonely Planet
“Chiang Mai’s nightlife varies from the classy to the carefree. Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains and colourful hill tribes, a playground for seasoned travelers, a paradise for shoppers and a delight for adventurers” -Hotels.com
The B.S. really reached a fever pitch with this blogger’s gem:
“In the last 25 or so years tourism has gradually transformed this once sleepy area into a travelers paradise whilst still maintaining its provincial charm” –visitchiangmai.com.au
And now for the quick flip side:
Why the “Chiang Mai Buzz?”
As I said, I like Chiang Mai and have spent tons of time here. Why? For me an easy question. I love history, fabrics, wats and Thai food. Not necessarily in that order. (If interested in Thai fabrics, please see my post: “Visit the Chiang Mai Fabric District“)
I also just happend to live with my very extended Thai family just 40 kilometers down the road. But what about all the tourists. Why do 10 million come a year?
Chiang Mai, simply put, is a historical city that wears its heart on its sleave.
Its temples, markets, moats, walls, elephant rodeos, tuk tuks, western restaurants, English/Chinese signage, transportation, and relative cheapness make for a fairly easy and tame destination, especially if you’re already in Thailand.
But what about the twenty-something single expats and blogsters that come to the city in droves? They stay for a week or two, or a year or two, make grand pronouncements about the city and move on to their next quarry. What draws them?
Although they’d never admit it and would quite resent it, I think they’re governed by a herd mentality. There is comfort in numbers and they happily bond together as chums in an exotic town that caters to their nomadic lifestyle. Just peep into any expat bar in the city and see who they’re socializing with-mostly other expat farangs with a few Thais thrown in.
Chiang Mai offers expats a sort of easy cultural cocktail which helps them believe they’re part of the Chiang Mai milieu. Well, they are part of it! It’s like riding a bike with training wheels. You’re still riding a bike.
The Chiang Mai Food Scene
The city is home to a wonderful array of restaurants which serve up excellent food from around the world. The diversity of food here is probably my favorite aspect of the city.
Italian, French, Indian, American, Chinese, Vietnamese, and yes, even Mexican are cuisines well represented in Chiang Mai. And of course Thai food, and especially Northern Thai food.
Red, green, yellow curries, along with fish cakes, panang, musuman, tom yum, etc. are all part of a Bangkok regional cuisine. Yes, you’ll easily find those dishes in Chiang Mai, but that’s not Northern Thai cuisine.
Gang hung lay (pork stew), mashed eggplant, nam prik noom (a spicy green chile condiment), kao cap chips, sticky rice, northern sausages, salt fish, app mu and of course kao soi are just a fraction of the myriad of northern Thai dishes that are traditional to Chiang Mai.
But surprisingly, tourists and most expats will have a hard time finding traditional Chiang Mai food and an even harder time eating it. Oh sure, you’ll see kao soi offered everywhere and vendors selling kao cap, but that’s just a fraction of the traditional daily diet of Northern Thai people. And when you do find it, you’re likely to turn up your nose at the smell and sight of it.
Why? Farangs rarely eat traditional northern food. It’s an acquired taste. Don’t kid yourself. The regional Bangkok cuisine that you eat in your home countries has been “Westernized” to go gently on your palette.
If a Thai chef at a Thai restaurant in Chicago started frying up some northern shrimp paste, you’d be looking around to see who shit their pants in public before running out the door.
Thais don’t cook it or offer it for a farang clientele. It’s pretty much only available at restaurants that cater to Thai people. No English menus. Often no menus at all. These restaurants or food stalls are not located in tourist areas. Thai residents know where their food is found because they’ve often been going to these vendors since they were kids.
There’s another reason tourists and expats rarely eat traditional northern food. Tourists and expats tend to eat at restaurants where other tourists or expats eat. Even the most cursory observation of restaurants and their patrons will overwhelmingly confirm this.
Thais eat at the traditional restaurants and tourists/expats eat at Westernized restaurants. It’s pretty simple and wholly understandable. I don’t know why so many people get upset when I mention this observable fact.
I wrote a blog post about this phenomenon: “Fat Rice & Chicken: A Cultural Chasm“.
I eat northern food almost everyday. All kinds. That’s because my wife and her family do the shopping for dinner. It’s pretty much eat what they bring home or go to bed hungry. Over the last 18 years, I’ve come to love most of it and tolerate the rest.
Other than kao soi, if you want to try Northern Thai food, (not the stuff served up at the fake cultural dance shows), you’re going to need a local Thai person to take you to their family go-to spots.
See You In Chiang Mai
I highly recommend you visit Chiang Mai. It’s a fascinating destination. Just don’t be surprised that it’s a big, dirty city now.
I haven’t mentioned the wealth of old temples scattered about the old city, or the many markets that come alive either at dawn or evening. Plenty of other blogs do a good job of describing that stuff. The purpose of this blog entry was to bring everybody back to the reality of Chiang Mai.
Goal accomplished I hope.
For more info:
Wikitravel’s webpage has lots of basic info: www.wikitravel.org/en/Chiang_Mai
Travelfish.org also has a good webpage for the city that you can find here.
There’s a interesting blog article about Chiang Mai entitled “Chiang Mai is Not for Everyone” by Adventurous Kate. She speaks a truth that many in the blogosphere find anathema. Read the emails at the end of her article to see just how defensive people can get over Chiang Mai