Fellow travelers lit up when they spoke of Chiang Mai. They raved about how inexpensive things are, the local feel, and spending the day with elephants. I loved Chiang Mai for all of those reasons, especially the last. Sometimes local activities aren't always worth the price, but The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was worth every penny.
(View of Wat Phra Singh)
Getting there and accommodation:
Taking the ferry from Koh Phi Phi to Krabi was easy and fairly quick, but do allow ample travel time from the port to the airport. Once again, Bangkok Airways was the fastest and easiest way to cover the long distance. After arriving in Chiang Mai, taxis were inexpensive at the airport and delivered me to my hostel in the main square for a mere 150 baht. (I recommend taking screenshots of your hotel or pull it up on a map, as communication may be difficult.)
Because it was low season when I visited, booking accommodation at the last minute was no problem everywhere in the islands, but for some reason, Chiang Mai was a different story. Book before you go and if you have the time, book longer than 2 days. Because I didn't do this, I had to change hostels 3 times, something I don't recommend. In the end, I was able to stay at Stamps the longest and highly recommend it for a budget option, mainly because it's just down the road from the cheapest laundry service (50 baht/kg) and the best breakfast burrito and smoothies at Cat House.
Red taxi trucks are plentiful and get you where you need to go. This city is also very walkable. If you need a Tuk Tuk, they're also everywhere, but aren't necessarily a straightforward option. (For more details, visit the planning page.)
You can always play the game: How many people will fit on a vehicle? I once saw a family of four on a scooter!
Taxis at the airport are easy to secure if you allow the kind people offering them to organize one for you. My self-defense instincts kick in when things look a little chaotic, and my distrust of the taxi offers turned out to be unwarranted because they were exactly what I needed. They're cheaper up north, but speaking english is a little more difficult. Images, screenshots, and patience will eventually get you where you need to be.
Places to visit:
1. Saturday, Sunday and Daily night markets are a wealth of both generic and unique hand-crafted souvenirs. Bargaining is expected, but some vendors don't budge. Considering the low cost of some items, I didn't always push too hard.
If you don't find exactly what you want at these markets, there are some great local shops with beautiful options. Chiang Mai and Pai are great places to finally purchase some items for friends and family, so you may want to organize your trip to start in the south and end up north to avoid carrying extra weight as you go.
You may even see a little dog proudly riding a remote-control scooter at the market.
2. Visiting the local temple on a hill, Doi Suthep requires roughly 10 people in the red taxi truck, so you may need to wait for a full house before you can head off. The drive is 30-45 minutes out of the city, in a beautiful, green forested hillside area.
The temple itself is up many steps, surrounded by shops and cafes. If you can manage the heat, you may like to climb to the top. Otherwise, you can shop for souvenirs and indulge in coconut ice cream for 10 baht (28 cents) by the entrance, like me. Sometimes the heat is simply too much to handle.
3.Temples are scattered throughout the city, so if you need some quiet time, or a beautiful place to visit, wander around and you can't help but stumble upon them. Some close around 5:00pm, so check the hours. This is Wat Phan Tao.
4. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary as well as Happy Elephant Home and Elephant Nature Park are a few options to spend the day feeding and bathing elephants. It was the most unique and wonderful experience I've had traveling, and it was so worth my time and money. Just make sure to choose a company that doesn't ride elephants or have a sister company that does. Here's more about my experience,
5. Cooking classes are also a fun way to spend a day, or in my case, a half day (which I found to be long enough). Bring your appetite, a sense of humor, and prepare to make new friends. You can book through your local accommodation.
6. Get a massage by ex-prisoners! Lila Thai Massage is a vocational training center for newly released women inmates as a way for them to reintegrate into work and society. There are several locations, so you'll probably end up stumbling upon a few.
7. Before you head out, don't forget that meal at Cat House. This was my absolute favorite in Chiang Mai. The owners are so lovely, and the food is Thai/American fusion. I kind of became a regular in a few days.
Important Visa Information:
***The Promenada mall has a Visa office where you can extend your stay, and a taxi truck can take you there for about 200 baht each way. You'll need a passport photo and photocopy of your passport. If you don't have them, there's a neighboring office which will charge you about 200 baht for both. Offices close from 12-1pm for lunch, the mall only opens at 11am, and the Visa portion is only available on weekdays. Plan accordingly. ***
For more about visas, check the Thai immigration page for updated information.
Three hours northwest up a windy mountain road leads to ultra chill Pai and was the grand finale in my tour of Thailand!