Thursday, April 17, 2014

FAQs - Chiang Mai

Why visit or train in Chiang Mai instead of other cities in Thailand?
There are many reasons to train in Chiang Mai instead of other cities in Thailand. With a metropolitan population of approximately 1,000,000 people, Chiang Mai is one of the largest districts in Thailand. This may sound like a large population, but the city of Chiang Mai, in fact, only has about 150,000 people.

The lifestyle of Chiang Mai reflects the population size. Compared to Bangkok, it has a much “smaller” feel and is significantly cleaner. Life seems to move more slowly. Even though it’s one of Thailand’s largest districts, the city of Chiang Mai has a very rural atmosphere mixed with the conveniences of a modern city. In addition, people in Chiang Mai are friendly and approachable.

The cost of living in Chiang Mai is also cheaper compared to most major tourist destinations in Thailand. Rent ranges from 1,500-30,000 baht per month. Thai food can cost as little as 25 baht per meal. (Western food is also readily available at reasonable prices.) In addition, transportation is fairly cheap and easily accessible.

The climate is very moderate in Chiang Mai as it’s located in the mountainous region of northern Thailand. While it is tropical, it’s cooler and less humid than elsewhere in Thailand. There are cool, hot and warm/rainy seasons, but even so, the majority of people in Thailand will claim Chiang Mai’s weather is among the most pleasant in the country.

On top of all this, there are so many things to do in Chiang Mai. From trekking, nature and the outdoors to restaurants, clubs and bars, Chiang Mai offers a diverse choice of things to occupy your free time.

How big is Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally diverse province in northern Thailand, but people often get confused as to the actual size of Chiang Mai. While it has a metropolitan population of approximately 1,000,000 people, the city of Chiang Mai only has about 150,000 people.

The city of Chiang Mai is relatively small at approximately 40 km2 (15 square miles). Chiang Mai province, including all its districts, is quite large by comparison. The overall size of metropolitan Chiang Mai is about 2,900 km2 (1,120 square miles).

Most people that live in the city of Chiang Mai usually don’t leave on a day to day basis. Everything you need is located within the city limits. The surrounding districts are fairly close, easy to get to, and provide a number of “get away” activities if you want to leave the city itself.

What are accommodations like?
The prices and conditions of accommodations in Chiang Mai really depend on the individual. It’s easy to spend very little for modest housing if you want. You also have the option of many mid to high-end hotels and apartments if that’s what you prefer.

If you’re on a budget and you don’t have high expectations, you can find a cheap guesthouse or apartment for as little as 1,500-3,000 baht a month. Of course, at this price range, you might have to give up some level of comfort (shared bathroom, smaller bed, etc.) especially at the lower end. Still, guesthouses/apartments in this price range will generally be safe and sufficient.

Mid-level accommodations range from 3,000-10,000 baht per month. For this price you’d likely be able to find apartments or houses equipped with personal conveniences (your own bathroom, T.V., cable, furnished, etc.). Most apartments are considered studios in the west that have their own bathrooms but no kitchens (approximately 3,000-6,000 baht). They’re more similar to hotel rooms. Houses (5,000-10,000 baht) are similar to western standards and will sometimes include furnishings but not always.

Anything above 10,000 baht a month is usually quite nice. For this price, you can find well furnished and maintained accommodations. Apartments and condominiums will almost always come with cleaning services at this price. Very modern houses, especially closer to 20,000 baht per month, will likely be very nice and well furnished.

The further you live from large concentrations of tourists (Old Chiang Mai, Nimmanhaemin Road, etc.), accommodations will be cheaper. If you don’t mind commuting from the outer regions of the city (10-20 minute motorbike ride) you can find some great deals.

Is food expensive?
There are two major categories of food in Chiang Mai: Thai food and everything else. It sounds quite general, but that’s how most people classify food here.

Thai food, bought from stalls and small/local restaurants, is very cheap. You can get a meal from 20-40 baht easily. Meals at these prices, however, will be much smaller than western portions as Thais eat smaller portions more frequently (4-5 times) a day. The food is quite good though especially if you enjoy real Thai food.

The “everything else” category is very broad and includes western (considered everything west of Asia by Thais) and other Asian foods. Since Chiang Mai has a lot of tourists and residents that are foreign, it has a unique variety of foreign food. The average foreign meal (western breakfast, hamburger, burrito, etc.) will cost between 100 and 200 baht per person. Even though it’s much more than an average Thai meal, it’s still reasonable. Obviously it will end up costing you much more if that’s the way you always eat in Chiang Mai.

In addition, there are many upscale restaurants that serve meals at 200-1000 baht per person too (including Thai, Asian and western foods). The average person, however, usually mixes up their meals and eats a variety of available, reasonably priced foods. Surely a person can eat well in Chiang Mai for 200 baht per day or less without trying too hard.

What’s transportation like? Is it expensive to get around?
There are several modes of transportation in Chiang Mai: walking, bicycle, taxi, bus, car song-taaew, tuk-tuk and motorcycle/ motorbike. The most common motorized transportation in the city is by song-taew, tuk-tuk or motorcycle/motorbike.

Many people enjoy walking in Chiang Mai. A variety of everyday necessities are walking distance from popular guesthouses/hotels. The streets are relatively safe as they offer well maintained sidewalks that keep pedestrians out of the path of city traffic.

Riding a bike is a great way to get around the city. Most desired destinations are only a few kilometers from each other. It’s quite easy to maneuver through traffic on a bike as well. You also get the added benefit of fitness to your commute. Most bicycles rent for 50-80 baht ($1.5-2.5 USD) per day and are easily found for use at local guesthouses.

Standard taxis in Chiang Mai aren’t as available as in Bangkok. Most taxis run from the airport to destinations within Chiang Mai but typically are not used in the reverse direction. Even if you see a taxi on the street, it will be difficult to get them to pull over. In the city, taxis usually service hotels and passengers that call for pick-up. They’ll rarely pull over for people on the street. Most of the public transportation in Chiang Mai is serviced by song-taews and tuk-tuks.

While there are city buses in Chiang Mai, they’re not as frequently used as the song-taews and tuk-tuks. Song-taews and tuk-tuks are much more available, easier to access, and do not run on a fixed schedule.

Cars are readily available for rent. Prices range from 900 to 2000 baht (about $30-65 USD) per day. Some people prefer to drive cars. Within Chiang Mai, traffic can be bad enough to make driving by car slow going. Cars are nice for travelling outside the city limits though.

A song-taew is, basically, a pick-up truck with two benches in the truck bed. The bed is covered with a hard shell to protect passengers from the weather.

There are many song-taews in Chiang Mai. Red song-taews run within Chiang Mai and are abundant. Yellow song-taews run between Chiang Mai proper and districts outside of the city.

To catch a city song-taew, simply walk to a well traveled road, walk to the edge of the curb, and wave your hand at a red song-taew. The song-taew driver will pull over to the side. Tell the driver where you want to go. Make sure to settle on a price before you get in. The cost is usually 20-30 baht but depends on how far your destination is (you might have to bargain a bit).

While song-taews are easy to catch, they don’t always get to your destination quickly. Song-taews are constantly picking up passengers. The driver determines the best route to take based on all their passengers’ destinations. It might take you awhile to get where you’re going if there are many stops ahead of yours. This isn’t always the case but just beware it’s a possibility.

Tuk-tuks in Chiang Mai aren’t as deceptive or aggressive as in Bangkok. Usually, there are no hidden scams or places they try to take you once you’re in the tuk-tuk. Some may offer places to go, but they’ll usually drop the subject once you say no. The only thing you need to worry about is the price. Within Chiang Mai, tuk-tuk rides usually cost 50-100 baht. Negotiate the price before you get in. Otherwise, they decide how much you should pay.

Motorbike/ motorcycle
Travelling by motorbike/ motorcycle is by far the most common form of motorized transportation in Chiang Mai. Prices range from 80 to 100 baht ($2.5-3.0 USD) per day.

While the roads in Chiang Mai are not as hazardous as Bangkok or Kho Samui, there are dangers. If you don’t have experience riding motorbikes or motorcycles (especially in cities), please be careful. They’re a great way to get around the city once you’re comfortable on them.

Can I get around without speaking the language?
The most common foreign language spoken in Thailand is English. Many Thai people speak some level of English (especially in the more touristy areas). Don’t expect to have a fluid conversation based on their English skills though. Many Thais that do know English are often shy to use it unless they’re frequently exposed to English speakers (hotels, travel agencies, bars, restaurants, etc.). If you do speak English though, chances are you’ll be able to get around Chiang Mai with few problems.

Northern Thailand has its own dialect of Thai called Kham Meaung, but standard Thai (also known as Bangkok Thai) is also widely spoken. If you have a chance, try to learn some Thai before coming over. Thais really enjoy it when foreigners make an attempt to learn their language. It’s also a fun, but challenging, language to learn.

What’s the weather like?
Chiang Mai is located within the mountainous region of northern Thailand. The climate is very moderate here. While it is tropical, it’s cooler and less humid than elsewhere in Thailand. There are cool, hot and warm/rainy seasons, but even so, the majority of people in Thailand will claim Chiang Mai’s weather is among the most pleasant in the country.

Seasons (approximate)
Cool= late November to mid February
Hot= mid February to mid May/early June
Warm/rainy= mid May/early June to November
(Note: It’s still quite hot in May and June, but that’s when the heavy rain often starts.)

The cool season is just that- cool and not cold (usually never below 14 C at night). The hot season rarely gets above 37 C during the day. During the rainy season, showers are punctuated and usually never last more than an hour or two at a time. (Consistent rain for days at a time is highly irregular in Chiang Mai.)

What do high and low tourist seasons mean? Are there price differences?
The high and low tourist seasons usually refer to number of tourists found in Thailand. High season means there are many tourists in Thailand at one time, and low season means the opposite.

High and low tourist seasons parallel the weather seasons in Thailand. More people visit Thailand when the weather is coolest and the least amount of rainfall occurs. High season is, approximately, from the beginning of November to mid/late February. The rest of the year (March to late October) is considered the low season.

Prices throughout Thailand (local flights and travel, guesthouses and hotels, tour packages, etc.) are usually more during the high season. Rates can increase from 10-30% during the high season depending on where you visit in Thailand. Chiang Mai is no different. The cost of living is usually cheaper during the low season than other tourist destinations in Thailand. This means that even during the high season rate increase, Chiang Mai is still cheaper than other frequently visited cities in Thailand.

Are there a lot of foreigners in Chiang Mai?
There is a large population of expatriates living in Chiang Mai. There are also a number of rotating tourists that visit on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. The highest concentrations of foreigners are located on the easternmost portion of Old Chiang Mai (the eastern moat area) and near Nimmanhaemin Road close to Chiang Mai University.

If you are interested in making connections with foreigners, it’s easy to do as most of them are found in the concentrated areas listed above. Also, if you’d rather not mingle with foreigners, that’s not difficult to do either. There are many neighborhoods in Chiang Mai that are almost exclusively Thai. Of course, if you’d rather live in a Thai neighborhood, it’s best to know the language somewhat.

Are people friendly? Is it easy to meet people?
Even though Chiang Mai is quite large for a Thai city and attracts many tourists every year, it still maintains a pleasant, friendly atmosphere. This is mainly due to the people that live here. Thais and westerners alike are very approachable and pleasant. It is difficult to find even the most random stranger that won’t say hello or engage in conversation in any part of the city. Thais in Chiang Mai are naturally curious and inquisitive. Westerners here, for the most part, are open and laid back. This makes for a very enjoyable stay whether you’re living here or just visiting.

What’s the nightlife like?
The nightlife in Chiang Mai isn’t as extreme as other places in Thailand like Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or Kho Samui, but there are a large number of bars and restaurants throughout the city (especially near the eastern side of the Old City). Most small bars and restaurants close around 2:00 am with few exceptions (though there are some bars that do stay open later). If you want, there are a few “after hours” clubs too which stay open well after 2:00 am.

Popular areas with multiple bars and restaurants
Moonmueang Road (between Soi 1 and Soi 5)
Moonmueang Road Soi 1, Soi 2 and Soi 9
Loy Khro Road
Chiang Mai Land Road
Nimmanhaemin Road

(A quick internet search should give you information on most of the areas listed above.)