Over 15 million visitors come through Chiang Mai every year, and I felt like the only one who wasn’t in love with the city. When deciding to make Chiang Mai our next temporary home on a slow trip around the world we heard from scores of people who had already visited. Some made a quick trip and never left, some planned recurring visits to the area every few months, and others heralded Chiang Mai as their “spirit location” and vowed to visit again as soon as possible. I’m naturally suspicious of anything with a 100% success rate, and Chiang Mai was no different.
I admit I arrived skeptical. After travelling to over 30 countries I’ve realized each spot is unique, and even the best won’t be perfect to everyone. With so many wonderful places in the world, how can one really resonate with so many different people?
Four advantages to Chiang Mai were constantly being circulated to us: Chiang Mai’s diverse culture made up of friendly Thai people and interesting expats from around the world, delicious food that ranged from world-class cuisine to amazing street eats, the ease of western-style living mixed with authentic Thai culture, and the proximity to the best outdoor adventures Thailand has to offer.
Those things do sound nice, but what I found after arriving told a different story.
Chiang Mai is a much bigger city than I anticipated. Travelers painted the picture of a comfortable town nestled in the Thai mountains, when in reality Chiang Mai is a bustling city with the shopping malls and standstill traffic to prove it. Unlike Hong Kong, Seoul, or Bangkok, however, to me Chiang Mai felt like a big city without a clear identity. Other Asian metropoles have an unmistakable vibe when walking down the street; a patented signage, fashion, food, and art scene smack you in the face the second you walk out of the airport. You can feel Hong Kong pulse all around you. Bangkok is always humming in the background as you wander. Any major street or inner city alley in Seoul is unmistakably Seoul.
In Chiang Mai I found a confused city whose proclaimed diversity and culture seemed to lack any clear identity. Residential roads were sprinkled among Buddhist wats and street vendors, but the combination never felt cohesive. I felt no pulsing. I heard no humming.
The atmosphere felt more like an American suburb than a southeast Asian adventure and expat hub. It’s been months since I was around such civilized traffic patterns (with so many more cars than scooters and no honking, was I even still in Southeast Asia?) and familiar stores and food brands. With a McDonald’s or KFC seemingly everywhere and a prominent international grocery chain a literal taste of home was never far away.
Eventually I started to judge and resent the ever-growing list of people claiming Chiang Mai is the best city in the world. Can you find amazing Thai food? Yes. Are there street markets? Yes. Are there wats? Yes. But the best, most diverse city in the world? You’ve got to be kidding me.
We were three weeks into a five-week stay and considering staying longer. I understood why my husband and son were comfortable here: we were renting a furnished 2-bedroom condo which was safe and comfortable, we’d found an international school willing to accept our son on a month-to-month basis, and we’d worked out a consistent schedule for work and play as a family. My husband was making the most of his time to manage our e-commerce business and find fulfilling connections with like-minded digital nomads in the area. He could escape to go mountain biking once a week or so, with other adventures just an hour or two away.
But being in Chiang Mai for so long felt like a waste to me. I’ve been in the travelling mindset for so long that I couldn’t appreciate the ease of life in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t ready for “normal.” The physical adventure wasn’t enough; I craved daily adventure. The kind you find when everything around you is unfamiliar and the simple act of finding groceries or a public bathroom challenges you to see every aspect of life in a new way.
I also felt like the best travelling adventures are tourist-free. If I wanted to be surrounded by people who look and talk like me and business which cater to an assumption of my needs and tastes then I may as well be back in my home country. With that mindset fixed, we avoided Nimman, the Old City, and popular night markets. How could being around so many foreigners be worth getting stuck at 10-minute red lights?
And then the Loi Krathung festival happened.
We must be the only visitors who planned a stay in Chiang Mai for the month of November without knowing about Loi Krathung. That’s right: not only did we not specifically plan for Loi Krathung, we didn’t even know about it before arriving. We soon had more statistics, stories, and advice than we could handle, and it started to feel like a potential bright spot on an otherwise dull location.
We inadvertently took part in a number of cultural activities in the days leading up to Loi Krathung. We planned a family photo shoot at Wat Lok Moli, prancing delightedly under it’s array of multi-colored lanterns for the camera. I found the wat charming and beautiful and I’ll cherish those pictures forever.
The next day we wandered through the downtown night markets in search of cheap but meaningful Christmas gifts for our extended family. Yes, we passed foreigners around each stall, but instead of seeing familiar faces I found myself focused on the myriad of Thai products and the passionate vendors around me. Haggling for something a loved one will find unique is such a rush. I even bought a purse handmade from vintage hill tribe fabric which is one of the coolest, most beautiful things I’ve ever owned.
Later that week our son came home from school with a krathung he’d made, festival artwork, and a knowledge of and pride for the Thai national anthem, King, and language. I was suddenly proud of his (albeit brief) foreign education.
It also happened to be the week of my birthday, which we celebrated at David’s Kitchen, one of the best (if not the best) restaurants in Chiang Mai. We got a babysitter for our son and enjoyed a fancy night out which helped me see a whole new side of Chiang Mai.
We went out on Thursday and Friday nights to celebrate the festival. What started out as interest in the world-wide phenomenon soon turned into full-blown admiration. As soon as my son pushed his carefully chosen krathung (which we bought for the occasion. The krathung he created at school is still our table’s centerpiece.) down the river I felt a rush of emotion bind me to this city. We then stood shoulder to shoulder with foreigners and tourists alike helping each other light lanterns and collectively sending good wishes for each lantern’s successful flight.
The crowd was so happy. So hopeful. And how could they not be? How often are you in a crowd of strangers united by your love of nature, beauty, and culture?
It completely changed how I look at Chiang Mai.
We did extend our stay in Chiang Mai, and we’re now about to leave. Since the week of Loi Krathung I’ve continued to notice and appreciate the cultural pockets and subtle vibe of Chiang Mai. I’m going to miss picking up dinner at our neighborhood street market on Thursday nights, hearing the national anthem before movies, balking at $12 massages, seeing monks in red songthaews, and hearing my son spout Thai with the 7-Eleven clerk.
Did Chiang Mai become my favorite city in the world? No. Do I understand why people have chosen to live here? Yes. Do I think we could come back for another visit? Possibly.
Susannah is an American business owner and travel writer currently traveling the world with her husband and son in search of excitement and beauty. You can read more about Susannah’s experiences around the world on https://theobriensabroad.com or follow her on Instagram at https://instagram.com/obriensabroad.