When people talk about Thailand they don’t mention Chiang Mai nearly enough. It’s all Bangkok this or Ko Phi Phi that which are admittedly fun but also overcrowded and touristy.
I had planned to spend a month aggressively exploring Thailand, spending 2-4 days at each destination before moving on to the next. In my rush to see as much as humanly possible, it didn’t occur to me that I might want to stay somewhere for longer than I had planned.
If you’re traveling solo, don’t “wish you could stay longer”, just stay. If it feels like the place for you then immerse yourself. Enjoy it, take it in. Your itinerary is as flexible as you want it to be.
I booked a hostel in Chiang Mai for 3 days. Then I met some people and that turned into 5. And I came back after visiting Pai. And again after visiting Chiang Rai. Like Silvio in the Sopranos, just when I thought I was out, Chiang Mai pulled me back in.
The city has an incredible night market, especially on Friday and Saturday, some decent bars and a jazz club, but it’s nothing you won’t find in other parts of Thailand. It’s a pretty standard town at first glance, so what makes it so great?
Three things: the people, the food, and the location. All the best aspects of Thailand are at their peak in Chiang Mai. The Khao Soi from Khao Soi Khun Yai, the local people and hundreds of like-minded backpackers, easy access to the awe-inspiring temples in Chiang Rai and the non-stop backpacker parties in Pai. Everything in the northern part of Thailand was exactly the speed I was looking for.
I met people along the way who didn’t think Chiang Mai was anything special and I can see why. A lot of travel is about timing. The quality of your experience depends on the quality of the people around you. Sometimes you get lucky and find some best friends, sometimes you’re better off alone. A lot of my love for this city has to do with the people I explored it with.
My experience was serendipitous so I can’t guarantee that Chiang Mai will provide you with the same emotional highs. But regardless of who you meet, the city is well worth your time.
Everything Comes Together
Meeting people in Bangkok was easy, but I didn’t really click with anybody at first. I met some 23-year-old recent college grads who drank me into a coma the first night, met a nice woman from North Carolina who I shared many conversations with, and a few other randos here and there. They were good people but we just didn’t click. I was mostly by myself for the first week.
Until I met her. A girl I clicked with immediately. My first actual travel friend.
We explored Bangkok with some like-minded people for 2 days before figuring out that we were both scheduled to go to Chiang Mai on the same day. She convinced me to get a plane ticket on her flight instead of a train since it was $40 and took 1 hour instead of 14.
Our flight got delayed for an hour, then another hour, then the departure time just said “lmao iono”. Oh well, this is the life I chose, nothing to do now but get drunk at the airport bar. We took a few shots, had a few Chiangs, and killed the time until our airplane finally decided to show up.
We finally took our 1-hour flight and landed, like most planes do, in Chiang Mai and exited the airport into the sweaty, uncomfortable embrace of the Thailand heat.
As we waded into the army of aggressive cab drivers all looking to overcharge us for a 10-minute drive to the city, we shared a cigarette and consulted our phones on where we were and where we were trying to go.
The area was brand new to both of us and we were giddy to explore, but more excited to do laundry. When your only bag is a 40L backpack and its 100+ degrees every day, you run out of clothes pretty fast. We both smelled like sweaty socks and stale cigarettes.
It was a routine travel moment. Getting your bearings in a new place is pretty unremarkable. But for some reason, this one stood out. For a minute I wasn’t worried about money or all the work I’d been neglecting, This was exactly where I wanted to be.
I usually don’t appreciate moments like this as they are happening. They only become significant after I have time to process them. Not this one, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and savored it like a fine wine.
These are the moments that solo travel gives you. They appear without warning, disappear just as quickly, and stay with you for the rest of your life.
Chiang High on Life
We arrived and got to work unpacking our stuff, doing laundry, and taking showers. And getting a massage which is a daily routine in Thailand. The first night was as close to perfect as a night out in Chiang Mai can be. We drank our way through the night market, listened to terrible cover bands, got some local food, and shared our first tuk-tuk back to the hostel.
We went on to do the Chiang Mai food tour the next morning (which I highly recommend). First, we stopped by her hostel and met a college grad from Belgium that became the third member of our tribe. Then a couple from Australia that grew our temporary family to 5.
Our squad ended up mopedding the entire Samoeng Loop together, swimming in waterfalls, hanging out with elephants and enjoyed countless beers and meals over the course of our adventure. It was like finding best friends I’d been missing my entire life. Everything clicked and for a brief moment, we were family.
Live in the Present
My first travel friend was on a tighter schedule and went to Pai a few days before I did. We shared a long hug goodbye and didn’t say much of anything because we didn’t have to. We both understood that this was the end of the line and didn’t regret a minute.
After I got back from Asia, I went through a lot of “what if” scenarios in my head and started to regret some decisions in retrospect. What if I followed her? What if we spent more time together? What if we all stayed together? Did I fuck this up?
There was nothing to regret. While I miss them, it’s the emotional high that I was fiending for. That feeling of being in a foreign country with unlimited adventure in every direction. Sharing that excitement with new and interesting people. It’s not something you can recreate and if you tried to it would become boring and routine.
Traveling can mess with your emotions because you experience such intoxicating highs and depressing lows in quick succession. One day you’re in paradise with best friends, the next day you’re on a train for 10 hours and have never felt so alone.
I’m a huge proponent of meditation because it helps me deal with my litany of mental health issues. One of the main techniques is to set an intention for your meditation practice, something that you want to accomplish that day or how you want to feel, then let it go.
I’m done wishing I could go back. Thinking about what could have been or should have been. I cling to moments like that when I get nervous or scared of what the future may hold, thinking “well at least I had that time in…” but that’s an unhealthy crutch. I’ll never move forward if I’m always looking back.
My Chiang Mai family had our moment and squeezed every drop of fun and friendship out of it. Instead of trying to recreate it or wish I could go back, I can appreciate it for what it was and let it go.
And as far as Chiang Mai goes, I can’t wait to go back. If you haven’t been I suggest you quit your job and book a ticket immediately. It could change your life, too.