- Lita Guesthouse – This is the epitome of a cheap, low frills hostel (100 baht/person per night). We booked it on hostelworld a couple weeks earlier because we heard that it was difficult to find a place to stay during Songkran. You certainly get what you pay for here! We were supposed to be in a 5 person mixed dorm, but they completely overbooked so we ended up sleeping on mats on the floor in a room/hallway with 20 other people. There were only 2 bathrooms for over 50 people and somebody vomited all over the toilet in one of them, effectively leaving only one bathroom usable (although this one wasn’t exactly clean either). We’re not snobby girls in the slightest, but this place was just too much for us. It’s a good hostel if you’re on your gap year and you like to party, but that’s certainly not our scene and we were anxious to leave the next morning!
- Yindee Guesthouse – This is probably the nicest place we stayed on our entire trip (1,000 baht/night for double with an extra bed, including A/C, hot water, free wifi). It had the stylish touches of a boutique hotel, with the friendliness of a family-run guesthouse. We were so lucky that they had a cancellation and we were able to get a room. Especially since we had just come from Lita, this place felt like heaven. It’s located on a cute street in the old district, close to several good restaurants, and the family that runs it is really friendly and speak perfect english. I would definitely stay there again if I were in Chiang Mai!
- Da Bakery: They serve a great inexpensive breakfast. It’s located on a soi near Yindee guesthouse in the old quarter. They bake all their own bread and pastries, plus they have great omelets, smoothies, coffee, fruit and more. We had a big breakfast for 100 baht/person, which was a great deal!
- Blue Diamond: Good organic food with a large vegetarian menu. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We went there for dinner one night and the menu is a mix of healthy western & thai fare. I think I got an avocado salad and a smoothie. But they also have good desserts!
- Free Bird Cafe: A vegetarian nonprofit restaurant (benefits Burmese refugee children), only opened for breakfast and lunch, really good smoothies and hummus.
- Peppermint Cafe: Located on a soi near the night market, good classic Thai food. We went here for dinner and I think we ordered green & red curry, pad thai and spring rolls. We sat at an outdoor table on the street, which was good for people watching. I think they serve good coffee and snacks during the day and I think they have free wifi.
- Night Market: There’s a good selection of cheap food at the Chiang Mai night market, and it looked particularly fresh compared to other ones we’ve visited.
- Travelfish’s extensive list of Chiang Mai restaurants
We landed in Chiang Mai around 10am in the morning and took a taxi to Lita guesthouse. We showed up there and everybody was just laying around, passed out in hammocks and we had no idea who actually worked there. Finally this cracked out woman came over and asked us our name. She checked a piece of paper that was ripped in half with coffee stains all over it, which of course was her reservation list. She then proceeded to tell us that our “room” wasn’t ready yet because our roommate died last night. We all looked at each other like WTF???? And the woman kept saying, “yup, she’s deeaaddd.” I was thoroughly confused until she said “oh my god, she was so f–ked up last night.” Ohhhh lovely. We all exchanged glances at each other like, “great, so our roommate is probably vomiting all over the room right now.” Well at least she wasn’t dead! We were beginning to realize that we didn’t really fit in there, seeing as how our average bed time was 9pm and this seemed like quite the party hostel. We agreed to stay one night and try to find a different place to stay in the morning.
So we went to put our stuff in the “luggage locker”, but when we went to open the door we saw a Thai man asleep in a hammock in this small, dark room filled with old computer monitors and other random crap. And things just kept getting weirder after that. We walked around for a couple hours waiting for our “room” to be ready and when we came back she said we could go up. So we grabbed our bags from the “luggage locker” and as we were walking up the stairs she conveniently forgot to mention earlier that they were totally overbooked so some people would have to stay in tents. They also didn’t have enough “beds” so they squeezed in some extra mats on the floor and in the hallway. She showed us our “beds” and it turned out we were in an entry-way/hallway with about 20 other people all lined up like sardines on the floor. Oh and they didn’t have enough mats so Brit and I had to share one. I still love reading Lita’s overview on hostelworld, “All rooms are complete with single bed, bedding, towel, fan, personal mosquito net and reading light. Locker and luggage storage are also provided.” That description cracks me up!
There were quite a few characters staying there as well. A lot of these kids just watched movies on their laptops all day long, presumably hung-over, and then go out again at night. I’m all for having fun but I couldn’t imagine wasting every day just lounging around when there was so much to see and explore. We also met this hilarious British guy named Alex. He was definitely the oldest person staying there (I think he had just turned 30) and we talked to him for over an hour one night while we were hanging out in our “room”. He had just woken up from a nap and was getting ready to go out, while we had just came back from dinner and were getting ready for bed. The best part is that we literally ran into him like 5 more times afterwards in different cities and countries, and every time we’d say hello he had no idea who we were. So we always had to say, “we’re the girls that went to bed really early in Chiang Mai” and then he’d say, “Ohhhh! I remember now!”.
It was a total coincidence that we happened to be in Chiang Mai over Songkran. When I was originally planning our trip I had never heard of Songkran and I certainly did not know that Chiang Mai was famous for its celebrations. So we were just lucky that we happened to be in the best city to celebrate one of the most fun holidays ever! Songkran is the Thai New Year, and since it always falls in early April, the hottest time of the year in Thailand, it has evolved into a huge water festival. Everybody has water guns and they run around the streets of the city spraying one another. The best part is that EVERY single man, woman, child, grandmother, and grandfather participate. I can’t imagine something like that ever happening at home. It’s just a huge street party with bands playing and people dancing, and there was even a foam party in the middle of one street! By day 3 of the celebrations I was a little “songkraned out” because you literally can’t walk down the street without getting soaked, but it was the best surprise of our trip and I absolutely loved that we got to experience such an important SEA festival. If you get the chance to be in Chiang Mai during Songkran you MUST go! We heard the Bangkok celebrations are fun too, but Chiang Mai is the best because it’s a much smaller city so it feels more intimate.
While we were in Chiang Mai we also took a cooking class since we all love Thai food and wanted to learn how to make it when we get back to the US. We had a great experience with Classic Home Cooking, a small cooking school run out of a couple’s home. The woman, Vannee, and her husband spoke perfect english and gave us great directions. We each picked out several dishes to make and then they took us to a local market where we bought all the ingredients. I chose to make green curry, chicken with basil, pad thai and sticky rice with mango. Brit and Rosie chose different dishes, but all of our meals were excellent, and there was so much food at the end that we couldn’t finish all of it. And not to worry if you don’t know much about cooking, beginners are definitely welcome. I would highly recommend taking a class with Vannee if you love Thai food! Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I’m sure you can also ask your hostel or guesthouse to set it up with her too. Here’s some tripadvisor reviews.
On our last day in Chiang Mai we left early to go to the bus station because we were afraid that the bus tickets to Chiang Khong were going to be sold out. Chiang Khong is the border town to cross to Huay Xai, Laos, where the office for the Gibbon Experience is located. We tried to purchase them in advance but our guesthouse said they couldn’t do that so we had to go to the bus station ourselves. When we got to the Arcade Bus Station we first tried to get our bearings and we realized that we had to grab a number to line up to purchase tickets with the Green bus company. It was really crowded and when our number was finally called the woman told us that all the buses to Chiang Khong were sold out, but that we could take a bus to Chiang Rai and transfer there. The next available bus to Chiang Rai didn’t leave for another several hours, so we were really in a predicament – the border closed at 6pm and we had to be in Huay Xai early the next morning to leave for the Gibbon Experience. We wouldn’t have enough time to get to Chiang Rai, transfer buses to Chiang Khong and still make it to the border by 6pm. We decided to buy tickets on the 1pm bus to Chiang Rai and then we’d try to hire a tuk-tuk or taxi to take us the remaining distance to the border in a hurry. I think we arrived in Chiang Rai about 4pm and then we ran outside trying to find somebody who could take us to the border. We found a songthaew (a pick-up truck taxi) who said he’d take us for 1,500 baht. This was obviously more than we wanted to spend, but we were out of options so we agreed and hopped in. I believe it took us about 1-1.5 hours to get to Chiang Khong, and the driver dropped us off right in front of the customs booth. The Thai officials stamped our passport and then we bought tickets for the short river crossing over the Mekong into Laos.
If you want to make it to border crossing by 6:00pm then you must take the 8:30am Chiang Mai-Chiang Khong bus. The next direct bus doesn’t leave until the afternoon and by then it’s too late (If I remember correctly I think the drive was about 4-5 hours). You can also transfer buses in Chiang Rai, but again you need to give yourself enough time. If you’re visiting Chiang Mai during a busy time of year, then go to the Arcade bus station the day before to buy bus tickets. There are also many mini-vans making this trip and I’m sure you can buy tickets through your hostel, although I don’t know how much it costs.