Chiang Mai, Thailand
I had heard many things about Chiang Mai being ‘expat heaven’, but I wasn’t expecting to fall into that hype as easily. Until I spent a week there and found myself wanting to stay. Indefinitely. Which I may have done if it wasn’t for my ticket that called me back home to Cape Town.
So what is so darn amazing about Chiang Mai that makes travellers never want to leave? Well, I think you just have to go there to understand. And no, this is not a post made to convince you to visit Thailand to experience a limited state of happiness. You can feel that without going anywhere at all. What I mean is that the spirit of Chiang Mai is a unique blend of wholesome friendliness and carefree inspiration. The people that stay in Chiang Mai by birth or by choice all seem to be rooted in an authentic love for life itself. A love and attentiveness for everything around them, including you. It leaves you with a sense of calm that is dynamic and electric. It makes you want to pour your generosity over others too.
I caught this intangible state of contentment and hoped to never lose it. A few days was enough for the feeling to make a home in me. This airborne happiness. The Chiang Mai glow.
It was a wonderful place to explore on foot since the centre itself is rather small. Walking also suited the city’s pace. I spent my days wandering into bookshops, cafes, thrift stores and galleries. The destination was usually a different vegetarian eatery (there were so many good veggie places here!), and the rest of the discoveries would be chance stops along the way.
One word: bookshops. Something that makes a place feel extra long-term livable for me is access to diverse and affordable contemporary literature. I was surprised to find so many second-hand bookstores that stocked a range of novels in English. The books were in great condition, affordably priced, and by authors of a variety of countries. Some of these stores even accepted books from you in exchange for cash. My favourite of them all was definitely The Lost Bookshop. Here you could also buy and book and then get 50% of the money back if you returned it within a month. You could basically use them as a library that takes commision, which I think is a super great idea.
When I wasn’t sitting by the river engrossed in a book, I was most certainly in a cafe engrossed in a book. Cafe hopping is a favourite pastime of many expats and remote workers. Since Chiang Mai is such a digital nomad hub, it is no wonder that there is an abundance of cool cafes to choose from. What I particularly loved was the number of cafes that doubled up as casual galleries too. One of my favourites was The Meeting Room Art Cafe. The owner was incredibly genuine and relaxed, happy to create a platform for people to showcase and appreciate local art. Another favourite find was Rakuda Photo Artisans & Cafe. I came here to get a reel of film developed but landed up staying for the whole afternoon. They made a killer Thai coffee and the music playlist of my dreams.
Another reason why Chiang Mai is such an easy place to stay is due to the cosy and eclectic nature of their hostels. I obviously cannot speak for all of them, but the few that I stayed in were unpretentiously decorative and laid-back. Mapping Hostel had a stunning river view with huts and tented areas to relax in outside. But by far the best hostel that I stayed in during my year in Asia was Baan Arlhan Hostel. The owner is incredibly warm and sincere, and her hostel’s aesthetic and atmosphere reflects this beautifully. The feeling of being at home with her and the rest of the hostel guests embodies that same blissful comfort of the city itself.
All in all, Chiang Mai is a wonderful mix of creativity and culture with the tranquil feeling of Northern Thailand’s nature. It is a place that you will enjoy no matter how long or short your stay, whether you have company or if you are alone. For anyone with an arty soul and easy-going attitude, I’m sure you’ll find as much refuge in this city as I did.