Thailand: Sustainable City Guide – Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is northern Thailand’s largest city located in a valley on the banks of the Ping River. The city itself is quite modern but has an old town surrounded by gates and walls which further afield is surrounded by rainforest, mountains and waterfalls.

Getting around

Despite being the north’s largest city, Chiang Mai isn’t too big to get around easily. Most areas in the centre can be accessed on foot or by bike (obviously the most sustainable, healthiest and cheapest ways) however to get to some of the attractions in the mountains you can either hire a scooter or hail a songtaew (red taxi).

Songtaew’s operate on a standard 30 baht charge within the old city. They tend to pick up as many people as possible and then drop people off in a ‘logical’ order. To head further out of the city to get the cheapest deal it’s best to share with other people and split the cost.

Food and drink

In the lead up to Chiang Mai we’d heard top reviews from other travellers that had already visited the place about it’s food and it really hasn’t disappointed. Like the rest of Thailand, food is everywhere you turn, it’s definitely a country you’d never go hungry in. One of Chiang Mai’s most popular dishes is khao soi which I absolutely love. Khao soi is a creamy, coconutty yellow curry dish served with egg noodles, vegetables and crispy noodles on top. I’ve had many variations, vegan (obv no egg noodles), veggie, chicken, sausage, shrimp. All have been delicious.

There are so many good places to eat in Chiang Mai, again like the rest of Thailand I’ve not really had a bad meal. Here are some of my favourites.

  1. Free Bird Cafe – Part of the Thai Freedom House, a social enterprise providing education for refugees from Burma and disadvantaged minority groups in northern Thailand. All food is vegan, made fresh from organic ingredients, plastic free and proceeds from the cafe go to the Freedom House. Predictably I recommend their Khao Soi. So tasty!
  2. Women’s Correctional Institute – A restaurant run by ex-prisoners. By eating here you’re giving these women a chance to start a new life free from crime. Their pad thai and spring rolls are pretty delicious too.
  3. Reform Kafe – Located in the Green Tiger hostel this cafe does some great organic veggie food and exceptional shakes (served with a metal straw). 7529050928_IMG_3889.JPG
  4. Street food – Always a winner. It’s cheap, on every street corner and nearly always delicious. The only issue with street food is that it often comes served in plastic.

What to do

Chiang Mai is a great place to wander and discover. While wandering you’ll likely book onto an activity or two, the place is full of them.

  1. Elephant Nature Park – Located 60km from Chiang Mai providing sanctuary for elephants and other animals such as dogs and water buffalos. Check out my post here on what we found at the nature park and what to look out for when choosing a sanctuary to visit.7533272976_IMG_3999
  2. Yoga in the park – Free (yes, FREE!!) yoga sessions held daily at 9am and 4pm at Buak Hard park. Just simply join the facebook group and look out for what type of yoga you want to take part in. I attended a couple of sessions, each time there was about 20 people taking part ranging from pro-yogis to first timers. It’s also a good way to socialise and meet other travellers.
  3. Zabb E Lee Cooking School – Probably the most fun I’ve had in Chiang Mai. The day started by being picked up at our hostel, taken to a local market and shown the fresh ingredients we would be cooking with that day. We then headed to the school and were taught how to cook five dishes each. I made spring rolls, tom yum soup, pad thai, panang curry and mango sticky rice. Rob made papaya salad, tom zaap soup, pad thai, khao soi and mango sticky rice. The teachers were so friendly and fun, they really made the day and the food we ended up cooking was surprisingly really good quality. As we left we were given a recipe book so that we can continue to make these dishes on our own. All of that cost just 1000 baht (approx £24).10741445616_IMG_4284IMG_436510741473440_IMG_4296IMG_4367
  4. Lila Thai Massage – A massage parlour run by ex-prisoners who prior to their release went through Thai massage training. Normally these women would encounter discrimination from employers who refuse to hire ex-convicts and some return to a cycle of crime and find themselves back in prison. But Lila gives them a place to work and breaks that cycle of crime. Earlier today I had the pleasure of having a coconut oil body massage. The place was so friendly and relaxing. It was worth every baht.
  5. Monk prayers – 5pm every day at Wat Phra Singh buddhist monks enter the temple for evening prayers. This is definitely something to be experienced but be warned it goes on for quite some time, if you are to stay for the duration make sure you’re sitting comfortably. 10798620832_IMG_4018.JPG
  6. Sticky Waterfall – Bua Tong waterfall is about 55km out of Chiang Mai so doesn’t get too busy. It isn’t necessarily the prettiest waterfall but it is probably the funnest I’ve been to. Thanks to limestone that floats in the water the rocks are not slippery and you can climb them easily. Even without shoes. You kind of look at it and think… ‘I’m never getting up there’… but you take a step and it’s just like walking up a hill.
  7. Shopping – Chiang Mai has so many markets. My favourite is probably the Sunday Walking Street as it doesn’t just have your usual generic market tat, a lot of what is on offer is handmade and unique. Aside from the markets there is a great shopping area called Nimmanahaeminda Road which is full of quirky independent shops. This is where Free Bird Cafe that I mentioned earlier is located. Out the back of Free Bird is a zero waste shop (My Best Life CNX) where I stocked up on some essentials and a second hand shop where you can donate or pick up people’s unwanted clothes.

We really wanted to go to Doi Inthanon National Park which has one of the highest peaks in Thailand (think of the views!!) however it would of taken too long to get there on a scooter and is very expensive by mini bus.


A couple of tips on how to explore cities like Chiang Mai and travel sustainably:

  • Check out my last blog post here which has some Christmas gift ideas for sustainable travellers such as a Travel Tap (less plastic bottles) and Green Trip kits (pick up rubbish along the way).
  • Don’t get take aways if possible, they have sooooo much plastic.
  • Make the most of your hostel breakfast, put extra (steal) in a tin or bees wrap for for later in the day which prevents buying stuff with packaging and saves money.
  • Eat local food. Again, it’s cheaper, has less air miles and is bloody delicious.
  • Don’t buy any old souvenir. If you’re going to purchase a momentum, make sure it means something and isn’t just mass produced.

After two months we’re nearly at the end of our first stint in Thailand. Tomorrow we’re getting a very long train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (10 hours!!!) as on Monday we fly to Sri Lanka. 10 hours seems a long time, we could of flown down the country in just one hour, however it is meant to be the most beautiful train journey in Thailand so we just couldn’t resist. Travelling by train is also a lot cheaper and more sustainable than air travel, ticks all the boxes.

Wish us luck!

Ciao xxx

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