Chiang Mai is a place talked about often in my circles. Fellow bloggers and readers just assume I’ve been there, being the hotspot for anyone who works on a laptop. But somehow I’ve managed to miss Chiang Mai for an entire decade of globetrotting.
In December I finally had some free time in Asia and got the chance to visit. It wasn’t my typical trip to Thailand, but as you’ll see below Thailand is always fun no matter what you do 🙂
Arriving in Chiang Mai
Due to a little mix up, everything for Chiang Mai was literally booked last minute (more like last second). I had just finished the Singapore Marathon and had about a month free to spend in Asia before Christmas. Singapore is always nice, but a little expensive to hang around for that long.
One night after dinner with some friends, I got home around midnight and thought I still had one more night in town. But when I got back to the apartment I found out I was supposed to check out the next day! I knew I was leaving Singapore but hadn’t decided where yet, so suddenly in panic mode, I went on a flight search, picked Chiang Mai, booked a cheap Airbnb and then went to pack all my stuff and get to bed. The flight was early morning, so I didn’t get a lot of sleep either; I was up at 5am and straight to the airport. It’s been a while since I’ve had to travel on the spot like that – but it was fun as I remember 🙂
Flight was short, and I landed at Chiang Mai airport in the early afternoon. Luckily all my blogger friends have been to Chiang Mai and have guides on it, so I had gotten well acquainted with the city before I landed.
I’d booked my Airbnb in the popular Nimman area. A taxi might be around ~150-200 baht, but the public bus from the airport was only 20 baht and right outside the terminal. It’s not really advertised a lot but it’s easy to find. The bus map didn’t have much English, but a friendly Thai guy helped me out. It took me right into Nimman. I hadn’t noticed when I’d booked, but my Airbnb was also right beside the huge Maya Mall which would end up becoming like a second home for me.
I forgot to take a photo, but my Airbnb was a one bedroom with kitchen, gym and pool, and ran about ~$33 per night. That might sound cheap but it’s actually pricey for Chiang Mai (you’d pay ~half that on a monthly stay). Not that I had any time to go browsing apartments. As it turned out, the landlord was great and her place ended up being the perfect spot; Chiang Mai would eventually become home ground for my next training camp, and this apartment was right in the centre of everything I needed.
Back to training
Life was kind of boring in Chiang Mai to begin with. As my whole life for the previous 6 months had been about recovering from my skin catastrophe, I didn’t have any new projects to work on, I hadn’t been travelling so didn’t have a whole lot to write on the blog. To be honest I just wasn’t in a working mood in general.
I still had to exercise daily as part of my treatment, and get daily sunshine, so I scoped out gyms and running routes when I arrived. However, it’s hard to train every day when there’s nothing to train for. Just feels like you’re running around in circles for no reason. I needed a race.
The new race on my radar after Singapore had been the Ironman. Even though I’d never done a triathlon, and didn’t have a bike, and hadn’t swam in years, it was something I had become drawn to. I loved the story of it, a bunch of athletes trying to create “the hardest race in the world”. I had been watching Ironman videos on Youtube, sometimes I would spend the whole day watching races and observing all the little tricks the athletes were doing, like the special way they changed their shoes before the bike ride, and how they fought with each other during the swims. Between races I watched interviews and training videos of different triathletes and became a little fanboy of Lucy Charles and Nick Bare and a few others.
I Googled some training plans, and they all looked kind of ridiculous. But I thought – I don’t need to sign up for the actual race right now. An Ironman is special, let’s just start by seeing if I can handle the training. So that Monday I started on Week 1.
The First Week
I had no idea at first, but Chiang Mai turned out to be a great city to train in. There is an old ASEAN Games stadium there, with a full athletics track and Olympic swimming pool (and lots of other cool stuff I didn’t need). They’re all open to the public, but nobody uses them. Most can only dream of having an Olympic training ground all to themselves, but that’s what I had almost every day.
The first day of training was a swim:
Since I didn’t have swimming goggles, I went to Maya Mall that morning to buy a pair.
Despite being a huge five storey mall, there’s only one sports store in Maya Mall, and they didn’t sell swimming goggles. I asked the guy if another shop sold them, and he said no. Knowing he must be wrong, I went to the information desk and the girl there also said no. Five storeys of shops in this brand new mall and not one of them sells swimming goggles?!?? It’s not possible!
So I walked around the mall, every floor, for about an hour, searching for swimming goggles. Well, guess what. Maya Mall has a bazillion shops and sells everything that’s ever been invented in human history, except for swimming goggles!
Exhausted and bewildered, I walked down the road to the old mall in Nimman – Central Kad Suan Kaew – which looked like it had been built in 1995. My hopes weren’t really high, but after five minutes I found a sports store, and guess what. It had half a wall of swimming goggles.
Thailand is odd sometimes.
I bought the cheapest pair and, now reinvigorated for training, called a Grab to the stadium. It’s about a ten minute drive and cost ~100 baht each way (if you want to go, the official name is 700 Years Stadium).
Entry to the pool was 60 baht for a foreigner, and worth every cent. I ended up going often, and most days it was empty. Other days there were one or two others but even then, I had at least six lanes to myself:
I’ve forgotten how tiring swimming is. One 50m sprint and I was heaving like someone had been holding me underwater and punching me in the ribs. The training plan asked for 40 laps that day, and I was in that pool for hours, labouring through each set. They were supposed to be a mix of fast sets and moderate sets, but mine were more like slow sets and very slow sets and stopping-to-rest-in-the-middle sets. I also learned quickly why those swimming goggles were so cheap; they were useless and may as well have been made of cardboard. I had one eye full of water the entire time.
The whole swim wasn’t even a little bit fun or pretty, but I finished.
Afterwards I sat in the stands and watched this kinda fat guy effortlessly swimming what felt like 100 laps non-stop, he was there when I started and he still hadn’t stopped by the time I got up to leave. That was a big reality check…I was still a million miles from competing in an Ironman.
In the basement of the Maya Mall is a supermarket that I’m guessing all the rich locals and expats shop at. They had things like Australian ribeye and Norwegian salmon and organic duck eggs; since my training diet is usually high on animal fats and proteins it was perfect, although not that cheap. Still, you can’t skimp on food when you’re pumping through that many hours of exercise. For the first time I wasn’t eating daily street food in Thailand – which is usually the reason I come here in the first place – and was cooking all my meals instead.
The next day was a run, repeats of 1km fast-ish and 200m sprinting:
The running track was perfect for a workout like this so once again, I headed out to the stadium and once again, had it all to myself. It was the first time I’d ever run repeats, even though I see them talked about all the time in running groups and blogs. It was also the first time I’d ever trained on a real running track so that was cool.
It was a pretty tough session but I was still (almost) in marathon shape from Singapore so this day finished much more comfortably than the swim the day before.
Finding a way to do the bike workouts was a little more challenging.
Since I didn’t have a bike, I had to find a gym with a decent spin machine. There are a few gyms around Nimman, but luckily I didn’t have to spend too long scouting – the first one I visited was perfect. Gold Hillside Gym was 100 baht for a day pass, was just across the road from Maya and had everything I needed (they also do 1,100 baht monthly memberships if you’re staying long term).
The big training day for the week was a 100km ride:
I do about 25km/hr on an exercise bike, so that worked out to ~4 hours on a spin machine.
Four hours sounded a bit silly so I decided to aim for three hours and see how it went. Got to the gym, booted up a 3 hour podcast and started pedalling. I left the gym that day with two badly chafed thighs and a bruised ass cheek and pretty sore balls. But I made it!
Sunday was rest day, and I have never loved a rest day so much in my life.
I went to a sports bar to watch the UFC in the morning, then wandered around town, stopped at a second hand bookstore, picked up a few classics, then hopped through a handful of Thai cafes and restaurants, reading and snacking on Thai food until sundown. Afterwards I walked through the Sunday market, sat at a bar and listened to some live music, went for a massage and went home to sleep. PERFECT DAY.
This became my routine over the next two weeks – wake up and stretch, spend the day at the stadium or gym, go to Maya and buy dinner, then cook a feast and relax at home.
If I had the energy I’d walk downstairs and get a massage before I went to sleep, and maybe cheat with a street food bowl of noodles on the way home.
I can’t say I loved training that much, didn’t hate it either, but I always found myself really looking forward to rest day!
A tour of Chiang Mai
Mimi was local friend of mine I met with for dinner the week I arrived.
After catching up over a grill feast, we jumped on her scooter and she gave me a little night tour of Chiang Mai.
First we stopped by the Tha Pae Gate, which is probably the most famous landmark in Chiang Mai. If you look at the map of Chiang Mai, the Old Town is encircled by a large square wall and moat, which opens at the Tha Pae Gate. It’s a centrepoint for tourists with lots of foreigner friendly bars/restaurants, street stalls, western joints like Starbucks/Burger King etc. It’s a fun place to just wander around, take some pictures and people watch.
After that she drove me down Loi Kroh Road, a famous nightlife and red light district, and some of the surrounding streets. She referred to it as the “street for man”, meaning a street full of girlie bars. It felt quiet that night but touristy/party streets in Thailand, like Khao San Road, Bangla Street, Soi Cowboy and so on – all have a very similar look/vibe, so I figured this one wouldn’t be much different when it came alive.
Then she took me to the Night Bazaar, a big maze of streets all selling the usual Chang Beer singlets and elephant souvenirs. “Tourist all love elephants” she told me as we walked the alleys. And we talked for a long time about why they love elephants, but never really came up with an answer.
Finally we headed for the Ploen Ruedee Night Market, which is a super classy spot; a mix of western and Thai foods, live music, some crafts stalls, and really just a fun place to chill and enjoy a relaxed night out.
Thank god for that night, because without it I probably wouldn’t have seen much of Chiang Mai at all!
The problem with living beside a mall, is you just go to the mall for everything. I visited the supermarket on the bottom floor every day for my groceries. After training I would head to the restaurant floor to get a carrot and beet juice. There’s a little street food section on one of the top floors, and I visited there on cheat days to get my bowls of noodles.
I also got my old phone screen fixed there on the electronics floor. Side note: In New Zealand I got quoted $100 USD for that screen, later in Singapore I got quoted $95 in a mall and $80 in Chinatown. In Maya Mall they did it for $55. If I’d gone to an older mall they’d probably have done it even cheaper. They say Chiang Mai is cheap, it’s true 😉
Still, while it might not feel like much of a “Thai” experience to live right by the mall and go there for everything, it was the perfect spot for convenience and comfort’s sake. If I returned to Chiang Mai, I’d probably stay in exactly the same area.
Chiang Mai Half Marathon
On my final week in Chiang Mai, the big workout on the schedule was a 21km run.
I did a quick race search and found out the Chiang Mai Marathon was that Sunday! I’d never run a half marathon (officially) so it was perfect.
Unfortunately, entries for the race had sold out weeks ago. My heart dropped as I’d gotten excited about finishing the year with one more race, but I knew there must be at least one person who wouldn’t make the start line. People drop out all the time due to injury, schedule clashes or sometimes they just didn’t train and don’t bother showing up. I joined a few Chiang Mai running groups on Facebook, and one guy helped me find a whole bunch of people selling their race numbers on another page.
The guy I ended up buying my entry from turned out to be an awesome guy, and when I asked how to pay him, told me to donate the entry fee to charity. I was inspired and started a fundraiser for readers to pay it forward and see if we could multiply his kindness. We ended up raising over $2,000 for my friend’s charity, Stand Tall International. It all made it an extra cool race to finish the year with.
The event was officially the MUANG THAI Chiang Mai Marathon. The entry fee for the half marathon was only $25 USD, so I wasn’t expecting much but everything was surprisingly excellent.
The gun was at 4am which wasn’t ideal for me, but it turned out be a bonus weather-wise as Chiang Mai nights are so cool. The start line was at the Tha Pae Gate. Everyone showed up in the beautifully designed race singlet (I still wear it all the time!) and we started right on time.
The race logistics went like clockwork. The course wasn’t crowded at all, except for maybe the first 2km. Aid stations were flawless and served water and Gatorade. Every km was clearly marked with nice big signs. It’s also a perfectly flat course so was a joy to run – just put your head down and work!
The red carpet finish was packed with photographers and we were welcomed home with Thai dancers on both sides. As soon as I crossed the tape I got my medal and official time slip, then was ushered into the finishers area.
The finishers area was the best surprise of all.
It was packed with food and drink tents, Gatorade, water, watermelon, bananas, omelettes on rice, green bean soup, McDonald’s burgers, fish soup, congee, some other stuff I’m probably forgetting, plus a post race massage tent for all the runners.
When I was ready to leave, they had a free shuttle back to the Tha Pae Gate. It was a long and slow drive, but when we got there we had another surprise. They had even more food tents there set up for the 10k finishers! So I sat there eating even more omelette rices before getting a Grab home.
Really good event, if you’re a runner, I highly recommend it!
My final day
Race day was actually my final full day in Chiang Mai, I was due to fly home the following afternoon.
The race had started at 4am, so by 6am we were done. That’s a pretty rad feeling, to see the sun rising and know you’ve just run a half marathon while everyone else hasn’t even woken up yet.
When I finally got back to the apartment, I hobbled up to the gate with my race number still on and my medal around my neck. The security guard smiled and congratulated me as if I’d just won the entire race, I don’t think he knew it was just a finishers medal. But I still pretended I was a champion 🙂
After resting my legs for the rest of the morning, I headed to One Nimman for lunch. One Nimman is an upscale-ish mall/eatery just across the road from Maya, it’s mostly Thai street food but the fancy version.
My appetite was small after feasting at the finishers zone, so I just had a few skewers and dumplings. Pretty good although nothing life-changing. I’ll give it a B+, maybe an A- on a very hungry day 🙂
That night I met up with Mimi one last time for dinner. Somehow we ended up back at One Nimman, which turns into a bigger food market at night. It also extends to the block across the street, just opposite the Maya Mall. I’m not sure if they’re part of the same market, but they’re right next to each other and the whole area is super busy. Lots of interesting stuff in there, so definitely check it out if you’re in town.
Afterwards as she was driving me home on her scooter, she asked me what I’d been doing for the last couple of weeks. I told her I’d just been training at the stadium every day. “You haven’t even visited anywhere?” She said if I wanted, she could pick me up early the next morning and take me to one of the famous temples in Chiang Mai before my flight. I said I needed to go to the gym in the morning, and she snapped at me. “You can miss the gym for just one day!!!!” she yelled, banging her hand on the handlebars.
She picked me up at 7 the next morning. We drove up the huge winding hill to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple built on one of the mountains around Chiang Mai. It was a good half hour to drive up there on a scooter. When we arrived I winced looking at the huge flight of stairs up to the temple – I still had marathon legs from the day before – but luckily the climb only looked intimidating. The stairs were shallow and most people got up pretty easily.
After the temple, I had a quick plate of noodles with Mimi in town before I left to have lunch with my friend James from Nomadic Notes. He’d landed in Chiang Mai just the day before, so luckily we crossed paths, even if only for 24 hours.
I haven’t seen James for several years, we first met in Bangkok maybe five years ago. Bloggers spend so much time talking to each other through a screen, it’s always great when we get the chance to meet in person.
James’ recommendation for Chiang Mai was SP Chicken in the Old Town – solid spot for a roasted chicken and some sticky rice!
On the training schedule that day was a one hour bike ride, which I’d planned to get it in early morning before meeting James, but Mimi had convinced me to miss it for our temple visit. But when James and I finished up I still had a little over an hour before I had to leave for the airport.
I raced to the gym and knocked out my bike session, then ran back to the apartment and made my flight. Every training session matters, but every missed training session matters even more. Sitting on the plane for the next ten hours, I was able to relax and feel proud of myself for getting that work in. And even eat a little junk food 🙂
Verdict on Chiang Mai
During my first week in town I was thinking, “This place is still not cooler than Bangkok.” But Chiang Mai grew on me slowly, especially the cleaner air, and the better traffic. Luckily Grabs are cheap, because public transport is sparse or non-existent. Plus the weather is much better. Bangkok is suffocatingly hot always, but Chiang Mai in December was actually cold at night, and I couldn’t go out without jeans and a hoodie. I also never used the air conditioner in my apartment once.
I didn’t see that much of Chiang Mai to give any expert recommendations on the place, but from what I saw it’s a pretty cool city. Will likely be back some time!