What We Needed

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Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck

Comparisons aren’t fair, typically. Especially when it comes to evaluating a travel destination – weather, mood, uncomfortable shoes – all can factor into how any place is perceived. It’s all relative. It’s all subjective. It’s all a matter of perspective. What is paradise for one can be a total bust for the next.

When we left Cambodia, it was well time for us to leave Cambodia. I would never not recommend it to anyone – even with some of the severe challenges of our visit – I can understand how others come through and give it rave reviews. It never got that from us, and that’s okay.

So when we touched down in Thailand, understand that we were eager for a change. The streets were calm and finely manicured in comparison. Comforts were readily available at every corner. In comparison, it seemed so uncrowded, serene, uncomplicated. For other travelers, those who revel in the challenge of a dusty, rustic place, they may land there and hate it. And maybe another time and in another mood, maybe we would have to.

But for us, Chiang Mai was exactly what we needed, when we needed it.

Chiang Mai Moat

We exhaled. We felt like we were able to relax. We made instant friends, the expat community is strong and the city is highly frequented by perpetual wanderers like us. We had great wi-fi and worked hard. Pete got back to running daily, and we explored every backstreet surrounding our apartment with gusto, and without worry of being clipped by a racing moto. We enjoyed the vibrant street food scene and never once encountered ants crawling out of any dish. We ate like kings for mere pennies.

Street Pad Thai
Street Food Chiang Mai
Fresh Thai Fruit
Cute Kids in Chiang Mai

We found a local hangout, and after two days my order was known before I recast it. Pad Thai, no shrimp. I wanted to say no tofu as well, but felt like I would be hurting their feelings for upsetting the signature dish so. Instead I just repeatedly pushed the spongy protein onto Pete’s plate, hoping I wasn’t spotted.

Pad Thai
Mae Sunee's - our hangout.
Mae Sunee’s – our hangout.

We arrived in time to catch the end of the madness of Yi Ping, one of their biggest festivals of the year. On our very first night out, tucking into our first fresh and delicious plate of Pad Thai, a runaway lantern collided with Pete from behind, jolting him forward and his camera to crash lens-first on the cement stair below. The filter: busted. Unsure of the survival of the rest of the equipment, we slunk home in defeat and worry. Our first night out: disastrous.

Lanterns in Chiang Mai

We worried about a tone being set for the long month we had scheduled. We needn’t be. We swiftly found our groove and were spoiled by the ease in which we acclimated.

We began to coast, and delight in the simple things. Like all the gentle colours. And the many, many wats throughout the city that allowed for quiet exploration, there seemed to be one for every tourist.

Chiang Mai Temples

Chiang Mai is easy. Too easy? Maybe, and by the end of our month, we were ready to move on again. But tucked in the back of our minds is this little retreat ready to offer an effortless reprieve if and when the road gets too hard.

That’s nice to have.


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  1. Hi

    I’m curious where you stayed in Chang Mai? and what are the prices on renting a place there. I’ve been to Bangkok and Phuket on vacation, but I’d like to visit Chang Mai for a longer period of time.

    1. We stayed here: http://theopium-chiangmai.com/ and really enjoyed it. It is a little further out from the old town, and a little pricier (just around $400 for a month) but we wanted to spoil ourselves a bit after not loving our place in Phnom Penh.

      Price depends on what you are looking for. Kitchens are quite rare (street food is so cheap!) and so you will pay more for that. I’ve known people to pay as little as $120 (for a small, clean room with wi-fi and aircon), and then others around $600 (complete with a kitchen). There are lots of options, the best advice is just to show up and then spend a couple of days looking around to find something.

  2. We rested for a week in Chiang Mai after a busy two weeks in Bangkok and Sukhothai. It was heaven! I enjoy being challenged, but sometimes easy is good.

  3. We just wrapped up a week here and agree that it’s a nice relaxing getaway that is easy on the wallet. We were ready to leave after a week though.

  4. I’m right there with you. I absolutely need that peace of mind too…sometimes? No, most of the time! Chiang Mai is, unsurprisingly, high on our list when we finally make it to Asia together (I was in Thailand on my own in 2009, but didn’t get to the north-west). Looking forward to it!

  5. Oh you make me want to return! Was this your first time in Chiang Mai? Oddly enough, it reminded me of Ottawa with the canal/waterway and … well that’s all I guess! The city just has a great comfort to it.

  6. First off, gorgeous photos! Glad you found some breathing space in Chiang Mai – after months of hecktic traveling, a relaxing haven is well-deserved. We always strive to find balance between running around/climbing temples/exploring jungles and doing nothing in a quiet corner of our world for a while. Good luck and safe travels!

  7. Yes, though a bit too “expatty” for me, I’m glad I stuck it out here in Chiang Mai for (goodness, now nearly 4 months!) Which… just goes to show – yup, CM is mighty easy to get use to, and a fine place to chill out and regroup from more adventurous travel (a month in Nepal and Borneo prior, plus I broke up my CM stay with a few weeks bouncing around Myanmar).

    But it’s now time to move on. Indeed, after 2+ years here in Asia – time to skip on over to an entirely new continent – moving lock stock ‘n barrel (which nowadays consists of but a backpack and a single suitcase) to ECUADOR!

    Glad we were able to share a bite of Shan vittles while you were here. Perhaps our paths will cross again someday.

    1. Yes, can understand the expattyness of it, and I don’t think it would be a place we could stay super long term (obvs, at the end of the month we were ready to leave), but it’s still such an easy place to be. Sometimes that’s all we need.

      Glad to have met you too! And congrats on the move to Ecuador! You’ll love it.

  8. In general we found northern Thailand exactly what we needed after our month in Cambodia, so I totally hear you on that one. I think there is a reason so many people travel to Thailand, and one of those things is surely that it is not a challenging destination and is very accessible. At first I worried this would mean it would be “too touristy”, but no, it really is charming and appealing and I get why so many people love it there.

    That said, Chiang Mai didn’t do much for us personally. Like Dyanne, we found it a bit too “expatty” and—dare I say it—bland. It made a good base for exploring other cities in the area, but we never spent more than a week there at a time because we’d get bored and need to see something else. I do get how it works for so many people and certainly coming from Cambodia would seem like heaven on earth. I’m more of a Bangkok gal, personally, but I do appreciate how much easier on the budget CM is!

    1. I get that. Totally. Although I can’t compare to Bangkok, I always assumed I would hate it there because I don’t really like big noisy cities.

  9. I don’t have much to compare it to yet but I definitely agree with your views. Chiang Mai was to me my first stop on a perpetual travel adventure. It was supposed to last about one month in this city. That was in November…I am still here.

    Something about this city just pulls you in and doesn’t want to let you go. It is taking me a ton of will power to tell myself to move on to a new locale next month… we shall see.

  10. I’m so desperate to get to Chiang Mai, and even hopefully live there at some point in the future. Everyone I know who’s been has only had good things to say about it. I’m glad you guys enjoyed your time there – sometimes it’s so nice to be somewhere where you can just breathe a sigh of relief and relax, knowing you’re somewhere ‘easy’.

  11. That’s how we feel about Chiang Mai 🙂
    Easy, welcoming and with plenty of new food to taste!
    It was really nice to meet you here, guys. Enjoy your winter stay and many adventures on the following trips!!

  12. Whilst I’ve never been to Chiang Mai it sounds as though this was just perfect for you. I also love all the pictures of lanterns, it makes me feel as though it has a peaceful, reflective side.

    Safe travels.

  13. I’d have to agree with you about Cambodia. For us it was very blah (except Angkor Wat, that was amazing). We hope to get to Chiang Mai someday soon. We did SE Asia a long time ago and missed it.

  14. I really liked Cambodia, but have to say that I wasn’t wishing for more time when we left! I was definitely ready for a change when we boarded our flight to Bangkok! Great photos!

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