After one month in Chiang Mai, I officially renamed it Charming Mai. This city is something else, and the first in our world travel where we felt we could actually settle.
When we first decided to come here for a month, I was nervous, it didn’t seem child friendly (which is the reason why we decided to rent an apartment with a swimming pool—an easy every-day plan B). Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I was already loving Chiang Mai, its districts, its buildings, its smiley people; its local markets in the backyard of temples, and its giant malls; the red busses and the TukTuks; even the western areas and the expat community.
It’s a Thailand I was “expecting” mixed with a Thailand that surprised me every day. And funnily enough, I went from being worried about its child unfriendliness to having the biggest mom friend group of any city we’ve visited so far.
Today I’ll take you for a tour of my favourite places in Charming Mai.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Most expats and tourists stay in the Nimman area which is probably your best bet if you want to have a more western experience and meet lots of families with kids, but we rarely do what the majority does 😉 so we stayed at The Astra Condo, which is a tall modern building in the traditional Thai neighbourhood Chang Khlan. We picked this condo because we wanted to be in a more authentic area, but still have a plan B (aka, swimming pool).
The apartment was very small, but big enough for us, and the area is close to a lot of restaurants and the famous Night Bazar, and walking distance from the Old Town, where I ended up spending most of my time with the kids.
By the way, we always stay in Airbnb as we find it the safest option. If you don’t have an account yet, you can sign up using this link to get 25€ off your first booking.
Tap water in Chiang Mai: eco-friendly advice
To avoid buying millions of plastic bottles at the supermarket (as in general it’s not recommended to drink tap water in Thailand), buy a big one and then fill it at the water dispensers that you find around the old town (they are white, somewhat hidden so ask around, and with 10 bath you fill two 5-liter bottles) or at any more modern condo like the one where we stayed.
We started off not using tap water to wash our teeth, but after a week of hassling with bottled water, we tried and… everything was fine! So in general, we used tap water to brush our teeth (except Emily who still didn’t know how to spit), but not to cook or wash vegetables to eat raw.
Withdrawing money in Chiang Mai
To withdraw money at any ATM you will have to pay a commission of 200 baht (even with cards like ours that don’t have withdrawal costs abroad), so every time we withdrew as much as possible.
How to get around in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has a couple of (real) busses going around the city, but the easiest way to get around is walking or grabbing (yes, I’m sure it’s a verb by now ;). Unfortunately Grab doesn’t have Family cars as in Singapore, so we always had to carry around our MiFolds seats.
Tuk Tuk and Safety
I want to dedicate a small paragraph to this, because back home we were the parents promoting rear-facing car seats up to 6 years old, and after we sold our car, we would rarely get in a taxi without our MiFolds for the kids (we had originally bought an Urban Kanga for Emily with 5-point seat belt, but it was too big to travel full-time).
While none of that has changed (I still think car seats should be rear facing for as long as possible, and we always carry our MiFolds when we know we need to take a taxi), guess what the kid’s most favourite transportation was in Chiang Mai? Tuk Tuk! Which, let’s be honest, it’s the opposite of safety!
And while we took them only 5-6 times during our month in Chiang Mai, we consciously decided to try the experience in a part of Thailand where traffic is not crazy (Bangkok, our next destination, is a whole new level of traffic and crazy)… and we loved it!
So, if you’re all for safety in the car like me, prepare yourself, because, like it or not, the Chiang Mai experience wouldn’t be the same without a Tuk Tuk ride!
Cafes with play areas in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is easy with kids: it’s a small city where you can go from one side to the other in about half an hour by car: that made a huge difference in our lifestyle, and once again it reminded us that we prefer small cities.
There are so many kid-friendly places in Chiang Mai, but the ones you find here are what made our Chiang Mai special.
I visited the majority of them more than once, alone with the kids to work, or with other mom friends to enjoy some mommy time (by the way, if you want to meet moms with kids in Chiang Mai, this Facebook group is for you!).
Oh, how I’ll miss Biscotti House! It’s the one family cafe in Chiang Mai where I went back to over and over again, and for many reasons:
- The first reason is Raffaela, the owner—an adorable Italian woman who’s lived 14 years in Chiang Mai and taught me so much about the Thai culture.
- The atmosphere is great. We had the most relaxing time while the kids played in the huge play area—one day we managed to stay from 10.30am to 5.30pm (and we still had to drag the kids out!)!
- The food is fresh, homemade and delicious. Actually, it was the closest to homemade meals we had since leaving Spain (we’re finding it hard to getting in the habit of cooking, instead of going out). And Raffaela even made us some traditional Italian focaccia… it tasted just like home! (It also offers vegan-friendly options)
- On Wednesday morning, some moms with toddlers and kids get together here at Biscotti House, so if you’re looking for some mommy time, this is your place!
Hummus is the only restaurant with a play area in the Old Town, so it’s a rare gem!
The owner is from Israel and extremely passionate about his home cuisine, which reflects in the restaurant dishes—all food is prepared and presented with great care, and it’s simple and delicious. Please, do try their hummus with avocado, their Fried Eggplants or the Sabich Sandwich, and their house drink… oh, and their coconut pudding is amazing! Ok, just try everything 😉
But for me, of course, the best part is the play area. Every time we went (and we went a lot!), Oliver and Emily would disappear in the play room, come to have a quick bite and go back again. Most. Relaxing. Meals. EVER!
Hummus is also a great place to explore the Eastern border of the Old Town: from here, you can watch people take photos with pigeons at the Tha Phae Gate, you can wonder around the Friday market at the gorgeous Wat Pan On, and on Sunday, after an early dinner, you can walk to the famous Sunday night market, which is only a couple hundreds meters away.
This was a nice last-week discovery. Blue diamond is not a family cafe per se, but the owner has (and understand) kids, so she provides a box full of toys and colouring material for kids to use in the lovely patio. (Vegetarian and Vegan friendly).
Blue Diamond was also a perfect start to explore on foot the west-northern border of the Old Town, where you can see three very different temples: Wat Khan Khama (Emily and Oliver loves all the statues of animals), Wat Rajamontean and its huge statue of the Buddha (cover photo), and Wat Lok Moli on the other side of the street, which has a completely different style (I loved it!).
BONUS: If you look for a restaurant after you visit these gorgeous temples, you HAVE TO go to Reform Kafé: super friendly staff, delicious food and beautiful decor. Alex and I came here with and without the kids and both times we loved it!
This is a lovely vegan restaurant close to the South edge of the Old Town, and I discovered it while looking for a place to eat after spending a couple of hours at the Nong Buak Hard Public Park playground.
At Amrita Garden, you’ll find a relaxing atmosphere, fresh and homemade food (on certain days they have a lovely vegan lunch buffet), and the kids will be happy playing in the lovely patio (they also provide a selection of toys, but they’re for smaller children).
If you read my city guides, you know that everywhere I go I need to find pizza: even though this is not the best pizza we had in Chiang Mai, it was definitely the most romantic meat Alex and I had, sitting on the balcony overlooking the street full of light, sipping wine while the kids played in the… play area (that you can see form the window, if you pick the first table on the right)! Priceless!
All restaurants with playground seem to be concentrated on the West side of the Airport, which was a bit out of hands for us. But we went to Nic’s on the day we visited the Royal Park Rajapruek, as it was a short car ride away.
And we had such a relaxing afternoon that I couldn’t possibly not include it in this list.
The playground made of bamboo and rope offers climbing frames on sand, and there’s a little sink where to get water: I don’t know your kids, but water, sand and climbing seems to be the magic combination for Oliver and Emily!
Only downside, it gets quite busy (I heard), but we were lucky because it was raining and we had the whole place to ourselves! So if you enjoy quiet, too, maybe go on a rainy day 😉
Experiences we loved
Part of the charm of Chiang Mai is that it’s so close to stunning nature. And what a better way to experience nature than in a family farm?
I don’t have enough words to describe how much we loved Thung Dong Farm other than: we left a piece of our heart there with Ae, the owner.
If you want to find out more, I wrote a dedicated blog post about it. I always say I don’t want to go back to the same place twice, because the world is too big, but I’d come back here over and over again.
If you too want to see elephants in Chiang Mai, please avoid ethical elephant sanctuaries, because… well, long story short, they don’t exist (if you want to know the long story, I wrote all about it in this post).
Meeting elephants, living one day join the life of a mahout (elephant caretaker) and spending time with these gentle giants was the experience of a lifetime—a day I’ll cherish forever in my heart—and one I wish everybody could experience.
In the right place. Read my review
This is one of the first experiences I did in Chiang Mai on my own with the kids, but had I known that it’d be so beautiful, I’d have waited for Alex to do it with us.
It departs every hour on the hour (9am-5pm), and if you go early afternoon, you can pretty much be sure you’ll have an almost private tour. You sail for about 8km on the Ping River, towards an organic Plant Farm, where they show you all kind of plants, the kids can feed the rabbits and they give you a fruit snack and drink (included in the price).
It’s about 550THB per person, but they allowed my two kids to pay as one person (with a little negotiation ;).
Who says that Chiang Mai is an ugly city, clearly has never taken the time to wander around the Old Town.
Yes, it’s rundown and some areas are not pretty, but to find its charm you can’t just walk down its narrow streets, you need to open gates that are left ajar, walk through temple backyards, stop for coffee in a modern cafe for some contrast, look for star fruit and papaya trees, and smile back at the local people.
That’s how you’ll get to love Chiang Mai.
How I explored it with kids: I usually took the carrier with me (just in case), decided on a destination for lunch like Hummus Chiang Mai, Blue Diamond or Amrita Garden, then took a grab to the OPPOSITE side of the Old Town, and made my way to the destination through the narrow streets. Worked every time like magic!
I really enjoyed visiting Royal Park Rajapruek. We had to move around using the free shuttle, because it was way way too hot, but if you go on a cooler day, I’d take the free shuttle to Bug World (which is nice for small kids, although there are really only three bugs ;-), and then walk to the Royal Pavilion (which is stunning!) enjoying the International Gardens on your way, with all the little traditional houses from each country that are so much fun to explore.
From the Palace you can either take the bus to Tropical Dome which we didn’t see, but looked nice from the outside, or walk straight down through the long “corridor” all the way back to the entrance.
Nic’s restaurant is a short car ride away.
We went to [Dei Suthep] on a Sunday because it was our last chance to see probably the most famous temple in Chiang Mai, but it was a mistake: it was so crowded that it definitely spoilt the atmosphere for me. We did manage, though, to find a quiet spot, and take a stunning picture of the view:
As the saying goes, “If you haven’t seen the view from Dei Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai”. The best time to visit it, they say, is at dawn, when you can you watch the sun rise and enjoy the breathtaking quiet of the temple.
How to get there: you can either take a Grab to the door of the Zoo and then a red bus up to the temple (40THB per person in each direction + taxi), but when we did some calculations, it was almost as expensive as getting a private car with driver.
We were very happy with John, and had we found him sooner, we would have used his services more often.
John’s number (whatsapp): +66 61 429 6798
I thought it might be boring for the kids, but Art in Paradise exceeded my expectations! Once Oliver and Emily understood how it worked, ie. pose for the picture and then see it come to life on the phone/camera, they absolutely loved it! I found it slightly expensive, but not so much as to not repeat it in Bangkok 😉
And here’s some of my favourite photos:
Full sightseeing day outside of Chiang Mai
On our last Sunday, we deciced to rent a mini van with some friends we met in Chiang Mai, and we totally scored with the itinerary!
We visited the Poopoopaper Park, which was a lot better organised and more fun than I expected. There’s a 45-minute guided tour to understand how paper is made out of elephant poop (yep, that’s what the park is all about!): our English-speaking guide was very funny, and as the tour was itinerant, the kids didn’t get bored not even for one minute.
They then gave us some time to make arts and crafts (you buy the paper and they give you the decorations for free—all made with elephant poop), and to wander around the park on our own. We spent here about 2 hours.
We had lunch at Paddy&Rose, which had some soft toys and books for the kids, and we then headed to the Sticky Waterfalls (about 40 mins away).
We didn’t really know what to expect from the waterfalls, we were afraid it would be packed as we arrived at pick time on a Sunday, and we weren’t sure if the kids would be able to do anything on their own… but it was one of the best experiences in Chiang Mai!
We walked up and down the waterfalls (literally in the water, as calcium formations make the rocks grippy, hence the name), and Oliver kept asking to do it over and over again. The experience is adrenaline-filled, and the nature around is breathtaking… we all loved it!
I highly recommend doing it, but do take with you a baby carrier if you go with younger kids: Emily stayed in our lap pretty much all the time, and typically we had forgotten our carrier.
Rent a van with Vincenzo and get a little discount
For this trip, I rented a 9-people van through a friend of a friend. Vincenzo has an agency called Siam Holidays & Leisure that provides this sort of services, he speaks English, and he is professional and kind. The van was very nice and spacious, and the driver spoke some English, and was very accommodating.
Vincenzo will send you a receipt and he’ll ask you to pay in advance through bank transfer (you can also do it in euros if you prefer). We paid 2500THB for the whole day for a 9-people van.
If you decide to contact Vincenzo, do tell him that you come from La Tela di Carlotta, and he will give you a little discount 😉
Vincenzo’s Number (whatsapp): +66 81 530 4786
Babysitter in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai I had so many friends with whom Oliver and Emily were always entertained (with one of them, Anny I even met to work while the kids played with Eris, her daughter!) that I didn’t have to look for a babysitter.
But if you need one I highly recommend Chiang Mai Babysitters, slightly more expensive than the average here (400THB = 12€ per hour, minimum 3 hours), but surely 100% trustworthy.