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Oh Chiang Mai. I always claim not to be a fan yet I seem to find myself here once a year or so, and do enjoy myself every time. I can’t seem to shake my “meh”-ness about the city itself, but I can’t deny that every time I pass through I hang with some fantastic friends and do some really unique things — playing with elephants, taking a massage course, ziplining and attempting to cook Thai food all come to mind.

Chiang Mai Moat

Chiang Mai street art

This time, Heather and I were passing through for five nights with one major primary goal — attending the local, largely secretive Yi Peng festival (post to come!). But there were a lot of bonuses to keep us busy, too, from checking out our favorite old eateries to going for runs around the four-mile moat loop to our daily foot massage pow wows to meeting up with friends from various chapters of each of our lives. (Travelers do seem to congregate here, in what I like to refer to as the Boston of Thailand. With Bangkok being the New York of Thailand, obviously.)

On our first afternoon in town I raved to Heather about the magic of Smoothie Garden, where I eat approximately 50% of my overpriced meals in Chiang Mai — the other half come from a particular street food cart that I am illogically loyal to. I was baffled and devastated when I couldn’t seem to locate the charming Smoothie Garden from memory, until I realized it had been bulldozed and replaced by its sleek and chic older sister, . Thankfully the menu was fairly similar, and my beloved Peanut Butter Party smoothie was spared from rapture in the upgrade. The manager was delighted when I made the connection, and we quickly became regulars here again.

Fresh&Wraps Chiang Mai

Fresh&Wraps Chiang Mai

Fresh&Wraps Chiang Mai

As mentioned, a big part of being in Chiang Mai was getting to meet up with old friends. One night, Heather and I connected with a fellow ex-rafting guide from her days on the Colorado River, and on a couple occasions we met up with the local blogging contingent, including , , , and many more.

Diana is as into her local fitness scene as I am on Koh Tao, and I was thrilled to join her for an evening of at her local gym. BodyPump is one of my absolute favorite workouts back in the US, and I was truly tickled by taking such a familiar class in such a far flung location, taught via an enthusiastic rendition of Thainglish.

Body Pump Chiang MaiGym selfie with our favorite Thailand animal charity t-shirts. As if that makes it okay.

Like Pai, we took it pretty easy in Chiang Mai, apart from one impromptu evening out at , which I highly recommend checking out if you are in town.

Jazz Bar Chiang Mai

All that was good fun, and frankly, when you’ve spent as much time in Thailand as the two of us have, there’s less of an urge to take tours or sightsee and more of an impulse to just, you know, hang. But we are both creative souls at heart and wanted to take advantage of some of the artistic vibes that pulse through Chiang Mai — something that is somewhat lacking in our typical island bases of Koh Tao and Grand Cayman, respectively.

After our great WithLocals experience in Bangkok, we decided to give it another go in Chiang Mai, this time with a . Taught by a smiling hippie who hinted we could go out for a beer  after class? Sold! We arrived in the morning bouncing with energy and, as two people who spend way too much time looking at pixels, excited to craft something with our hands.

Leather Workshop Chiang Mai

Leather Workshop Thailand

Unfortunately, I think we caught our host on an off day. As soon as we sat down I felt my enthusiasm dampen. There was no warm welcome, no introductions, no morning chat, no outline of the day, and no background on the art of leather.

In the end we made a leather cuff and a small purse each, though I’m not really exaggerating when I say we didn’t know that’s what was happening until we were holding the final products in our hands. There was a distinct lack of instruction — our host just would kind of launch into doing something, indicate we should do the same, and seem frustrated when we tried to figure out what was going on.

WithLocals Chiang Mai

Leather Workshop Thailand

Leather Workshop Chiang Mai

We were unclear about what materials were available — rather than laying them all out and demonstrating them so we could decide what to use, it was kind of a free-for-all, like, “oh yeah… I guess I have this stampy thing you can try too,” after we’d already gone in a different direction.

I suppose any of that could be chalked up to differences in the creative process or us having too high expectations about the level of instruction we’d receive. But coupled with the fact that our host never once smiled, never once asked us a single question about ourselves and gave really short one word answers when we tried to ask him about his life and leather work — it was not what we had hoped.

WithLocals Chiang Mai

Leather Workshop Chiang Mai

WithLocals Chiang Mai

The instructor described in sounds totally different from the grumpy guy we hung out with. Who knows — maybe he was hungover or distracted or just having a bad day. He and his brother seemed to confer frequently about some new accommodation they were opening outside the city, so perhaps his mind was just elsewhere. I do think the class has great potential. We were given an abundant amount of leather and access to plenty of tools, and the full day format should hypothetically allow you plenty of time to create something beautiful.

Oh well. It felt good to hold some tools in my hands, and Heather reports she does indeed use her purse every single day. It hasn’t turned me off WithLocals, either — I already have several other of their experiences on my Southeast Asia wishlist. But based on our day here, I can’t recommend this specific one. In fact, next time I’m in town I think I’ll check out WithLocal’s other , for comparison’s sake.

WithLocals Chiang Mai

Next up, our magical experiences at Yi Peng and Doi Suthep National Park!

. . . . . . . . .

Many thanks to WithLocals for hosting our experience. As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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37 Comments...
  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    February 6 2015

    Ha ha! I can totally relate to your apathetic feelings toward Chiang Mai as Tony & I felt the same way. We always wind up spending a good chunk of time there, but generally no more than 3-day stretches at a time, because we get too bored and wind up heading literally anywhere else (like Pai…). I know there’s nothing actually wrong with Chiang Mai, and there are definitely some great things about it, but it just doesn’t capture me the way that it seems to so many other people.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2015

      Glad to hear from someone who feels the same, Steph… not being I want anyone else to feel apathetic about a place, but because it makes me feel like I’m not crazy 🙂

  • Leah
    February 6 2015

    I see my friend Dan jammin’ on the sax at North Gate Jazz! Friend from way back at Berkeley who moved there just as I was leaving, actually. He’s something of a little local now! Gahh I miss that place. Do you spend much time outside the old city? I feel like maybe you’re getting the too-touristy side of Chiang Mai…next time you’re there I might suggest checking out the University night bazaar up on Huay Kaew Rd and the Nimmanhaeman area and surrounding sois for something different 🙂
    Leah recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2015

      What a small world! Yeah, I need to do Chiang Mai with you 🙂 I did get out of the gate to eat with the blogging contingent a few times, but I am probably not looking in the right places in general. Oh well! Still had a fab trip.

  • Kacy
    February 6 2015

    What a bummer. I am so uncomfortable around people like that, but it’s great you kept going and had the experience anyway.
    Kacy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2015

      Thankfully we had each other, and positive attitudes 🙂 I do love the WithLocals concept and will be trying it again!

  • becky hutner
    February 6 2015

    i love your tactfully (but hilariously) honest take on the leather workshop! oh, the tours i’ve been disappointed by in my day (looking at you, vigan “river cruise.”)

    i was comforted to read you find chiang mai “meh” as well. i’ve only been once & with all the hype was expecting some kind of magical shangri-la dripping in lanterns. well you know too well it is not that, i was coming from truly magical luang prabang so i’m sure that only heightened the letdown. i DID enjoy my cooking course at Thai Farm Cooking School & for that experience alone, i’d say it was worth the trek.

    • Meihoukai
      February 6 2015

      Okay, ANYTHING after Luang Prabang is going to lose. Ha. It’s just too magical! But I agree there are some amazing tour opportunities in Chiang Mai. My own cooking class there has been one of my favorite Thailand memories. And I have a post coming up about a hike I did that blew my mind!

  • Katie
    February 6 2015

    I’m excited to hear more about Yi Peng! Sucks about the leather guy, but your purses look adorable anyway. I have to admit, I have the same “meh” feeling about Chaing Mai. There’s a lot to do and there is a decent vibe, I just didn’t really love it. Maybe it’s because I visited Bangkok first, which I did fall in love with. 🙂
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      Yup, I just don’t think it shines compared to the explosion of amazing that is Bangkok!

  • Amanda
    February 6 2015

    Yeah, the leather thing sounds cool in theory – sorry the experience didn’t turn out to be very good!

    Can’t wait to read your Yi Peng post!
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      It might be the hardest post I’ve ever put together in terms of narrowing down photos. It was all just TOO GOOD!

  • Justine
    February 6 2015

    I went to Chiang Mai for the first time last year. I’d only ever heard wonderful things but I was completely underwhelmed. I’m sure there’s a reason why so many people fall in love with the city. It just didn’t have the same affect on me. I’ll inevitably be back and I will make it a point to give it another chance, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t super enthused by Chiang Mai!
    Justine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      So interested to hear from all the others who didn’t love Chiang Mai either! Maybe it just has too much hype for its own good…

  • Chris
    February 7 2015

    Such a glam traveller you are, always looking a million dollars!

    I was a bit meh about Chiang Mai as well, but that said, I’ve never really gotten under its skin!
    Chris recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      Thanks Chris! Not always easy when living out of a backpack 🙂 But then again I am quite the overpacker…

  • Miquel
    February 7 2015

    I visited Chiang Mai for New Years and although I also had a nice time I really couldn’t shake the “meh” feeling either. It just felt so boring after living in Bangkok for 3 months.
    Miquel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      Bangkok is the best…. how can any city compete 🙂

  • Julia Nix
    February 7 2015

    You keep things real and you connect with people. That’s what likeable about “Meihoukai in Wanderland”. A good article yet again 🙂

  • Joella in Beijing
    February 7 2015

    I’m yet to try Body Pump but I like Body Combat and Body Jam! I used to do it back in the UK and recently started doing it here in Beijing. It’s nice to do a familiar class! Appreciate your honesty on the leather workshop- it’s a shame it didn’t live up to potential!
    Joella in Beijing recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      Oooo! I really need to challenge myself to try Jam and Combat. I get so obsessed with Pump I never want to take the time to try anything else. You’ve reminded me that I should!

  • Zascha Friis
    February 7 2015

    Your pictures are awesome!
    I’m going to Chiang Mai as well later this year.
    I’ve never been there before, but I do tend to hear very different opinions of it. I can’t wait to see what I make of it 🙂
    Zascha Friis recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      At least if you head mixed opinions it won’t be overhyped 🙂 Hope you find something to love about it, at least! (I have!)

  • Neysha
    February 7 2015

    Aside from the grump, this is awesome! I’ll totally look into using With Locals when I’m in Chiang Mai before TBEX this year.
    Neysha recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      I’m planning to take a fruit carving class with them in Bangkok around TBEX time too!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    February 7 2015

    Ooooh, I too love BodyPump! Wish there were more gyms in Tennessee that did it.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      I’m surprised there aren’t! Nashville strikes me as a fitness-y place (what with all the amazing eating you all do, you must stay in shape somehow!)

  • Gemma Two Scots Abroad
    February 8 2015

    I loved Lila Thai Massage in Chiang Mai- female prisoners who are near release and trained in massage skills. I was very impressed!
    Gemma Two Scots Abroad recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      I love that place too! I tried to go get a massage at the actual prison training center one day but the line was too long! They told me to just head to Lila Thai as they hired program graduates 🙂

      • Gemma
        February 9 2015

        We were at the centre! We had to take a time and return though. One of the girls fell off a customer’s back, very funny but no one laughed as they are so professional!
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  • Marni
    February 9 2015

    It’s too bad the workshop didn’t fully live up to your expectations. I have to say, though – well done on the purse. It’s adorable!

    • Meihoukai
      February 9 2015

      Thanks Marni! I don’t love mine and don’t use it but Heather uses hers everyday!

  • Dy
    February 10 2015

    Your blog is my newest favourite blog! Love how your blog covers Thailand extensively!
    Dy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      February 10 2015

      Thanks Dy! Thailand is definitely my blog base — there’s nowhere else I have more posts about!

  • Leigh
    June 17 2015

    Interesting….I’m planning my first trip to Asia for next spring and focusing heavily on Chiang Mai as something is drawing me there. I’ll be curious to see if my experience matches yours and a lot of other comments. Although I don’t love huge cities, so visiting the “Boston” of Thailand sounds way better than visiting the “NY” of Thailand!

    In any case, your site has been a huge help for me to start researching and narrowing down destinations. Looking forward to a few days in Siem Reap as well 🙂
    Leigh recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      June 18 2015

      That’s so great to hear, Leigh! Lots of people love to love Chiang Mai so I would not be surprised to hear if you did too. Enjoy your upcoming adventures!