Miles Away Episode 13: Off the Beaten Path in Chiang Mai

Mar 29, 2019

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On this episode of Miles Away, TPG‘s travel analyst, Zach Griff, takes us along as he recounts his recent trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Not only is this destination bookable on points and miles, it also has tons of affordable accommodations on sites like Hotels.com and is easily accessible from many major hubs in Southeast Asia. Griff suggests experiences that would be great for both families and couples, like farm-to-fork cooking classes and Thai spa treatments, and explains why Chiang Mai is perfect for adventure travelers.

Fare prices on intra-Asia routes can be a bit steep, especially when you’re hopping around several islands, but Griff shared a tip that saved him about $100 on his Bangkok Airways flight to Chiang Mai (CNX):

“We had booked through an OTA like Orbitz, because their website was really clunky, and we had changed our browser cookies from being US-based to Thai-based. We were still able to access the English version of the website, but we were paying much lower rates with a card that didn’t charge any foreign transaction fees by purchasing our tickets in Thai baht.”

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Full Transcript:

Zach Honig: Welcome back to Miles Away. This is your host, Zach Honig. On today’s episode of Miles Away, I am sitting down with the other Zach at TPG, Zach Griff. Welcome to the podcast, Zach.

Zach Griff: Thanks, Zach.

Zach Honig: Today, we are talking about one of my first Southeast Asia destinations that I’ve ever visited and that’s Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tell me about Chiang Mai, when did you visit?

Zach Griff: I was there this past January, so just two to three, three-ish months ago. It all started when I asked my girlfriend, “Hey, I know you have off for winter break, where’s some of the really cool, exciting, adventure-type destinations that you want to visit?” And Thailand was at the front of her list. A lot of my friends had been there. When we were trying to put together, like, a miles and points way to approach this trip, Thailand totally fit the bill.

Zach Honig: Had you been to Southeast Asia before or was this your first trip to Southeast Asia?

Zach Griff: So, this was certainly my first adventure in Southeast Asia.

Zach Honig: Chiang Mai’s a bit off the beaten path, but you actually stayed outside of the city as well.

Zach Griff: Yeah, I split my time. The idea here …

Zach Honig: You’re off the beaten path of off the beaten path, so to speak.

Zach Griff: Well, off the beaten path for half, and then off off the beaten path for the other half.

Zach Honig: You stayed at the Four Seasons, is that right?

Zach Griff: Yeah.

Zach Honig: So I am so jealous. Both my trips to Chiang Mai I stayed at the Meridien, which is very nice, very central. It’s right on top of the night markets. But your hotel looked incredible.

Zach Griff: Yeah, we’re talking, you arrive at this place and you feel like you’re in the jungle. It’s built right into a rice paddy, which is still actively used at the hotel in the Thai restaurant. Every day they offer complimentary rice-planting classes, and whatever you reap and harvest is then cooked that evening at the restaurant.

Zach Honig: So it’s kind of like a kibbutz, is that what you’re saying?

Zach Griff: The kibbutz would imply …

Zach Honig: It’s complimentary, come do some work for us.

Zach Griff: Except I didn’t cook the dinner.

Zach Honig: What kind of other activities do they have there?

Zach Griff: Yeah. One of the high level takes that I had on the resort is, we’re about 40 minutes outside the city. I was very curious to see what people would do there. Would they just stay put at the resort and take advantage of the biking? There was bunch of natural trails just around the hotel.

Zach Honig: A little more active vacation?

Zach Griff: Yeah. Although they had two gorgeous infinity pools overlooking the rice paddy, where a predominant majority of the people who are staying there just pretty much lounged all day.

Zach Griff: Awesome spa. The hotel has 11 private residences. They converted one of them into the hotel spa. And so each of the individual treatment rooms is in one of the bedrooms of this private residence. And I had one treatment and my girlfriend had another. And we were just reflecting on the different Thai elements to these treatment rooms. It was just a really marvelous experience being in a rain forest with bedrooms overlooking these rice paddies, getting an open air massage. It’s just incredible.

Zach Honig: Sounds pretty incredible. So when you stayed in the city, were you in the Meridien or was it a different hotel?

Zach Griff: We were in the Shangri-La in the city.

Zach Honig: Tell me, what did you do in Chiang Mai? What are the activities? I mean, obviously fantastic massages throughout Thailand, but what kind of activities did you have around the city?

Zach Griff: Yeah, again, we were trying to keep it a little bit more adventure-focused. So while we did spend a half day going through some of the main temples, such as the Doi Suthep, which was a little bit outside the city … we saw the other two main temples in the actual old city. We spent some time enjoying the night markets. In particular, definitely don’t forget to make it to the Sunday night market. If there’s one night to go, it is Sunday night.

Zach Honig: It’s over the whole city pretty much, right?

Zach Griff: Yeah. I mean, it was crazy. We were out for hours just walking from stall to stall. It seems like it wasn’t just a tourist experience, because a lot of the people who we were interacting with there were locals.

Zach Honig: The night market is kind of a big part of the culture in Chiang Mai. There’s restaurants, there’s tons of food. That’s what the locals do, too. And so you have an opportunity to have the touristy experience but it also has a locals feel to it.

Zach Griff: Totally. So we’re tourists and we want to embrace the local culture, but at the same time we love Thai food. So we went to a cooking class at the Asia Scenic Cooking School.

Zach Honig: Did it have a market tour component?

Zach Griff: Yeah.

Zach Honig: You go and pick out everything in the market?

Zach Griff: It’s interesting, this company offers two types of tours. They offer a tour where we go to the market, and then, we cook the food right in the city. But what we did is we did the market tour plus cooking at the farm. The owner of this cooking school has a really large farm, a little bit outside the city. Transportation is included, so we didn’t have to worry about that.

Zach Honig: Which is pretty typical of the cooking classes. They take you out. You go to the market. But they’ll take you from your hotel and then back at the end of the cooking.

Zach Griff: Exactly. What was really cool about this is, we were at the owner’s farm. So we went to see a market tour. We went to one of the local markets. We saw, learned a lot about the local produce, some of the fruits and vegetables. But we went to her house and cooked the food in her farm, which was really special.

Zach Honig: Very cool. So you went on a couples trip, did you see a lot of families there?

Zach Griff: We definitely saw families at the cooking class. And the other place where we saw both couples and families was at our elephant tour.

Zach Honig: Oh, tell me about the elephant tours. Because there’s elephant tours you want to do and some that you want to stay away from because they’re not … Walk me through that.

Zach Griff: The decision to book elephants is … We were reading on TripAdvisor, we googled it before. It’s like a big, ethical dilemma, because there are a lot of places where they’re not treating the elephants appropriately. And one of the things we were looking for, when we sought out to do an elephant tour, was to make sure that we weren’t going on a program that allowed us to ride the elephants.

Zach Griff: The one we chose was Happy Elephant Home. They are constantly looking after their elephants. They let them roam freely during the day. At night, they only put them in a walled-off pen, only between the hours of 12 and 6, when it’s kind of unsafe to have elephants roaming around. So we really bought into some of the ethical considerations behind that…

Zach Honig: But, you get to bathe them and feed them… The general rule of thumb, for me at least on my trips to Thailand, is if you see pictures of people riding elephants, that is a program to stay away from.

Zach Griff: Exactly. That’s exactly what what we gleaned from our research. And instead, I mean, we had a great experience. We were in the river with the elephants. We were feeding the elephants. We cut the food. We put the food in baskets. We brought it out to the elephants. They were coming up to us, petting (them) … It was awesome.

Zach Honig: Yeah. So cool.

Zach Griff: Yeah, you can really get a feel for how happy the elephants are. The craziest is how big they are. I mean, we drove into the home and there was an elephant just in the front of the yard of this elephant home. It was just three times the size of this 16-passenger van. And I had never been that close to an elephant in my life.

Zach Honig: Speaking of big things in Thailand, there’s some wide-body planes that you can fly on (for) very short distances. This is one of my signature transitions, but we’re going to take a quick break. And then we’ll come back and talk about flight and hotel options to get you to Chiang Mai.

Zach Griff: Sounds good.

(Commercial break.)

Zach Honig: My favorite Thai Airways aircraft I’ve ever flown is the 747. And the first time I flew it was actually on a really short flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Because Thai actually operates wide-body planes exclusively, but also domestically within Thailand.

Zach Griff: Thai Airways, massive major airline in Thailand, based in Bangkok, and they actually, as as you mentioned, they only operate these wide-body planes. So any of their routes within Thailand or within short distances to Vietnam or to Hong Kong, Singapore, places around, it’s always operated by a wide-body plane. And here at TPG, we always look for those types of planes because business class, premium economy, they often happen to be the signature product for the carrier when they’re flying on wide-body planes. And Thai is certainly no exception. Although I will contend that we flew Thai 747 a little bit further distance. We flew it from Bangkok to Tokyo on our way home. And then we had connected to a different airline. And we were just wowed at the differences between this really ancient Thai 747 business class product compared to this really new ANA business class that we took from from Tokyo back to New York.

Zach Griff:
One fun tip though is, and a lot of people don’t realize this, but with Thai they sell first class, the first class cabin, as business class domestically. So you can redeem miles or pay. It was a couple hundred dollars, I think, for my business class ticket — and then ask to be seated in the first class cabin and sometimes they’ll actually accommodate you.

Zach Honig: You must have been a lucky person that day.

Zach Griff: Yeah, you don’t have to get those rickety old upper deck seats.

Zach Honig: Yeah.

Zach Griff: There are so many options to fly to Chiang Mai. I mean, you’re not just limited to Thai. If you’re really looking to maximize your onboard experience, and certainly in the hard product, Thai is maybe the way to go. But across the alliances, with Star Alliance, you have Air China flying there from Beijing, you have Qatar in the One World alliance flying nonstop daily from Doha. Really easy to get to, when you consider that Qatar flies to so many destinations in North America and Europe. And finally in Sky Team, you have China Eastern, they operate also a daily flight. And aside from all these carriers from the major worldwide alliances, you have a bunch of low cost carriers that fly in Chiang Mai as well. So we’re talking things like Thai Air Asia, Bangkok Airways. Bangkok Airways also happens to be based in Bangkok and they operate a bunch of intra-Thailand flights. So we ended up taking them a bunch as we were hopping between islands, because we didn’t really want to connect in Bangkok every time we were going somewhere.

Zach Honig: Now the fares can be a little bit steep sometimes. There used to be a trick — you could use JAL miles, I think, to fly them. Is that still the case?

Zach Griff: Yeah. The thing is, is when we were booking, we actually found a different trick to maximizing value with Bangkok Airways.

Zach Griff: We had booked through an OTA like Orbitz, because their website was really clunky, and we had changed our browser cookies from being US-based to Thai-based. We were still able to access the English version of the website, but we were paying much lower rates with a card that didn’t charge any foreign transaction fees by purchasing our tickets in Thai baht.

Zach Honig: That is a very advanced tip. OK, I think we need a post on how to accomplish that.

Zach Griff: Yeah.

Zach Honig: Very cool. If you’re using miles, you have your options with all three major alliances. As you mentioned One World, you’ve got Qatar Airways, but also there’s Cathay Dragon, is that right?

Zach Griff: Yeah, yeah. Cathay Dragon from Hong Kong.

Zach Honig: So one stop option through Hong Kong. And Cathay Pacific has quite a few gateways within North America as well.

Zach Griff: Yeah.

Zach Honig: Then if you want to fly Star Alliance, your best one stop option is probably Air China?

Zach Griff: Yeah. Yeah. Because Thai doesn’t have any operational certificate. They’re not flying to the US at the moment.

Zach Honig: So if you want want to catch one of those first class cabins on a business class ticket, you’re going to have to connect in Bangkok, (and) have two stops to get to Chiang Mai.

Zach Griff: Right. We had interacted with a bunch of people who had two-stopped on the way there. People do like to break up the trip, or they like to take a day or two and spend some time in Bangkok. So there’s definitely value in that, too.

Zach Honig: Definitely. Tell me about the hotels that you have in Chiang Mai. Obviously, you split your time between the city and the outskirts. If you’re looking… you know, on your first visit, I think you might want to actually stay in the city.

Zach Griff: For sure. That’s where the action’s happening. We were there for four and a half days. We had four nights. We split it, but we would have hated it if we just went outside the city. We would have been like, “What is all the talk about Chiang Mai?” if we’re just like …

Zach Honig: “Where are these night markets?”

Zach Griff: Yeah.

Zach Honig: It’s like 20 miles up the road.

Zach Griff: We tried to go out for dinner one night when we were at the Four Seasons, and they said the closest restaurant was 20 minutes away.

Zach Honig: Okay.

Zach Griff: I know we mentioned at the beginning definitely the Le Meridien. It’s a Cat 5 in the map.

Zach Honig: It’s gone up and up and up.

Zach Griff: Yeah. But what’s really cool there is that their paid rates have kind of stayed pretty low. So you can almost always find some type of deal.

Zach Honig: If you have a Marriott Elite Status, they actually have a pretty nice lounge. So I had access to the lounge area and then you can also eat breakfast in the restaurant. And that was actually one of my first real Platinum experiences with Starwood, back in the day. But they have a pretty phenomenal breakfast. I haven’t been there in a few years, but I’m guessing it’s still the same.

Zach Griff: Yeah. Unfortunately, though, as it relates to points hotels, that’s really it in Chiang Mai. I know there’s a Holiday Inn, but it’s a little bit more niche. You have to be earning IHG points. It’s also not all that expensive, so you can just pay for it, 100 bucks a night or something.

Zach Honig: It’s probably a good opportunity to take advantage of that venture deal with Hotels.com, too. If you go on hotels.com, you can find, there’s probably hotels, decent hotels for 50 bucks, 60, 70, $80 a night.

Zach Griff: Totally. Especially right in the city limits there. There’s a ton. Twenty percent’s a big savings on hotels that aren’t participating in loyalty programs.

Zach Honig: And Airbnb could be an option too.

Zach Griff: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean there are tons and similarly priced to hotels, depending on whatever area you all choose to stay at.

Zach Honig: Before we wrap up, one thing that we didn’t touch on yet is transportation. I found Chiang Mai, as long as you’re staying downtown, to be a pretty walkable city. You stayed a bit out, and when you were at the Four Seasons, you were stuck there, as you mentioned. Could you have gone back and forth? Was there Uber available?

Zach Griff: Yeah, so a few years ago, Uber sold its last remaining shares in Southeast Asia to one of their competitors, Grab. So it’s a similar app to Uber. You download it from the app store, put in all your information. We put in all of our international information. Obviously put in our Chase Sapphire Reserve card, so we’d be earning three times points on all the trips we took. Same, very similar, user interface where requesting rides, all the drivers were super friendly. The app translates destinations into Thai, so we didn’t have to actually speak the language, which was really helpful because it was kind of hard to read when I’m not used to … I’ve not mastered Thai, yet…

Zach Honig: On the list maybe for the next … 30-year plan.

Zach Griff: But certainly from the airport, we had no issues getting a Grabby, even into the city.

Zach Honig: Taxis are pretty easy and very reasonably priced.

Zach Griff: Yeah, for sure.

Zach Honig: Tuk Tuks, too, right?

Zach Griff: The Tuk Tuk’s an experience. If you haven’t been on one yet, I would definitely do one in Chiang Mai over Bangkok.

Zach Griff: It’s a little crazy in Bangkok, so wet your feet in Chiang Mai. Don’t be afraid of a Tuk Tuk. For the insurance companies out there, make sure that you’re taking your helmet with you.

Zach Honig: Cool. I’m looking forward to booking my next trip to Southeast Asia. Thanks for joining me, Zach. If someone wants to follow along on your adventures, where can they find you on social media?

Zach Griff: I am on Instagram @_zachgriff. I was a little late to that game. Follow me on the blog. I will be posting more reviews as I go traveling the world for TPG.

Zach Honig: Well, thanks for joining us, Zach.

Zach Griff: I appreciate it.

Zach Honig: Safe travels.

Zach Griff: Likewise.

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

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