They went to Thailand in 2021 then returned this year. Somehow everything still felt new

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  • Vintage shop owner Sam Potenciano and photographer Ralph Mendoza want you to explore Thailand outside of Bangkok and maybe consider Chiang Mai

Thailand is poised to be one of Southeast Asia’s biggest winners as global tourism resumes. In the third quarter of this year alone, its gross domestic product expanded by 4.5 percent, thanks in part to the total of seven million tourists who visited the country from January to October 2022. 

The Inside House, a luxe colonial-style boutique hotel in the heart of the Old City.
Inside the hotel
Khao Soi Breakfast at The Inside House

With its warm hospitality (it is not named “The Land of Smiles” for no reason), pristine beaches, temples and palaces, rich culture, and, of course, its distinctive cuisine (there are over 30 Michelin-starred restaurants all over the country as of 2022!), it’s no wonder Thailand was recognized as the eighth most-visited county in the world by the United Nations World Tourism Organization in 2018.

One of the many Wats (or temples) that dot the Old City.

But oftentimes Thai tourism is concentrated within the capital—Bangkok with its eclectic mix of modern and historic structures—when there are more than 70 provinces each with a different feature to offer.

Travel felt more like a reward than revenge. A nostalgia tour, but new.

–Sam Potenciano
& Ralph Mendoza

Tucked between the mountainous highs and rice land flats of the northern region of Thailand is Chiang Mai, a nascent center for creativity. Vintage shop owner Sam Potenciano and photographer Ralph Mendoza recently spent a week there, thinking it would be very rural with a “backpacker vibe.”

“We were genuinely so amazed by Chiang Mai,” the couple says. “Surprisingly it’s such a hip, vibrant city.” Even in the far north, Sam and Ralph say, Thai hospitality is on full display. “They are friendly to a fault,” making the trip doubly special as the locals made them feel comfortable to roam around and enjoy themselves. “Everything in Chiang Mai was a special experience, from their homegrown Thai arabica down to the [makrut] lime baths before each massage.”

View of the Old City wall from one of the vintage shops in the city.

In this interview, they recount their time there as well as looked back at what changed between their previous visit at the height of the quarantine restrictions—and, of course, food!

***

Hi Sam and Ralph! When did you travel and for how long? 

We took a trip to Thailand for two weeks for Sam’s birthday. We spent one week in Chiang Mai and one week in Bangkok.

Sam with orchids from the hotel

How would you describe the feeling of traveling again especially after (and during) a pandemic?

Travel felt more like a reward than revenge. A nostalgia tour, but new.

What are some of the travel requirements and health protocols in Thailand?

As of October 2022, there aren’t really any requirements for Filipinos to travel to Thailand. There’s no visa, no quarantining, and no one checked for proof of vaccination anywhere. That said, you do need to be vaccinated to return easily to the Philippines. 

Is it your first time going to that country? If not, can you recall any important changes you noticed coming back? 

We actually went in December 2021 and back then there were so many Covid restrictions. You had to apply and get approved for a Thai Pass, have travel insurance, and quarantine overnight at an accredited hotel until your Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test came back clear. 

This time, none of those things were required. One of the biggest changes we noticed was how many more things were open in Bangkok, even just at the Suvarnabhumi Airport. So many more restaurants and businesses are back open, and you notice how many tourists there are when you’re walking around. That said, we never felt like it was unsafe or overcrowded. But it’s a very different vibe from just a few months ago.

Which places did you end up going to? 

We decided to spend a week up in the mountains of Northern Thailand and we were genuinely so amazed by Chiang Mai. We expected it to be very rural and to have this backpacker vibe, but surprisingly it’s such a hip, vibrant city. It’s so much more laidback than Bangkok but there are so many young Thai kids that opened up businesses within this ancient city, and it gives it such an interesting dynamic.

When’s the best time to go to Chiang Mai?

We were told by a driver that the best time to go is actually from December to February so that you can experience their version of winter. During that time Thai people like to go up to the mountains and camp out with their families. The weather was already much cooler than in Bangkok in October, so we’d love to go back around that time to experience it.

Garlicky tender pork volcano noodles at Phu Khao Fai Udompol Noodle
Fresh pork larb with herbs, lime juice and pork cracklings from Laab Kai Meuang Phan Waen
Butterfly pea rice and Fried Tilapia with Crispy Herbs at the Michelin Bib-awarded Ginger Farm Kitchen

Sam and Ralph’s Chiang Mai travel diary

AKA where to go, what to do, and what to eat cheat sheet

Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm

No-frills Chicken Khao Soi Curry Noodles from local-favorite Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm which was featured on “Somebody Feed Phil.”

Khao soi is a coconut curry noodle soup from Chiang Mai topped with fermented pickles, shallots, and crispy noodles. Every shop boasts its own claim to fame, but our favorite was definitely from “Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm.” No frills and packed with locals. For only 50 baht (around P80) you get a bowl of rich, aromatic coconut broth and tender fall-off-the-bone chicken. 

Jing Jia Market

Jing Jia Market is a Sunday market filled with hip Northern Thai crafts, clothing, and secondhand finds. There’s also a fantastic farmer’s market in the same compound where you can grab authentic local food for breakfast. It opens and closes early though to make way for the popular Sunday night market in the Old City. 

Old City night markets

The northern Thai mountain range visible from the Chiang Mai Sunday night market. 
Den Souvenir is an indie publisher and art gallery with a fun collection of original merch and vintage souvenirs from around the world.

There are two enormous weekly night markets in the Old City: the Phae Walking Street (Sunday night market) and Wua Lai Walking Street (Saturday night market). Full of tourists, street food, local silver, and northern Thai souvenirs. A very Chiang Mai experience. We also enjoyed the lesser-known One Nimman Night Market which was full of secondhand and vintage clothing.

Vintage and secondhand shopping at the One Nimman Night Market on Sundays and Mondays.

Thailand Creative and Design Center

The Thailand Creative & Design Center is a design resource center with a fantastic library that you can access for 100 baht a day (or 600 baht for a lifetime membership). It’s filled with nooks where you can sit down and catch up on work or lose yourself browsing through their books and magazines for a few hours to recharge on inspiration. 

Ang Kaew Reservoir

Ang Kaew Reservoir at Chiang Mai University is a scenic jogging and student hang-out spot with fantastic views of Suthep Mountain.

Ang Kaew Reservoir is located at the scenic Chiang Mai University campus. It has a sprawling trail that loops around a man-made reservoir with a fantastic view of Suthep Mountain and is full of students and joggers hanging out and enjoying the view.

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