Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s most popular cities, and it is clear to see why. Visitors can indulge in utterly irresistible food, marvel at the 200+ temples scattered across the city and people-watch from cool coffee shops. The city is surrounded by mountains and lush countryside and offers a range of attractions and excursions to be enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. In this post I’d like to suggest what to do, see, eat and drink while you’re in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is jampacked with temples; most of them over-the-top extravagant and adorned with gold, gems, and jewels. In every temple, both men and women must ensure that their knees and shoulders are covered. The largest temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city from the top of the Doi Suthep hill. You can climb 308 steps up the intricately carved serpent staircase (or take a lift if you prefer!) for incredible views across Chiang Mai.
My boyfriend and I visited a lot of temples across the city. These ones stood out in particular:
- Wat Chedi Luang, built in 1401 and dominated by a large Lanna-style stupa (a structure containing relics that is used as a site for meditation).
- Wat Lam Chang, which translates as “Temple of the Tethered Elephants”. Elephants were once kept, bathed and fed here when they weren’t transporting the royal family.
- Wat Dok Euang, with two golden dragons guarding its entrance and twenty golden Buddhas inside its main alter, in three different Mudra (poses); the Subduing Mara, Abhaya and Dhyana.
- Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, dating back to the 13th century. Check out the impressive ‘Elephant Chedi, which has fifteen life-sized elephants seemingly carrying the upper level of the building on their backs.
Eat, Eat, Eat!
My boyfriend and I fell head over heels in love with northern Thai cuisine and some of our best meals were in Chiang Mai. One of the stand-out dishes was Khao Soi; this mouth-watering meal has a rich coconut curry base, boiled egg noodles and is garnished with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and ground chillies fried in oil.
If you’re a fan of street food, Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak is the most well-known food stall in Chiang Mai, run by Cowboy Hat Lady (who – as you expect – proudly sports a cowboy hat while she cooks). From the moment she opens her stall at 5pm, there’s a line of hungry diners snaking down the street. They are all there for the same thing: Khao kha mu. It’s super soft, braised pork leg cooked in Chinese five spice and served over rice with a medium-boiled egg. Small portions start at 30 Thai baht (less than a pound/euro!). For nine other must-try dishes to try in Thailand, check out this post.
Take a Cooking Class
Chiang Mai is the perfect place to explore your love for Thai food. My boyfriend and I took part in a half-day cooking class with Baan Farm Thai Cooking School. We were really impressed with the staff and how the day was organised. Firstly a small group of us were taken to the market to buy some fresh produce and learn about local ingredients. Then we were driven to a relaxing, peaceful farm in the Chiang Mai countryside. Participants could choose which five dishes they want to make, receive instructions and guidance from the staff, then sit down and eat with the group. We had so much fun preparing – and devouring – the dishes and received an e-book with twenty fantastic Thai recipes. To learn all about our cooking class, check out this post.
Get a Thai Massage
If your feet are sore from temple-hopping, treat yourself to a soothing foot massage or try the famous Thai massage. Traditional Thai massages don’t include oils or lotions, and you remain fully clothed. These massages are no joke; you will be twisted, pulled, stretched and contorted into different positions. You might be surprised at some of the techniques, which include pulling fingers, toes and ears, along with cracking knuckles, kneeling on the back of the recipient and even walking – slowly and carefully – on their back!
If you’d prefer something more relaxing, you can find dozens of spas across the city offering oil massages and more gentle, Swedish-style ones for some serious pampering.
Visit an Elephant Park
Watching elephants is one of the most special things you can do in Thailand. They are such gentle, intelligent creatures which create such a calming atmosphere. You should absolutely visit an elephant park/sanctuary while you’re there, but please choose carefully. There are still a lot of unethical and damaging practices in Thailand where animals, such as elephants, suffer tremendously. If you see a company advertising elephant rides, or one that chains elephants up or allows tourists to apply paint to them (yes, that really happens), please don’t give that company your time or money.
Fortunately there are ethical alternatives like Elephant Nature Park; one of the most respected and famous elephant rescue and rehabilitation projects in the country. It is home to more than 35 free-roaming elephants, many of which have been rescued from the tourism industry. You can get to know the elephants by feeding, bathing and walking with them; there is a strict no-riding policy. You can visit for the day, or stay for longer as a volunteer if you manage to grab one of the coveted spots.
Chiang Mai has a fantastic selection of street markets, and is home to a lot of Thai designers and artisans, offering goods that you won’t find in other cities or regions. One of the most popular shopping locations is the Sunday Walking Street Market. It is the ideal place to pick up some souvenirs or gifts for friends and family, and runs from 4.30pm until midnight every Sunday.
We also enjoyed Warorot Market, one of the city’s oldest markets. You can find all sorts at Thai markets, including great value clothes, jewellery, accessories, shoes, Thai silk, handicrafts, pottery, fresh produce and herbs
If you are staying in Chiang Mai for more than a few days, you should venture out of the city. It’s surrounded by mountains and a river, where you can hike, trek, and do fun activities like white-water rafting, rock climbing and zip lining. You can visit Pai or Chiang Rai, which are both around 4 hours from Chiang Mai by bus.
We didn’t have time to visit Doi Inthanon National Park (home to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand), or Pha Daeng National Park. I’ve also heard the Buatong waterfall (known as “Sticky Waterfalls”) and Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden are well worth a visit.
I hope this post has given you lots of ideas about what to do, see and eat in Chiang Mai. If I haven’t mentioned any of your favourite eateries or activities, please share them in the comments below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow