10 Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Do not – I repeat, do not – exclude Chiang Mai on your Thailand adventure. Although the largest city in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is serene, charming, laidback and rather peaceful – the polar opposite of the bustling, energetic and fast-paced Bangkok. Imaginably, Chiang Mai is a welcomed escape to recharge on an extensive trip (as noted here, this was our first stop in Thailand).
The Old City of Chiang Mai still has its walls and moat intact, comprising more than 30 stunning temples and enchanting alleyways within the former kingdom’s capital. Narrow roads are lined with luscious greenery, which frame adorable homes and cafes.
At night, the city comes alive with several vibrant markets. The north gate in Chiang Mai offers some of the most incredible, authentic street food, and the Night Bazaar along Chang Klan Road sells everything from fake Rolex’s to fish pedicures. It’s a sight.
Most notably, Chiang Mai is within striking distance of the highly anticipated elephant trekking you likely see in everyone’s post-Thailand Instagram photos. This, hands down, was one of the most incredible days of my life.
With that, 10 things to do in Chiang Mai:
1) Go Elephant Trekking
This adventure was so memorable, that I dedicated an entire post to the experience here. We opted to book with Patara Elephant Farm, Thailand’s only elephant breeding farm, based on its incredible reviews and mission.
At Patara, each attendee is paired with a trainer and an elephant, and throughout the day, you build a relationship with your gentle giant in its natural environment, learning about and taking part in its daily routine: how to approach it, know its temperament, feed and check its health, bathe and brush it, ride bareback, and communicate using Thai commands. By the end of the day, you’re pretty much best friends with your elephant.
Be sure to properly research your desired company before scheduling; many organizations do not promote safe and fair treatment of the animals. If you choose Patara, transportation to/from your hotel is included, as is a fantastic, local lunch and high-quality pictures. Make sure to book well in advance!
2) Eat at the Night Markets
If you’re a foodie, do not miss the street food in Chiang Mai. Northern Thai food is mostly salty and bitter, differing from the spicy cuisine in the south and sweet flavors in the central region; it’s heavily influenced by countries in the north, including China, Burma and Laos.
Here are two not-to-miss dishes and where to get them:
- Khao Kha Moo (Soy Sauce Pork): Pork knuckles, boiled in an aromatic blend of soy sauce, sugar and cinnamon five-space for hours and hours, until the perfectly tender meat falls apart. Now, if you’re also a fan of Anthony Bourdain and have seen the “Parts Unknown” Chiang Mai episode, you know exactly where to go: Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak at the north gate, prepared by the tiny woman in a cowboy hat! Open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., but be prepared to wait. It’s that good.
- Khao Soi (Northern Curry Noodles): Flat egg noodles in rich curry, which combines coconut milk and masala. Inspired by Burma, this dish is served with chicken or beef, and traditionally topped with sliced pickled mustard greens, red onions and a squeeze of lime.
You can find this dish just about everywhere. The “best” place at the moment, however, is Khao Soi Khun Yai – so good that “Grandma” typically sells out early. If you try Khao Soi at the northern gate food stalls, keep in mind the spice is tame since tourists frequent the area. Still delicious.
3) Treat Yourself to a Massage
Thai massages are sometimes referred to as “yoga for the lazy,” as masseuses stretch you and manipulate your body into poses. They also use every part of their own bodies – knees, elbows, legs, feet, hands – to apply pressure, and you may even get walked on (we did in Phuket).
Feet massages, in particular, are very popular and accessible, including within markets (kind of gross, I know). For about 400 Thai Baht ($12 USD), you can get a one-hour Thai body massage and one-hour foot massage at a nice spa. Needless to say, we indulged several times.
For a relaxing evening, book an appointment at Fah Lanna Massage, follow with dinner at Lemongrass down the street (seriously authentic and worthwhile), and walk around the adjacent Night Bazaar thereafter.
4) Take a Cooking Class
Again, if you’re interested in food, you really must take a cooking class in Chiang Mai. We opted for the Zabb-E-Lee Cooking School based on rave reviews and had a blast. Our instructor for the evening was a hysterical, energetic young man named Snooker, who loved all things Beyoncé and Adele.
After purchasing fresh ingredients from a local market, we drank beers in the open-air kitchen, learned about Northern Thai cuisine, cooked and prepared a disgusting amount of food, and consumed all of it in a locally styled bamboo hut among eight other couples. We all selected one appetizer (spring roll, Thai fresh spring roll, papaya salad), one stir fry (pad thai, cashew nut with chicken, hot and sour seafood stir fry), one soup (tom yum kung, tom kha kai, stuffed cabbage soup), one curry (green, massamun, khao soy, panang) and one dessert (mango sticky rice!), and got to work at individual cooking stations.
It was very educational to start from scratch (literally chop up every single ingredient) and to modify based on personal preferences (lots of spicy peppers!). As Snooker noted, with one pepper, your dish will be spicy; with two, extra spicy; and three, diarrhea 😊.
Transportation is included with this cooking school, as is the ridiculous amount of food. Do NOT eat before the cooking class, and I strongly advise against booking a massage after.
5) Explore the Old City
Take a full day to walk around the Old City, exploring the Medieval square and ancient temples. We stumbled upon a charming café at the end of a scenic pathway called Angel’s Secrets, serving delicious Western breakfast with local ingredients (e.g., fresh smoothies and crepes) and fueled before a long day on our feet.
A few not-to-miss temples (with self-explanatory images) include Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man.
We could have used several more days in the lovely Chiang Mai, so unfortunately we didn’t get to everything. Here are a few activities and sites that came highly recommended, and quite honestly, the reasons we didn’t get to each.
1) Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
We’re embarrassed to admit that we didn’t make it to the sacred symbol of Chiang Mai; although, we could see it atop the mountain from our hotel window! Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is 9.3 miles northwest of Old Town and positioned at 1,073 meters atop a mountain. Once you arrive, you must climb nearly 300 steps to arrive at the temple. Well worth it, we hear, as you’re rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the city.
WHY WE DIDN’T VISIT: Unfortunately, it was extremely cloudy on our day to visit, and tourists noted that there was no visibility from the top, so we opted out. If you choose to go, our friends recommend you avoid traveling in a songthaew (red, open trucks you see everywhere). They’re cheaper, but for a winding mountain drive, they’re not the most comfortable.
2) Day Trip to Chiang Rai
Several tour companies provide day trips to the city of Chiang Rai, two to three hours north of Chiang Mai. Most tourists visit the Golden Triangle (where the Mekong and Krok Rivers join to create a tripoint of the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos) and the stunning Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple.
WHY WE DIDN’T VISIT: First and foremost, two to three hours is a big commitment for a day trip, and our time was limited in Chiang Mai. Additionally, while the White Temple is seemingly a breathtaking sight and necessary Instagram post, it’s not original. The temple was built in…1997!
3) Bua Thong Waterfalls
The “Sticky Waterfalls,” as they’re referred to, are located about an hour-and-a-half outside of Chiang Mai. As you may infer from the name, the waterfalls are impressive, beautiful and…sticky! You can actually climb directly up the rocks, against the oncoming water. The surrounding forest is said to be lush and quite scenic, too.
WHY WE DIDN’T VISIT: Honestly, our only excuse for this one was time! This sounded like a unique experience, with the built-in opportunity to cool off in the intense heat.
4) Fish Pedicure at Night Bazaar
Some people adamantly say you must get a fish pedicure while you’re in Thailand. And, they just so happen to be very prevalent at the Night Bazaar. For those not familiar (see picture above), this is literally sticking your feet into a fish tank, where guppy-like fish with a voracious appetite for dead skin pick away at your feet.
WHY WE DIDN’T EXPERIENCE: Listen, these are highly entertaining to watch – especially for those subjects who are ticklish. But, to me, there’s something about cleanliness of those tanks that I don’t trust.
5) Tiger Kingdom
Another popular Instagram image you pay see post-Thailand, is the one of your friends posing with a tiger. This activity likely took place at the infamous Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. The attraction has been extremely controversial for the treatment of its animals and how the money is used.
WHY WE DIDN’T VISIT: Admittedly, I see the allure: Baby tigers are adorable. And, adult tigers exquisite (yet simultaneously terrifying). Who wouldn’t want a chance to encounter one (in captivity, that is)? But ultimately, the ethical issues were not worth the picture for us.
If we could go back to any city in Thailand, it would be Chiang Mai. Have you been? If not, plan to visit – and do not stop eating!
Did we miss anything? Any other not-to-miss recommendations?