Ideas for activities and original (and charming!) addresses for your visit to Chiang Mai: Culture, adrenaline, nature, small pleasures, everything is there!
Those who have enjoyed their trip to Chiang Mai will tell you in their heart: you can feel a beautiful energy. Besides being the perfect starting point for exploring Northern Thailand, it is also home to a large community of nomads, expatriates and slow travel aficionados. Indeed, its assets also make it an ideal base for extended stays.
The temples of Chiang Mai
In addition to the most famous temples that I mentioned in the list above (Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang), Chiang Mai is full of various more or less spectacular buildings that all have in common a refined beauty.
If there was only one not to be missed, without hesitation I would choose Doi Suthep, the most sacred of Chiang Mai (and among the most sacred sites in Thailand)… And in fact, it requires going to the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, then climbing the 309 steps of stairs decorated with huge dragons. For these last ones, your feet will be enough! As for getting up there, my two favorite methods are renting a scooter (and taking advantage of it to extend your visit to a ride in the Doi Pui park, which I talk about below) or renting the songtaew, the local red buses (which I also talk about in the practical information). But if all this annoys or frightens you, you will of course find organized tours everywhere.
My favorites in the city are temples a little less visited, certainly smaller in size but with a fascinating architecture: Wat Lok Molee and Wat Phan Thao.
The markets of Chiang Mai
Before arriving in Chiang Mai, you will probably have already heard about the Saturday Night Market, Sunday Market and Night Bazaar. If they’re the most famous, you’re right. The first two are ideal for finding a flock of souvenirs to take home. However, you have to know how to sort between the original, the quality product and the pale fabric that won’t stand a wash because there is really anything and everything. You will also find (if you look hard enough) some great craftsmen. As for the third one, it certainly has a lot of what you will find in the first two, but on top of that, it has a few buildings and shops of nice artists and craftsmen.
But if there’s an even more valid reason to visit the markets than to shop, it’s certainly to eat. For who says Thai market, says the full of excellent street food. For the first two: look for the temples! Where there is a temple there is also a lot of stalls to eat.
But if you are rather at the market like me, to capture the local atmosphere, you might prefer the slightly smaller or more utilitarian markets, like for example the one in Warorot (Chinatown), just next to Dok Mai (the flower market). There you will find absolutely everything, from the weirdest to the most practical: loose fabrics, make-up, clothes, snacks (if you like silkworms) and various unclassifiable items. No souvenirs here (unless you really want to bring those silkworms back to your friends). The market takes place in the streets but also in adjoining buildings: don’t miss them, because that’s where you’ll find the most curiosities.
And for a more hardcore experience, don’t miss the Muang Mai market, where you can find fruits, vegetables and spices in bulk, as well as stalls of unrefrigerated meat: shopping is done on foot or by scooter, in a chaos that surpasses the imagination. If you don’t know how to handle your scooter, you can go on foot instead or you’re bound to crush someone’s feet.
Eating in Chiang Mai
You will not lack options to eat in Chiang Mai: among the authentic Thai dishes (which you may already know?) you will find the particular influences of lanna and issan, which are specific to northern Thailand. And if by any chance you’re short of international food, you’ll quickly discover that all (or almost all) cuisines are represented with brio in Chiang Mai. The city also has excellent vegetarian, vegan and organic options… as well as fast food to fall down!
The experience wouldn’t be complete without street food: Chiang Mai, like the rest of Thailand, is full of a thousand small stalls with everything and nothing open until the late hours. Try for example the roti, a sweet pancake (my favourite version is chocolate banana). Try a pad kapraw (Thai basil sauté) or a pad thai minute, bite into delicious little pineapple or dragon fruit and then go ahead, the fatter the better: try the sausage skewers and meat or fish balls, with an exquisite sweet and sour sauce.
A possibility that is not often mentioned in the guides is the food courts, or food court areas in shopping centres. Often in the basement or upstairs (and sometimes in both places!) you will find a wide variety of Thai specialties at very low prices! The most modern shopping malls are also home to many food chains. Prices are often higher than average, but you may be able to enjoy a variety of different pleasures. For example, I like to eat Japanese curry at CoCo Ichibanya and then treat myself to a bubble tea for dessert at MAYA shopping centre in the Nimman district.
If you like meat, seafood and a folk atmosphere, try a Mukata. A perfect mix between a Chinese fondue and a Korean barbecue, it is mostly offered in an all-you-can-eat formula. Depending on the size of the establishment, you will find tables of food to prepare yourself on the grill but often also a large selection of already prepared dishes, snacks and desserts. Tip: go as a group! These places are often enlivened by activities and music groups and Thai people like to spend a long evening there.
As far as drinks are concerned, you won’t have missed all the good freshly squeezed fruit juices and sweetened teas. If there is one among those that you will not have to avoid it is cha yen (literally cold tea). Assam tea (which gives it its beautiful orange color) is served cold with condensed milk.