Escape the crazy pace of Bangkok and head north to the charming city of Chiang Mai. The laid-back pace of life here seems at odds with the throngs of tourists visiting the city, yet it somehow manages to retain an air of calm not found in the capital. While this is a perfect place to relax, there is plenty of things to see and do in this idyllic corner of Thailand. From exploring medieval temples to getting close to the largest land animals in Asia, there is something for everyone in Chiang Mai.
1. Visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
While undoubtedly touristy, this 14th century temple and its grounds hold special meaning to Thai people. Legend has it that it was built on a spot “chosen” by a Buddha relic and the place is indeed pretty extraordinary. Nestled on top one of the hills forming Doi Suthep mountain, the temple overlooks Chiang Mai and neighbouring areas from over 1000 metres. Those who brave the winding mountain roads and a 309 step climb to the top are rewarded with a shimmering golden chedi, holy shrines and spectacular views. Read about how I hiked to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep here!
2. Experience the Sunday Market (Walking Street)
Every Sunday evening, Rachadamnoen Road and the surrounding streets and courtyards are transformed into one of Thailand’s biggest and most popular markets. Start at Tha Pae Gate and make your way through the street and past stalls selling authentic locally-handcrafted items and souvenirs. Temple grounds turn into spacious food courts selling freshly cooked traditional dishes and entertainment is provided by musicians, dancers and painters lining the length of the street. It’s loud and busy but the atmosphere is well worth fighting your way through the crowd for!
3. Volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park
A chance to interact with these majestic creatures is one of the highlights for many visitors to Northern Thailand. However, picking a responsible operator from the dozens that have set up shop around Chiang Mai is a stressful task – many travellers I’ve met report of mistreatment of the animals in many of the “sanctuaries”. Elephant Nature Park is different – the rescue and rehabilitation centre aims to provide a refuge for endangered species as well as educate visitors. You can volunteer by feeding and bathing the elephants or just watch on from the sidelines. Most importantly, there is no riding involved. Bear in mind, trips can be sold out weeks in advance so book early!
4. Get lost in the Old City
Built over 700 years ago, Chiang Mai (meaning New Walled City) has played a prominent part in Thai history, serving as a capital of the Lanna kingdom for several centuries. One of the best ways to explore the square-shaped old town is getting lost among its streets, stumbling upon impressive temples such as Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh or small restaurants serving up delicious local food. Despite Chiang Mai’s popularity with travellers, you are somehow never more than a few minutes away from a quiet back alley with not a tourist in sight while the moat surrounding the city never lets you stray too far.
5. Explore Chiang Mai by Bike
One of the most rewarding ways to explore Chiang Mai and the surrounding area is by good old-fashioned bicycle. While renting a scooter is a popular way of getting around, there is something relaxing about pedalling down narrow alleyways, stopping off to admire beautiful architecture and relaxing with a fresh fruit smoothie. Alternatively, explore Chiang Mai’s eclectic food scene on a tour taking in some of the city’s best culinary hotspots or head out of the city for more challenging rides exploring the surrounding countryside. Read about my cycling escapades here or check out Grasshopper Adventures’ bike tours in the area.
6. Get your adventure on
Those after experiences to get the heart rate going will be well catered for in Chiang Mai. Multi-day treks in the mountains, ziplining and abseiling adventures and exhilarating mountain bike routes are just some of the options for thrill-seekers. Whitewater rafting and kayaking will appeal to watersports aficionados while the Grand Canyon is a popular spot for cliff jumping, on the site of an abandoned soil mine. Motorcross and ATV 4 wheel off-roading will provide a fix for petrolheads. Just don’t forget to relax after all that excitement!
7. Shop till you drop at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
Open every day of the year, the Night Bazaar is more similar to the sort of street markets you will find in various touristy parts of Bangkok, with designer clothes, accessories and souvenirs on offer. It springs up along Thanon Chang Khlan, east of Tha Pae gate from early evening and over the years has, like the Sunday Market, expanded to the side streets. The bazaar has a number of offshoots, including the Kalare Night Bazaar with its impressive handicrafts section and an extensive food court. Grab a pad thai, a Thai iced tea and watch dancers perform traditional routines on stage or just wander along the main street, taking in the sounds and aromas of the market.
8. Work up an appetite at a Thai Cooking School
Ask any local and they will tell you that Northern Thai cuisine is the best in the land and Chiang Mai is a perfect place to try your hand at making some of the tasty dishes yourself. There are a number of schools in the area but I would recommend Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School. Sammy picks you up from your hotel and takes you to a local market to select fresh ingredients before whisking you to his beautiful farm home in the countryside. You will learn how to make staples such as Pad Thai, Thai Green Curry and Mango Sticky Rice before relaxing in the hammocks to digest the huge portions you will devour. Even if, like me, you are terrible at cooking, you will whip up amazing meals in no time thanks to Sammy and his wife. Bon Appetite!
What do you think? Have I missed anything out? What were your top things to do in Chiang Mai? Let me know!