I’ve visited Chiang Mai around 8 times already, generally staying at least a few days in between excursions to Pai and Chiang Rai. I realized I’d never given you a post on my favorite things to do there. It’s past time for me to fix that.
Chiang Mai is fantastic for a variety of reasons, including its natural beauty, amazing street cuisine, low costs, and plenty of night markets. It’s no wonder that so many digital nomads call it home, and the majority of visitors to Thailand include it on their itinerary. Here are my nine (yes, nine, not ten) favorite activities there:
There are about 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai (what), thus there is no shortage of temples to visit in and around the city. Nonetheless, many people can be ‘templed,’ therefore I recommend seeing two of the most renowned and gorgeous – Doi Suthep and Wat Chedi Luang. Doi Suthep is about 30 minutes outside of town, however, it is accessible by Songthaew for around 50 baht per person. It contains a cable car that provides access to a panoramic view of the city. Temple Chedi Luang is located in the heart of the ancient town.
(By the way, these are my fave Chiang Mai hotels and hostels.)
8) Market on Sunday evening
The Sunday night market, as the name implies, is only open once a week. Thus, if you’re going to Chiang Mai, try to go on a Sunday. The market is brimming with delectable cuisine, clothing, jewelry, art, sunglasses, and other items. It runs directly through the heart of the old city from the Tha Pae gate.
Now that I’ve done it a few times, I like to stroll the streets parallel to the main street where the market is located. They offer more interesting apparel alternatives and are less crowded.
7) Plenty of massages
Can we just take a moment to appreciate the excellent quality of the massages? Getting an hour-long oil massage for a few dollars? Yeah, please enroll me right now.
Most massages in Chiang Mai take place in a nice air-conditioned room (a luxury in Chiang Mai!) and can be purchased for as little as 120 baht per hour (about $4!). I normally go for two hours, one for the feet and legs and the other for the head and shoulders. Tips are always welcome.
If you’re comfortable riding a motorbike, the mountains around Chiang Mai are among the most picturesque in Thailand. The natural landscape was simply breathtaking, with waterfalls and monasteries aplenty.
5) Ladyboy Cabaret
I went to a ladyboy cabaret in Phuket (where I accidentally struck second base with one of them, but that’s another story) and was disappointed by both the dancing and the price. Then I heard that the one in Chiang Mai was fantastic, with incredible dance, and was completely free. Sure, for free!
Around 9 p.m., go to the Night Market and enjoy the show. All you have to do to get in is buy a drink. If you’re sitting in the first rows, you could get a lap dance or perhaps be taken on stage.
Chiang Mai is an excellent destination for Yi Peng and Songkran. These Buddhist holidays are popular across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and beyond, but Chiang Mai is unquestionably the place to have a good time and be a part of one giant party. Yi Peng is distinguished by a gigantic lantern discharge, whereas Songkran is essentially a massive water fight.
I regret spending the whole Songkran holiday in Thailand on a SCUBA dive boat (not for the diving, but for the scheduling). This is something I intend to change in the coming year.
3) Cooking lesson
I continued putting off culinary courses, certain that if I wanted to make Thai food at home, I could just use a guidebook. Yet I was missing the point. There is a method that was quite beneficial to learn in class, not to mention extremely enjoyable and tasty. I’d say it was well worth it since it cost us 1000 baht per person (approximately $30) and we prepared 5 dinners including a curry.
I attended Basil Cooking School, which was both healthful and well-run. Make an appointment with them.
2) Elephant contest
I was saddened to read that elephants are beaten into obedience when they are young and that many of them live miserable lives carrying visitors on their backs. I vowed I’d never ride one, but something was lacking from my Thailand experience.
Then I learned about Elephant Nature Park, which rescues elephants from tourism and logging and provides them with a new lease on life. The elephants are free to wander, and guests are welcome to feed and wash them. Read out this post to see why this is my second favorite thing to do in Chaing Mai.
1) Consume everything
My buddy challenged me to come up with a one-word summary for each spot I visited in Thailand. We both said “meal” for Chiang Mai at the same time. When I started traveling, I didn’t give much thought to meals. Yeah, I needed it to survive, but it wasn’t really thrilling.
Later I began to travel and became a gourmet. When people tell me where they’ve been, the first thing I ask is if they’ve eaten a particular meal there. Apart from my loved ones, what I miss most about home is Mexican food. I’m salivating at the prospect of returning to Vietnam, and I can’t wait to get out of my Berlin flat tonight for a potato salad.
Chiang Mai’s street food is tasty and plentiful. It is usually fresh and inexpensive. If that worries you and you want to dine out, I have a few ground rules: no tablecloths (as suggested by my friend James), the restaurant should preferably be full of locals, additional points if the menu is not in English, and a gold star if the tables are on the street.
Things you must not do:
Although I am not one to force my views on others, I would want to state unequivocally that riding an elephant or visiting Tiger Park (where tigers are drugged, emaciated, and confined in small cages) are two activities I highly advise avoiding. We, visitors, vote with our money. Consider your options carefully before engaging in wildlife tourism.
To summarise, there are so many things to do in Chiang Mai that it is nearly impossible to become bored.
Have you been there? Is there anything else you’d like to add to this list?