Chiang Mai is South-East Asia’s creative capital. It’s the gateway to Thailand’s mountainous north and a must-see destination for travellers in search of culture, calm and a laid-back Thai way of life compared to the hustle and bustle of busy Bangkok.
The city was the second stop on our ten day tour of Thailand before we headed south to explore the islands. We packed light for all the travelling but kept our Marco Polo Travel Guide handy to make the most of the pocket map, tour guides and restaurant recommendations inside. Here are the top 10 things you should check out in Chiang Mai…
1. Take A Thai Cooking Class
The food in Thailand is spicy, aromatic and well…just really delicious so whilst you’re here a cooking class should be the top of your activity wish list. I read about the Chiang Mai Thai Cooking School in my Marco Polo Guide so I knew it had a great reputation and it didn’t disappoint. Try and book a lesson at the cooking rather rather than the classes your hotel will try and persuade you to take (which are usually more expensive).
I learnt how to cook Pad Thai, Paenang Curry, Tom Kha Soup and Black Pepper & Garlic Prawns. The best bit is the tour of a local market where you can shop for all of your fresh ingredients. Mhmmm delicious!
2. Explore the Markets
Chiang Mai is famous for it’s handcrafted goods. The local crafts of painted umbrellas, embroidered fabrics and pottery. Sunday is the time to go as the famous ‘Walking Street Market’ is on. You’ll also find lots of tea, herbs and spices so stock up on all your favourite ingredients and then you can cook authentic Thai food at home. I brought home Paeneng curry paste, dried chilli and kaffir lime leaves.
I also bought a beautiful blue rice box which is handpainted with delicate white flowers. It cost me 300 Thai Baht which is just under £7. Be sure to leave space in your suitcase for carrying your shopping home!
3. Visit Wat Chedi Luang Temple
Chiang Mai is a temple-studded city with lots of historic buildings within it’s city walls. You’ll find you stumble across temples every corner you turn in Chiang Mai but be sure to seek out Wat Chedi Luang as it’s especially beautiful. Visit in late afternoon to avoid the midday heat and you will be treated to the sun lighting up the stones as it sets behind the temple.
Don’t forget to bring a sarong and long-sleeved shirt with you as you need to cover your legs and shoulders to show respect when you visit these religious buildings.
4. Taste the street food
Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand so the style of food is different to that in the central and south areas. There’s a much more pronounced influence from Burma and China which means milder curries and more ginger whilst sticky rice instead of steamed rice is the main staple at every meal.
My favourite local dish is Khao Soi which is a rich and lightly spiced curry coconut broth. The noodles in the soup are flat with a handful of deep-fried noodles on top…yummy! You can get a great Khao Soi at Hinlay Curry House which is a place I discovered in my Marco Polo Guide – a real hidden secret so best to visit by taxi.
If you’ve visited Thailand before and didn’t fall in love with Mango Sticky Rice I don’t know what you were doing?! It’s my favourite and you can find it in almost every street food market including Warorot Evening Market, Sompet, Thanin, Chiang Mai Gate and Chang Phuak Gate.
5. Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand. Up in the clouds you will find the National Park which is like nowhere else in the world. It’s full of waterfalls, jungles and hiking trails so it’s basically the perfect place to get lost for a day.
Wondering how to get there? You will see red taxi trucks travelling around Chiang Mai. They’re called Songthaews and don’t have a scheduled route but they’re the best way to get up the mountain. You can usually jump on one at the zoo or university which will take you straight there.
6. Trek To A Tribal Village
The hills of Doi Pui are also home to the Hmong Tribal Village. You can trek there to visit the hill tribes of Chiang Mai. A visit to this village is an eye-opener and a great opportunity to see the real lives of tribal villagers.
The village is situated less than five kilometers from the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep so plan to do both of these activities in the same day! My Marco Polo Guide has a great itinerary for spending a few days in Chiang Mai and it includes top tips for trekking which are worth checking out.
7. Visit Wat Phra That Doi Temple
From the old city of Chiang Mai you can see Wat Phra That Doi sparkle. It’s a golden and shining temple in the mountains of Doi Suthep in northwest Chiang Mai and is home to one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand. For many people it’s a religious pilgrimage so expect it to be busy but very peaceful and calming.
If you visit Wat Phra That Doi and Wat Chedi Luang temple you will see the best of Chiang Mai’s temples – the sparkling gold and traditional stone style. I think it’s much better to spend an afternoon visiting these temples rather than rushing around the city to visit them all. The magic of the temples truly comes alive when you can enjoy a moment of calm in them.
8. Ride in a Tuk Tuk
Tuk Tuks are everywhere in Thailand so you’ll see them zipping around town taking tourists from Chiang Mai’s old city to the hotels in the outskirts and all around. You can expect to pay around 60-100 Thai Baht for a journey in Chiang Mai but be sure to confirm your price before hopping on.
I would also recommend checking you have a Tuk Tuk with sides unless you want a scary adrenaline-rush journey like I experienced on the way back from Thai boxing!
9. Enjoy a Thai massage
Every corner you turn you will find places offering Thai massages. They’re cheap (you can expect to pay 300 Thai Baht for an hour) and a great way to relax. I had one almost every day in Thailand so returning to London without a back rub each afternoon was a tough adjustment. Most of the massages come without oil so be sure to select a treatment with oil or Aloe Vera which is perfect for healing a sunburn hehe.
If you’re looking for something special get a foot massage from a prison inmate! Chiang Mai is home to the Womens Correctional Institution where they have set up a massage rehabilitation program in order to help the inmates easily integrate into society. Definitely worth a visit!
10. Watch Thai Boxing
Thai boxing is a very old and well respected tradition in Thailand. For tourists and locals alike it’s a real spectacle so you can’t visit Chiang Mai without watching Thai boxing. There are a few stadiums in Chiang Mai so check which ones have matches on the days you’re visiting. You can usually buy a seat and a beer for a few pounds so it’s a great cheap way to spend an evening after snacking on some street food.
One of the best things about Thailand is the friendly people. Everyone is warm, welcoming and ready to send a smile your way. Learning a few simple phrases is an appreciated gesture. Hello is “Swa Di Ka” and thank you is “Kah Pun Kha” which you can say with your hands pressed together in prayer to show your thanks.
Where to stay:
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay then I can’t recommend Dhara Dhevi enough. We stayed at the hotel for two nights and it was a secluded spot of luxury just outside the Old City. You can read my blog post about Dhara Dhevi here.
If you’re searching for something cheaper then there are lots of hostels in the city so don’t be afraid of turning up without accommodation and staying wherever feels like a second home to you.
Have you been to Chiang Mai? Comment below to let me know what you enjoyed most about the city!