Of all the cities throughout Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai is the one we hear praised most by other travelers. It's picturesque old quarter, iconic temples, good food, and idyllic mountain surroundings ensure that most visitors are quickly enamored by it. For many years now, it has been the destination of choice for backpackers, digital nomads, and expats looking to enjoy the scenery and affordability of Southeast Asia without sacrificing the comforts of home. It is because of it's popularity however, that we were left with mixed feelings about the city. The old quarter, although beautiful, isn't remotely Thai anymore. It's a hodgepodge of hostels, western restaurants, and massage parlors, entirely populated by young backpackers in elephant pants. Although that atmosphere is tough to escape anywhere you go in Thailand, it felt especially unavoidable in Chiang Mai. That being said, looking back on our time there, I feel like we were a little too harsh. We had some very memorable experiences and the surrounding area really is beautiful. Here are some of the things we would recommend to any visitor.
If there is one thing that Chiang Mai has plenty of, it's temples. There are over 300 Buddhist temples spread throughout the city, of varying sizes and styles. The "must-sees" are Wat Chedi Luang for it's huge, crumbling chedi, Wat Phra Singh for its intricate exterior, and Doi Suthep for its views over the city (discussed later in this post). But our personal favorite was Wat Sri Suphan, better known as the Silver Temple. The small but ornate temple is, as you might have guessed, painted silver, and it shines in the sunlight. We also liked Wat Lok Molee, located near the old quarter's North Gate. Visit at night when the ancient chedi is lit up.
Shop Til You Drop
If you love billowy pants, humorous tank tops, and Buddha figurines, then you are in luck!! There are two huge walking markets in Chiang Mai, one on Saturday located just South of the Old Quarter, and one on Sunday which stretches the length of Rachadamnoen Rd. Vendors start setting up around 4:30PM and we highly recommend getting there early because by 6PM the crowds can be overwhelming. Even if you aren't looking for souvenirs, the bustling markets are great for people watching or stuffing your face with street food. For a more authentic Thai market experience, the indoor Warorot Market is open daily and has everything from spices, to live seafood, to cheap clothing.
Hike To Doi Suthep
Every visitor to Chiang Mai has Doi Suthep on the itinerary. The mountaintop temple offers incredible views over the city and surrounding area. Not many however, take the time to hike up from the base, which means you might have the trail all to yourself! Starting from Chiang Mai University, the trail, marked by strips of orange monk's robes, winds its way up through the jungle and passes by a serene riverside temple before gaining elevation and climbing to Wat Phra That at the peak. The hike takes 2-3 hours and is pretty steep in some parts, so make sure to bring enough water.
Become A Master Chef
We booked a cooking class with Zabb-E-Lee cooking school thinking that if nothing else, our failed attempts to make Thai food would be pretty entertaining. As it turns out, the class was one of the best experiences of our trip and the food we made was delicious! Each class starts with a trip to the local market where the instructor talks about some of the different ingredients that they use in traditional Thai dishes. Then back at class, you choose between a variety of dishes to make and spend the evening cooking, drinking beer, and eating your creations. Everyone makes one appetizer, one soup, one curry, one stir fry, and a dessert. It is A TON of food and all for just $30.
Get Up Close And Personal With Some Elephants
Another incredibly popular activity throughout Northern Thailand is Elephant experiences. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the treatment of the elephants at the camps, so it can be tough to know which experience to choose. In general, you want to look for one where you don't ride the Elephant and the handlers don't make the elephant do anything it doesn't want to do (ie. prodding them with hooks to make them interact with tourists.) One of the most highly regarded camps is Elephant Nature Park however, their volunteer slots book up pretty far in advance. We ended up going with an independent tour guide from TakeMeTour.com. Our guide Lin picked us up from the hotel in her car and drove us to a very small Elephant camp outside of Chiang Mai to hang out with their two elephants. Since we were the only guests there, it was an incredible and intimate experience. We were able to feed and bathe the elephants and then spend a few hours observing them as they explored the jungle.
Climb Up The Sticky Falls
The sticky falls are an amazing natural phenomenon about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. There are a series of limestone waterfalls descending through the jungle, and the texture of the stone under the water is sticky enough to walk on easily. Its pretty scary at first thinking your feet are going to shoot out from under you at any moment, but after getting accustomed to it, you can climb up and down the waterfalls without worrying about slipping! Although fun, you probably only need an hour or two at the falls, not a whole day, so it makes sense to combine it with an elephant experience. We highly recommend the private tour we took which combines the two for a really reasonable price.
Escape To Doi Inathon National Park
Thailand's highest mountain is located about two hours drive from Chiang Mai, and is a popular day trip from the city. The park covers an area of about 500sq km and is technically part of the Himalayan mountain range. Although the two chedis built near the summit and a few large waterfalls are the most popular attractions, we would argue that the Kaew Mae Pan Nature Trail is the real highlight of the park. The beautiful 2.5km trail takes you through a dense, mossy, evergreen forest, before spitting you out in an alpine meadow high above the clouds. The flora and fauna on the hike was not at all what we expected to see, it felt more like the Pacific North West then South East Asia. The hike is relatively easy and it only took us about an hour. The local hill tribe who manages the trail charges a small fee of 200 baht ($6) per group for a guide.