Thailand Travel: 7 things to know when traveling to Chiang Mai
Words & Images by Joy Muldoon
Few cities capture your heart and won’t let go. Few places leave a mark on you that you won’t forget; those places that won’t leave you until long after you’ve left them. Chiang Mai has this lasting effect. Tucked away in the northern mountains of the beautiful nation of Thailand, known for its beaches and wild cities, it is a literal breath of fresh air. And while you could spend weeks exploring, here’s a guide if this city is only a quick stop on your greater adventure.
Chiang Mai is a unique city, with its main downtown still surrounded by a brick wall and a river [or moat] running alongside. This city was once the capital of a kingdom, and its memories of royalty still remain. Within the city walls there are rows and rows of hotels, hostels, B&B’s and guesthouses along with restaurants, bars and shops in any direction.
Travel Advisor Tip (hotel): Villa Duang Champa is really cute and centralized in the city.
Travel Advisor Tip (transportation)
- Tuk tuk: A 3-wheeled motorbike with a seat for two, and the driver.
- Songthaew [pronounced sung-tow]: If you can figure out the routes, hop aboard one of these covered pickup trucks, which run like buses.
- Walk: You’ll see so much more of the city’s character!
As you begin to explore Chiang Mai within the walls, you’ll immediately notice the Buddhist temples. It’s said there are over 300 temples in the city! My favorite was the Wat Chedi Luang. The architecture is one of a kind, and it’s a really peaceful place, blocking out much of the city noise with its high walls. The temple is also attached to a “monk university,” and hosts regular “Monk Chats,” where tourists or visitors can sit and talk with monks, for spiritual guidance or general questions about Buddhism. Another beautiful temple within the walls is Wat Phra Singh, which is sprawling and magnificent.
Travel Advisor Tip (temple visits):
- Have your shoulders and knees covered (men & women). If you are not modest enough, you may get a robe.
- Ladies, don’t touch a monk. They’ll have to go through a ritual cleansing process and probably be less than happy about it.
If you’ve worked up an appetite from temple hopping, grab some lunch at Cooking Love, an appropriately named tiny Thai restaurant. It’s a very popular spot, but the meal will be worth the wait. My best advice would be to arrive early or make reservations!
Travel Advisor Tip (menu favorites):
- Coconut chicken curry (served in a hollowed-out coconut!)
- Lassi [kind of like a yogurt smoothie]
- Chai yen [traditional Thai iced tea – it’s orange!]
If you are still in need of refreshment, visit one of the ample spas and massage parlors available in downtown Chiang Mai. The art of massage has been practiced and perfected in Thailand, and you have to try this relaxing and recharging experience before leaving. Depending on how pampered you want to be, and how much you want to spend, there is everything from a foot massage on the street, to a private room of luxury. Who doesn’t love visiting a city where massages aren’t a privilege but an affordable activity?!
Travel Advisor Tip (massage):
- Lila Thai Massage Spas (mid-level pampering): For under $15 I received a luxurious foot massage, followed by a neck & back massage (each an hour long)!
Evenings in Chiang Mai provide some great shopping experiences from the daily Night Bazaar (full of adventurous food options, designer brand knock-offs, pirated DVD’s, Thai souvenirs, t-shirts & jewelry), to the smaller, Sunday evening, Walking Street Market (more handmade and artisan - woodworking, metalworking, sewing and weaving).
Travel Advisor Tip: Come hungry! The best way to enjoy a market in Thailand is walking with a bag of food in one hand and a drink in the other.
On your next day, take the chance to get out of the city center and see some of the natural beauty Chiang Mai has to offer. If you are feeling brave, rent a motorbike and drive the winding, hilly roads to see lush landscapes around every turn. About a 30-minute motorbike [or tuk tuk] ride from city center, you can experience the ultimate Thailand experience: elephant rides. There are several “camps” that will take you and your friends on various lengths of rides. It’s your bucket list moment waiting to happen.
We opted for a more rustic ride with PongYang Elephant Camp in Mae Rim, about 45 minutes from the city. We were the only ones there, and while we paid for a half hour, we rode for over an hour. There was a beautiful waterfall at the end of the ride, which our guide navigated our lumbering beast into and had him pose for photos. We got to feed the elephant bananas at the end of the ride, and it was great fun.
Travel Advisor Tip (outdoorsy & adventurous excursions):
- Doi Suthep: A high hill overlooking the whole region.
- Bua Tong: “Sticky” waterfalls for swimming and cooling off.
If you want to stay closer to the city limits, don’t miss the Nimmanhemin neighborhood of Chiang Mai. This is where the cool kids are. It’s hip & trendy, artsy & quirky.
Travel Advisor Tip (must hit spots):
- Ristre8to: Enjoy a great latte with some award-winning latte art.
- Librarista: A quiet and reflective coffee shop library.
- Bake n’ Bites: A great Western-style brunch.
- Shirayuri: Grab sushi at this Godzilla themed Japanese restaurant.
- CAMP Café: (located at the top of the MAYA shopping mall) Part study lounge, part meeting place, part cafe, this creative IKEA-style spot is as modern as anywhere in New York City.
(Also at MAYA Mall, you can catch a movie in ultimate comfort, including sprawling seats and couches. Be prepared to stand in silence for the king’s anthem before the show! )
You can leave Chiang Mai on an adventure high or in a relaxed lull; it’s up to you! The city really has something for everyone. The most important thing is that you experience it.