Travel

Chiang Mai, Thailand City Guide

by Sabrina Smelko

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For the past four years, Chiang Mai, Thailand has been home to Alana Morgan. It was also the spot she called home after moving out for the first time, and where she accomplished many other milestones from learning to ride a motorcycle to teaching English to backpacking for two months with a stranger. She’s explored Southeast Asia extensively over this time, but no matter where her travels take her (which she documents on her travel blog, Paper Planes), she lands back in Chiang Mai where she feels most at home — and she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon! As an expat, Alana has had a diverse experience from living with locals to staying in hotels to sleeping in tents, so her guide features a great mix of spots and suggestions that range from more general recommendations so you can customize your trip, to specific places you must check out. –Sabrina

There are few places I have been where I feel fully comfortable and content, yet still excited to keep discovering more. Chiang Mai is one of them. A small city nestled in the northern hills of Thailand Chiang Mai is worlds away from bustling Bangkok yet still offers a little something for everyone.

With its lush landscape, affordable and delicious food and relaxed atmosphere, it’s a hard place to leave…which is why I’ve ended up living here for the past four years! Even though I’ve stayed longer than expected, I’m still finding new things about the city that surprise me and make me fall more in love with it every day. These are some of my favorites…

STAY

Chiang Mai is firmly planted on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail and is a popular tourist destination so there are a ton of accommodation options ranging from dorm room hostels, to boutique hotels and luxury resorts. With the cheapest rooms going for as low as $5 or so, there’s definitely something to fit every budget.

Chiang Maan Residence

1. Chiang Maan Residence

Traditionally, all Thai homes were made of teak wood. Today, that certainly isn’t the case, but if you look closely, through all the concrete you can still spot some old-style wooden houses in various states of disrepair. At Chiang Maan Residence you can stay in one of these traditional homes. With only four rooms, the small guesthouse is very intimate, yet comfortable and, though right in the center of the Old City, feels like you’ve found a hidden gem. (The guesthouse doesn’t have a great website, but you can find it on a number of hotel booking sites like Booking.com, Agoda or Asiarooms.)

Villa Duang Champa This hotel in an older, colonial style building is conveniently located in the center of the Old City and has a slightly hipster feel to it. You can start your day eating breakfast (included) in the property’s cozy garden and end it with a cool drink as you watch passersby on the street.

Sala Lanna

2. Sala Lanna

If you’re looking to splurge a little but still want something small with lots of character, Sala Lanna is a great option along the river. The luxury boutique hotel has 15 guest rooms that blend simple decor with Lanna (Northern Thai) touches. (Also, the restaurant’s khao soi – a traditional Chiang Mai dish of spicy coconut curry over yellow egg noodles that’s then topped with lime, shallots, pickled greens and fried noodles – is the best I’ve had in town!)

DO

Though it’s relatively small, there’s enough in Chiang Mai to fill everyday with different experiences and activities…or just as easily spend your time relaxing and soaking up the city’s sabai sabai (comfortable and relaxed) vibe. The best days here have a mix of both.

Visit Doi Suthep 

3. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Doi Suthep, the mountain (more like a large hill actually) on the west side of town that is home to the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple with its impressive golden chedi (stupa). Along the way up the mountain you can also stop at a number of waterfalls or continue on pass the temple and visit a hill tribe village or Doi Pui National Park for a dose of nature.

Take a yoga class Mahasiddha, located on the southern end of the old city, others classes and workshops on authentic tantra and hatha yoga.

Take a cooking course You can find cooking classes throughout the country, but Chiang Mai is one of the best places to do one. There are many companies running half-day or full-day classes and all offer abut the same program so you can’t go wrong.

Get a massage

4. Fah Lanna Spa

Actually, you should get several. Hour-long Thai massages start as low as $6 so make the most of them! If Thai massages aren’t your thing – I think of them as yoga for lazy people as the masseuses move stretch and contort your body – you can also go for an oil or foot massage, body scrub and more. A couple of my go-to places are Deep Relax and Fah Lanna Spa.

Get a tattoo It sounds funny, but between the several universities in town and thousands of tourists, Chiang Mai is home to a number of tattoo shops doing both machine and bamboo tattoos and is a great place to get the ultimate souvenir of your trip. Since my friend’s a tattoo artist, I’m naturally partial to his shop, CM Classic Tattoo, but take the time to look around, do your research and find a shop and artist you’re comfortable with.

Huay Tung Tao If you want a really local experience, head to Huay Tung Tao, a reservoir just outside of town on Canal Road toward Mae Rim to relax in a waterfront cabana while nibbling on a variety of Thai dishes and enjoying a cold beer. This area is especially popular on Sundays when large groups of friends will come and spend the afternoon lounging, snacking and sipping the day away.

SHOP

Though Chiang Mai has more than its fair share of malls and shopping centers, its markets are where the real deals are at. There are different markets running throughout the city at all times of day and night – several fresh markets will open around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning – that sell anything and everything. Unless set prices are clearly marked on items (or you’re buying food) you can haggle with the vendors for a lower price, especially if you’re buying multiples of something.

Sunday Walking Street Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Street runs from Tha Pae Gate and goes all the way along Ratchadamnoen Road for about 1.5 kilometers until reaching Wat Phra Singh in the center of the old city every Sunday starting around 5:00 pm. The night market is popular with both locals, Thai tourists and foreign tourists and is where you can find a range of souvenirs, t-shirts, artwork, hand made items and, of course, food. Between the size of the market and number of people that go each week, plan on spending a few hours here.

Wororot Market From gold jewelry and kitchen appliances to dried fruit and fabrics, Wororot Market is a large market complex on the east side of town close to the river that sells just about everything and has been a Chiang Mai institution for decades. The market can be overwhelming, especially the first time you visit. Take it slow and don’t be afraid of getting lost in the mess of little streets, you can’t get too far away from where you started. While a lot of what’s on sale here is geared more toward locals, you can also snag some great snacks, souvenirs and decor items to take back home.

Baan Khang Wat 

5. Baan Khang Wat

5. Baan Khang Wat shop

Located close to the base of Doi Suthep, Baan Khang Wat is part artists’ village, part lifestyle mall and 100% cute. All vendors give back to society in some way and tend to focus on local and sustainable practices. Here you’ll find several arts and crafts studios with artists working and the opportunity to play around yourself, a few cafes, community garden, yoga center and a lot of photo opps. The look and feel of the development is an excellent example of Chiang Mai’s natural style.

Baan Tawai If you’re looking for antiques, home decor or wooden furniture, head south of the city to Baan Tawai, the woodcarving village. Even if you’re not in the market for shipping a teak table back home, it’s always interesting to see

Local fresh markets If you do a cooking class you’ll visit a local fresh market selling produce, meats and prepared foods, but take time on your own to explore more. There’s always plenty to look at, and try and figure out what things are, especially if you’re interested in cooking or Thai food. What’s particularly fascinating to see as a foreigner is how everything is made fresh, coconut cream and milk is made from shredded coconut flesh and curry pastes are pounded together daily.

EAT

Writing about where to eat in Chiang Mai is difficult – but not for lack of choices! The fact is, there is just so much good food here with many smaller places or food stalls specializing in certain dishes that it’s hard to narrow down recommendations…though these are some of my go-to restaurants.

Pun Pun Pun Pun is a sustainable living center, focusing on seed saving, permaculture and organic farming, located about 50 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai that has three restaurants in town serving dishes made from organic ingredients from the farm. Two of the restaurants serve typical Thai and Western dishes with an emphasis on fresh salads, smoothies and curries, while the third offers Isaan (Eastern Thai) style food, fusion wraps and also has a market. While all the restaurants are worth checking out, start by visiting the one located on the temple grounds of Wat Suan Dok off of Suthep Road.

Street stalls at Chiang Mai Gate

6 Street Food

You can find street food, from freshly sliced fruit to made-to-order stir fry dishes throughout the city at all times of day, but one of the best places to go eat street food for dinner is Chiang Mai Gate (the south gate of the city). Every evening a collection of stalls and carts spring up and you can easily make a meal of different snacks or full, cooked-to-order dishes. With prices for complete dishes usually around $1 – 1.50 you can taste as many things as you want.

Duck Noodles Noodle soups are a standard dish eaten morning, noon and night. Sometimes they’re just simple broths with thin rich noodles, a little pork, chives and fried garlic…or sometimes you get lucky and find the best noodle soup ever with a rice broth and roasted duck. I don’t even know the name of the shop that sells duck noodles that will change your world but I’ll tell you how to get there: heading east, cross over the Nakorn Ping Bridge then turn left at the first light. Look to your left and in about 15 seconds you’ll see a red sign with a cartoon duck floating out of a bowl of noodles – this is the place! Go. Now. (For all soups you can add your own seasonings of sugar – yes, really – fish sauce, crushed chilies and vinegar.)

Tong Tem Toh To try out some traditional Northern Thai dishes head to Tong Tem Toh in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. Though mostly catering to locals, this popular spot offers an English menu so you can get a better sense of what you’re ordering. Try the naam prik ong, a roasted tomato and pork paste served with steamed vegetables, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, red ant egg salad (it’s better than it sounds).

Coffee Shops Along with temples and massage shops, Chiang Mai is filled with coffee shops and you don’t have to go far to find a good cup of coffee. Many students and foreigners working online tend to flock to the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood on the west side of town that is known for its trendy cafes, bars and shops. Two coffee spots I particularly love, however, are Ponganes in the Old City on Ratchapakinai Road and Akha Ama Coffee’s Santitham location. The young couple that own Ponganes consistently deliver some of the best lattes I’ve had anywhere (and I come from Seattle) and Ahka Ama Coffee is run by an Akha (hilltribe) village that sustainably grows and processes the organic coffee beans in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai.

Tea at Anantara Chiang Mai 

7 Anutara

This is a fun one if you have something special to celebrate or are looking for a relaxing afternoon activity with friends. Anantara Chiang Mai Resort and Spa (formerly The Chedi) hosts a daily afternoon tea at the property’s “Colonial House” which used to be the original British Consulate in Chiang Mai. From 2:00 – 6:00 p.m. you can take your time enjoying a selections of sandwiches and cakes in an atmosphere filled with old world charm. (Be sure to take a peek inside the house before you go – it’s gorgeous!)

FAVORITES

When someone asks me what my favorite thing to do in Chiang Mai I never quite know what to say. I simply love being here – the quality of life, continually being exposed to new experiences and fact that I can spend much of my time outside are all things that keep me here (for now…) That said, I could never get sick of the following places and activities.

Rent a motorbike 

 

8 Renting a motorbike

One of my absolute favorite things to do in Chiang Mai is take my motorbike out for a long ride. Whether I stick to the city or explore other nearby areas, it’s always an adventure. You can easily rent a motorbike at shops throughout town, but be smart and don’t drive if you really don’t know what you’re doing.

Wander the sois around Nimmanhaemin Road Things change so quickly around here that whenever I take the time to walk the streets I’m already familiar with I always see something new. One of the most interesting places to wander around is the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood centered around Nimmanhaemin Road. Start at one end and weave in and out of the small sois (streets) to discover a variety of colorful little shops, cafes and bars.

Go on a temple walk

9 Temple Bells Wat Jed Yod

There are elaborate Buddhist temples on literally every corner and since only a small handful of the major ones make it into guidebooks, you should really take some time to simply walk around the Old City and along its outer walls to see what you come across. There’s even a temple being covered completely by intricate hammered silver designs and casings, Wat Sri Suphan off of Wualai Road, it’s incredible!

Yoga and Meditation Chiang Mai has a thriving yoga and wellness community For many travelers, Namo Yoga Studio in the Old City is an easy location to get to and offers a range of daily yoga classes from different foreign teachers as well as Thai massage courses. If you want to make yoga a bigger part of your stay in Chiang Mai, check out Thailand Yoga Holidays run by a yoga teacher who’s been based here for eight years and combines wellness and indulgence for some incredible experiences – definitely not your average yoga retreat.

Get out of town! 

10. Chiang Mai country
While there’s so much to do in town it could be easy to spend all your time getting to know the city, but you’d be missing out on Chiang Mai’s true treasure – its natural beauty. Grabbing a motorbike and heading out of town to one of the nearby national parks or handicraft villages always feels rejuvenating – you can go from the center of the city to being surrounded by rice fields surprisingly quick. Some of my favorite getaways are spending the night in the mountain village of Chiang Dao, heading to Huay Tung Tao (above) or spending the day at a ‘sticky waterfall’ that you can climb up with your bare feet.

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