The best things to do when traveling through this peaceful gem of northern Thailand.
As the capital of Thailand’s northern region, Chiang Mai is the perfect blend of city life, cultural history, and natural beauty. The atmosphere of Chiang Mai feels so much more relaxed than Bangkok, so we never tired of the city after 10 days of adventures there.
In reality, we never ran out of things to do, and we still had substantial down time for eating out, chilling in our hostel with friends, and walking around aimlessly. Here are the highlights we experienced in and around this wonderful city.
1. Spend A Day With Elephants
Most visitors to Asia have never seen elephants in their natural habitat, hence why day trips to visit humane elephant parks in Thailand are so common. With endless tour companies offering full and half-day trips, narrow down your choices to those who forbid riding the elephants. These are the more ethical companies who put the wellbeing of the animals before the tourists’ desires.
I booked a full-day trip for $70 with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, and it was worth every penny. During the day, we fed the elephants bananas and sugar cane, walked around with them and observed their behaviors, rolled in the mud with them, rinsed them off in the river, and made them a natural medicine. It was a very low-key situation where most of the time everyone just roamed around at will to photograph and play with the elephants. After observing these giant, charismatic creatures up close, I will cherish this day forever.
2. Cliff Jump At Grand Canyon
About a 30 minute drive from the city center lies the Grand Canyon, a giant, glassy freshwater lake surrounded by towering cliffs of red and brown rock. For 50 Baht ($1.50), you can jump from a 50 foot cliff ledge into the warm water, then test your strength by climbing up the vertical rope ladder back to the top. For those less daring, you can jump from shorter cliff edges and peacefully float around in the massive lake on your life jacket.
3. Taste the Street Food
Street food generally costs less than restaurant food, but Thailand takes cheap to a whole new level. Every day and night, streets fill up with little tents selling fresh fruit, pad thai, grilled meat and veggie skewers, fried banana and pumpkin, spring rolls, sweet thai pancakes, and assorted rice dishes for 50 baht or less. Basically you can get a filling meal for $1 if you look in the right places. Fruit shakes have become my obsession; for 30 baht ($1) you can pick a tall plastic cup filled with fruit, and the vendor will blend it up with ice to make a refreshing smoothie.
Random streets usually have at least a few carts selling cheap food, but the following two spots are more reliable. At the north of the Old City square lies the Chang Phuak Gate, and right across the street is an incredible and cheap market that opens roughly around 4pm. Also, Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar lies just outside the Old City to the east. This massive shopping and entertainment center has lots of food stalls and even a food court area surrounded by small vendors.
4. Visit The Sunday Night Market
For the ultimate street market experience, visit Rachadamnoen Road on a Sunday night. This central street of the Old City becomes completely crammed with food stalls, street musicians, and shopping, turning an otherwise peaceful road into an overwhelming explosion of the senses.
As you look at the colorful works of traditional art, and feel the softness of the feathers hanging from handmade dreamcatchers, you can hear ladies yelling at you to get a Thai massage and smell the sweetness of someone pouring honey on a fresh pancake. Though the crowds can thicken to the point of feeling claustrophobic, the experience is definitely worth it.
5. Enjoy A LadyBoy Cabaret
Located in the Night Bazaar, the Chiang Mai Cabaret is perfect for those who want to be dazzled, entertained, and sexually confused. Ladyboys are essentially drag queens, and their cabaret show involves hilarious lip-syncing, impressive dancing, elaborate costumes, and audience participation. All the performers are absolutely gorgeous and fearless, and some are so feminine that I found myself questioning whether I could ever be as badass as them. The performance costs 290 baht ($9), includes one drink, and occurs every night at 9:30pm.
6. Take A Cooking Class
As a passionate fan of all things food related, taking a full day Thai Cooking Class was honestly a dream come true. We booked a day for $30 at MamaNoii Thai Cookery School, but Chiang Mai has many cooking schools and most classes have similar outlines.
Aim, our charismatic teacher, started the day by explaining the essential ingredients of Thai recipes, chili, garlic, peanuts, coconut milk, lemongrass, Thai basil, sweet basil, turmeric, shallots, spring onion, cilantro, ginger, black pepper, kaffir lime, tamarind, and fish & oyster sauce.
For the rest of the day we cooked various dishes including a fried spring roll, tom yum soup, cashew nut stir fry, green curry, Thai iced tea, papaya salad, and mango sticky rice. There were other food options to choose from, so everyone could cook what they preferred, and I had the option of substituting tofu for meat or fish.
My favorite part was creating our own curry paste by pounding the raw ingredients in a giant stone bowl with a stone mallet. Also to create the sticky rice for dessert, we took butterfly-pea flowers and squeezed them in a bowl of water to release a natural blue dye, which we added to the rice for color. The only downside of the day was that I became too full to eat any more after the fourth dish, but I took some food home to prevent any waste.
7. Tour The Temples
Like any major city in Thailand, a temple resides on almost every single street. Due to their sheer abundance, I won’t mention any specific names or locations of temples in the Old City; all you have to do is wander around and enjoy the intricate decoration and beauty of the many temples you will undoubtedly stumble upon.
I will mention Doi Suthep, however, as this hilltop temple makes for a nice quick trip outside the Old City. A 20 baht ($0.60) ticket allows you to wander the spacious grounds, study the captivating golden area of worship, and witness a sweeping view of Chiang Mai below.
8. Climb The Bua Tong Waterfall
Take a Songtaew (red pick-up trucks that act as shared taxis) 30 minutes outside the city to visit the natural wonder of the Bua Tong Waterfall. Also known as the “Sticky Waterfall”, you can literally climb up the waterfall due to mineral deposits that cover the rocks and provide friction.
It is quite surreal, walking straight up a steep waterfall with cool, rushing water tumbling down around you. At the top of the falls, you can see the rich green jungle on the horizon. At the bottom of the falls, you can relax in the calm, secluded pools.
9. Experience The Night Life
Chiang Mai at night is full of bars, clubs, night markets, live music, and near the Night Bazaar, Muay Thai Boxing Matches. Zoe In Yellow, a favorite spot among foreigners in Thailand, has a huge outdoor seating area for drinking buckets full of mixed drinks, and two amazing dance floors.
You can save money by walking everywhere since the Old City is quite small, but tuk tuks and Songtaews are still incredibly cheap.
10. Browse The Shops
A pleasant way to pass the time in Chiang Mai is walking through the quiet streets and stopping in all the quirky and aesthetically pleasing shops.
Common themes in these stores include model elephants, paintings and postcards of Thailand’s scenery and cities, colorful jewelry and clothing, and health and beauty products made from traditional Thai ingredients like lemongrass, ginger, mango, basil, coconut, and other herbs or fruits.
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