Chiang Mai, a slow-paced city located in the mountainous region of Northern Thailand, is a great place to go to unwind. It’s accessible, with Grabs and buses and tuktuks everywhere around town to take you places, and if renting a car is your choice, driving is the streets is also a fairly easy affair. I’ve been to Chiang Mai twice in my life, the first time with a fellow girlfriend who needed a little retreat after a nasty breakup, and the second time a last-minute decision, filled with a completely different set of experiences than the first.
Combining both of my experiences, here is a list of what I think you should see and do as part of your adventure in this historical, scenic region.
At Wat Phra That Doi Kham, you get to observe locals on a day of worship and the vast landscape of Chiang Mai
1. Visit Significant Temples of Chiang Mai
One noticeable trait about Chiang Mai you’ll notice is how spiritual their culture is. Buddhism is the center of most people’s lives, and you see this from as small as daily gestures of getting blessings before opening restaurants for the day, to the grandiosity of large statues of the Buddha, reminding you just how important beliefs are for the Thais. Whenever I travel I enjoy visiting spiritual establishments not only to appreciate their peaceful vibes, but to also get the feel of centuries of spiritual history often associated with these places.
Regardless of what you believe (or don’t believe), I really do recommend visiting a temple or two while in Chiang Mai. At Wat Umong, for example, you’ll get a chance to see the old tunnels built by the monks to escape the war. It’s quite an amazing feat. The temple itself is located at a large area with lush greeneries, perfect for a day’s stroll. At Wat Phra That Doi Kham, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the city from a high vantage point, and while you’re at it, enjoy the various snacks and fruit drinks sold by the temples.
Chom is enlisted in the Michelin guide, but there are also a few others scattered around the city!
2. Sample Some Michelin-Standard Thai Cuisine
Thai food. It’s world-renowned. But to elevate your dining experience, why not sample some Michelin-listed restaurants in Chiang Mai? With reasonable prices that won’t break the bank, that is. Chom restaurant is an instant favourite of mine, welcoming you in via an elaborate entrance of waterfalls, streams and large lush trees. The seating is comfortable, and the menu extensive, boasting a wide range of local delicacies fit for any dietary needs. Special honorary mention goes to its pomelo salad – a heavenly mix of pomelo flesh bursting with sweetness, a sharp sour dressing and fresh herbs. Chiang Mai’s favourite local dish, Kao Soi, which is a noodle soup variation that’s spicy, creamy and rich, can also be sampled at a Michelin restaurant called Kao Soy Nimman.
Delicious local dishes to try at the many restaurant options I listed below
3. But While You’re At It, Try Other Local Delicacies Too
Yes, of course it doesn’t have to be Michelin-rated to be delicious. There are plenty of just as-worthy places to eat around Chiang Mai. From seafood restaurants, humble hawker delights to vegan havens, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Mira Restaurant – A certified halal restaurant, this place has something you have to try when in Chiang Mai. Khantoke, which basically describes the pedestal tray the food is served in, comes as a large platter filled with bits and pieces of delicious things – fresh sausages stuffed with herbs, cuts of roast beef, blanched vegetables, different kinds of chili paste to dip all of these things into, and steamed glutinous rice. It’s a spicy and interesting combination.
Reform Kafé – A vegan café (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I brought friends who were all skeptics, and they loved it in the end) with a beautiful semi-outdoor setting, Reform Kafe boasts an extensive, plant-based menu. I implore you to try the spicy tofu, cubes of crispy tofu smothered in a dry chili paste. Another must try item on the list would be the tea leaf salad (Burmese salad), a tangy fresh crunchy concoction of crisp vegetables, herbs, tea leaves and crunchy nuts.
Cat House Café – For a chill breakfast experience, head over to this cute little café by the roadside. It has a good mix of western and thai breakfasts, and I particularly loved the cheese avocado sandwich where they used local avocados and housemade bread.
Dantewada Land Of Angels Waterfall Park – It’s a bit of drive out of town, but the entire place is a worthy immersive experience. The café is located right in the middle of a waterfall park, which is a manmade waterfall series with streams, gardens and gorgeous trees. It’s a great place to spend a few hours of lunch time in. The café itself has an array of choices, I had the snapper dry curry which was scrumptious, served with white rice.
Donuts Stall Right Next to Kao Soy Nimman – It is allegedly the ‘best donuts in Chiang Mai’, and you know what? I believe it. It’s just a small stall located right next to the Michelin-rated Kao Soy Nimman, selling only donuts. I’ll describe it; it’s like a eating a fluffy cloud and the custard dipping sauce is a delicious addition. They are no seatings, so it’s best packed and consumed on a park bench or you know what? Right after you buy it, stuffing your face as you walk along the roads.
It's not slippery at all, one can literally climb up it barefoot!
4 Try Climbing The Sticky Waterfall of Namtok Bua Tong-Nam National Park
About an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai city towards the North is the Namtok Bua Tong-Nam National Park. Here, you can find a very peculiar waterfall. At a first glance, it looks like just another majestic tropical waterfall, streams of water gushing down the hills amid thick rainforest greens. But then you’ll notice the rocks beneath the waters are strangely white. If there are locals around, you’ll also notice that they… climb up and down the waterfall. With no harnesses or safety gear.
The simple geological explanation is that the natural waterfall flows on top of Tufa, a type of rock precipitate that are not slippery at all, giving you a great grip as you walk up and down the incline of waterfall. It’s a beautiful place to have some fun with your family or friends, and certainly a unique experience from other waterfalls you might have been to.
You can easily get here from Chiang Mai via a car or scooter rental.
The night market is a great opportunity to try local snacks, buy local products/clothing and even just to browse through
5. Get Your Steps In At Chiang Mai Night Market
The Chiang Mai night market is a very long, elaborate stretch of street which is easily the pulse of night life in city. Located near the Old Town, it’s not hard to find at all – just follow the lights and the crowd! You can find anything here from food, snacks, drinks, local durian, clothing, shoes and even home utilities, or it’s just a nice place to walk around. Be warned that because of the weather, expect to be completely drenched in sweat by the time you’re done, and it could also be very crowded if you’re there during the weekends/holidays.
Cooking At Home is a great option to take cooking classes, amongst many others
6. Take A Thai Cooking Class
Probably not something to with kids, but I’d definitely recommend this activity especially if you love Thai food. Cooking classes (whether half day or full day) is very popular in Chiang Mai, and it involves not only a fun and interactive class (for the most part, the tedious things are already done for you, like cleaning produce etc) but also a trip to the market and usually wrapped with an eating session of all the delicious things you’ve made. It’s a great way to make new friends and meet other travelers too.
You can easily book these classes online depending on your budget and preferred duration, otherwise your hotel will also happily help you find one once you’re there.
7. Pamper Yourself With Some TLC At A Thai Spa
There is no use recommending you a specific place – Chiang Mai has an abundance of massage parlours and spas, found scattered in almost every major street of the city. It’s a dynamic scene, filled with a myriad of treatments and different levels of luxury, depending on what your budget is and what kind of pampering you’re looking for. A quick foot rub, for instance, takes only 30-40 minutes at any time of the day, whereas if you want to really go to town, you could also do a 4-hour treatment!
A very friendly giraffe at the safari!
8. Channel Your Inner Child At Chiang Mai’s Night Safari
Aside from eating out and the night market, there aren’t really many family-friendly activities in Chiang Mai after sunset. However, the Night Safari is certainly something that is fun for everyone. Well kept, spacious and interactive, the Night Safari experience has a few stations, like Herbivores, Night Predators and Animal Shows. Upon the purchase of your ticket at the entrance, you could choose whichever ones you’d like to go for first.
The Night Safari trains are frequent and accompanied with a guide, who would explain what animals you’re seeing and some fun facts about them. The animals all seemed healthy, well-fed and friendly, and you could even try petting them if they approach. There are also snack bars inside next to a man-made lake for you to take a breather.
Mae Kampong Village seen from the top of the hill
9. Make A Day Trip (Or Two) At Mae Kampong Village
A highly recommended activity, although it is a little out of town. You could opt to get there via your personal car rental, or even via a direct bus that can be taken from Van Station Sankamhaeng (the bus leaves every few hours, so it’s best to come to the station the day before just to check the timetable or get your tickets in advance). The drive takes about one hour, up some winding roads which will lead to the Mae Kampong Village nestled in the green hills. There is also a van that can easily take you back to the city again in the evenings.
The village itself is small, quaint and charming. You could spend the day checking out the small shops, trying the local cuisines in one of the village restaurants, or just chilling at one of the scenic cafes that overlook the mountainous landscape. It’s a beautiful glimpse of the more rural and raw Thailand, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The cabaret show will for sure show you a good time!
10. Watch A Live Show – Cabaret, Muay Thai Boxing
On weekends especially, there are cabaret shows and muay thai boxing matches that you can catch around the city. Both entertaining for different reasons, you’ll get to enjoy them with both local and international crowds (however, be warned that sometimes it can get a little rowdy too). Nonetheless, they’re both fun experiences and a great option for a night out in the city!