Admittedly, this post is arriving a little late to the party; I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been asked to give suggestions for things to do and see in Chiang Mai since I moved there back in 2011, but I’ve finally reached my breaking point. Instead of continuing to write email after email after email, here is a comprehensive list of my recommendations for Northern Thailand’s beautiful city of Chiang Mai.
**Disclaimer: I have no information about Chiang Mai hotels or hostels–I never stayed in any–but there’s this site called Trip Advisor which I’m told is useful for that kind of thing.
WHAT TO DO
- Shop the Sunday walking street – Every week, local vendors and hill tribe natives line Ratchadamnoen (English spelling of street names may vary) end-to-end with their artisan goods. Load up on souvenirs or get a sidewalk foot massage while you people watch. Go in the late afternoon to beat the crowds.
- Take a Thai cooking class – Easily one of the best things I did before I left Thailand. Choose a half- or full-day course and learn how easy it is to create authentic Thai dishes yourself (I make Pad Thai nearly every week at home). I went to Baan Thai Cookery School but there are plenty of options to choose from.
- Visit some of the city’s gorgeous temples – My favorites: Wat Prathat Doi Suthep (probably the city’s most famous, sits on top of the mountain overlooking the city), Wat Chedi Luang (absolutely stunning at dusk), Wat Suan Dok (beautiful and easily accessible) and Wat Umong (seriously unique–made of a series of maze-like tunnels).
- Go to a Chiang Mai FC match – Gather a group of friends and watch the hilarious spectacle that is Thai soccer.
- Catch some Tuesday night jazz at the North Gate Jazz Co-op – Get there early to secure a table, or mingle and dance in the street when the crowd gets too immense for the space. Great music and a great atmosphere (you might even catch my friend Dan playing some sexy sax!).
WHERE TO EAT
- Sunday walking street food court – Endless selection of cheap street-style Thai food. Located on Ratchadamnoen in the old city.
- The Swan – Burmese Cuisine. Without a doubt my favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai. Order a variety of dishes and eat family style. Don’t miss the chad jam, tea leaf salad, and ner lung.
- The Riverside – Awesomely spicy Thai food, beautiful river view, live music most nights.
- Jagajee – Tapas restaurant and Prosecco bar. Intimate setting, friendly staff, menu that changes daily.
- Why Not? Mediterranean Restaurant and Wine Bar – Best Italian food and gelato in the city, hands down. All-you-can-drink wine for 250 baht Fridays from 6:30-8.
- The Cat House – A healthy spin on Asian fusion. The sweet potato and zucchini fries are phenom.
- The Salad Concept – My go-to for a healthy and inexpensive meal. Choose from their menu of unique salads or build your own.
WHERE TO DRINK
- Ristr8to Coffee – Are you a coffee snob?? Then this is the place for you! Gourmet coffee prepared by truly passionate and talented baristas. Ask for some latte art and you just might get a portrait of Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Srsly.
- H.O.W. (House of Wine) – Two locations to choose from, enjoyable experience guaranteed. Huge wine selection (hard to find in Thailand) and lovely staff.
- Chiang Mai President Hotel – Get drunk for cheap (and in style) at their nightly beer buffet. Prices may have gone up since my time, but it used to cost around 200 baht to drink unlimited beer from 6-9pm.
- Small House Kafé – “Just a bar. No assholes please.” A personal fave from the beginning. A laid-back, no frills hangout popular with long-term expats.
WHERE TO DANCE
- Zoe in Yellow/The Soi – Heavy on backpackers and cheap booze, the area in the old city containing the bar Zoe in Yellow that we colloquially referred to as The Soi definitely holds a special place in my heart. Some glorious moments took place there, but it can get stale if you’re going, say, every weekend. If you’re just in town for a few days, once is certainly enough.
- THC Rooftop Bar – I might catch some flak from my friends for this–THC is definitely not for everyone. It’s dirty in more ways than one, but I like to think the rooftop views make up for that. And if you’re into electronic music, you might just find a Thai DJ droppin’ beats of the filthy persuasion. Just make sure you zip your bag lest you end up with a cockroach inside of it. Yes, that happened.
- Warm Up – If you want to avoid the backpacker scene altogether, head to Warm Up. It doesn’t get much more Thai than this. Just be aware that if you and your friends like to dance (and the music here IS decent, and deafening) you’ll probably be the only ones.
- Fabrique (inside the President Hotel) – I discovered this place wayyy too late in the game. I was able to forgive the fact that they charge a 300 baht foreigner fee (includes a drink) because once you’re inside the music is just TOO GOOD. This is a legitimate club, complete with leather accoutrements, lasers, fog machines, dancing platforms and bottle service. Stay until 4 in the morning and severely damage your hearing–you won’t regret it. I said YOU WON’T REGRET IT!
- Huay Tung Tao – A little lake 20 minutes or so north of the city. It’s surrounded by thatch huts and the water’s a lovely temperature for wading or swimming. Choose a hut that suits you and order delicious food and beer while you soak up the sun. Knowing a little Thai is helpful here (especially the phrase ‘bia Leo yai’) but if all else fails, pointing at photos on the menu works too.
- Hang Dong Quarry – Drive 20-30 minutes south of the city to find this treasure. This abandoned mining quarry has since filled with water to create a unique little oasis. The vertical walls and immense depth mean you can cliff-jump from nearly anywhere…or come prepared with floaties and beer and just chill. Hard.
- Doi Inthanon National Park – Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand. And inside the National Park there is plenty to explore: waterfalls, hill tribe villages, rice paddies and more. Or spend a few nights camping–it’s best if you go during the hot season, not rainy season.
- The Veranda Resort – This boutique hotel is hidden in the hills outside the city limits and boasts some incredible scenery, an infinity pool, a comprehensive cocktail list and a gourmet restaurant. They now charge 400 baht for entry, so I’m told (yikes!), but that includes a free smoothie from the bar. For this view? I’d probably still make the splurge.
- Elephant Nature Park – The most humane way to get up close and personal with elephants in Northern Thailand. Feed them, bathe them, hear the stories of the ones who’ve been rescued and rehabilitated, even volunteer. More info here.
- Pai – If you can handle the 4-hours and 762 curves on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai, it’s a trip worth making. The adorable hippy-dippy town of Pai is becoming more and more commercialized, but it’s still a nice weekend getaway from the city. It has some fantastic restaurants (The Witching Well is my personal favorite), shopping and excessive amounts of natural beauty.
- Eakachai Houseboats – The Eakachai “houseboats” are really more like floating cottages, and you’ll find them on the Mae Ngat Reservoir about 2 hours’ drive from Chiang Mai. Reservations can be made easily by calling in advance; each room sleeps 2 people. They also have a full restaurant, kayak rentals, and diving platforms. Beer is sold but it’s cheaper to bring your own. Every trip was seriously unforgettable.
- Chiang Dao – This quaint little town is famous for its unique temple–inside a cave. I was able to conquer my claustrophobia and arachnophobia (sort of) to venture inside. You can hire a guide to take you through the cramped, pitch-black, spidery parts if you’re insane. There are several good hostel options in town, The Nest is highly recommended.
- Chiang Mai Smile Party – This mini music festival takes place in early December on the aforementioned lake, Huay Tung Tao. It’s a fairly new event but seems to be growing each year. Think: neon decor, fire poi, dance music and Sangsom buckets (when I put it that way it sounds a lot like the full moon parties on Koh Phangan, but I assure you it’s MUCH more chill).
- Loi Krathong – This several-day festival takes place during the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar (that’s late November to the rest of us). It can be described in many ways–a festival of lights, fireworks, lanterns, floating rafts–so appropriately, there are many ways to celebrate it. One traditional aspect that is easy to take part in is creating or buying a miniature raft made from natural materials including banana tree trunk, banana leaves, and flowers and sending it down the river as you make a wish. Just try not to get hit by stray fireworks, things tend to get a little out of hand.
- Yi Peng – If you are lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai during the annual Yi Peng festival and lantern release at Mae Jo University, it would be absolutely unforgivable not to attend. Coinciding with the week of Loi Krathong celebrations, Yi Peng is one magical night of merit-making for Thailand’s Buddhist population (that’s more than 95% of Thais) in which thousands of paper lanterns are released into the sky all at once. I lived in Thailand for over a year before I got to experience this, but it was more than worth the wait.
- Songkran -Ahh Songkran! The modern manifestation of an old tradition of ‘sprinkling elders with water as a gesture of respect’ during the Thai New Year in mid-April. These days, it’s essentially a country-wide, 5-day, no-holds-barred water fight. Don a Hawaiian-print shirt, buy a full arsenal of super-soakers (fill some with water, others with booze…and try not to mix them up), leave your electronics at home and retaliate without hesitation when the locals douse you with buckets of ice water…and don’t forget your battle cry of SAWATDII BII MAI JAOWWW (Happy New Year).