Everyone told me I’d love Chiang Mai, and of course, they were right.
Temples, gong baths, meditative yoga, Thai iced teas, all of the cold brew, lovely massages, and some seriously good night market eats.
It’s a place I miss every day and am already plotting a visit to again.
When I visited, I had five days to explore the city. Most people however, spend ~three days in Chiang Mai before heading to other parts of Thailand or SE Asia.
Back to CM: Why is it so great?
It’s modern, but still feels Thai.
It’s more laid back than Bangkok, but much more affordable than any of the Thai islands.
It’s years and years of history steeped in temples, mixed with an excellent coffee scene and cosy cafes.
It’s a place that I walked away from feeling like it was made just for me.
I’d never been somewhere before that felt so different to my normal reality, but simultaneously familiar.
If you’ve got 3 days to see the best of CM, these are my top recos for what to do, which temples to see, where to eat and where to try Thai roasted coffee.
Where to Stay
Really, there are two main areas short term visitors stay in while visiting CM- Old Town or Nimman.
Old Town is where you’ll find most of the frequently visited temples, as well as lots of markets, shops, restaurants and cafes.
Nimman is known as the student area of CM, and packed full of cafes, restaurants, shops, and near a huge mall.
I stayed at a poshtel in Nimman, and loved the neighborhood. I had a nice time wandering Old Town, but was glad to be away from the core touristy bits.
Getting to Old Town was simple from Nimman- it was a 25-30 minute walk, or easy to hop in a Grab (Uber of SE Asia), hail a tuk tuk or jump in the back of a songethaw (shared taxi truck).
Tuk Tuks were always the most expensive, Grabs were usually a few dollars (less than $3 USD), and songethaws were the cheapest- often $1-2 USD or less, pending your destination.
In terms of where to stay, I’d recommend booking a hotel or Airbnb- whatever is best for the kind of trip you’re taking. There’s no shortage of great lodging options.
What to Do
Visit the Night Bazaar: CM’s night bazaar is said to be one of the best in all of Thailand. I’m not big on shopping for souvenirs, but if you are, this market is definitely the place- spices, homewares, paintings, clothes, infamous ‘elephant pants’ scarves, jewelry- it’s quite the assortment. Sundays are said to be the best night to go. I enjoyed the night bazaar for its food market, but more on that below.
Take a Local Yoga Class or Experience a Gong Bath: There are several studios in Chiang Mai, but with both yoga and gong baths drawing deep roots to Asian culture, taking a local class or trying your first gong baths are perfect CM activities.
There are several studios across CM, but I visited The Yoga Tree twice during my week in CM-once for mindful yoga (hatha flow) and another time for the gong bath.
Can’t recommend the studio enough. The instructors are lovely, and classes priced reasonably. As a bonus, both classes I went to were pretty small as well (less than 6-8 people), so it was easy to ask the instructors questions or for help.
Curious about a gong bath? I shared more about my experience here.
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary: I know riding elephants, and much human interaction with these wild animals, isn’t ethical. I have strong feelings about visiting most zoos and would never set foot inside animal exploitation experiences, looking at you Tiger Kingdom.
That said, I’m still on the fence about this experience.
While I think the ethical sanctuaries can be good places to better understand animal abuse issues, I’m also aware visiting the actual ethical ones breeds unethical ones because tourism operators see how popular the experience is and want to re-create it. The issue? They end up taking shortcuts or aren’t honest in how they run their sanctuary.
If you do decide to visit a sanctuary, please do your research ahead of time and book with a truly ethical operator.
You shouldn’t be allowed to ride or wash/bathe with the elephants. If any touching is permitted, it should be minimal. I went to Elephant Nature Park (ENP) and had a good visit. Many of the rescued elephants at ENP arrived with serious injury or history of abuse. It’s likely they wouldn’t have even survived in the wild if they were reintroduced to it.
And, ENP takes in so many other rescue animals- dogs, cats, water buffalo- all in the interest of helping rehab them, and in some cases, finding them new homes.
Take a day trip to Chiang Rai: If you can spare an additional 2-3 days, I’d recommend spending them in Chiang Rai– the temples were some of the best I saw in all of Thailand. If you’ve only got a day though, there are plenty of tour operators that stop at two of the best temples- the white temples and the blue temple.
Be prepared for crowds though, most tours run on similar schedules and so stops are in sync. That’s the nice part about staying in CR on your own- you can go early or late to avoid hoards of visitors at these peaceful places.
Indulge in a Massage: Some of the best massages I had in Thailand were in CM. You’ll find spas for every budget, and what I really loved about spas in CM vs. elsewhere in Thailand / most of SE Asia was the simple practice of having visitors fill out entry cards.
These cards ask for your name, what kind of treatment you want, massage pressure preference, and focus areas for the therapist. Many of the therapists don’t speak English very well, so having this sorted at the upfront helps ensure a relaxed experience.
Two of my favourite places in CM: Fah Lanna for a luxe massage experience. It’s pricer than most Thai massage places, but for a reason- you get your own private village, pick out the oils you want to use, and the therapists are well trained. I visited a few other places in CM, but the only one that really stood out was Arayana Spa– the best foot massage I’ve had to date in SE Asia.
Gawk at Some of CM’s Most Beautiful Temples: Over 30 temples line CM’s streets, these three can’t be missed for their history, significance and beauty:
- WAT DOI SUTHEP: Revered as one of the most important temples in all of Thailand, Doi Suthep is worth the journey to get there. Not only is the temple stunning, but the surrounding complex is full of interesting things to observe, and there’s a great view of Chiang Mai. The temple is considered one of the holiest places of worship in Thailand. It was beautiful watching visitors worship, their awe for the temple made me appreciate being there even more so
- WAT PHRA SINGH: Known as the most popular temple in Thailand, by visitor numbers, Wat Phra Singh is located in old town, only a short walk from Wat Chedi Luang. The temple is so popular because it houses Chiang Mai’s most important Buddha image, the Lion Buddha (check out the small chapel at the back of the complex to see it). The Lion Buddha dates back to 1345, back when Chiang Mai was a growing part of the Lanna Kingdom
WAT CHEDI LUANG: Built in the early 1400s, Wat Chedi Luang was as one of the tallest buildings in Chiang Mai before collapsing during an earthquake in 1545. Reconstructed in the 1990s, it’s famed for housing the Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha). You can see a jade replica in the east-facing side. The original Buddha is at the Grand Palace in Bangkok
What to Eat
Spending five days in Chiang Mai, I left already craving the delicious food I’d eaten.
Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, these places have great options for the veg friendly and those who prefer a bit of meat or seafood with their meals. Vegan and other food restrictions (e.g. gluten free) are another story- I’d do a bit more research before visiting.
Farm Story House (Old Town): Finding this cosy cafe on my first day in Chiang Mai (CM) by wandering a narrow side street felt like the best discovery. I ended up coming back several times during my stay- the food was delicious and affordable, and cafe environment, quiet and relaxing. My go-to orders became pad Thai and mango sticky rice. Yes, I know pad Thai isn’t really from Thailand- that doesn’t change the fact it’s a delicious dish
The Larder Cafe & Bar (Nimman): It may not look like much from the outside, but rest assured, the breakfast game is top notch. Kept it simple here with a parmesan egg, roasted vegetables and toast order on two mornings, but they have more inventive toasts and a few Thai dishes on the menu as well. As with Farm Story, I liked that this cafe felt more local and less touristy
Khao Soy Nimman (Nimman): Without question, the best meal I had in CM. You must come here to try the khao soy- a spicy, salty noodle soup that’s from northern Thailand. I had mine with egg and it was * to * die * for *. My only regret is I didn’t eat here sooner in my trip- a friend told me about it on my last day
Kalare Night Bazaar (Old Town): Dined on the best pad Thai I had in all of Thailand (also SE Asia) at this night market. If you’re new to night markets, this one should make you feel at east- it’s clean, stalls have sanity rankings and there’s plenty of space to sit down and enjoy the entertainment (usually live music). Are there more authentic night markets across SE Asia? Sure, but this one has no shortage of delicious food to try.
Look for the yellow pad Thai signs or simply the winding line- it’s the longest line in the market. I loved the veggie pad Thai, but there are plenty of meat and seafood options to choose from, as well as a few other Thai dishes.
While at the market, I tried roti (Indiana flatbread) with bananas and nutella from the stall next to the yellow pad Thai vendor, and holy amazingness. V good.
There’s also a great fruit shake vendor (behind the yellow pad Thai stall), serving up frothy, delicious fruit smoothies. Tip: If you don’t want yours overly sweet, be sure to ask for ‘no sugar’ or else they’ll add a dose of liquid sugar- this is common across SE Asia.
Rustic & Blue (Nimman): Another favourite for breakfast or brunch- I tried simple eggs with vegetables and a green juice. They also had smoothie bowls, omelets and a few Thai dishes on the menu. Although this place is a bit more Western, I enjoyed the chance to have something familiar, and they have a beautiful garden to enjoy your meal in.
And, two dessert recoss-
Fruiturday (locations in Old Town and Nimman): Hands down, best fruit shakes I had in CM (and I tried a few different places). Liked this place the most because the fruits on offer are extensive, and, most of the staff speak at least conversational English, so it’s easy to ask for adjustments to your shake (e.g. no sugar).
Cheevit Cheeva(Nimman): This place does bingsu (Korean shaved ice) very well. I tried the strawberry bingsu, which was delicious- sweet, but not too sweet with a flavour punch from the fresh strawberries mixed in. There are a few different combinations on the menu, most of which are only served in the ‘large’ size and meant for sharing.
Where to Sip Coffee or Tea
CM is a haven for digital nomads. People with laptops are everywhere- cafes, restaurants- you name it.
It’s no surprise- the wifi is strong, and in the case of cafes, the ambiance is great and coffee is excellent. Coffee culture taken seriously in this small city.
Ristr8to (Nimman): True coffee lovers will enjoy this- it’s a place for people who take their coffee seriously. We’re talking award winning coffee.
They don’t do iced coffee but they have other cold coffee concoctions I enjoyed trying, and the latte is one of the best I’ve ever had.
Nine One Coffee (Nimman): Most mornings in Chiang Mai started here. Whether staying in the cafe to work for a bit or taking my cold brew to go, I dug the size of the cold brew (medium) and appreciated how strong the brew was. Also tried a Thai iced tea here one morning- great tea to milk ratio.
Aka Ama Coffee (Old Town): I told myself I wouldn’t buy coffee beans anywhere I visited- because I don’t know how long I’m travelling for- but, I just couldn’t resist doing so here. The coffee is fantastic and I love how close their old town location is to a few of the best temples in the city- great place to pop in for a morning caffeine fix or if you need a break from the heat post-temple hopping.
Ponganes Espresso (Old Town): The cold drip was ace, but I also enjoyed the iced Thai tea I had when I stopped by another time. You can work inside or take a seat in the front garden- the wifi extends outside.
My Secret Cafe (Old Town): Hidden away from the hustle of old town, this place is a serious gym. It’s cosy, quiet and has a drink menu with loads of options- smoothies, coffees, teas, as well as food and free water. I came here one afternoon to relax with a Thai iced tea and read and found it hard to leave to check out another cafe.
Overstand Coffee Shop (Nimman): Known for being a good breakfast spot in the Nimman neighbourhood, the coconut espresso is also worth popping in for.
Graph Cafe (Old Town): The cold brew is good, but it’s also the most expensive I had in Chiang Mai (and not any better than Nine One and Aka Ama in my opinion). It’s also a small space, not somewhere you can really sit and chat or work from. Including it because the cold brew was good, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Where to Drink
While visiting CM, I wasn’t drinking. One night, I popped by North Gate Jazz Co-Opp to listen to jazz, and that was a pretty good scene. I’ve heard their cocktails are great.
And, in Old Town, you’ll see a number of bars offering drink specials for visitors.
Assuming you have three full days, I’d recommend splitting your itinerary into a structure similar to the below-
Day 1: Visit temples in Old City and Doi Suthep (if up for the venture outside CM), massage in Old City, cafe hop, end the night at the night market
Day 2: Day trip to an ethical elephant sanctuary or Chiang Rai
Day 3: Wander CM, see more of Nimman or Old Town. Take a yoga class, go to a gong bath, or have another massage
Extra Travel Tips
- Language: Thai. English is spoken in many places, but expect it to be limited so be patient, and consider having an app like Google Translate ready to help
- Currency: Thai Baht. Carry enough baht on you to cover most purchases. Many places have a 500-1000 baht minimum because things are so inexpensive
- Getting There: I flew into CM from Bangkok on a budget airline (AirAsia), and then took a Grab to the city. You can also take a night train or bus into CM, pending where you’re coming from prior (Chiang Rai, Bangkok, etc.) and how much time you have. Taxis are available for the short, 15-20 minutes, ride to the city but rates are inflated in comparison to Grab
- Getting Around: Walk, tuk tuk, Grab or songethaw. Unless you’re taking a Grab and paying by card, have small change on hand
- When to Visit: I visited in late March and had warm (80s-90s F) days with hazy, polluted skies. Almost every day I was in CM, it ranked as the worst in the world for air pollution from the burning in the north. This clears up in the rainy season, but I left the city with acute bronchitis. The plus side to visiting with it’s so hot and dry- very few mosquitos and no heavy rain. Summer brings the rainy season in full force, which clears up by early November for peak tourism season (Dec-Feb) to start again
- Tipping: Tipping isn’t expected. I’d round up only if the service was exceptional (think a truly excellent massage)
- Wifi Access: CM is a well connected city. Every restaurant and cafe you come across should have free wifi
Have you ever been to Chiang Mai? What was your favourite part of your visit?
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