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Top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai
Nestled in a valley and encircled by mountains, the sleepy northern town of Chiang Mai is packed with temples, culture, handicrafts and its own unique cuisine. Until 1775 Chiang Mai was part of the Lanna Kingdom, with its own language, King and culture. Today the walls of the historical moat, protecting the Lanna capital, still stand strong and are important sites within the city. While most visitors are unaware of the differences between Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand, the local people know their history well, and still speak Lanna at home.
Due to its location, Chiang Mai is off the beaten track for most tourists coming to Thailand, as the majority head for the beautiful beaches and tropical islands of southern Thailand. For those that do make it up to the rose of the north, they will be rewarded with a glimpse into everyday Thai life away from the tourists, a rich culture spanning across hundreds of years and some of the most unique experiences to be found in southeast Asia.
With Chiang Mai’s undeniable charm in mind, here are the top 10 things to do whilst exploring this diverse town.
Visit the Sunday Walking Street
Where: The middle of Chiang Mai’s old city
What: Southeast Asia’s largest street market. The Sunday Walking Street features thousands of vendors, selling everything from food, clothing and jewellery to handicrafts and homewares.
Highlights: The Sunday Walking Street market is an amazing experience, even if you don’t like shopping. Starting at sunset, the market sprawls across the old city, starting at Thapae Gate, and the stalls feature unique handmade items, as well as some quirky gifts. This is the perfect place for souvenir shopping and scattered out between the stalls are local snacks and drinks such as black jelly tea. There are various areas to stop for dinner, including the famous ‘food temple’, Wat Phan On. Try Khao Soi, Chiang Mai’s most famous dish. If you get tired from all the walking, stop to get a foot massage from the small massage stalls set up among the stalls.
Temple hop around the city
Where: Throughout Chiang Mai
What: There are around 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai, and most are free to enter. Each one is different with diverse architecture.
Highlights: The temples in Chiang Mai all have their own unique features and just by wandering around you will discover some hidden gems. The most famous temple is Wat Chedi Luang, one of the oldest and most revered temples. Its stupa is said to have been the tallest in northern Thailand. Another popular temple to see is the silver temple, its building covered in ornate silver carvings. Wat Umong is located about 15 minutes outside the old city, but worth a visit. It is classed as a forest temple with a monastery and dates back to 14th century. To get to the ruins and underground tunnels, you have to walk though part of the forest and there is also a pond for making merit (good luck) by feeding the fish.
Try street food
Where: The nightly market at Chiang Mai Gate has a great selection of street food.
What: Fresh fruit, grilled pork, noodle soups and Pad Thai. Most dishes cost 30 Baht ($1), so you can sample all the delights of Thai cuisine cheaply.
Highlights: The night market at Chiang Mai Gate opens every evening at sunset and has a great selection of food on offer. Try ‘Sai Oua’ (traditional northern sausage), spicy stir fries with shrimp, or the famous pad thai. Noodle soup is the most common street stall dish and is served up within seconds of sitting on the street side tables. Also recommended is the seasonal fresh fruit on offer, from mangosteen, lychee to rambutan - there are so many unusual Thai fruits to taste for dessert.
Lunch at Huay Tung Tao Lake
Where: 20 minutes north from Chiang Mai city
What: A large lake with amazing mountain views and bamboo huts lining the water's edge.
Highlights: Huay Tung Tao is the perfect city escape and a chance to experience some of the nature surrounding Chiang Mai. A great place to relax, unwind and try out more amazing Thai food. The bamboo huts are owned by restaurants which serve papaya salad and sticky rice, grilled fish or pork, stir fries and cold beer. Huay Tung Tao is also a great place to walk around; keep your eyes peeled for unusual bugs, birds or the occasional lizard.
Fly like a Gibbon
Where: Mae Kampong eco village
What: 3 hours of zip lining, abseiling, sky bridges and adventure in the jungle.
Highlights: Flight of the Gibbon has the longest zipline in Asia, and is the most popular zip line company thanks to its exciting adventure course and its dedication to conservation of local gibbon monkeys. Ziplining has become one of the ‘must do’ things when visiting Chiang Mai, and usually takes a whole day since the courses are located deep in the Thai jungle. The day trips can be combined with white water rafting, climbing, off roading or even segways around the old city.
Explore the coffee culture
Where: Cafes throughout the city, or try Akha Ama cafe
What: In 2010, industrious Thai’s working in Melbourne brought back the concept of good quality coffee and hip coffee shops to Chiang Mai. Today there are hundreds of cafes, many of which serve up fresh, local beans grown with Chiang Mai province. Cafes, and the markets, are a great place to see everyday Thai life.
Highlights: Akha Ama cafe is a social enterprise serving up some of the best local coffee in Thailand. The coffee is grown in a small Akha hill tribe village and then sold in one of the two cafes in the city. The beans from Akha Ama are becoming famous worldwide so don’t miss the chance to try some. Ristr8to coffee shop is arguably the best coffee shop in Chiang Mai (and was one of the first), so if you are into good coffee head there to experience the Thai cafe culture.
Flower market and Warorot market
Where: Chiang Moi Road and Riverside
What: A unique Thai-Chinese market filled with spices, materials and unusual items, and a 24 hour flower market show casing the most colourful and aromatic flowers from the region.
Highlights: Warorot market is predominantly a local market, so a visit is a true experience for the senses. Curry pastes, dried fruits and local delicacies cover the loud and packed ground floor of the market, while the upper floors hold clothing, household items and materials. Warorot can be a little overwhelming so after head to the flower market, wander round and see some of the most beautiful flowers in Thailand for sale. Keep a special eye out for the purple royal orchid; the official flower of Thailand.
Try a Thai massage
Where: Women’s correctional institution or massage shops throughout the city.
What: Thailand’s famous health remedy is the Thai massage. Said to improve health, overall wellbeing and specific body troubles, no trip to Thailand is complete without indulging in a traditional Thai massage.
Highlights: Massage prices in Chiang Mai start at around 200 Baht, a fraction of what you’d pay back home, which means you can splurge on a two hour massage for the price of a coffee. There are massage shops all over the city but the Women’s correctional institution, in the heart of the old city, has a great reputation and atmosphere. The masseuses are ex-inmates (don’t worry it’s perfectly safe) who have been retrained in the art of massage to ensure they leave prison with transferable skills. There are also some high end spas around the city offering anything between two to five hour pampering packages.
Meet the elephants
Where: Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
What: This ethical eco-tourism project and sanctuary aims to educate and inform tourists about the welfare of elephants in Thailand, whilst also providing a safe and wonderful home for over 30 formerly mistreated elephants. This is the perfect opportunity to get up-close to these magnificent creatures, helping the members of the Karen hill-tribes and Chiang Mai locals with their conservation and charity efforts along the way. There is no riding the elephants here, as it causes serious long term damage.
Highlights: Getting to meet elephants face to face and know you’re doing something good for the community at the same time is a fantastic feeling, and there are plenty of exciting opportunities to learn more about these fascinating animals. Ranging from half-day and full-day visits, to whole day walks with elephants and two day visits, there are lots of incredible activities to enjoy, including feeding them, walking alongside them, and watching them naturally get on with their day.
Where: On top of Doi Pui Mountain, overlooking the city.
What: Thailand’s most famous temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a golden masterpiece, perched on the mountain. It can be seen from all areas of Chiang Mai and many Thai’s aim to visit this revered temple at least once in their lifetime.
Highlights: This temple is the most important place to see in Chiang Mai and is an adventure to get to. It starts with a ride up the windy jungle road, then 304 steps to climb to the temple itself. There are stunning vistas from the viewpoints on the way and good luck to gain from circling the golden stupa enshrining relics from Buddha himself. The whole experience of getting to Doi Suthep is memorable. Most people spend a few hours at the temple as there is so much to see, and the atmosphere and cool temperatures invite visitors to sit in contemplation or meditation. If you continue to drive past Doi Suthep, you enter the dense forested national park of Doi Pui, and can visit local Hmong hilltribe villages scattered on the back side of the mountain. Despite being less than 45 minutes away from the city Doi Suthep and beyond feels like a real uncharted adventure.
While most tourists to Chiang Mai only spend a few days in the city, there are enough attractions to keep visitors here for weeks. Since Chiang Mai is a sleepy city, it is wise to adjust to the pace of life here, wander around and explore all the hidden gems the city has to offer. Chiang Mai is also the perfect base for exploring the rest of northern Thailand, with great connections to Mae Hong Son, Pai, Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle.