During our one month visit to Chiang Mai, we stayed at The Bliss, well outside of the the old town. (Read about our stay here.) The old town is the square shaped historical centre of Chiang Mai, easily recognisable on the map. It used to be surrounded by a thick brick wall of which you can still see the remains at some points. Within the moat surrounding the walls, is a maze of small streets packed with hostels, restaurants and spas. Outside of the moat is modern Chiang Mai: shopping centres, a hospital and large electronic shops.
As almost everywhere in Southeast Asia (or at least where we’ve been), the preferred mode of transport is a motorbike. Tons and tons of motorbike rental shops line the streets. We managed to find one that rents out bicycles as well, our preferred mode of transport (if there’s no cheap public transport available). Songthaews (the red trucks you see everywhere) are the local taxis, but they get stuck in the crazy traffic on Huaykaew Road, our gateway to the old town.
In short: Chiang Mai is a relaxed town full of expats, tourists and shiny golden wats (= temples). It was perfect for a break (to get some work done) after travelling full time for almost three months.
What to do in Chiang Mai? Visit markets!
Wandering over markets is without a doubt one of my favourite activities, no matter where or what kind. At home I have girlfriends to join me, but during our trip around the world Brecht has to suck it up. Unfortunately for him, I’m known to take my time at markets to closely inspect everything every stall sells. In Chiang Mai, we only visited a fraction of all the markets they have.
The first market we visited is the famous Sunday Walking Street Market. It starts at about 16-17h, ends late at night, and occupies the whole length of Ratchadamnoen Road, including some side streets. It seems endless! The roads are closed to traffic and become walking streets, packed with local vendors and shopping tourists. We arrived at about 18h when it was already very busy. By the time we were leaving we got pushed around by streams of people moving in different directions. We did no shopping, although there are lots of nice things, perfect to buy some original souvenirs.
Countless stalls sell everything from handicrafts (key rings, hand carved soaps, stuffed animals, …) to clothing (hippie pants, colourful dresses, …), accessories, arts and of course food. That’s where we spent some money, at the food stalls. We enjoyed some great Thai snacks: freshly (on the spot) made donuts (5 for ฿15, yummy!), a black pepper chicken and pork skewer (฿10 each, good), an egg boat (฿15, had a taste to it we didn’t like), spring rolls (4 for ฿20, good!), and a Nutella waffle (฿40, yummy but heavy on the stomach!). Our favourite snack of the night was the delicious ice cream from Ice Mania. You can choose three flavours and a topping for ฿50 and the vendor will make your ice cream on the spot which makes for a great show. I went with vanilla brownie M&M ice cream and Brecht with vanilla blueberry blackberry ice cream. Yum!
The less popular little sister of the Sunday Walking Street Market is the Saturday Walking Street Market, also known as Wualai Market. It starts at about 16h30, ends around 22h, and occupies Wualai Road (the old silver-making district of Chiang Mai) and Thipanet Road. Just like on Sunday, these roads are temporarily closed for traffic, becoming walking streets. We arrived around 17h, while some vendors were still setting up their stalls. It’s definitely worth it going that early to avoid the big crowds. Although this market is not as famous as the Sunday Market, it still attracts a lot of people. When we were making our way back to the moat where we parked our bicycles, it suddenly became crowded. By crowded I mean walking two steps, waiting a moment, getting pushed, walking two steps, waiting a moment, you get the picture. That was around 19h30.
This market is very similar to the Sunday Walking Street Market, as most vendors set up on both markets, Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately we didn’t find the Ice Mania stall for another delicious ice cream, but we did find stalls selling insects. Besides eating some egg fried rice (฿20), corn (฿20), croquette (฿35) and mango sticky rice (฿40), we bought some souvenirs: a T-shirt, a little (Kindle) bag and bracelets. We prefer the Saturday Walking Street Market, as they walkway between the rows of stalls is broader and there seem to be less people if you’re early!
Another market we visited is Warorot Market, locally known as Kat Luang, opened daily from 6h till 18h. It’s a covered market, occupying three floors, including a food court in the basement. We went there looking for cooking utensils and ended up buying a wok pan, a sauce pan and large spoon for ฿365 in total. They also sell all kinds of fresh and dried food, eating utensils, clothes and accessories.
We had lunch at the food court, trying the Chiang Mai signature dish khao soi. It only cost us ฿30 per bowl and there was free drinking water. This was one of the few times we actually ate among (only) locals. We were surprised to find out we liked it! Guess this is one of the first local dishes we really like. Later on we discovered there are other, more spicy, versions of khao soi we didn’t like quite as much. You can read about it in a following post about where to eat in Chiang Mai.
What to do in Chiang Mai? Attend Loi Krathong!
If you have the chance, align your visit to Chiang Mai with Loi Krathong and Yee Peng. This event, also known as the festival of lights, is held every year on the evening of the full moon of the twelfth month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar, usually in November in our Western calendar. It’s truly magical and romantic when all of the sky lanterns light up the night. Read more about this wonderful festival in another of our blogposts. You should attend it at least once in your life!
What to do in Chiang Mai? Visit temples!
There are a lot of temples or wats in Chiang Mai, but they say you haven’t really visited Chiang Mai if you haven’t been to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the temple on the mountain. We’ve seen some temples in the past few months, so decided to only visit Doi Suthep. It’s about a 40 minute drive UP there, so we decided to take a songthaew instead of our bicycles. We read online you get the best rates when you go to the North Gate of the Chiang Mai old town (Chang Phueak Gate). At the little kiosk just outside of the moat there are always one or more songthaews waiting to drive to Doi Suthep. You do have to be patient if you want a good rate though: we waited for 50 minutes for another six people to arrive. When there’s ten people it’s ฿100 per person (including the trip up and down), we paid ฿120 per person.
The first part of the 309 stairs you’ll have to climb are lined up with stalls selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs. Then there’s the real stairs, flanked by colourful snakes. On top of the stairs you have to pay a ฿30 entrance fee per person (only for tourists, not for locals). Don’t forget to dress appropriately (knees and shoulders should be covered). You should circle the temple counter clockwise, as clockwise is for funeral rituals. To enter the central plaza of the temple, you have to take of your shoes. It says on the signs you have to be quiet but everyone was quite loud. The central Golden Chedi is beautiful and surrounded by numerous Buddha statues.
I love the legend of the White Elephant who determined the location of this temple. A holy relic, believed to be Buddha’s shoulder bone, was found. King Kue Na put the relic on the back of a white elephant, believing the relic would perform a powerful miracle to stop the elephant at a suitable place to keep it. The first time the elephant stopped at Phalad. He trumpeted three times before he continued to Doi Suthep, where he turned in a circle and sat down. That’s where Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was built and still stands today, with a nice view over Chiang Mai.
What to do in Chiang Mai? Take a cooking class!
One of the most popular activities in Chiang Mai is taking a Thai cooking class. Thai Farm Cooking School has great ratings and seems to be very busy, so we booked a one day class with them (฿1,300 per person). We had a wonderful day, learning about Thai food and spices, and cooking some delicious meals! Read more about our day as Thai chefs here. It’s a nice bonus to get a cookbook at the end of the day, to remember everything you’ve learned. You should try it too!
What to do in Chiang Mai? Meet elephants up close!
You haven’t been in Thailand if you haven’t met an elephant up close, so we booked a single day visit to Elephant Nature Park (฿2,500 each) in Chiang Mai. It’s an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center, about an hour away of the Chiang Mai old town. Lek and her team save elephants from their horrible lives as slaves: logging, doing tricks to entertain humans, and even begging on the streets. The rescued elephants now live a peaceful life in the beautiful green valley called Elephant Nature Park. Read about our single day visit here.
If you want a picture of yourself with an elephant, be a responsible traveller and let it be one where you’re next to a happy elephant at Elephant Nature Park instead of on top of a sad one somewhere else.
What to do in Chiang Mai? Take a swim!
We heard about Grand Canyon Chiang Mai from one of our new friends from the CouchSurfing community we met up with for Loi Krathong. The photos were promising, so we decided to take a look for ourselves. It’s a 40 minute drive to Grand Canyon Chiang Mai, so once again we took a songthaew instead of our bicycles. We would have dinner in the old town, so parked our bikes near the East Gate (Tha Phae Gate). There are always some tuk tuks and songthaews waiting there. After some negotiating, we paid the songthaew driver ฿500 to take the both of us to the Grand Canyon and back.
We paid a ฿50 entrance fee per person, which included a (delicious) free iced tea. We spent 2 hours at Grand Canyon Chiang Mai, jumping in the water and relaxing. When we arrived at 14h20, there were some other people, but when we left it was really busy. There’s a restaurant and decent toilets, even black tubes (for rent) for some relaxing on the water. The view is beautiful and the water refreshing. It’s possible to jump into the water from various heights. Brecht tried the “medium” one, but real daredevils can find quite a challenge as well. You should really spend a morning or afternoon there if you have the time.
What to do in Chiang Mai? Things we missed…
There were some things on our to do list for Chiang Mai which we didn’t end up doing. The first one being Flight of the Gibbon, a zipline tour through Mae Takhrai park. We were quite excited about it, but it’s pretty expensive: ฿3,999 per person. Eventually we decided to visit Elephant Nature Park and skip Flight of the Gibbon. If you want more information about Flight of the Gibbon, you can visit their website.
Another cool activity we didn’t end up doing, due to too much working, is the Buatong Waterfall, better known as the Sticky Waterfall. You can climb the waterfall on your bare hands and feet, as the rocks are literally sticky. It sounds really cool! We read about it on the blog of Miss Tourist, so check our her blogpost for more information.
We had a great time in Chiang Mai and hope our tips will help you to have a wonderful visit as well!