What to Do in Chiang Mai and Why It Is One of My Favorite Cities in the World
I arrived in Chiang Mai after a few rough days in Bangkok, feeling gun shy, reserved, and only slightly hopeful. Climbing into a songthaew from the train station, I crossed my fingers to avoid any similar conflicts I had in Southern Thailand. I had so many things on my list of what to do in Chiang Mai, I had to keep a positive attitude.
The first experience we had with a songthaew left me feeling a little discouraged. Sonthaews are the red taxi trucks that line the streets of the city. The driver of the truck dropped us off at the wrong hostel. We had to make our way across the Old City to get to the right one.
But I immediately found out how manageable the tiny streets were and how easily we could navigate ourselves. Reaching the hostel sweaty and accomplished was a good feeling. Especially when we realized we were able to find it with minimal help and no Wi Fi. Chiang Mai quickly became one of my favorite places.
Here are some more in depth posts on what to do in Chiang Mai:
- For some of the best restaurants in Chiang Mai, click here.
- Read about my experience at a Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary here.
- Learn how to cook amazing Thai food at a cooking class here.
- Follow this link to discover the best way to experience the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival .
- Read here about how to travel by slowboat from Thailand to Luang Prabang.
Where to stay
The bulk of my time in Chiang Mai was spent at the Panda Hostel. Since it was my first time to Southeast Asia, I wasn’t sure how reliable booking accommodations on the spot would be. I was also concerned about big crowds in the city for the Lantern Festival. So I booked a week at the Panda Hostel in advanced.
It was such a cute and clean hostel and in a great location. My friend and I got a private room with two beds that was big and had plenty of room. It was a safe and secure place to stay. However, the beds had no mattresses. I assume it is to limit the possibility of bed bugs, but it made for a not very comfortable place to sleep.
We ended up staying one extra night at the Luna Guesthouse 2 which was by far superior. The beds were much more comfortable. It was even in a better location.
Be prepared to relax in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai might as well be in another country from Bangkok for it’s approachability and welcoming embrace to travelers.
Unlike the chaotic and crowded streets of its southern sister, Chiang Mai felt as relaxing as a small beach town. It actually almost seemed wrong that there wasn’t a beach just steps away from the old city. If there was, I’d probably have never left.
Get as many Thai massages as you can
The most relaxing part was Thai massages. Love them or hate them (i LOVED them), they were at their peak here. At just about 250 Baht ($8) an hour, you’d be insane to pass this up while visiting. I had the best massage of my life from a tiny Asian woman at The Massage at Chiang Mai. This tiny woman pushed, pulled or cracked every part of my body and I left feeling nine feet tall and 100 pounds lighter.
The overall disposition of the city is calm and relaxed. I didn’t encounter a single act of aggression. I never felt like I was going to get taken advantage of or scammed out of the precious pennies I served countless beers to save in order to take the trip in the first place.
It truly feels like the safest city in Thailand
The old city calms down pretty early. Even in the dark, walking back to the hostel at night was never scary.
One evening, my friend and I found ourselves in the middle of nowhere. We were searching for a restaurant from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Looking forward to trying fried frog legs, we were disappointed to find it closed.
We had an interesting time finding a taxi to take us back to a familiar part of town. Although it was a little scary and deserted being out there on an open road far enough outside of the city center, I never felt like we were in danger.
This was definitely a testament to how safe Thailand can be for female travelers.
Eat as much as you can
The food I ate in Chiang Mai was the best I had in Asia, hands down. The flavors, fresh fruit, coconut ice cream and my daily Thai iced tea made it near impossible to enjoy food anywhere else I went.
The ingredients were so fresh, just grabbing mangos and melons on the side of the road was a luxurious experience. Because I enjoyed the food so much, I took a full day cooking class to learn how to make all of my favorite dishes back home.
As soon as I was headed back to Bangkok at the end of my trip, I searched the Internet for Khao Soi places. I actually spent my first jet lagged night home in New York Googling. I made a list of Thai Iced Tea restaurants and places to get Papaya Salad.
Go to all the Night Markets
One of the greatest things in all of Southeast Asia is the endless night markets. You’ll probably hear this from every traveler you encounter. I loved the night markets in Chiang Mai the most. They are easily the best way to find cheap food, meet other travelers and pick up some fun souvenirs. Including all the elephant pants you can roll into a backpack.
Do not forget to get a fish pedicure in the Anusarn Market!
One of the easiest cities to navigate
The streets are easy to navigate, the city within the old walls is compact. Getting from one side to the other is both stress-free and easily done by foot. A nice change from Bangkok.
I only had to take a songthaew or tuk tuk a few times for the entire 10 days I was there. And those experiences were all much more pleasant than the experiences I had had before then.
I was rarely too far away to walk wherever I needed to go and the occasional songthaew or tuk tuk I had to take was without the additional tour of silk factories and tailor shops.
Go to the temple on the hill
The one thing you expect most from a trip to Thailand is the beautiful golden temples, which you will find scattered throughout the old city. But the most beautiful temple I saw in Thailand was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s about an hour drive outside of the old city walls.
We paid a songthaew to take us up and down the mountain (800 baht for two people).
Note: I don’t know if this is a standard price but after minimum haggling with a few different drivers we decided it was worth it. It is a far drive and the driver stopped half way up the mountain for a stunning view without even having to be asked, and then waited for us to tour the temple and take us back down the mountain.
The drive up the mountain allows it’s own breathtaking views, but the temple itself is what is really worth seeing.
Do not miss the Lady Boy Cabaret!
One of the most unexpected highlights of my time in Chiang Mai was definitely the Lady Boy Cabaret in the Night Bazaar. I had more fun there than I could possibly put into words.
I drank too many beers, had tequila shots, stuffed 100 baht bills down drag queens bras, saw the spitting image of Rihanna and danced and sang along with the rest of the crowd.
Note: During the shows intermission they have a “happy hour” for discounted beer prices. (80 Baht versus 100 Baht) It’s not a bad idea to hold out and then order double.
I hung out at the bars in the area with my friend after and had a couple of beers. We chatted up some nice locals and finished a beer on the Tuk Tuk ride home. (We got help with this by a local man to make sure we didn’t get scammed). He said 100 baht (total) was fair for a late night ride back to the old city.
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