A former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Mai now plays host to an international hub of creativity, laid-back charm and cultural coolness. With a picturesque back drop of mountains, its location in the foothills of Northern Thailand offers a welcome respite from the chaos and oppressive heat that its sister city Bangkok suffers.
As the largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai offers a diverse and eclectic dimension to the usual city experience. The crowd is down-to-earth with a slightly bohemian edge. Travellers, students, NGO-workers and cultural enthusiasts ensure an interesting mix with the Thai trilogy of temples, well priced markets and street food stalls ensuring there’s plenty to see and do. It’s the goto place for trekkers who want to explore the surrounding landscapes and hill-tribes and those interested in massage and cookery.
1. Grab a Ring-Side Seat at a Muay Thai Boxing Match
You can’t visit Thailand without seeing a Muay Thai boxing match. Chiang Mai has a few venues varying in cost and authenticity. You get what you pay for so choose wisely.
For us, Chiang Mai was particularly memorable. We had several reunions with friends we had made during our travels. We were lucky enough to meet Alan, an ex-work colleague who now lives in Chiang Mai, Ariela whom we first met in Chitwan, Nepal and Federica and Sal who we met whilst trekking the Annapurna Circuit. It was so great to meet up with all of them!
Alan kindly arranged some well-priced ring-side seats for us at the Loi Kroh complex and introduced us to Tai – a tiny Muay Thai boxer who looked like he could pack a good punch or two!
The evening was pure comedy with the usual faux – charm of ladyboy waitresses behind neon – lit bars, overpriced alcohol and an unexpected flash of a ladyboy’s chest, which surprised all of us – or did it! The night ended with a round of blindfolded Muay Thai. Hilarious!
2. Show off your Culinary Skills in a Cookery Class
If you’ve ever wanted to discover the secret to cooking good Thai food – Chiang Mai is a great place to start. There are many cooking schools that offer full, half day or evening options that you can easily fit into your travel plans.
We booked a full day course with Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. We got to choose one dish from seven categories; soup, noodles, appetizer, stir-fried vegetables, make a curry paste, cook a curry from the paste, finishing off with a Thai dessert.
The day started with a visit to the market and an amusing lesson in Thai ingredients. The things I learned about coconut milk! Later, you’re taken to the school to start cooking all your dishes.
We had a great time at Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. Not only did we finally learn the secrets behind why Thai food tastes so good, it was a fun way of meeting new people. We had a great bunch of people in the group!
* Whatever you do, don’t eat before the cookery class! There was so much food to eat, we barely made it to main course! You can however takeaway the rest of the food if you really can’t eat anymore!
* Don’t worry about taking notes – you get a recipe book
* It may sound obvious but If you want to take pictures or video, make sure your batteries are charged! I thought my camera was fully charged until it died on me during the main course – I was so disappointed!
* As with many tours in Thailand, you will be picked up and dropped off at your accommodation.
3. Spend a day at an Elephant Sanctuary
There are so many activities involving elephants in Chiang Mai. From elephant trekking through surrounding forests to training to be a mahout. Which ever you choose, research the company thoroughly as their ethics may not be so ethical! Avoid elephant camps that offer shows as the training for this is cruel and abusive. Also avoid riding elephants as this is done under coercion. We visited the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants rescued from exploitation and abuse. Read about our amazing experience with these wonderful animals.
4. Temple – Hop around Chiang Mai
Founded in 1296, Chiang Mai is overflowing with hundreds of temples that adorn this city. A legacy of the many Kings who built these treasures, a visit to a few temples can be a great opportunity to get a glimpse of Buddhist life and take in the rich history of these monuments.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a good place to start. Perched high on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, visiting Wat Suthep is a charming way to spend an afternoon admiring golden Buddhas, historical murals and gleaming pagodas. Established in 1383, Wat Suthep is considered one of the most sacred temples, as it houses what is believed to be one half of Buddhas shoulder bone. The other half is contained within a chedi in Wat Suan Dok temple.
Visit the International Buddhism Centre and enjoy the various programs that run daily for visitors. Why not take part in a monk chat – a great way of interacting with monks through an informal discussion where you get to ask questions and they get to practice their English! Monk chats run daily from 1-3pm. From meditation demonstrations to participating in chanting, it’s a great way to experience Buddhist life.
For those who want to fully immerse themselves in the experience, the centre runs various courses in meditation ranging from four days to three weeks. Be prepared for 5.00am wake up calls, a diet of only two meals a day and long periods of meditation and chanting!
5. Chiang Mai Markets
If you’re looking for a bargain, there’s a market for every day of the week in Chiang Mai. They all offer different shopping experiences from the usual fake goods to the more authentic crafts.
Head towards the old walled city area and visit the huge Sunday Night Market or Walking Street as it’s called. Extending from Tha Phae Gate to Ratchadamnoen Road, you’ll find stall after stall of souvenirs, clothes, handicrafts, jewellery and food. Grab a bite to eat from the road side vendors in between browsing the thousands of goods on offer. We found prices of some goods compared favourably to Bangkok, but remember to bargain your way through the market and check your purchases before you buy.
Open every Sunday from 4.00pm to midnight.
Alternatively check out Chiang Mai Saturday Market or Wui Lai Market. Along with the usual fare, you’ll find silversmiths, wood carvings and various crafts with street entertainers and musicians thrown in to add to the lively atmosphere. Like the Sunday market, the roads are closed to traffic making it easier to navigate your way round the market.
Open every Saturday from 4.00pm to midnight.
Warorot Market is open everyday and alive with locals who come here to do their shopping. You’ll find everything from fresh and dried food, electronics, flowers to ceramics, beauty supplies and condiments. The market is a combination of bustling indoor and outdoor stalls and around the side streets you’ll find unique textiles from the hill – tribe regions of Northern Thailand.
We loved Chiang Mai! It was a great place to recharge our batteries, plan the next few months of our travels, catch up with friends, eat lots of food, play with lots of elephants and see some amazing temples.