My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Understand
Think of Chiang Mai as one huge 'Khao San Road' backpacker destination that has gone upscale in many parts and has gotten seriously trendy in China and South Korea. Chiang Mai is a rather small town that has some 'big city' vibes and ticks all the boxes that visitors have for Thailand - night markets, cheap massages, good food and surprisingly really good, upscale coffee.
Chiang Mai feels very touristy and indeed in many of the great eateries and coffee shops, you will notice they are frequented almost exclusively by visitors.
It is cheaper than Bangkok but you won't have many 'OMG it is so cheap' moments in Chiang Mai.
As with other places in Thailand, the locals are visibly jaded by the enormous amount of visitors (who could blame a country that gets one visitor per citizen, concentrated in just a few places every year) but they keep up a smile to keep the commerce rolling (a massive $80 billion per year). I find this quite an amazing feat.
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Get Around
Chiang Mai has a lot of red pick-up trucks that initially seem like local taxis but are now run by aggressive taxi touts. Avoid using them if you can. The same goes for tuk-tuks, which seem to haveentirely dropped their exhausts and they now prey on tourists.
Since the demise of Uber in Thailand, I have used Grab many times and 90% of the cars were new and the drivers were courteous (though they usually spoke no English). Grab has been getting much more like Uber, with better driver education. Fares are typically below $3 wherever you go in the city.
Walking is generally not a good option because there are few sidewalks and the heat will get to you quickly. Drivers typically circle around pedestrians but it can get hairy quickly.
If you drive outside the city, renting a car is a good option. Driving is on the left and there are few formal traffic rules. However, most drivers are courteous and the roads outside the city are typically excellent (less so inside the city).
The local favorite is the motorbike that can be parked anywhere and is used to cross the street.
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Safety
Thailand is generally a safe country and crime isn't an issue. There are the typical tourist scams that won't be hard to catch in the city (usually transport related).
Watch out for stray dogs that can carry diseases and pop out of nowhere, especially in the dark (though most of them are not aggressive). Traffic can turn rather chaotic at any time so make sure you are aware of your surroundings.
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Connectivity
Connectivity is usually good, with many coffee shops providing a 20 Mbit connection or better. The T-Mobile Simple Choice plan includes Thailand for their free roaming. Local SIM cards are available (though often just as tourist SIM cards that cost twice as much).
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Pollution
Unlike Bangkok, pollution isn't a big issue in Chiang Mai. The city is small enough and the winds in the valley typically blow out pollution quickly (and so do the rains). There is a sewage smell but it is less of an issue as in Bangkok.
Given the forest-like environment and the many open bodies of water, there are plenty of mosquitoes to contend with. Always have mosquito repellent handy or wear long clothing to protect yourself (though there are few mosquito-borne diseases in the area).
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Sights
The Old City of Chiang Mai has a stunning 40 Buddhist temples on display. Some are small, some are pretty extensive and many come with gilded roofs and stupas.
It's best to simply drift through the Old City and discover them with as much appetite for the heat and unpleasant traffic that you can muster.
Temple on the Hill
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is highly-revered and the most visited of all the temples in Chiang Mai. Following a windy road up the mountain (likely bysongthaew, scooter or a private bus excursion), you'll need to climb more than 300 steps or take the cable car to reach the temple grounds - but the temple and spectacular views are worth it.
The area around the 'Night Bazaar' keeps growing like a wildfire. You can spend hours and hours browsing the (often intricate) merchandise. If shopping is your thing, you won't have to worry. The whole experience is VERY touristy though and prices are markedly higher (even if you bring your best bargaining skills).
Saturday Night Market/Sunday Night Market
Saturday and Sunday see separate night markets (in addition to the huge night bazaar) which have a bit more local flavor.
Maesa Elephant Camp
There are a number of elephant parks just north of Chiang Mai. I was expecting a former work site (where elephants helped in agriculture and forestry work) but things are much different now - it turned out to be more like a Broadway show.
Almost 300 visitors joined the show at the camp in Maesa Valley that we joined at 9.30 AM. The elephants and their training are nothing short of impressive though. They are massive, highly intelligent beings that excel at such surprising skills as painting, playing musical instruments and soccer.
The entrance fee (without transportation) is THB 250.
Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls
This was a surprise to me - the Bua Tong Waterfalls in Sri Lanna National Park comes with rather sticky sandstone and it is a joy (and test of will) for locals and visitors alike to climb through (up and down) these waterfalls.
There is no shortage of massage places in Chiang Mai. A one-hour massage starts at just THB 200, with the better spas charging up to 600 per hour.
Lila Thai Massage 5th
I liked Lila Thai Massage 5th the best - they are working with former inmates as rehabilitation and despite my doubts, the massages are fantastic and cheap.
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Eat & Drink
To my surprise, Chiang Mai is a diverse and high-quality coffee destination with many high-end coffee roasters and brewers abound.
Coffee shops are typically tiny (think just a few seats) and prices reach US levels. But so do the quality, presentation and product. Northern Thailand is a coffee-producing region so coffee is not just local, it should also be cheaper (it isn't). Here are my favorite picks:
A Day in Chiang Mai
A little to the southeast of the Old City sits this coffee shop that you may mistake for a car garage at first. However, the baristasare serious about coffee and you can see the joy they have in their work.
Ponganes struck me as one of the best quality espresso drink makers in Chiang Mai. It is markedly low-key but ticks all the right boxes, including a wonderful cortado. There is space for less than half a dozen people so don't plan on doing any work there though.
Graph has taken to the art of innovative coffee and espresso drinks and with an eclectic menu that I haven't seen before. It also makes great standard espresso drinks. Again,it barely has 8 seats so I had trouble even getting my family in the door!
The One Nimman Center has another (slightly bigger) Graph Cafe.
Akha Ama is another fantastic espresso drinks provider that has a number of outlets around the city. The coffee is fantastic and the spaces are typically a bit bigger (though still minimalist) than other places.
Ristr8to feels more like a nightclub or bar than a coffee shop, with its dark interior and thumping beats. However, the coffee creations are fantastic and the waffles are pretty decent too.
Ristr8to has a number of locations and gets its huge share of Asian tourists taking selfies, so be warned!
Food - Breakfast/Brunch
Chiang Mai has a real breakfast/brunch culture - somewhat surprising for Thailand but not if you take into account the heavy Australian influence.
No, this isn't the WiFi password - SS1254372 Cafe does not just come with an eclectic name but also eclectic housing, with an adjacent art gallery. The breakfast dishes look fantastic on paper and when being served but the taste is just okay. The same goes for the coffee. Still, this place is pretty cool overall.
The Larder Cafe and Bar
The Larder is another good spot for breakfast and coffee. It does not really excel at either but is a decent spot for toast and coffee. The kitchen closes at 1 PM.
Woo Cafe has a wonderful space that is a mix between a flower nursery, restaurant and coffee shop. I liked how airy and cozy it was, though the desserts and coffee were just okay.
Overstand was likely my favorite brunch spot for its eclectic toasts, good coffee, fast WiFi and great communal table setup. The staff are friendly as well. Just bring plenty of mosquito repellent!
Birds Nest is hidden in an alley and does not look like much at first. However, the owners churn out organic, high-quality toasts, pancakes and egg dishes that you will be impressed with. There is no AC but fast WiFi.
Food - Non-Breakfast/Brunch
Chiang Mai has a number of minimalist Thai food trucks that offer fast, economic Thai dishes. Most dishes are between THB 40 -60. I liked the dinner setup at the Chiang Mai Gate Market but there are a number of places around town. They are typically outdoors (you will be sweaty) but you get to see your food before ordering and there are usually some plastic chairs where you can eat.
By Hand Pizza Cafe
By Hand Pizza is an all-outdoors, low-key but yummy pizza affair. The huge pizza oven cooks you delicious, Sicilian-style pizza for just THB 160.
Dash Teak House
Dash Teak House is likely your best bet for Thai dishes cooked for visitors. They aren't spicy and lack some freshness but come out well presented in a white tablecloth affair. The atmosphere can't be beaten in the courtyard overlooking a small alley. The prices aremoderate as well.
Cherng Doi Roast Chicken
This unassuming eatery specializes in papaya salads (som tum) and roasted chicken. Dishes start at THB 50 and you can relax inside the outdoor huts instead of in the sun.
Brewing craft beer isn't legal in Thailand so craft beers usually come imported from the US or Cambodia. This is a shame as it limits the appeal and increases the price tag dramatically.
My Beer Friend Market
The tiny little beer store could be mistaken for a coffee shop (or dodgy supermarket) but has some lovely Thai brewed beers on tap. Certainly worth a pit stop if you crave good beer.
The Faces Gallery & Gastro Bar
The Faces makes you feel like you have been transported back to Siem Reap's Angkor Wat temples. It has a fantastic courtyard. I did not dare eat there but the drinks are solid.
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Co-Working
Co-working is a trend but still somewhat in its infancy in Chiang Mai. Many coffee shops in town are too small for anyone to work from there (think just 4 seats) and the outside heat isn't great for your devices (or your brain). Given the number of digital nomads who spend time in Chiang Mai, it is a bit disappointing.
My 30 Favorite Things to do Chiang Mai - Where to Stay
The Old City is clearly the best location in Chiang Mai. Many of the hotels are very small though and charge fees for extra guests (i.e kids).
There are a few chain hotels in the Old City - Le Méridien Chiang Mai and the Mövenpick Suriwongse Hotel Chiang Mai.The Le Meridien used to be a Starwood Category 1 hotel but has moved up to Category 3 which makes redeeming points not so interesting. Room rates hover around $100 most of the time.
The Shangri-La is just a short walk and the Anantara Chiang Mai Resortis just a bit further, east of the river.
If budget is no concern, go with the Anantara Chiang Mai.
The best deal in town (from my point of view) is the Holiday Inn Chiang Mai, which has a huge building about 3 miles south of the Old City.
It comes with a decent swimming pool and huge rooms; I got a corner suite where the bathroom was bigger than most rooms I've had in Asia.
The downside is that the hotel needs a refurbishment, the hotel elevators often make you wait a long time and you will need to 'Grab' to almost anywhere in town. I was very happy with the hotel though - the great staff and free parking were exactly what I wanted. You also get plenty of IHG points for an Accelerate promotion, for rates hovering around $50 most of the time. Expect to see big tour groups coming to town here, though.