Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, is a far cry from the hustle, bustle and general chaos that is Bangkok. I’ve found that there are two types of people who come to the largest city in Northern Thailand — those who love the moat-surrounded city, and those who don’t.
If you’re looking for action, heaps of shopping and thrive on true urban life, then Chiang Mai isn’t for you (although we do have a total of five major shopping malls in the city). Chiang Mai is chill. It’s laden with coffee shops, adorable little restaurants with gorgeous patios, quaint guest houses, locals who will chat with you on a songthaew en route to your destination and a night life scene that isn’t truly a night life scene (but still heaps of fun). As someone who has lived here long-term, it is easy to see why travelers come through town and end up staying far longer than intended.
If you’re a first-timer coming to Chiang Mai, chances are you’re going off what the guidebook tells you.(However, if you happen to get a guidebook, the only one that truly does this city justice is Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai. It is what I use to scope out the cool places to visit and navigate the maze of tiny streets in town.)
Well, I’m no guidebook, but as an expat who has lived here for a bit now, I do have my suggestions.
1. Unless you like crowds … and I mean crowds … skip the Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets
YES. I did just write that. The Saturday and Sunday markets, while vast and offering enough to make shopaholics hearts skip a few beats, there are other places to go where you can get the same goods, and for less money. Head to Warorot Market in the Chinatown area of the city, near the river, for some of the items which call to you (scarves and clothing). You can also take a little excursion and head past Doi Suthep for hill tribe goods at cheaper prices — and far less crowds — than the weekend walking streets where it isn’t really a “walk,” but more of a stop, stop, stop, move foot an inch, stop, stop, stop process.
2. Get some green
Being a sprawling city, it isn’t easy to find a lot of green, grassy areas. The main park is on the southwest corner of the moat, Nong Buak Haad City Park, and that treats visitors to little lakes, a jogging path, basketball court and more. There is also Chiang Mai University to stroll though. If that isn’t enough, the outdoor/nature lover can head to Doi Suthep and hike or bike up the mountain. Remember, this is a city. The nature/city mix doesn’t really happen here.
3. Don’t to go Doi Suthep mid-day
During peak season, the most well-known temple in Chiang Mai is packed with tourists. Instead, hire a car or songthaew (or rent a motorbike) and head up just before sunrise to the temple. Far less people. Far better colors. And likely a view of the city that isn’t marred by smog. If you do go mid-day, be prepared for throngs of people and epic traffic back to town. Last time I went mid-day, it took an hour to get to the moat from the bottom of the mountain. And, it isn’t that far!
4. Unless you are going out of the main area of the city in a songthaew, don’t ask how much it is for a ride
The general rule of these red trucks is 20 baht. If you ask how much to get to your destination, it screams “Tourist! Money!” and the 20 baht ride will shoot up in price astronomically. Instead, shh. If a driver wants more than 20, it will be discussed before you hop into the back seat.
5. Color-coded songthaews can whisk you out of town
Try them for a more local experience. Yellow, white, green and more songthaews are available to take you to other areas of the province. For a little more than a dollar, you can head more than an hour outside of the city (around 50 km out-of-town) and do some exploring. My personal favorite out-of-town spot is Sri Lanna National Park which treats visitors to a long tail boat ride ultimately delivering them to an area with a floating restaurant and bungalows. It’s like a vacation within a vacation.
6. Get your Kao Soi on
A popular, coconut-based soup, Kao Soi is a Northern Thailand specialty and one of those dishes you have to try while you are here. It is everywhere, but some places do it better than others. There’s a newer and popular shop in Nimman, Khao Soy Nimman, which has been bringing people in. I prefer to nosh on it at a stall. Speaking of which …
7. Find the busy food stalls and eat
Not all food stalls are created equally. Hell, I’ve gotten food poisoning from my favorite, and am sure most people who have come to town have either experienced food poisoning or know someone who has. That does not mean you should skip the food stalls. Just hit the ones with the lines. The ones with the lines with Thai people in them. There are plenty of areas around town where food stalls pop up once the sun sets. I personally love the Chiang Mai Gate market, but that is because it is close and my favorite noodle soup lady and veggie lady are there. Plus, there is Mrs. Pa’s fruit shakes. And, yes, she does make the best in town. Also, be on the lookout for Dee’s Fish ‘N Chips. Dee is serving up a family recipe and my goodness, it is the best version of the dish I have ever had in Chiang Mai. His drives his cart around town and lets you track him on Facebook, so just do a quick look for where he is if you want some authentic fish and chips.
8. Don’t just stay in the Old City
There are great little nooks and crannies to be found throughout the city. I really enjoy Nimmanhaemin. It is to the west of town, and the more hip and upscale area. Here, there are about a bajillion coffee shops, tasty little food places and a nightlife scene catering mostly to Thai people, but perfect to crash. The clubs in this neck of the woods are pricier than in town (there aren’t many in the city proper) but spots like Infinity with the water features and plush couches, are gorgeous. Nimman is also where the foodies go to get their culinary groove on. Spots like Bar Fry, Beer Republic and Mix are just a few restaurants to eat your way through. Bonus points for shopping — boutiques and the newly opened Maya Mall are all around this ‘hood.
9. Not all elephant experiences are created equally
I work for Save Elephant Foundation (disclosure), but even if I didn’t I would still recommend visiting Elephant Nature Park. This is a sanctuary for elephants rescued from trekking, tourism, street begging, illegal logging, forced breeding and more. Here, the pachyderms get to be just that. And you get to watch them, feed them and bathe them. There’s no shows. No riding. No painting. And, no bull hooks or instruments to inflict pain to get the elephants to listen. I talk about responsible tourism a lot, and while I cannot go into this particular topic for a myriad of reasons at this time, a quick Google about elephant tourism should shed some light on this and convince you to skip the other elephant stuff and go here. Keep this in mind for all of your animal experiences.
10. Get lost
Particularly in the Old City, there are so many delightful and charming sois or side streets to explore. My personal favorite way to do this is sans map. You never know what gem you will discover, like a cute coffee shop or a quaint shop selling handmade goodies. The east and south sides of the moat are more geared towards tourists, so if you want a more Thai glimpse of life, head to the north and west part of the Old City.
Editor’s Note: This Nancy Chandler link is an affiliate link and I make a small commission from purchases via Amazon Affiliates. I thank you in advance for helping contribute to the success of this blog.