Thailand is one of the most visited countries on the planet, attracting a whopping 35 million travellers every year. Our team is definitely part of that group: we’re crazy about the stunning beaches of Koh Samui, gaga for the clifftop villas of Phuket and all about the big city buzz of Bangkok. This time, we’re turning our gaze towards Thailand’s northern gem – here is our guide to all things Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai – Orientation
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand with a population of some 130,000, though the larger metropolitan area is home to near one million people. The city’s history reaches all the way back to the 13th century and Chiang Mai still maintains a significant historic, cultural and religious importance to this day. The city is home to literally hundreds of Buddhist temples and the Old City is still surrounded by a moat, with parts of the ancient city walls still left standing. You don’t have to drive far from the city to be surrounded by green rice fields, lush forest and unfiltered sounds of nature. If you ask us, Chiang Mai has it all – the only thing you’ll be lacking is beach access.
Things To Do in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai and its surrounding hills are home to more than 300 Buddhist temples or “wats” so it’s practically impossible to travel to the region without visiting at least one of them.
The most famous and most visited temple is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep located outside the city up a winding mountain road. You need to climb a few hundred steps to reach the top, so this one’s definitely not for the faint of heart! Inside the city walls, Wat Phra Singh is a gorgeous structure with dramatic Lanna roofs and a beautifully detailed façade. Another popular option in the Old City is Wat Chedi Luang which dates back to the 14th century.
These three temples are among the most popular spots to visit in Chiang Mai, so don’t expect to have the place all to yourself. With literally hundreds of temples to choose from, we also recommend visiting the less-known temples and spending more time in each temple rather than trying to cram all the temples in to a single trip. Temple burnout is a very real thing.
Basic Temple Etiquette
- Dress modestly – no mini shorts, beer brand singlets etc.
- Take off your shoes, hat and sunglasses before entering the temple
- Look for signs in English and/or follow worshippers who aren’t monks as parts of the temple are for monks only
- Basic decency goes a long way: don’t be loud, don’t photograph people without asking permission, don’t point or make fun of the Buddha
Chiang Mai has a definite spiritual feel to it and it’s little wonder that more than a few yoga schools have sprouted up in the area. Since you’re surrounded by ancient temples, vibrant Thai culture and lush nature anywhere you go, it’s hard not to get inspired to go “om” while you’re in town.
I’ve personally practiced at the Yoga Tree which is one of the most beloved yoga schools in Chiang Mai. Like so many others, I loved the peaceful vibe this place exudes. The yoga school is located in the heart of the Old City, surrounded by green gardens. Yoga Tree offers classes for all experience levels and they also offer meditation circles, Tibetan bowl meditation and more.
Other highly-rated yoga studios in Chiang Mai include Mahassidha Yoga, Freedom Yoga and Wild Rose Yoga. Not surprisingly, Chiang Mai is also a popular destination for yoga retreats, workshops and yoga teacher trainings.
One of the best things about Chiang Mai are the vibrant markets. This is a great chance to soak up the atmosphere and do some souvenir shopping while also snacking on some local treats.
The most famous market in town is the Night Bazaar, centrally located at the intersection between Tha Pae and Chang Klang Roads. This huge complex offers everything from clothing to DVDs and from boho chic apparel to general souvenirs. The weekly Sunday Market in the Old City is a sprawling affair which stretches from the Tha Pae Gate to Ratchadamnoen Road. The stalls are bursting with local handicrafts and trinkets, with restaurants and food stalls offering a bite to eat in between shopping. Another weekend market is the Wualai Walking Street Market which takes place every Saturday.
Chiang Mai is also home to several markets which focus on food items and fresh produce. Even if you’re not planning to cook a full on Thai meal while you’re in town, the markets are worth a visit if just for the ambiance and photo ops.
Visiting Thailand without getting at least one massage should be against the law! Chiang Mai offers an endless option of spas and wellness centres with something to suit every budget.
If you’re looking for the best deal in town, you can’t go wrong with Pranom Health Massage. This is a fantastic budget friendly option located in the heart of the Old City. An excellent one-hour Thai massage is priced at a ridiculously low THB 180 (USD $6).
If on the other hand you’re looking for the royal treatment, The Dheva Spa & Wellness Centre is one of your best bets in Chiang Mai. This gorgeous resort is built mimicking an ancient Lanna kingdom with huge gardens and ornately carved pavilions transporting you somewhere that feels beyond space and time. Though definitely on the pricey size – an 80-minute Thai massage will set you back THB 4,200 (USD $129) – Dheva Spa definitely worth it if you’re really looking to be pampered.
Chiang Mai is not just about the temples – the surrounding nature is also worth an adventure or two! One of the most popular excursions in the area is the Flight of the Gibbon, a thrilling zipline course which darts across the jungle and allows guests to spot real live gibbons.
If you’re not after a heart pounding adrenaline ride, Chiang Mai’s surroundings offer a beautiful setting for jungle treks and white water rafting. You can also easily organise day trips to neighbouring villages – the bohemian village of Pai located up in the mountains is one of the most popular options.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai
Simply put, David’s Kitchen is the best restaurant in Chiang Mai and everyone else can just go home. Voted as the best fine dining restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand and all of Asia, it seems this Chiang Mai institution can do no wrong.
The Service 1921
Located at the sumptuous Anantara resort, The Service 1921 was once home to the British consulate and still maintains a grand colonial air to this day. Both the menu and the restaurant have a whimsical British intelligence theme to them. The restaurant serves Thai, Sichuanese and Vietnamese cuisine along with superlative Asian cocktails.
Inspired by the coffee culture of Australia, Ristr8to serves amazing coffee and is perhaps most famed for their ambitious latte art. If you’re looking for a serious caffeine hit, this is the place to go. Ristr8to has three locations in Chiang Mai.
Woo Café & Art Gallery
Woo is a beautifully styled café, gallery and lifestyle shop serving Instagrammable lattes and Western-Thai fusion cuisine prepared using fresh local ingredients. Located above the cafe, the art gallery features abstract paintings and sculptures.
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak
This unassuming food stall shot to fame thanks to a visit from the late, great Anthony Bourdain. Though there are countless stalls in the area surrounding the Chang Phueak gate, you’ll know you’ve found the right one when you spot a Thai lady sporting her signature cowboy hat, wielding a giant cleaver. The stall serves scrumptious Thai pork, street food style.
Rod Yiam is routinely ranked as one of the best noodle houses in Chiang Mai. This no-nonsense eatery serves beef noodles in a hearty broth. Frequented by locals, this is a great place to sample some authentic Thai food while also getting a feel of the local way of life, away from the tourist track.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai, you’ll want to stay in a place that actually feels like Thailand. Chiang Mai Luxury Villa achieves just that with classic Lanna style villas set amidst lush tropical gardens framed by the Mae Ping River. The property consists of two villas – Ta Chang Villa with four bedrooms and Spa Villa with five. Each villa features luxurious bedrooms housed in Thai style pavilions arranged around a private swimming pool. The villa staff includes a professional culinary team with a focus on authentic Thai cuisine.
Don’t let the name fool you – Howie’s amazing luxury pad is unlike any homestay you’ve ever seen. This sprawling five-bedroom estate is built amidst scenic ponds and offers all-inclusive luxury with an opulent Thai finish. Full-board meals along with airport transfers and stocked minibars are all included in the rates. Though the centre of Chiang Mai is just a short drive away, all these luxury inclusions might just tempt you to stay in instead.