A Chiang Mai Travel Guide: What to Do, See, Eat and Drink

October 2, 2018

by Ziba Redif

A quirky, laid-back alternative to Bangkok, Chiang Mai has something for everyone. With a revolving door of travelers and expats, Northern Thailand’s most popular city has managed to strike a fine balance between modern and traditional. Visitors will find a melting pot of local and international cuisine and an eclectic array of cultural offerings. This selectively-curated travel guide narrows it down to some of my favorite things to do, sights to appreciate, food to devour, and beverages to enjoy, to help you sieve through the surfeit of options and make the most of your trip in Chiang Mai.

Top Five Things to Do and See

If you’ve done your research on what Chiang Mai has to offer, your to-do list is probably overflowing with ideas. But which activities and attractions should feature in your official itinerary?

Visit a temple

Chiang Mai has an abundance of temples. The 600-year-old Doi Suthep, at the top of Doi Suthep mountain, is Chiang Mai’s most visited temple. Climb its infamous dragon-headed staircase of 306 steps and you’ll find a world of fascinating Buddhist history and breath-taking views. Wat Chiang Man – the oldest temple in Chiang Mai – also offers exquisite beauty and history. Temples that are slightly more off-the-beaten-path include Wat Pha Lat – quietly nestled along the trail once used by Monk’s to reach Doi Suthep – and Wat Umong – a less frequented temple in the forest, unique for its ancient tunnels.

Chiang Mai Doi Suthep Nature

Attend a ‘monk chat’

Monk chats are an intriguing experience. During one-to-one meetings, Novice monks get to practice their English while you can pick their brains on topics ranging from Buddhism to monastery life to personal growth. Many Chiang Mai temples offer sessions, including Wat Sri Suphan on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and Wat Suan Dok, which has a dedicated room on Monday, Wednesday and Friday – and a nearby flower garden where you can stroll and reflect afterwards. Meetings are free-of-charge but donations are welcome, and don’t forget to cover your shoulders and knees as a sign of respect.

Escape into nature

I highly recommend a visit to one of Chiang Mai’s stunning waterfalls. My favorite is Mae Sa, consisting of 8 tiers and located in the midst of a lush jungle, 40 minutes from downtown Chiang Mai. Small but picturesque, Huay Keaw Waterfall is the closest cascade to Chiang Mai, with a serene (albeit slippery) hiking trail winding its way through the mountains. Bua Tong Sticky Waterfall is a less crowded choice. The name comes from the ‘stickiness’ of its rocky surface due to calcium in the water, enabling visitors to climb up and down. If waterfalls aren’t your thing, then drive out to Huay Tung Tao Lake, a peaceful getaway at the foot of Doi Suthep Mountain. You can spend your day lounging in the bamboo huts, picnicking alongside locals, or taking a dip in the large tranquil lake surrounded by breathtaking landscapes.

Huay Keaw Waterfall Chiang Mai

Visit a Market

Chiang Mai is home to some of the most vibrant markets in South East Asia, bursting with colors, sounds, and tastes. Warorot Market is particularly authentic; you can rub elbows with locals and shop for everything from handicrafts to clothing to flowers to Northern specialties. Drop by the Sunday Night Market (Walking Street Market) from 4pm for myriad stalls and street performers, and numerous areas devoted to Thai cuisine. If you are on the hunt for fresh, seasonal items, my two favorite spots for organic, locally-grown produce are Somphet Market and Jing Jai Organic Market.

Take a class or tour

Taking a workshop or class is a reliable recipe for a memorable experience. You can learn traditional skills like blowing glass or welding metal to get a glimpse into Northern Thai culture. Learning to cook local cuisine is a great way to learn about and immerse yourself in the local culture. Thai Akha Kitchen is a cooking school led by Akha people – an indigenous ethnic minority group living in Northern Thailand – where you can learn how to rustle up traditional Akha dishes. Before you go visiting hill tribe villages – which has quickly blossomed into a ‘must-do’ for many tourists visiting Thailand – it is important that you do your research to ensure that the company you use operates in a non-intrusive, non-exploitative and sustainable way.  Backstreet Academy is a social enterprise that offers various tours and workshops, allowing travelers to experience local life. They work directly with NGOs and local people to create work opportunities and invest profits back into community development.

Where to Eat

Chiang Mai has a diverse and delectable selection of eateries ranging from budget to splurge-worthy.

Thai Cuisine

For street eats and local specialties, I head to Ploen Rudee Night Market, open daily from sunset. V Secret Street Food is my favorite stall, tucked away in the corner. Here, you can delight in vegan dishes served with banana leave: tofu curry, sweet potato, butterfly pea infusion, and plenty more. A short walk from the night bazaar, there is Lemongrass, an authentic and inexpensive restaurant that serves up numerous Thai classics using fresh, flavorful ingredients. Cooking Love is another gem of a find – and my favorite vegetarian spot – that specializes in beautifully-crafted and reasonably-priced Thai cuisine.

International Options

The excellent mid-range cafe Vegan Heaven caters to vegans of all tastes with a mix of Thai and Western-style food, such as scrambled tofu, salads, burgers, wraps and curries. If the plant-to-plate concept beckons your interest, Rustic and Blue’s adventurous menu focuses on locally-sourced ingredients and freshly-cooked international dishes.

Vegan Heaven Cuisine Chiang Mai Eat

Where to Drink

Inside Chiang Mai’s ancient walls, there is plethora of interesting watering holes to knock back your favorite beverage or chill out in.

Live Music Venues

Boy Blues Bar is a premier spot for live music at the night bazaar, where you will find a cosy rooftop atmosphere and a reasonably-priced drinks menu. Warm Up is an intimate space on the energetic Nimminhemin Road that hosts a fantastic lineup of local rock bands and draws a predominantly Thai crowd. Northgate Jazz Co-Op is a down-to-earth bar in the city center, also known as Chiang Mai’s oldest and finest jazz venue. The Tuesday open mic night is a creative jamming event with an eclectic, bohemian audience.

Rooftop Bars

You will find a cheap and cheerful selection of beers (starting at 65 baht) at THC Rooftop Bar, which tends to attract backpackers and young travelers due to its psychedelic decor and laid-back tree-house setting. My favorite places to savor a tasty, well-crafted cocktail are Hotel Yayee and Woods Bar Rooftop – both open-air bars with extensive menus and dazzling rooftop views. These chic, backpacker-free environments make for a charming escape. So, go ahead and treat yourself with a cocktail at sunset.

Leave a Comment...

Joe

October 2, 2018

Thank you, Ziba! It makes me want to be there already!

JM

October 30, 2018

A little taste of everything, a really well-rounded guide to Chiang Mai. Keep up the good work and give us guides to some other wonderful places!

Jc

October 30, 2018

Thank you for all these tips on what to do in Chiang Mai.. merci

Zoe

October 30, 2018

A great informative article. Thanks so much

Sophie

October 30, 2018

Wow, thank you for a useful article on what to do in Chiang Mai, it saves time to walk on the path of someone else who took the time to research and experience places. Thank you!

Jay C

October 30, 2018

Nicely written article, Chiang Mai is actually part of my road trip - its supposed to be about a 14-15 hour drive from Bangkok but very much worth the trip while stopping off at places on the way.
Awesome to find out about the market and cuisine there! I\'ll be sure to head to the walking street market on a Sunday!