We stayed in Chiang Mai on two occasions, and had different opinions of the city during each stay.
The first time we made our home in this northern city was after the chaos of Halloween in Bangkok. We stayed on a quiet, tree-shaded street in the old city that was dotted with cute coffee shops and restaurants. We were in love.
Then, after coming from the small town of Pai, we made Chiang Mai our home base again. This time, we stayed outside the walls of the old city in a busier area. Add to that the fact that the city exploded in size with tourists visiting for the Loi Krathong celebrations, and it’s safe to say we were overwhelmed.
While I have mixed emotions on the biggest city in the north, I would say my overall opinion is a favorable one. There’s tons to do, beautiful scenery, a concentration of culture, and fantastic food. And if you’re coming here after the madness of Bangkok, you’ll surely find it a welcomed relief.
We put together a list of our favorite unique experiences in Chiang Mai, as well as a couple things to avoid. We hope this helps you plan your visit (or fuels your wanderlust!).
Dive into the Great Unknown
Even if the sight of this picture makes your stomach crawl into your throat, Chiang Mai’s “Grand Canyon” is still worth a visit.
This “canyon” is an old quarry that now attracts mostly foreigners trying to get “off the beaten path”. While it is no secret anymore, it still has a feeling of being relatively unknown to most travelers passing through.
Just a 40-minute drive from town, a trip here will allow you to escape the city and soak up some rays while watching a handful of daredevils make this 50-foot jump. If you are a confident cliff jumper, we would suggest making the leap! We did, and had a blast.
Start with some of the smaller jumps and work your way up. If you are nervous though, just observe others. It isn’t uncommon for people to get hurt here, so listen to your own body.
Get there by motorbike (an easy drive) or by tuk tuk/songathew (red pickup truck). Split the fare with other travelers to make it more affordable. The entrance fee is 50 baht and includes a free herbal drink at the onsite café. They also serve a small selection of food that is a bit on the pricey side and just mediocre, but it “fills the hole”.
Learn How to Cook your Favorite Thai Dishes
If you’ve been following our blog for a while, you know that we LOVE to eat. Anything and Everything. No exaggeration.
And you probably also know that we are constantly raving about taking cooking courses in other countries. We’re up to 7 now. We wholeheartedly believe that there are few ways to learn more about a culture than through its cuisine.
There is no better place to learn how to make your favorite Thai dishes than Chiang Mai. The tricky part is choosing a cooking school, as the options seem endless.
In our research, we found 3 cooking schools that are clear winners. They all have a 3 things in common:
- They bring you to a local market instead of the one ridden with tourists in the Old City
- Each person is able to make 5 dishes that they have selected
- All 3 of these cooking schools take place on an organic farm from which you can gather your own produce and herbs
We chose Secret Thai Cooking School because the Thai Farm Cooking School was fully booked during the 2 weeks that we spent in Chiang Mai (I guess you have to book really, really far in advance!). Even though it was our second choice, we were incredibly impressed.
Sidenote: We also heard great things about Sammy's Organic Thai Cooking School.
Our teacher, May, gave everyone in our class of 11 individualized attention as she taught us how to make dishes from a menu we created – not the case at many cooking schools! (Ben and I love to try everything, so we each chose different dishes so we’d be able to try 10 separate meals. Best idea ever!)
We were able to pick our own vegetables in the onsite garden, and had our own gas stove and cooking station in our host’s home. Additionally, we learned how to make our own coconut milk the traditional way and received a cookbook that was made especially for us with our own photos inside.
We visited during the Loi Krathong festival and were lucky enough to make our very own krathong, which we floated down the river alongside locals that evening.
We are seriously obsessed with Thai food, so friends and family at home better watch out! You'll be our guinea pigs as soon as we return to the States.
Chat with a Monk
You will spot the iconic saffron robes everywhere you venture in Thailand, but in Chiang Mai you can have the rare opportunity to go beyond gawking and get personal with a monk. There are 5 temples with “Monk Chat” programs in the city, but we chose to visit Wat Suan Dok Temple due to its proximity to town.
We spent an hour asking the monks questions about daily life and anything else that popped into our minds. They were incredibly open and willing to talk. I only wished we had thought more about what we would ask them ahead of time because after we left I started coming up with many more questions on some of the hot topics in today's society... What is the Buddhist stance on gay marriage? Guns? Refugees? ISIS?
If you have the chance to ask any of these questions, I'd love to know the answers!
How do you participate? It's super easy. At Wat Suan Dok, just show up between 5-7 p.m. on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday. You will sign in with your name and nationality and be assigned to a monk. Be sure to wear appropriate clothing that covers your shoulders and everything above your knees.
Support a Sustainable Farm with your Taste Buds
Pun Pun Farm is located amongst jungles and mountains in the countryside of northern Thailand and is renowned worldwide for the sustainability methods practiced there.
You’ll have no problem finding vegetarian food in Chiang Mai, but one of the best options to get your veg on is undoubtedly Pun Pun Restaurant. The produce is organic and is sourced from the farm, so you can feel good about what you’re eating.
We ordered 3 meals (don’t judge!) and a smoothie, and all of it was delicious. Even though eating here is healthy and supports the sustainability movement, you won’t be paying much more than any other local restaurant.
The restaurant is located behind the grounds of the Wat Suan Dok temple and is only open until 4 p.m. Have a leisurely late lunch/early dinner before participating in a Monk Chat.
Get Massaged by a Prison Inmate
If you’re picturing laying in an 8-by-8 concrete cell with bars, getting rubbed down by a surly woman clad in orange, you’re sorely mistaken. My masseuse was sweet and giggly, and looked more like a pigtailed schoolgirl than a convict.
So, here’s the question everyone is wondering… What are the women in prison for? Could you potentially be massaged by a serial killer? No, silly! Most of the women are serving short sentences for minor crimes. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution has created a program to give its inmates the opportunity to learn marketable skills. The women are also allowed to save their wages and tips for their release date.
There are three options for massages: 1-hour foot massage (150 baht), 1-hour Thai massage (180 baht), and 2-hour Thai massage (360 baht).
We chose the 1-hour Thai massage and were led into a big, dimly-lit room with nearly 20 beds on which people were getting cracked, rubbed and stretched. The air was filled with the strong scent of menthol and eucalyptus… Mmmm, Tiger Balm.
The only thing that distinguished this establishment from the hundreds of other massage joints in the area were the women wearing police uniforms that paced the room every once in a while with clipboards in hand.
On the TripAdvisor site, many people rave that they received “the BEST massage in Thailand”, and Ben said his was fantastic. Mine, on the other hand, was mediocre. I’ve had better, and probably have had worse… but still, I felt good contributing to this organization that enables women to create a better life for themselves.
If you decide to get a massage, remember that this isn’t a tourist attraction to be gawked at. These women are trying to make a better life for themselves, and by visiting you are helping contribute to their self-improvement, but it's not a place to leer rudely or take pictures of your masseuse.
Our advice is to arrive early. We got there just after 10 in the morning, and weren’t able to get on the schedule until 2:45 p.m. Arrive much later than we did, and you'll be outta luck!
Also on the premises is a souvenir shop and a reasonably priced restaurant serving Thai and Western dishes as well as a coffee and fruit shakes.
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. & Saturday - Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Eat Khao Soi
Unlike Pad Thai and Green Curry, this Thai dish is not very well-known in the Western world, but it should be!
With a Burmese influence, this dish most commonly found in the north of Thailand, and Chiang Mai is a perfect place to try your first bite.
I’d like to think that Khao Soi would be the love child if chicken noodle soup and yellow curry ever got together. A combination of egg noodles, coconut curry broth, chicken, shallots, lime and chilies make each bite of this dish a party in your mouth! It is typically topped with crunchy fried egg noodles and served pickled vegetables on the side for a flavor and texture explosion.
The best place to eat Khao Soi is on the street. We sampled several bowls, but our favorite was at a vendor near the entrance of the Ming Muang Market on the inside border of the Old City. He serves 2 sizes – small and large for 30/40 baht. (We found them to be almost identical in size.) If you're nervous about eating food on the street, our favorite Khao Soi served in a restaurant was at Blue Sky.
Release a Lantern
If you’re lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai during the month of November, you can observe the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festivals, which take place around the same time. The date changes each year due to the lunar calendar, so do you research. Also, book your accommodation well in advance. We were without a bed for one night because it seemed like the entire city had “no vacancy” signs. (Our amazing hosts at Big and O’s Hostel saved the day and set up a mat on their porch – they called it a "jungle bungalow" – so we didn’t have to sleep on the streets.)
Here’s a list of a few notable activities that take place during these festivals:
Wat Pan Tao lantern ceremony: Watch young monks light hundreds of candles and release wish lanterns in a beautiful, but painstakingly long ceremony.
Release a wish lantern: Head to Tha Phae Road near the Ping River and buy a lantern from one of the many vendors (30-40 baht), make a wish, and watch it float into the night sky amidst hundreds of others.
Observe the parade: Each night of Loi Krathong boasts a parade bigger than the last, with the third night being the best. Watch the beautifully dressed people proceed past you, or watch from the comforts of a bar on Kotchasan Road with a beer in hand like we did.
Float a Krathong down the river: Make your own (we fashioned ours using banana leaves and flowers at our cooking class – information above), or purchase one from a street vendor (30-60 baht) near the Ping River. Light 3 sticks of incense and release your Krathong onto the water. This is a symbol of letting go of the bad in your life and welcoming the good.
Other things in the area:
Zip-lining: Flight of the Gibbon is by far the most popular of the zip-lining companies, but there are many high-flying adventures to choose from.
Sticky Waterfalls: If you try walking up any waterfall, you are almost guaranteed to slip and fall flat on your face. But at the Sticky Waterfalls (real name: Bua Tong Falls) near Chiang Mai, you can climb up the falls with ease. It's made possible due to the mineral deposits in the water which make the rocks porous and slightly spongey. Fellow bloggers over at Tieland to Thailand, have a great article about the Bua Tong Waterfalls that explains everything you need to know to make a day trip out of it.
Floating Houses: If you're looking for a weekend trip out of the craziness of Chiang Mai, the Mae Ngat Dam Floating Houses look like they could be a great getaway. Check out Tieland to Thailand's detailed post about their experience and how to get there.
Muai Thai Boxing: You can't go a day without seeing men on scooters handing out flyers for that night's Muai Thai Boxing match. Chiang Mai is famous for the fights, and we heard from other travelers that they are worthwhile if you're into UFC-style action.
Trekking: Every travel agency in Chiang Mai will offer 1-, 2- or 3-day treks around the area. Make sure to shop around and find a company that doesn't exploit the locals or animals. (Many include visits to local villages and elephant trekking – both of which can be harmful to the community and the environment. Keep reading for more information.)
Visit the Temples: Okay, not unique per se, but you can't come to Chiang Mai without seeing temples. You can try, but they are everywhere! This city is dotted with several temples, ranging in size and appearance. The best is Doi Suthep, which is located on a hill a little ways from the center of town.
What NOT to do in Chiang Mai
We decided long ago that we will not knowingly contribute to attractions that exploit people or animals while traveling. A picture, in our opinion, just isn’t worth the suffering of others. We know all too well that it is often times hard to know if a company is socially responsible, so we try to share what we’ve learned along the way. We hope this information helps you formulate your own opinion about visiting some controversial sites on your travels.
As with any controversial issue, research the subject, and formulate your own opinion so you can make a socially-responsible decision.
You will undoubtedly be pestered by tuk tuk drivers shouting “Tiger Kingdom! I take you to Tiger Kingdom!” After doing lots of research on the subject and talking to others who have visited this attraction, we have very strong feelings about this type of tourism. And we made a firm decision not to support it even though, yes, having a picture with a large cat would be quite cool.
At the “sanctuary”, tigers are treated in a way that is undoubtedly inhumane. Hordes of people line up daily to have their photo taken with these animals that are living a harmful and unnatural lifestyle.
Many of the treks advertised in Chiang Mai include an elephant ride. As we’ve written before, riding on an elephant’s back is actually very harmful to these gentle creatures. There are a few elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that treat them well, but the overwhelming majority are terribly cruel.
We had a wonderful experience at Elephant’s World in Kanchanaburri (near Bangkok). But if you are in the northern part of the country and desperately want to see these giants, visit the reputable Elephant Nature Park. Here, you can be assured that your contribution is not harming the animals, but instead is ensuring they have a healthy and happy life.
Visiting the "Longneck Tribes"
Several tour shops advertise tours that take you to a hill tribe village where you can see the famous “Longneck” people (this actually refers to a subgroup of the Karen people). Although we can’t speak from experience, everyone we spoke to who had done these tours said it felt like a “human zoo”. Most of the so-called villages the companies take you to are not in fact where the people live, but are instead made to satisfy the curiosity of camera-toting tourists.
I, too, am intrigued by the indigenous tribes, and thought for a moment that it would be awesome to photograph the young girls with rings around their neck. But a photograph is not worth the exploitation of a group of people. After doing a little research, it seems that many women in this tribe had stopped the tradition of adding rings to the neck of young girls for, but have reignited this practice in order to draw foreigners with cameras.
It all just seems inauthentic to me and like a way to put a group of people on display in the name of tourism.
Where to Stay
We spent the night in 3 hostels in Chiang Mai and we definitely have favorites!
Best Location: Diva 2 Guesthouse
Simple, clean and comfortable rooms for just 350 baht ($10 USD) a night is a steal! The rooftop terrace is lovely, the staff is helpful and not super pushy, and the location is top notch. This tree-shaded neighborhood in the Old City is quiet and has an abundance of adorable cafes. It is close to a local market, street food, and isn’t too far from the major sites. Based off of location and value for our money, this was our favorite place in Chiang Mai.
Best Staff: Big and O’s Guesthouse
We weren’t as crazy about the location as at Diva Guesthouse 2, but it's near the night market and main gate which is packed with street food in the evenings. The location isn't bad, but it is in a pretty crowded, busy and noisy area. The guesthouse itself is nice, with comfortable dorm beds and AC, but the thing that makes it a winner is the staff. We have never experienced hospitality like we did at Big and O’s. The family who lives there is lovely, and they sleep near the entrance so it almost feels like a homestay. If you’re looking to find a home away from home and a family you’ll fall in love with, stay here.
Honorable Mention: Lantern House Backpackers
While this place earns rave reviews online, it just didn’t live up to the location and value of Diva, or the hospitality of Big’s. It’s not bad at all, but was our least favorite of the 3 places we stayed in Chiang Mai.