The former capital of Northern Thailand has it all. A laid-back vibe, beautiful scenery, ancient temples, markets galore, hip cafes and cutting-edge design. It makes for a perfect weekend getaway from Singapore, with quite a different tempo than Bangkok. Here’s our pick of the top 10 things to do in Chiang Mai.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
Eat Khao Soi
Consisting of potent soups, fiery curries and spicy dips, Northern Thai food is a very distinct, and delicious offshoot of Thai cuisine and Chiang Mai is the region’s culinary capital. If you only get to try one dish during your visit then it has to be khao soi (curry noodles), a warming bowl of egg noodles in a thick broth that’s usually served with chicken.
The best spots to sample Khao Soi in Chiang Mai include Lam Duan Faham (352/222 Charoenrat Road), which claims to have invented the recipe, and Samer Jai (391 Charoenrat Road).
The highlight of a visit to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium, situated on the city outskirts in the shadow of Doi Suthep mountain, has to be getting up close to its giant pandas, Lin Hui and Chuang Chuang and their daughter Lin Ping, who was born here in 2009.
Other notable species found within the 200 acre park include the only Indian rhino in Thailand, Humboldt penguins, Cape fur seals and cute koalas. The aquarium, home to more than 2,000 marine species and Southeast Asia’s longest sea tunnel, is also worth a look.
Meet the Local Villagers
Situated around 60km from the centre of Chiang Mai, Nong Hoi Royal Project (Mae Rim District) is an excellent day trip destination. Balanced on a lush hilltop plateau that is home to numerous Hmong Hilltribe villages, it’s famous for the small restaurant at the Mon Cham campsite.
This simple eatery consists of a series of simple bamboo huts perched on a ridge but offers spectacular views down into the often mist-shrouded valley below. The restaurant serves locally grown coffee and a range of Thai dishes using fresh produce grown at the Royal Project agricultural site.
Climb a Mountain in Chiang Mai
For a great view over the city and surrounding countryside, it’s worth heading 15km out of town to tackle the 300-odd steps of the winding and intricately carved Naga Serpent Staircase, which leads to the top of Doi Suthep.
The summit of this granite mount is home to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a picturesque 14th century Buddhist monastery and one of the most revered religious sites in Northern Thailand.
Get Your Caffeine Fix
Chiang Mai is just crazy about coffee and there are hundreds of hip spots for a cup of joe. One such place that also lets you feel good about yourself is Akha Ama. Owner Lee Ayu Chuepah uses his cafe to showcase the coffee produced in the Akha village, with its profits going towards benefitting the local community.
Other notable spots where coffee is taken seriously include the always heaving Ristr8to Coffee known for its latte art (and hot barista), Nine One Coffee, which farms its own beans, and the newly opened Woo Cafe with its in-house art gallery.
Embrace Thai Creativity
Popular with creative locals, Chiang Mai has an extremely vibrant creative scene, a fact that was boosted by the opening of the second branch of the Thailand Creative Design Center in 2013.
It aims to support creative and commercial design ideas through various workshops and showcases, but is really worth visiting for its well curated exhibitions that focus on different design themes.
Retrace Chiang Mai’s History
Chiang Mai has a rich and distinctive history and culture, thanks in part to its former role as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which reached across large swathes of Northern Thailand, Burma and parts of Laos from the 13th to 18th centuries.
Visit the Lanna Folklife Museum set in the former district court building. Inside you’ll discover the distinctive Lanna style that originated in this period through a series of rooms dedicated to the Kingdom’s architecture, religious imagery, ornaments, tools and textiles.
Bargain Shopping in Chiang Mai
Kalare Night Bazaar / Credit: Flickr
Chiang Mai is blessed with a multitude of night markets, making it a dream for shopaholics who want to avoid the heat. The eclectic offerings at the newly opened Ploen Rudee Flea Market on Chang Klan Road are well worth a look during the week. On Saturdays from around 4pm, Wua Lai Road is transformed into a walking street featuring lots of food stalls and a host of local crafts and curios for sale.
The bigger and more vibrant Sunday market takes over the next day and stretches along Ratchadamnoen Road, between Wat Phra Singha and Thapae Gate, from 3pm to midnight. Very popular and often very crowded, this market is a veritable treasure trove of unique art and craft products, though you’ll also find plenty of restaurants, cafes and massage venues if you ever need a break from browsing.
If you can’t wait till the evening or aren’t in Chiang Mai on a weekend, never fear, just head over to the hipster hood of Nimmanhaemin Road. Located close to the university, this long street and its surrounding sois are home to a host of cool cafes, stylish fashion boutiques, trendy restaurants and contemporary galleries.
The sheer range of hip venues is pretty staggering, but if you don’t have the time or energy to wander the whole road then make a beeline for Soi 1, which is crammed with lots of quirky art, design and home decor boutiques.
Tour a Temple in Chiang Mai
A notable legacy of Chiang Mai’s proud history is the city’s abundant temples – there are a staggering 300 to be found in or around the city walls. Of course, even the most devout visitor would struggle to get around them all, but the real standouts would have to include Wat Phra Singh at the end of Ratchadamnoen Road.
Dating back to the early 1400s, it is one of the city’s most famous religious sites and is home to an important Phra Buddha Sihing or lion Buddha. Also of particular interest is the city’s oldest temple, Wat Chiang Man on Ratchaphakhinai Road, which dates all the way back to 1296 and the exquisite silver ubosot (ordination hall) of Wat Sri Suphan on Wua Lai Road.
Image Credits: CC2.0 via Flickr