If it had been entirely up to me, I would have chosen to spend the whole two weeks we had in Thailand, in the north. It was the part of Thailand I fell in love with all those years ago: hill tribe villages, rice paddies, hidden temples, and on the whole a very traditional, untouched way of life.
But there was another person on this trip, and he wanted nothing more than to spend his days snorkelling in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea in southern Thailand. Myanmar had been my part of our month-long holiday – exploring the beautiful temples of Bagan and completing a three-day trek between Kalaw and Inle Lake – and Thailand (seeing as though I’d visited multiple times before) was his.
But if I couldn’t spend time uncovering parts of northern Thailand that I’d not previously explored then at least I would return to my favourite northern Thai city, even if only for an all-too-brief amount of time.
Not really having any knowledge of what kind of Thailand existed south of Bangkok (aside from a visit to Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan way back in 2002), I also wanted to introduce Stu to a familiar part of the country to me; somewhere I knew and loved.
And Chiang Mai, despite the number of tourists it sees every year, always manages to retain such a relaxed atmosphere and easy-going pace of life. It’s a bit like Pai, but on a much larger scale.
We flew to Chiang Mai from Mandalay with Bangok Airways, arriving late afternoon. We collected our backpacks, hailed a tuk-tuk to take us into the centre of the city, and checked into our home for the next few nights – Green Sleep Hostel.
Considering that last time I was in Chiang Mai we bedded down in the first available guesthouse we could find (unbeknowst to us, we’d arrived on the day of the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng celebrations, and many guesthouses we tried were full), and the time before that was a whole 10 years before this trip, I couldn’t believe just how many ridiculously cheap but amazing-looking accommodation options there now were in the city. I whittled my Agoda wish list down to around 10 options and even that was hard!
We settled on Green Sleep Hostel because it was tucked down a quiet soi off Ratchadamnoen Road, yet was only 0.3 kilometres from Tha Phae Gate. It was an area of the city I knew well, and was pretty central and therefore convenient for visiting most sights in the city.
The hostel also had a comfortable welcoming common area, large dining area, an array of plants and succulents scattered around the place, and exceptional reviews.
From someone who wouldn’t exactly call herself a seasoned Chiang Mai-er, but who has visited the city on several different occasions, here’s how I chose to spend my three days here this time around.
Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets
We arrived in Chiang Mai on a Saturday, so of course I had to take Stu to the Saturday Walking Street, to the south of the centre. If nothing else, food is a great introduction to Thailand, and also I bloody love markets.
Unlike the Sunday Night Market (which is much bigger and covers a much larger area), the Saturday Walking Street primarily sells food, but you really can get whatever Thai food your heart desires here. I was salivating over the grilled squid and about drinking as many papaya, and mango and passionfruit smoothies as my purse (and stomach!) would allow.
Sunday night was all about the gift shopping (with a couple of crab snacks and some mango, coconut cream and sticky rice along the way). My advice, if you see something you like, is to haggle right there and then, because chances are you’ll forget the exact location of the stall on your route back. Despite the fact that the market only spans a few streets, it’s surprisingly disorientating.
Returning to my favourite temple and discovering a new one
My favourite temple in Chiang Mai isn’t one that’s mentioned as a highlight in my Lonely Planet guide, or one that’s particularly busy or overrun with foreign tourists, but for me that’s a huge chunk of its appeal.
Wat Chiang Man is Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. Established by the city’s founder, Phaya Mengrai, sometime around 1296, Wat Chiang Man houses two famous Buddhas, Phra Sila and Phra Sae Tang Khamani.
Instead of giving you a zillion reasons you should visit this temple, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Almost as lovely was Wat Lok Moli, on the north side of the north moat that surrounds the old part of the city. Wat Lok Moli holds one of the largest and most impressive chedis in Chiang Mai.
Inside the chedi are the ashes of several Kings of the Mengrai dynasty, who ruled the Lanna Kingdom from the end of the 13th century until 1558, when the kingdom was invaded by the Burmese.
3D Interactive Art Gallery, Art in Paradise
I’d seen other travellers’ photographs of this place when I was researching an itinerary of things to do in the city, and instantly I was desperate to go! Established by Korean, Jang Kyu Suk, with creative paintings by professional artists from Korea, Chiang Mai’s Art in Paradise contains more than 130 works of art with which you can interact, in order to craft some fun and creative shots for your Instagram feed.
We spent a good couple of hours in this place, and we could easily have spent so many more. If you have kids, or if you’re just a big kid yourself, Art in Paradise is an absolute must when you’re in Chiang Mai.
We literally took hundreds of shots between us, but here are a few of my favourites.
Stu was a total expert at knowing exactly how to pose in order to really look like he was part of the painting. I unfortunately wasn’t (it’s not as easy as it looks!), hence why the majority of the photos are of him.
Elephant Parade is a social enterprise and runs the world’s largest exhibition of decorated elephant statues. Created by artists and celebrities, each Elephant Parade statue is a unique work of art. The life-size, baby elephant statues are exhibited in international cities and raise awareness of the need for elephant conservation.
We were lucky that, in 2016, the parade was being held in Chiang Mai, so these beautiful decorated elephants could be found all over the city, but if you’d like to learn more about Elephant Parade’s work, you can visit their museum and workshop on the outskirts of the old city. Here you can watch the artists at work and even have a go at designing and painting your very own miniature elephant statue.
There are also plenty of statues to purchase, in various different sizes and in a multitude of colourful designs, and 20% of Elephant Parade’s net profits are donated to elephant welfare and conservation projects.
Eating all the food
One of my favourite things about Chiang Mai is the food. As well as street food at the markets, Chiang Mai is stuffed to the gills with good quality, affordable cafes and restaurants.
I was overjoyed to find that one of my favourite restaurants on my first visit to Chiang Mai in 2006, and one that I visited again in 2011, was still open and still just as good as I remember it to be, in 2016. Aum Vegetarian Restaurant was located right by Tha Pae Gate when we visited, but I understand that they’ve now moved to a new address on Suriyawong Road, close to the Saturday Night Market. It’s a little more off-the-beaten path now, but I guarantee you it’s worth the walk.
I can thoroughly recommend the Khao Soi, although to be honest everything I’ve ever eaten at Aum is amazing!
We also found a lovely little cafe called Overstand, just off Moon Muang Road, that was great for breakfast and coffee.
There are a ton of other places I wanted to try (Nimmanhaemin Road is apparently where the food scene in Chiang Mai is at nowadays), but a lot of the time we were in the wrong part of town when we found ourselves hungry, so we just ducked into one of the nearby cafes.
And to be honest, I didn’t have a bad meal in Chiang Mai. Even the spring rolls are amazing everywhere you go.
Catmosphere Cat Cafe
You’re not really going to stumble upon Chiang Mai’s cat cafe; Catmosphere is located right out by the university, a good five kilometres from the centre of the old city. We made the mistake of heading up there late afternoon and getting stuck in the rush-hour traffic. So, what should’ve been a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride actually ended up being closer to 45 minutes. And the traffic was still bad when we left the cafe an hour later so we ended up walking back.
Still, it was a small price to pay for some quality time with an adorable bunch of furry felines (Stu may disagree!).
Whilst I wouldn’t say that the streets of Chiang Mai are awash with street art, there are a few quality pieces hidden around the city. This Long Neck Karen lady, by artist, Facte, really stood out.
And this one, just around the corner from our hostel, put a smile on my face.
And that concluded our three days in Chiang Mai.
If you’re a first-time visitor to the city, you may also want to check out the following sights and activities:
- The big three temples: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
- Take a Thai cooking class. I’ve booked on two separate occasions with Gaps, and have been very impressed with them, but there are so many different schools to choose from now, so do your research.
- Get a traditional Thai massage. I honestly can’t remember the name of the massage centre I visited way back in 2006, but there are a few recommendations in the latest Lonely Planet guide. One of these is the Vocational Training Center of the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, where you can get a massage from one of the inmates! Be warned though, Thai massages are certainly not a relaxing experience, but an experience nonetheless.
- If you’re not in town at the weekend but want to do some shopping, there is a night market on every evening of the week. Just walk through Tha Phae Gate, and continue along Tha Phae Road, and it’s impossible to miss.
What’s your favourite thing to do in Chiang Mai? Any amazing cafes, restaurants, or hostels/guesthouses you’ve discovered? Or if you’ve spent any length of time in the city, is there anything you can recommend I see or do on my next visit?
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