We flew to Chiang Mai for the New Year’s Eve period. Although it was peak season, it was an incredible experience to welcome in the New Year, within the historic walls of the old town. If you’re worried about the crowds, yes it’s busy, but it’s not overwhelming. The countdown in Chiang Mai was such an amazing experience, and to be part of the releasing of the lanterns at midnight was a real highlight. The abundance of sky-bound lanterns was a sight to behold, which we dubbed the “lantern superhighway”. Don’t worry, it looks a lot better than it sounds!
See / Do
Sunrise at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep Temple: This temple is located in the mountains just outside the city, and is surrounded by lush national parks. The temple overlooks Chiang Mai city, and its close proximity makes it a very popular tourist destination with the locals and tourists alike. If you are keen to beat the crowds, as we were, I would highly recommend rising early in time to see the sunrise. Given it is still completely dark on your journey up the mountain, make sure you book a driver rather than a tuk tuk. Your driver will drop you at the entrance to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, where you will need to climb the 300+ stairs to the top. Trust me, the views are worth it!
Monks Temple: On the way back from Wat Prathat, ask your driver to take you past the Monks Temple, which is 10 minutes drive down the mountain. This temple is a hidden gem without the crowds of its bigger neighbour; we saw perhaps only 6 other people visiting at the time. Here you will find a moss covered temple hidden amongst the jungle, with a creek running along side it. There is a serene calm that radiates from this space, so take your time to sit and enjoy the views.
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary: There are a few different places which offer visits to elephant sanctuaries surrounding Chiang Mai, and when selecting one I would recommend making sure they are a reputable company (i.e. confirm that they do not allow riding of the elephants and that the elephants are being treated well). At the time of our visit in late 2017, these two companies were the best on offer: Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
The majority of the elephants taken into these sanctuaries have been rescued from logging or poor treatment in the tourism industry. These sanctuaries aim to provide a safe livelihood for the elephants, with visitor fees contributing to the huge volume of food they consume and medical care. During your visit you will have a chance to feed the elephants and help with their bath time. Whilst it was an insightful experience, and one I enjoyed, it didn’t feel particularly authentic. In my view, it still focused too heavily on the tourism and not as much on the ‘volunteering’ aspect that I had hoped it would.
Temples of Old Town: Chiang Mai is known for the hundreds of temples inside its old town walls, so pop into any that catch you eye or visit a select few that you like the sound of. We limited our temple adventures to:
- Wat Pra Sing: This was our favourite temple, which is famous for its stunning Golden Chedi as well as the beautiful Lanna architecture. There is quite a bit to see here, so take your time to take in the intricately detailed buildings.
- Wat Chedi Luang: Built during the 15th Century, this temple is huge and amongst the tallest in Chiang Mai at the time. Although the structure is crumbling, a visit here still makes for a humbling experience.
- Wat Phan Tao: Unique for its wooden structure, this temple is well worth a quick look if you are in its vicinity.
Street Markets: Chiang Mai has two different weekend markets; the Saturday and Sunday walking street markets. In both locations the surrounding roads are closed to traffic from 4pm to allow the street vendors to set up and you can expect the crowds to be thick by 6pm. If you prefer to avoid the throngs of people arrive for the start. We went to the Saturday market which had a great atmosphere, and a good mixture of stalls consisting of clothing, crafts, jewellery, and some delicious street food & drinks.
Hunt for Street Art: Chiang Mai is full of street art! You’ll stumble across some great pieces scattered throughout old town… all you need to do is keep your eyes open and ready! If you’re having trouble spotting any, then head to the trendy soi’s (lanes) of Moon Muang Road (the north east corner of old town). This neighbourhood is great for strolling and has great cafe options in case you’re in need of a caffeine hit.
Eat / Drink
Chiang Mai is a foodies paradise! We were keen to try some of the northern Thai local specialties and our favourite dish was Khao Soi: a delicious bowl of egg noodles with a thick curry broth of either chicken or beef.
Another northern Thai speciality is grilled chicken, gai yang, which is actually Isaan cuisine from the north east of the country. There are a couple of restaurants claiming to serve up the best gai yang in Chiang Mai, and we decided to checkout SP Chicken which was conveniently located on the same road as our hotel.
SP Chicken serves up some of the the most delicious grilled chicken you’ll ever try. I would recommend ordering one whole chicken between 2 people (the chickens aren’t huge) which is served up with some Isaan dipping sauces (one a salty green herb chilli, and the other a firey-tomato chilli). We also ordered the papaya salad thinking it would be refreshing to go along as a side to the chicken – it was delicious, but be warned, it packs a punch with a chilli hit! One final tip: arrive early for lunch or dinner to avoid the queues.
Whist in Chiang Mai you must make it to the Chang Phueak North Gate Night Markets which is the place to go to try some of the best street food in the city. One such stall, made famous by Anthony Bourdain, is ”the lady with the cowboy hat”. The stall is famous for Khao Kha Moo pork leg stew served up with a boiled egg, rice and pickled green vegetables. The photo below doesn’t really do it justice; the pork was melt in your mouth delicious and the rice is drizzled with a light spiced broth. Definitely a cheap and cheerful meal!
For a nice restaurant experience I would highly recommend The House by Ginger. This beautiful colonial house has been converted into three distinct spaces by its owners: a cafe & homeware store, a cocktail bar, and a restaurant. The decor is colourful and fun, the food and cocktails excellent, and the service is great. It is on the higher end of Chiang Mai dining prices, but is great for those looking to treat themselves or for a special occasion. It was a perfect venue for celebrating New Years Eve!
Given the location of Chiang Mai it’s no wonder that it’s become a haven for locally sourced coffee beans and high quality coffee shops. You’ll find MANY excellent places to get a great cup-of-joe, and we definitely wandered around the city each day with a spring in our steps. Here are my favourites:
Ponganes Coffee Roasters: The team at Ponganes roast their own beans, and serve up perfectly made coffee. Located in the centre of old town, this makes for an excellent pit stop whilst exploring.
Graph Cafe: Located in what I affectionately called the “moon district” of old town (a series of narrow roads and alleyways off Moon Muang Road in the north-east corner of old town). This cafe takes its coffee seriously! There is limited seating inside and a bench out the front, but if you can find a seat then take your time and savour.
There is a vast range of accommodation options in Chiang Mai to suit all tastes and budgets. During our five nights in Chiang Mai we stayed at two different hotels (mainly due to availability) but in hindsight it was a great way to see different parts of the city.
Our first hotel was BED Prasingh, right smack-bang in the middle of old town, and we LOVED this hotel. I’d classify this hotel as a flash-packer type place. Rooms are simple but clean, with modern design, and the price is very reasonable considering all the services they offer: breakfast included, coffee and fruit available all day, free bike usage, self serve water bottle fridges, and great staff. There is also a swimming pool, although it was not hot enough to ‘don the togs’ during our stay.
Our second hotel Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette was a beautiful resort style hotel located on the East Bank of the Ping River. We had wanted our final few nights to be relaxing and with some pool time, so this hotel ticked those two boxes for us. The hotel is located outside of the city walls which made for a quiet and peaceful stay, and was just a quick tuk tuk ride over the bridge into old town. But, if you are only in Chiang Mai for 3 nights or less I would recommend staying in the centre, so you are much more accessible to all the sights, markets and restaurants.