Oh, Chiang Mai. Where do I even begin? I was in the city exactly a month from the time I am writing this. After all the places I’ve been to in the past two months, it’s this city that I miss the most. I miss the sights, the people, the weather and most of all, the food. It’s one of my favorite destinations and coming up with this travel guide has been such a pleasure:
It feels like Chiang Mai is a small city, but it’s actually a big one so it’s a good idea to stay for awhile and explore the different areas.
There are three key areas: old city, which is the area within and near the walls; Wua Lai or the one further out to the center but nearer to the markets; and Nimmanhaemin or Nimman, the hipster younger brother to these two.
I wouldn’t recommend the hostel I stayed at in the old city – the bathrooms weren’t clean and the air coditioning barely works in the 20 bed dorm so I’m not even going to drop its name. I do, however, highly recommend you stay in within the walls of the old city. The temples and food markets are more accessible and you can just take a cheap songthaew should you want to visit the outer areas.
In Nimman, I had the pleasure of staying at the 8 bed mixed dorm in Pause Hostel. It’s one of the cleanest and comfiest I’ve been to and it attracts a good range of backpackers and flashpackers in their early to mid 20s. It’s also along a stretch of restaurants and other hostels but it’s surprisingly quiet.
In Wua Lai, there’s Oxotel, a design hostel that’s a little more on the expensive side. I saw it one night while wandering the Saturday Night Market and it looked stylish and comfortable from the outside. I’m hoping to book there the next time I’m in town.
Chiang Mai is known for its many, many temples so make time to check out at least one. You’re bound to bump into a temple anywhere within the old city, but my favorite out of all the ones I’ve seen is the silver temple in the Wua Lai district.
You’ll never run out of eating options in Chiang Mai. I was there for almost a week and I barely made a dent in my must eat list!
For a good Western breakfast and even better WiFi connection, there’s Good Morning Chiang Mai. It’s tucked in a quiet side street, fronting a hotel. I stayed here for a couple of hours getting some work done and they don’t mind you staying for awhile. On the other side of the city, there’s Smoothie Blues where I had the best mango coconut smoothie and Rustic & Blue which serves up beautiful and fancy breakfasts worth every baht. The former has no WiFi so you’re forced to talk to your buddy or eavesdrop on the other table’s conversations (which I did, no shame hahaha). The latter is an intimate, lovely space with hanging plants, wooden tables and fairy lights straight out of Pinterest.
Come lunchtime, stop by Mae Pa Sri for cheap Thai eats served briskly to your table. Thais can do no wrong to a plate of fried rice but this humble local restaurant serves up a great version of it for around 50 baht. If you find yourself wandering Warorot Market in late morning, stay around for lunch and take advantage of the stalls dishing out some good meals. Make some room for the famous Northern Thai sausages, crispy and peppery pork chops and kalamae candies.
In Nimman, don’t miss out on the famous grilled chicken at Soi 11 – write your order on the small notepad and hand it out to one of the staff, then take your pick of drinks available on your table (or grab one from your neighbor). If you’re hoping for an airconditioned place with street food mainstays, the food court at Maya is a good option.
Dinnertime is when the city is most alive. There will be both food and shopping markets, but I always gravitate to the former. My favorite is the less busy Chiang Mai gate food stalls. Keep an eye out for Mrs. Pa’s fruit shake stall, located across a 7-11. Once you have your smoothie on hand, cross the street once more and walk further to a spot between a Tesco Express and another 7-11. Here you’ll find two busy stalls selling noodles and biryani. I haven’t tried the noodles, but I saw tons of locals and Chinese tourists passing by so it’s probably worth a shot. I can, however, vouch for the chicken biryani rice sold at the other stall. It was so good I went out of my way on my last night just to have another plate of it!
Oh and one more thing: be on the lookout for the well-dressed lady selling coconut ice cream. She walks around the city and has no permanent stop, but I’ve seen her lingering outside temples and around night markets. She has a white parasol so it’s a bit easy to spot her!
Time your visit during the Yi Peng and Loy Krathong. It’s a stunning, life-changing experience! Chiang Mai goes all out before and during the event dates, so the temples are all decked out and the mood is very festive with big events such as pageants, parades and contests. This main event occurs in mid or late November, on a full moon, where you get to light a paper lantern and release it to the sky. You can also buy a krathong, light it up and watch it float across the river.
Check out John’s Gallery. If you’re coming from the Tha Phae Gate, walk ahead to the direction of Warorot and keep an eye out for colorful paintings and fun quotables spilling out to the sidewalk.
Don’t be shy to enter the gallery and feel free to stop and appreciate the art! John the artist will most likely be at the backroom doing what he does best – he won’t force you to buy and will let you stay for as long as you want.
Visit a market (or two… or three…). There are countless of shopping markets, but the most famous ones are the Night Bazaar which runs every night and the weekend markets that usually start from late afternoon til late. If it’s a culinary trip you’re hoping for, the food markets at Chiang Mai Gate and the Chang Phueak Gate are worth checking out.
Explore the city by foot. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always enjoyed walking around a new destination. Chiang Mai is one of the best cities to do that!
What are your recommendations for Chiang Mai? I feel like I didn’t stay long enough, so I’m hoping to go back next year!