The Best of Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a small city in the mountains of northern Thailand. It has a population of just 150,000 people and consists mostly of narrow, winding streets packed with motorbikes. I only spent 3 days there, but it was enough time to get a nice feel for the city and to do some pretty cool stuff. Here are my top recommendations of what to do, see, and eat if you visit Chiang Mai.
Activity: All-day cooking class with Thai Farm Cooking School
Anything involving food will generally make me happy, so it’s not shocking I loved the cooking class I took in Chiang Mai. But even so, it was way more fun than I expected, and I learned a lot.
You get picked up around 9am, and first go to a local market to learn about some of the ingredients you’ll use for cooking. Then you drive to a small farm outside the city. There, you get to walk around and harvest herbs before starting to cook. You have a choice of two different dishes for each meal (I chose spring rolls, green curry, chicken with basil, pad thai, and sticky rice with mango).
You’ll get to grind your own curry paste with a mortar and pestle, assemble your own spring rolls, and see first-hand just how much oil it takes to make pad thai (spoiler: a lot! But it’s so good).After cooking each dish, you sit with the group and eat and hang out, and it’s really fun. My group included people from Spain, France, Australia, the UK, and the US.
Besides loving the food, I liked getting out of the city. Chiang Mai is busy and noisy, and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the traffic and the constant fear of death by rogue motorbike. It was relaxing to be in a quiet, green setting for the day.
For 1500 Thai Bhat (about $46), you get a full day of meals, transportation, the cooking class, and a recipe book to take home with you. The classes do fill up, so book at least 24 hours in advance.
Experience: Night market
I’m not a huge shopping person. Even in the US, I have a threshold of approximately 20 minutes in a mall before I turn to whoever I’m with and say “Get me out of here.” But I did enjoy Chiang Mai’s night market. It’s set up on either side of Chang Khlan Road, east of the old walled city. You can stroll down the street at your leisure, stopping to check out pretty much any kind of merchandise imaginable: t-shirts, shoes, jewelery, pirated DVDs, artwork, and other Thai handicrafts and souvenirs.
After realizing that stuff like this ends up in a box in the back of my closet, I decided to stop buying souvenirs abroad, but I did allow myself to purchase one small cloth painting of a line of elephants walking through a field. I had it custom framed at Hobby Lobby back in the US and now it’s on my wall, and I love it.
The market is open every day from around sunset until midnight. Bonus- there’s also tons of food stalls in the market, including ones that make crepes with Nutella. Yum.
There are probably better restaurants than Lemongrass in Chiang Mai. But we discovered this place on our second night in the city and went back the next night because it was just so tasty, affordable, and pleasant. It’s a casual place, open to the street, with small square tables and plastic chairs, and diners can doodle their names on the wall. You can get a filling meal and a beer for less than $6. We had the green curry and khao soi, and they were delicious. The restaurant is on Loi Kroh road near the night market.
Do be aware if you go during the rainy season that the street floods very easily. There was a downpour one of the nights we ate at Lemongrass, and the street had six inches of water running down it like a river within 10 minutes.
Day Trip: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
This is a temple near the top of Doi Suthep mountain, 15 kilometers (9 miles) outside Chiang Mai. We did a half-day trip that included the temple and a stop in a small village along the way. Even though the temple is only 9 miles from the city, it takes about 45 minutes to get there because the roads aren’t great. If you get motion sick beware (I do/did), you have to go up some winding mountain roads. I read that hiking the Monk’s Trail is also an option if you have more time.
The temple felt pretty touristy to me, but it was still impressive, with incredibly ornate details everywhere you look. The views of the surrounding countryside and mountains were nice too. I didn’t get up in time to go at sunrise, but if you have that option I’d recommend it to avoid some of the crowds.
Heads up, you have to climb about 300 steps to get to the temple.
A lot of people go to the elephant sanctuary or the tiger zoo, but I avoided these because I’ve heard mixed things about how the animals are treated and whether this kind of tourism is actually good for them.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai is supposed to be amazing and can be visited on a day trip from Chiang Mai.