If you are in the planning phase and fretting about where to stay in Chiang Mai, don’t fret. Please don ‘t fret. Read my post with a very creative title of “Where to Stay in Chiang Mai” because you’re not alone. This is the most popular question we receive from travelers.
The question “What to do in Chiang Mai” comes in second.
And NO, we do not make any claims that these are the BEST (especially the eateries) because frankly, there are so many, too many, great places and it’s all subjective, right? We will say that for Coffee we’d only go to Akha Ama, nowhere else.
Don’t underestimate Chiang Mai! There is plenty to do here. Just take a peek at the activities below. Let me put it this way- you have choices. Many choices. Farms, farms, and more farms. There are orchid farms, butterfly farms, organic farms, coffee farms only a few hours away from Chiang Mai. Caves? We have those. Waterfalls? Those aren’t that far either. Hot Springs? YES! Markets, markets, markets. You can shop until you drop here. Endless number of markets.
Seriously, don’t miss out on the true beauty of the Rose of Northern Thailand.
There are also animal farms and other touristy activities that wont get mentioned here and that is not accidental. I suggest you read Christine’s post on “Sh*t I Didn’t Do in Thailand” before making your own choice about what you want to do here.
If you have the time and wish to volunteer in Chiang Mai, read this post on long-term volunteer and paid opportunities and then contact us for more info as needed.
WATS. WATS. WATS. (That means “Temples”)
Before heading out to any Wats around town, or SE Asia for that matter, read this post, PLEASE! Or, we’ll shame you publicly…
Doi Suthep Wat Prahthat - coming to Chiang Mai and missing this Wat is like missing the Vatican while in Rome. Don’t miss it. Warning: Very touristy and crowded during the cool months and especially on the weekends.
Wat Chedi Lung - famous Wat can find it easily on any tourist maps.
Wat Prah Sing – famous Wat can find it easily on any tourist maps.
Wat U Mong Mahatherachan – in the old city located on Ratchapakhinai. Go to the back of this Wat and ask to see the many faces of Buddha. A monk has to guide you for this.
Wat Suan Dok – our favorite Monk Chat is here and it is located on Suthep Rd, west of the old city. The Monk Chats are available on M, W, F 5-7pm. There are nearly 30 Burmese Monks studying there. I find that incredible since when I was here in early 2008, there was only 1 Burmese Monk student attending the university at this Wat. I met him at Wat Si Moon. He is graduating this year, 2011. Also ask about their meditation retreat. I hear it is a good one.
Wat U Mong - tucked away in the woods off of Suthep Rd- you’ll feel like you’re a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Getting there: Rent a bicycle and you can hit most of the Wats except Doi Suthep Wat Prahthat (Doi Suthep is the mountain and the wat is the atop the mountain). You can either Rent a motorbike or take the song taeo (red bus). Costs can be around 150. ( J: if you’re an avid cyclist, you can do it- just check the brakes on the bicycle first!)
There are markets all over town. Morning markets. All day markets. Night markets. I told you there are so many choices.
There are many markets and street food stalls aside from Chiang Mai Gate, Tha Pae Gate, Saturday and Sunday night market that most foreigners end up and miss many other great markets. Many are outside of the old city.
Mung Mai Market is the mother of all markets. It’s located near the American Embassy by the river. Want to see the hustle and bustle of this wholesale market? Get there early in the morning and you’ll find all kinds of market actions. I love this market for the fruits, oh so many choices of fruits.
Kad Luang (great market) Many may know this market as Warrorot is located near the river near Mung Mai Market. Love this one too because basically you WILL find everything here. But the vendors know this is a very frequented market by tourists via all kinds of market tours. Open all day and it gets very lively at night as well especially the night market outside.
Friday Morning Market - I gave it that name and I’ve heard it is also called Haw Market. A very unique market filled with hilltribe vendors as well as Shan and Burmese vendors. We are there almost every Friday. Lots of Burmese and Shan dishes and snacks for breakfast. Ummm! It is located across from the Mosque in the night bazaar.
Thanin Market – another great market with lots of food stalls in the middle of the market. It is located north of Chuang Phuk gate. Look for Thanin street from Chuang Phuk on the left. Lot’s of good food stalls here. This is where I find my beloved sugarcane juice.
Thon Phayome Market- located near one of our favorite Burmese restaurants, Hmwe. The market is at the corner of Suthep and Canal.
Somphet Market – Closest to Tha Pae gate. One of the smallest markets made for tourists! You will find many cooking tour groups shopping there and learning about different herbs, ingredients for their cooking classes. Mostly in the mornings.
Chiang Mia Gate Market – busy market mostly in the early mornings. At night this area turns into a night food market full of beautiful tasty aromas enticing you to each stall. Lots of yummy food here. Popular with tourists. Saturday night market starts at this gate.
Tha Pae Gate - Sunday night market starts here. There’s usually something going on here – year round!
Chung Pheuk Gate Market North Gate – mostly locals. Everyone’s at Chiang Mai gate so few tourists if any, here. This market is hopping in the wee hours of the morning.
Malin Plaza- Daily Night Market. Starts at 6pm.. Duck? Hot Pot? Japanese food? Thai Food? Dim Sum? Roti? Crepes? You name it they have it! We like (J: “LOVE”) this one as well. Located on Huay Kaew Road across from CMU. Actually all along Huay Kaew near CMU is alive and kicking every night.
Kad Suan Kaeo Central Night Market in front of the mall on Thursday – Saturday.
Market along Suthep Road – pass Canal. Tons of food stalls here with many locals mostly on the right of the street. Bubba: near Chiang Mai University, so it’s a hip college area!
JJ Market- Tesco Lotus Night Market (Northeast of the city)- Great food choices. Band. Giant inflatable play house. How can you go wrong with that?? Bubba: one night, we spotted outdoor aerobics in the parking lot!
Sorry we don’t hang-out at the night bizaar. We only go to that area on Friday mornings.
There’s also a lot of activities along both sides of the river as well.
BTW: it’s alright to eat street food in Chiang Mai. If you’re worried start off with soups, grilled meats or stir fried dishes before venturing out to the salads.
PARK and NATURE
Chiang Mai Park (or Buak Hat Park) – Southwest corner of the moat. Nice play ground in here for kids. You can feed the fish or the pigeons. Kids and adults love this activity. Rent a mat for 8b and you can picnic there as long as you want.
Think Park – Is no longer a park. It is now a construction site.
Huay Kaew Health and Fitness Park and Arboretum – pass CMU near the zoo.
Doi Inthanon National Park (highest spot in Thailand) - We went there in 2009 and drove thru it again in 2010, 2011. If you can get up there do it.
Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park – another great place for outdoor lover like us.
Huay Tung Tao Reservoir - not too far from the city, this is a nice little hang-out. Many music fests are held here. You could rest and relax in many of the huts built along the water. You could go swimming too but please, swim like the locals ladies, keep your clothes on– this is not the islands in the south. Tubes and paddle boats available for rental also.
Mae Rim, Mae Sa Valley, Samoeng Loop – great for a day trip from the city with a motorbike. On your way towards Mae Sa Valley, you’ll find Orchid farms and butterfly farms as well. We recommend this highly if you have the time to explore! Beautiful ride and scenery!
Mae Sa Waterfalls and Mae Sa valley are great day trips you should not miss if you have the time. Catch the sunset!
Queen Sikirt Botenical Garden – this is along the Samoeng loop. We drove by it but did not go in.
Royal Flora Ratchaphruek, King’s Park – further out from the city but worth a visit if you’re into beautiful scenic parks. This park was built to honor the king in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of His Majesty’s Accession to the Throne and His 80th Birthday. It’s magical at night. You could also ride up to the mountain top temple behind the King’s park. The view from the top overlooking the park at night is simply beautiful.
San Kamphaeng Hot Springs, Muang On Cave and Crazy Horse - Close enough for a day trip, even the Thais enjoy these outings. And Free rock climbing at Crazy Horse. You have to bring your own gears. The caves here at Crazy are not guided or have lighting as they are adventurous caves. We went there with our daughter’s class on a field trip. M’s teacher is an avid climber and we’ve been told this is heaven for climbers. It’s also FREE.
The Muang On caves closer to the hot springs are more tourist caves (lit with pavement for locals and foreigners). This could be a road trip on a motorbike. You could probably hire a red bus to take you there as well.
Elephant Nature Park the only one we’d recommend to our friends.
Akha Ama Coffee Journey- If you’re in Chiang Mai during one of these months, Nov – Feb, we highly recommend that you take the journey. It is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
IT’S ALWAYS CHOW TIME IN CHIANG MAI
You can easily grab food at any of the markets above. Where’s there is a market there is food; lots of food! However, we have found a few personal favorites that you might also consider.
Little family owned Thai restaurant near Akha Ama. Go to the coffee shop and ask Lee and he’ll tell you where to go. We eat there just about every time we visit Akha Ama.
Hmwe Burmese Restaurant. Go say Hi to Ma Suu. She’s there all day until around 6pm. Ask for Samosa salad, Tea leaf salad and Lephet Yay (Burmese milk tea). No longer around. (very sad face!)
D-Lo Burmese Restaurant. Newer place and can get just about everything you can get at Hmwe also. We frequent both places. (No longer around either. Even sadder face!)
Free Bird Cafe - Tis located on Moon Maung Soi 7 near Tha Pae gate. You can even rent a bicycle there. 100% non-profit and all proceeds from charity shop and cafe goes to their school.
Dindee – Adorable Japanese mud house, serving healthy Thai food, located inside CMU campus Art Center parking lot in the right corner on Nimmenhimen road. They also serve Akha Ama coffee!
Pun Pun Organic Vegetarian Restaurant and Farm - Located inside (behind) Wat Suan Dok (closed on Wednesdays) and across from Think Park (closed on Tuesdays). Pun Pun is an organic farm, seed-saving operation, and sustainable living and learning center. Only by living in a sustainable way ourselves, is it possible for us to create a model from which others can learn and live. Pun Pun is a Nonprofit organization. Volunteer and internship opportunities available.
Khun Churn Vegetarian Restaurant – Lunch buffets for 98b. Located on Nimmen Soi 17. Bubba: lunch buffet is a great deal for what you get. You can even make your own kao soi dish! Not the best place to eat Kho Soi but a great veggie place we really like.
Isaan 1million % - Yummy salads and grilled meats. Their soups are really good too. It is located across from the CMU entrance on Hway Kaew road. Sign is in Thai only. Look for the % sign to be absolutely sure you’re going to the right place. This area comes alive at night and turn into a night market all along Huay Kaew road.
‘All you can eat hot-pot buffet’ - These are everywhere all over Chiang Mai ranging from 99 to 200b The largest one is off of Huay Kaew road right before Hillside Condo4- look for a giant yellow sign on the right- go all the way to the back and you’ll see a stadium size restaurant. There’s live music and a playground. It’s giant. The cost of the buffet is about 189b. They’ll charge you extra if you get more food than you can chew!
iBerry – Thais love to go here. They have awesome ice cream flavors and have different ones daily. If you can tackle the toast loaf castle (that’s my name for it) by yourself, for 169b.
It’s quite lively on Nimmenhemmen everyday and night. However, you could check out the following clubs/pubs as well. Again this is a short list. Will add more soon.
Sunday Night Market
Saturday Night Market
NORTHERN THAILAND AND OTHER ACTION PACKED ACTIVITIES
Go Extreme: for these complete action, go extreme activities, we suggest you check out our friends Kirsty and Poi’s post here for Zip lining and here for choices like Zorb-balling and off-roading.
Bo Sang- take a short day trip out to see where and how umbrellas are made. Visit the shops, get a souvenir by having your bag, umbrella, phone painted by one of the artists. You can easily take a white truck from Warrorot market to Bo Sang for about 15-20b. You can find out more about it from our friend Shannon. We took a little Team Chiang Mai road trip together to Bo Sang during the Unbrella Festival in January.
Chiang Rai – take a few days to visit Chiang Rai and the White Temple, a post with beautiful photography from our friend Daniel. Don’t miss the white temple.
Mae Sai – if you’re up north anyway, might as well take a bus all the way to the northern most town of Thailand (especially if you need to do a visa run and in this case you’ll get 15 days). You can cross over to the border town Tachilate in Burma (Myanmar) in which you can stay for 14 days.
Golden Triangle – if you’re already in Chiang Rai and Mae Sai, you’re not too far from this famous area where the three countries are connected by the Mae Kong River. Touristy area but still a nice area to visit. Go up the near by Wat (only big one in that area) to see an aerial view of the Golden Triangle.
Pai and Mae Hong Song – we just went to MHS in April 2011. Recommended.
When we were here in 2009, we rented a car and drove up to Pai. On the way and back, we explored on our own at our own leisure and you can really see a lot this way as well. You just need to show your passport to rent a car here. We did have to pay more to NOT have a driver provided by the rental agency. It’s best if you can get a group of people to split with you. Along the way, we visited many hot springs, waterfalls, and remote villages we would not be able to see from the bus. Another thing to consider is to go to the town you’re interested in by bus, then rent a motorbike to explore the surrounding areas.
When in doubt, get a one hour-long Thai Massage for around 180b. You may see them higher at more upscale spas. However, I’ve gotten massages, good ones, for as low as 120b. Or just have a spa day! Treat yourself. I would recommend Lila Thai Massage.
Don’t forget to check out Team Chiang Mai facebook page.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE THING TO DO IN CHIANG MAI?
If you’d like to hire a red truck driver for day trips, I have a couple of contacts. Check Team Chiang Mai FB page for more info.
If you need to rent a motorbike, there’s info for that too.