As much as people in the United States talk about their “epic” travels to Thailand, all of them, literally all of them, have failed to mention that cars drive on the left side of the road there! That was the first I noticed barreling down the highway 80 mph towards Bangkok. A few weeks is barely enough time to acclimate to this change and safely ride a motorbike or walk across streets. Oh, well. One thing most people do mention about Thailand is how much they love Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai City Center
The city center of Chiang Mai is a large square surrounded on all sides by a canal with fountains, as well as impressive brick walls. A lot of the walls have crumbled, but the four main gates are still mostly in tact. Wandering into the square, dozens of golden wats and sacred sites fill the blocks. Coming upon an old, peaceful temple in Chiang Mai seems as common as walking by a Starbucks in America. Except obviously, it is way cooler.
As the old capital of a Northern Siamese kingdom, the center doesn’t have many tall buildings and is not as modernized as other areas. It retains much of the cultural history embedded in its architecture and narrow streets. One of my favorite things was to just walk around the city with no real destination and just look at the temples, markets, and spray-painted alley walls.
Roaming around on drizzly afternoons it never seemed that crowded, even on the busiest streets. Just how I like it. There is something peaceful about walking around in an old city alone with nobody else around. One of the most magical moments happened when I was looking up at the detailed carvings on the entrance of Wat Chiang Mun in the rain. I felt something grab my leg and I looked down to see a shaggy mutt humping my leg. Pure magic.
Delicious food and wats are bountiful in the old city, but not everything worth seeing in Chiang Mai is within the walled area. In fact, most of the popular activities are outside of the walls.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
Food in Chiang Mai
The food capital of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai has enough great cuisine to warrant more than just a paragraph. So, I wrote another post about the food in Chiang Mai you can read here. When you aren’t stuffing your face, there is a small amount of time left for the other things below (half of which are exploring areas with amazing food).
Sunday Walking Street in Chiang Mai
As the name suggests, the night market known as Sunday Walking Street is only on Sunday evenings. Starting at Tha Phae Gate, the market stretches about one kilometer down Ratchadamnoen Road and overflows into a few main food areas, as well as one major cross street. It takes a full night to explore the entire area.
Artisan vendors and food stalls line both sides of all the street, and even the middle of the street in some spots. Blind musicians play music above the noises of the bustling crowds. Even if you aren’t looking to do any shopping, if you are in town on the weekend, be sure to drop by and get some food and do a lap.
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang is the largest temple in the old city. Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, it has held up pretty well against the weather. Not only is the old structure impressive, the traditional temple nearby (you can see in the right side of the image above) is also the most decorative and impressive in the city. Chedi Luang is the most popular attraction within the city.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
An incredible 45-minute motorbike away from the old city, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep sits in the mountains above Chiang Mai. Up through winding, lush and surprisingly well-paved mountain roads, this golden temple cuts through the fog. We weren’t able to see much from the platform looking down because of the weather, but on a clear day I imagine it’s beautiful. As the most important temple in the region, most tourists come here anyways; but the motorbike ride alone is worth the trip.
Asian Scenic Cooking School
Out of the several cooking classes to sign up for, we settled on the Asian Scenic Cooking School. The full day class runs around 5-6 hours and includes 6 dishes, a walk to the local market, and a cookbook. You also get to eat all 6 of the meals you make – so come hungry. Eating all of that food alone pretty much pays for the tour, which was $29/person. I have never been a huge chef, but I would definitely wish I did more cooking classes on my trip.
Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai
The night bazaar is just outside of the old city and is open on most nights. It is only 1-2 years old, so it has a more modern feel and is still picking up steam. A band playing live music in the middle of a courtyard is surround on all sides by walls of food stands. The bazaar has everything from local thai options to western foods to sushi. The courtyard is a great place to listen to music and grab a few beers after dinner.
Nightlife and Zoe in Yellow
The nightlife in Chiang Mai is centered around a single establishment – Zoe in Yellow. There are some other options in town like Spicy, Fat Elvis, and Oasis Rooftop Bar, but Zoe in Yellow is the main destination for young locals and travelers. Deafening music, like literally damaging people’s hearing, blasts from the bar from 8 PM-12 AM (it’s only operating hours). At 26, I am just about at the brink of not being able to enjoy environments like that. For now though, it was still fun. In the area around Zoe in Yellow, the whole block is lined with bars to choose from. When blaring music isn’t as appealing, you can find a quieter bar with a pool table to relax.
Overall, it’s easy to see why everyone loves Chiang Mai. It truly is the pinnacle of northern Thai culture. Do you have your own info or experience from Chiang Mai? Please comment below!
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