Chiang Mai is a city in the northern mountains of Thailand, known for its amazing excursions, incredible food, nightlife, and digital nomad scene. It’s a beautiful city that I think should be a must for anyone venturing to Thailand. We spent three full days there, and had an incredible time on our excursions and exploring the various markets. It’s a city with plenty of shopping and eating opportunities, so come with space in your suitcase and an empty stomach.
Getting to Chiang Mai from Bangkok
There are lots of budget-friendly flights between Thai cities, and they are all pretty short flights. We jumped on a one-way flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on AirAsia and were quickly right in the heart of the city, ready to explore.
Where We Stayed
BED Phrasingh Adults-Only Hotel
This hotel was great! The price was right, it’s adults-only, the staff was incredible and there was a pool right outside our room. They had a great breakfast buffet and unlimited water and juices stocked in the fridge for guests. It was a very comfortable stay, and it was close to everything we wanted to walk to in Chiang Mai. I definitely recommend BED Phrasingh to anyone looking for some luxury on a budget.
Things To Do & Best Tours in Chiang Mai
Doi Suthep Mountain & Temple
Located about a 45-minute drive from Chiang Mai, the temple Wat Phra That sits on top of the mountain Doi Suthep. It’s a beautiful temple on the mountainside, overlooking the city of Chiang Mai and the surrounding mountain range. It’s a great little evening trip to take if you want to see the sunset and get your steps in — the staircase up to the actual temple from the spot where the van or bus will drop you off is quite the hike! The shrines are beautiful and it’s a cool spot to spend an hour or so wandering around.
If you get car sick easily, just be aware that the drive up the mountain is a bit intense. It’s a lot of windy mountain roads and a fast climb to a higher elevation, so it’s easy to feel a bit queasy.
Cooking Class at Thai Farm Cooking School
Learning how to cook some of my favorite Thai dishes was one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip. I’ve always been intimidated by cooking my own Asian dishes and have always thought it’s just easier to get takeout, but now I am proud to say I can throw together a mean spring roll or bowl of Tom Kha soup. We took a half-day class from the Thai Farm Cooking School, starting bright and early at 8 AM when we were picked up from our hotel and headed to the market. Our amazing guide, Garnet, went through the market with us and pointed out different items and explained their uses in various dishes. After the market tour, we headed to the organic farm where we’d learn how to cook four dishes that we got to choose before the course.
The farm was a beautiful space full of gardens growing tons of ingredients that we would be using in our cooking. I absolutely loved the walking tour that we did, where Garnet pointed out the various vegetables and herbs growing, explaining their uses and cultivation.
Then the cooking began! I made spring rolls, Tom Kha Soup, Khao Soi, and mango sticky rice. Everything was so delicious, and our great guide and head chef really explained everything super well with the demonstrations. It was so fun to eat everything after making it, and the staff there did an excellent job of preparing our ingredients so it was all set to go.
Everything was delicious, and at the end of the course, we each got our own little recipe book with all the recipes of the day, not just the ones we elected to make. I can’t recommend this experience enough! Everything from start to finish was perfectly organized and executed.
Sunday Walking Street Market
This huge market in Chiang Mai is a must if you happen to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday. It’s a huge outdoor street market with tons of vendor stalls for shopping and incredible food. It starts in the evening and goes late into the night, and this area is flanked by bars with outdoor seating, perfect for taking a little shopping break when wandering around. I wish I would have shopped more here, to be honest! It’s within the Old Town Walls of Chiang Mai on Ratchadamnoen Road.
Elephant Tour & Doi Inthanon National Park
Starting bright and early, we booked this awesome tour to take us to a bunch of the top spots around Chiang Mai. It was a long day, but totally worth it. Pack a swimsuit, sunscreen, flip flops and walking shoes, a spare pare of socks, sunglasses, and don’t forget to charge your phone or camera before setting off for the day.
Living Green Foundation Elephant Sanctuary
Visiting the elephant sanctuary was a huge highlight of the Thailand trip, and this tour was excellent. The sanctuary we went to was the Living Green Foundation, and it’s an ethical elephant sanctuary, run by a family with four elephants in their care.
Our guide did an amazing job explaining the background of each elephant and how they ended up at the sanctuary (two rescued from the circus, one rescued who was injured from stepping on a landmine near the Myanmar border, and another one was orphaned) and explaining how to interact with each one. We were then given a big bag of bananas and sugar cane and got to feed them by hand, which was incredible. They are such smart and wonderful animals, it was great to take photos, pet them, and feed them. After all the food ran out, we wandered a short walk with them to a river, where we gave them a nice bath.
Doi Inthanon National Park
After playing with the elephants, we were able to take a shower at the farm, as they had a basic shower facilities and bathrooms, and change into walking clothes to continue our adventures around Doi Inthanon National Park. We climbed to the highest spot in Thailand, saw some beautiful waterfalls, visited the King & Queen’s “Chedi’s,” two beautiful stupas built in 1987 & 1992, with a shrine inside and gorgeous flower gardens surrounding the temples.
A cooling swim after a long day of walking around in the sun and playing with elephants was a welcome relief. This day trip was long but 100% worth it, especially if you’re limited on time in Chiang Mai and want to see several highlights in one day.
Chiang Mai Cabaret Show
A must-have nightlife experience in Chiang Mai is going to a Cabaret Show. The Chiang Mai Cabaret is a well-known nightlife gem, and for less than $15, you can have VIP front row seats to the performance. It was so much fun, servers come around to refill your drinks throughout the show, and the atmosphere is super fun and lively. Bring plenty of small-bill Baht for tips, the ladies will love you! They were super engaging with the crowd and it was a hilarious and entertaining experience.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has incredible food, from its stand alone restaurants to the endless markets, you won’t go hungry here. I would recommend trying lots of different dishes and hop around to various markets to get a taste of many things while in Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi Arak
This casual spot delivers an unbeatable Khao Soi and is one of the best places in Chiang Mai to get it. Khao Soi is a Chiang Mai specialty, and this restaurant which is essentially in a family’s garage is the ultimate experience for indulging in it. The broth is rich and the flavors are unbeatable. It was so cheap and good, if I lived in Chiang Mai I would easily eat here once a week!
A famous chicken spot, SP Chicken is known for its juicy rotisserie chicken served with some delicious sweet chili sauce and other Thai sauces. It was very close to our hotel, and we came at off-peak time in the morning to snag ourselves a plate before they sold out for the day. It’s a Michelin guide recommended spot, and it’s easy to understand why!
Chang Phuak Gate Night Market
If you’ve seen the Anthony Bourdain Chiang Mai episode, you’ll remember his scenes with this lady. The lady with the cowboy hat at the Chang Phuak Gate night market serves up an incredible pork dish called Khao Kha Moo, served with a soft boiled egg and rice. It was unbelievable, every bite was amazing. I would say this is the number one dish to not miss while in Chiang Mai, and this market has a lot of other great food stalls to check out, too.
Chiang Mai was an incredible city to explore over the course of three days. I would absolutely go back and spend more time exploring the mountains and parks, markets, and more.