Often overlooked by people visiting Thailand in favor of the beaches or Bangkok, Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand offers a lot to see and do. Here are 8 reasons why you need to visit Chiang Mai.
1. Try the Fantastic Street Food
There is a lot of street food available in Chiang Mai. It is good and very inexpensive. Seriously you can eat for $1-$3 USD per person. Chiang Mai is near the heart of Thai agricultural land, so there is a wide selection of fruits and vegetables. And they are all fresh!
Each evening a dazzling selection of vendors set up near the north gate, Chang Puek Gate, and the south gate, Chiang Mai Gate, leading into the old city. Some do not have the menu in English, but most have pictures and you can point.
If you would like to get an overview of street food and an introduction to Chiang Mai, take a street food tour. On ours we were also given a handy guide with the most common dishes and how to say them in Vietnamese. It is helpful to do at the beginning of your visit to Chiang Mai so you can plan accordingly.
Visit the Local Markets
During the day, visit one of the markets which sell a wide variety of cooked food and pre-made foods to take home. You can read more about street food in Chiang Mai in our post How to Make Authentic Thai Fish Cakes.
One tip is to look for the green-bowl. If a vendor, market stall or shop has the green bowl logo, it means they have a dish that has been recognized for excellence. It is a culinary award of sorts. You will find some great dishes this way. You can see a picture of the sign in our green curry post. The fantastic street food is a great reason to visit Chiang Mai.
If you would like to learn more about Thai food, or are planning to visit Chiang Mai or elsewhere in Thailand, you might enjoy A Foodie’s Guide to the Best of Thailand.
2. Have a Thai Massage in Chiang Mai
Thailand is famous for its spas and Thai massage can be a very healthy massage. However I am not sure it could ever be described as relaxing!
With Thai massage, your clothes are on, and it is somewhat interactive. It will leave you feeling energized. Foot massage is also very common and can help those tired feet.
In Chiang Mai there are a lot of spas, all are inexpensive compared to rates you are probably used to at home. Standards of facilities differ widely so check before you book. One spa we were very happy with was Fah Lanna. Depending on what you book, it may include pick-up and drop off from your hotel as part of the service.
If you want to learn more about Thai massage you can take a class when you visit Chiang Mai.
3. Visit the Chiang Mai Night Markets
Chiang Mai has a number of night markets. Every night there is the Night Bazaar, 7 pm -12 pm. You can buy souvenirs and eat here. It is marked on the tourist map and the songthaew drivers (shared taxis, resembling red pick-up trucks with a cover on the back) all know where it is (and can understand night market in English).
Then there are two temporary street markets, one on Saturday, and the other on Sunday. Both of these streets are also marked on the tourist maps. Check the start time and go early, they get incredibly crowded! This is one of the highlights when you visit Chiang Mai.
4. Take a Cooking Class
There are a lot of cooking schools in Chiang Mai! And with good reason, in the hillsides surrounding Chiang Mai a huge variety of fruits and vegetables grow, meaning you can find anything you need for any Thai dish at the local markets.
Find a cooking class offering a local market tour and you can learn more about the ingredients as well. We took a class at A Lot of Thai, a family run cooking school. It includes a market tour, hands on cooking lessons and pick-up and drop off. Each person has a cooking station and the teacher Yui, was fantastic. We later saw Yui on an episode of Chef Abroad with Canadian Chef Michael Smith. Yui was Michael’s local guide in Chiang Mai. (I love it when we have been some place we see on TV).
While you visit Chiang Mai, this is in our opinion, the best place to take a Thai cooking class.
5. Make your Own Mulberry Paper
An ancient traditional art from Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia is making paper from mulberry. Mulberry is a type of tree and using the pulp from the tree they make the most beautiful paper, saa paper as it is known in Thailand.
You can take a ½ day class where you make your own. You can then take it home with you.
This was a really unique thing to do and it is very relaxing. The course includes all instruction, you get to keep the paper you make and pick-up and drop-off. We only saw the opportunity to do this in Chiang Mai.
HQ Papermaker, a shop in the old town, offers the class. More information can be found on their website.
6. Grab a coffee
Thailand does actually grow coffee and while not well known around the world for great coffee beans they are slowly improving.
There are some good coffee houses in Chiang Mai and you will be able to find a decent cup.
The best coffee in town (and this is one of the best cups of coffee anywhere!) can be found at Ristr8to. The people running this trendy coffee shop are definitely coffee lovers. You can pick your bean from a selection from around the world, and the method of preparation. There is a lot of information about the processing, roasting and brewing of coffee as well. If you are interested, you can learn a lot about coffee, and its processing. The owner has traveled the world learning about coffee, and then returned to Chiang Mai.
If you remotely like coffee, it is worth a visit. It is located on Nimmanhemin Road. A very trendy area of Chiang Mai. It features some great restaurants, boutique hotels and small shops. It is a popular area with expats. So while not the primary reason to visit Chiang Mai, a good cup of coffee it definitely a welcome bonus.
7. Visit the Artisan Villages near Chiang Mai
There are a number or artisan villages just out of town from Chiang Mai. They are easy to get to on the local bus. (Catch the bus at the bus station in town, the routes are labelled. They are very cheap and used by both tourist and locals alike. They look like vans rather than large buses.) Take the bus out San Kamphaeng Road (Highway 1006), which is nicknamed the “Handicrafts Highway”. You will pass the villages on the way out of town, hop off where you want to stop. This might be obvious but if you ride out to Bor Sang, which is near the end of the road, it gives you an opportunity to pass the other villages and decide where you want to stop, then on the way back you stop at what looked interesting.
A few crafts to investigate:
- Muang Kung pottery village
- Woodcarving center at Baan Tawai.
- Lacquer ware
- The silversmith
- San Kamphaeng for Silk making
- Bor Sang, the paper umbrella village (there is a large festival here in January) Don’t miss this if you visit Chiang Mai in January!
8. See the Temples
Chiang Mai has over 300 temples! If you would like to learn more about Thailand’s temples, including the best ones to see when you visit Chiang Mai and learn the proper etiquette for visiting a temple, read A First Time Visitor’s Guide to the Best Temples of Thailand
If You Visit Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is relatively easy to visit. Just an overnight train ride from Bangkok or a short flight. Bangkok Airways, Air Asia and Thai Lion Air all fly direct from Bangkok. If you plan your visit to Chiang Mai ahead of time you can find some cheap flights.
With a huge variety of accommodation options – hostels, apartments, budget and luxury resorts, there is something for every budget.
Do you have any other tips for those planning to visit Chiang Mai? If so please leave your suggestions in the comments below.