25 Jan 2014

Top Seven Things To Do In Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai despite its size as Thailand's second biggest city after Bangkok maintains an easy going, welcoming vibe and has plenty to offer its visitors. Within the old city walls are numerous temples, great restaurants and lively bars, but outside of the city is lush, green jungle perfect for some more adventurous excursions. Here are our seven favourite things to do in and around Chiang Mai. 

buddha chiang mai thailand

1. Go To Cooking School

cooking school chiang mai

This was our favourite activity in Chiang Mai so don’t leave this city without trying one, especially if you are a fan of Thai Cuisine. There are loads of schools in the area offering varying menus and you can do a full or half day course, we chose Siam Rice and had a very fun day with our group, we even mastered some pretty tasty dishes. You can read more about our Thai cooking school experience here.

2. Help Thailand's Elephants

elephant nature park chiang mai

Elephants are the national symbol of Thailand and riding these beautiful beasts is top of most visitors agenda. However, there is a dark side to the tourism industry with many elephants being exploited and abused for profit from the tourists deep pockets. We spent a very touching day in an elephant rehab sanctuary just outside of Chiang Mai called Elephant Nature Park, please read about our experience which we 100% recommend for a visit, as for elephant rides and tricks we definitely do not.

3. Rent A Bicycle & Tour The Wats 

wat chiang mai

Most of Chiang Mai’s Wats (Budhhist temples) are within the old city walls, the old city is flat and the streets are in a grid formation so its very easy to navigate and cycle your way around without overexerting yourself. The Wat temples are beautifully ornate structures, immaculately carved, brightly painted and generously embellished with glistening mosaic pieces - we loved the imposing, majestic dragons that guard the gates. 

wat chiang mai dragon

Hop 'on yer bike' and see how many you can find, keep a look out for the Fat Buddha and the Gold Buddha too. You’ll see many monks in their saffron robes and if you want to learn more about a monks life you can participate in a ‘monk chat’ session held most evenings to help them practise their English. We also collided with a very smart marching band on procession during our self led cycle tour, Chiang Mai is a very musical city and if you stay next to a school you’ll hear the children practising noisily at 7am!

marching band chiang mai thailand

4. Mountain Biking With A View 

mountain biking Chiang Mai

The opportunity to mountain bike in Chiang Mai was too much to turn down for Steve, especially with a good technical downhill and cross county run on the cards covering about 35km. Steve chose to go with Mountain Biking Chang Mai as they had numerous options for all different levels of abilities and confidence. The ride started at 5400ft (about 1650m) above Chiang Mai after a 30-40 minute drive up to the summit. Once there you choose your bike and there is a varying degree of quality so spend a little time scoping out a good bike when they are being unloaded off the vans because it will become your trusty steed for the day. 

Having opted for route 2 ’The Highlanders Route’ there was a superb mix of very steep and technical single track which took a great deal of concentration, mixed with some fast and long cross country sections with stunning views. As with any riding a couple of long climbs were involved so you get a good workout. You definitely need to wear the arm and leg guards they provided as there were quite a falls along the way (Steve had two), most mountain bikers would come to expect this so don't let it put you off. Lunch is served at the end of the trip so fill up your backpack with some snacks to boost your performance levels and have a big breakfast before they collect you in the morning. The whole day was well organised and with enough skilled guides to make sure everyone was comfortable and got the most out of the experience. A full days mountain biking cost 1,500Baht (£30) and included all transport, bikes, safety gear and lunch.

5. Shop At The Night Market 

For us markets are dangerous places - we always leave with shopping bags full of stuff we never intended to buy and Chiang Mai’s night market was no different. There are many stalls (possibly hundreds) either outdoor lining the main road or within the indoor complexes and they sell everything from designer handbags to rugs, jewellery to toys, and paintings to Viagra - make sure you barter for your goods and get yourself a bargain. Its a real lively place but it lacks hawker stands, luckily the food court inside the main market hall serves up fresh, tasty Asian dishes at dirt cheap prices so you don’t need to eat in the overpriced tourist restaurants and sports bars nearby. The best way to get to the night market is to hop in a songthaew, its just 20Baht one way and there are loads heading in that direction.

6. Immerse Yourself In 3D Art

art in paradise chiang mai thailand

Perfect for families or the young at heart (like us!), Chiang Mai’s Art In Paradise museum has three floors of giant 3D paintings presenting various illusions from tigers jumping out of the frame to a two metre high wave that you can ‘surf'. Its great fun and there are ample photo opportunities for you to strike the required pose. It kept us entertained for about two hours and gave us a welcome break from the hot sunshine outdoors. It makes a great rainy day activity too.

7. Eat!

butter is better chiang mai thailand

Chiang Mai has a wonderfully diverse food scene, there are not many cuisines that you can’t find here and it would be a shame not to get involved with the amazing Thai dishes on offer at the local pavement cafes and street carts. We recommend the steamed dumplings that are white or green, stuffed with pork or shrimp, and served with a spicy sauce all in a plastic bag for about 30Baht. You can’t go wrong with some shrimp fried rice or stir fried pork and kale either, to our delight nearly every local Thai restaurant serves this for about 40Baht per dish. 

coffee chiang mai thailand

For a healthier option try Dada Kafe, they have a wide selection of vegetarian dishes and great coffee. One morning we craved a full english so cycled to Morning Glory Cafe who deservedly have the reputation for making the best in town, it's a little tricky to find and is opposite the side entrance to The IMM hotel. The quirky Butter Is Better Bakery serves up some delicious pulled pork and thick ice-cream milkshakes, its a cool place for lunch whilst you muse over the eclectic retro film and music memorabilia.

Where To Stay

Dozy House is a family run guesthouse and they are extremely friendly hosts. Rooms are spacious and colourful, plus there is free tea, coffee and toast available all day so its excellent value. We loved the communal kitchen where we could cook our own eggs and reheat the dishes we’d made at cooking school. The location was great for us too as there are local restaurants nearby and its just a 15 minute walk or cheap tuk tuk to the main shopping and bar streets. Book ahead as this place is very popular.

Getting There & Away

As always the quickest way is to fly and the airport is less than a 15 minute drive from the old town. We flew on Air Asia's new route from Krabi as we didn't fancy two days on a bus or train. Then we took a not quite VIP night bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, it was a little smelly on the bus but the seats were very comfortable and there was a toilet onboard. Our tickets cost 650Baht (£13) and the journey took about 9 hours (we were also given free water, biscuits and a morning coffee), unfortunately the bus left at 8.30pm so we arrived in to Bangkok bus station about 5am. Far from ideal but its the cheapest way to travel, the trains sound quite fun and they leave at 530pm, as we’d been on an excursion all day we couldn’t make it back on time to catch it.

Our advice is to take your time and don’t rush your stay in Chiang Mai, we had six days and could easily have enjoyed more. Have you been to Chiang Mai before? Let us know your favourites bits in the comments below.

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