Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand but if you think that it is simply a smaller version of Bangkok then you can think again. There are so many different things to do in Chiang Mai and it’s so very different to Bangkok that you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in a different country altogether. It’s a sprawling city with the usual suburbs and shopping malls but it has so much more.
The 10 best things to do in Chiang Mai
Walk the old city of Chiang Mai
To begin with, the original old city is contained within a moat which runs right around the perimeter and it’s still guarded by chunks of the ancient brick town walls and protective gates. A plethora of chic coffee shops rub shoulders with street food vendors and numerous co-working spaces cater for the hordes of digital nomads and ex-pats who work from the city whilst there are temples old and new on every street corner. You could also be forgiven for thinking that the traffic problem is as bad as in Bangkok, however whilst it can take forever to get anywhere due to the convoluted one way system which funnels vehicles around the moat and in through the city walls, people are generally patient and not in a huge rush to get anywhere. You will find trios of young teenagers negotiating their scooters (that’s 3 school children to a scooter) among hand carts, tuk tuks, songthaews and pedestrians in a fluid flow that can give you a headache if you ponder upon it too carefully, but somehow it all moves and everybody gets where they need to be eventually. It’s not so huge and it’s so easy to amble around the leafy lanes and backstreets of the old city. There are a couple of larger roads which dissect the district into four main areas, each similar but with a distinct individuality. Allow yourself the luxury of getting lost – if you walk far enough you will come up against the moat and get your bearings again and you will get yourself right back on track.
Walking street markets
One of the top things to do in Chiang Mai has to be shopping for artisan products in the markets. There are three distinct night markets which dominate the city. The biggest and the best is on a Sunday evening and takes over much of the old city and so far is the best that I have yet seen anywhere in the world. Here you can buy any number of excellent quality bargain priced gifts – silk purses, silver jewelry or bright lamps, seafood is cooked over coals and rows of masseuses offer cut price Thai massages on lines of plastic chairs. The Saturday night market, whilst slightly smaller, still contains the same high quality gifts, the stalls spill over into the temples yards and musicians and dancers entertain the crowds. In every small gap people eat at small tables sitting on plastic chairs or they walk around with juice or fresh coconut water in their hands. On all other nights the night market is set up a little way outside the East Gate but it’s just a little rougher around the edges than the other two and as it’s on the edge of the red light district can be slightly spicier than the other two.
Loy Krathong and Yee Ping Festivals
These separate festivals are often lumped together into one but they do have differences, but both take place at around the same time in November. Yee Ping is the festival where large paper lanterns are floated up into the night sky. There is a commercial event which takes place outside of the city for tourists to get their requisite photographs but it costs a whopping $100 and is dismissed with disdain by the local people, or there is the more meaningful private lantern release for Thais; the location and the date of which are not advertised widely. In 2015 this private event was cancelled – in part because the airport has to close to ensure the safety of flights. Lanterns were officially only supposed to be released on the one night and while many tourists paid their money to attend the out of town event, thousands more simply thronged the streets which run from the East Gate to the main bridge over the River Ping and let off their lanterns en masse. Loy Krathong involves making (or buying) a krathong – a little boat made from banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles and setting it afloat on the water in the darkness. Flimsy bamboo platforms had been constructed on the banks of the River Ping and myself and several travel bloggers spent a lovely evening wandering around and watching the festivities as well as launching our own krathongs on the water from one of the rickety decks.
Lady Boy Show
As we walked through the night market there could be no doubt that we were in the right place as groups of ladyboys stood around handing out flyers and encouraged us to go and see their show. You would be hard pressed to guess that many of these immaculately turned out women were born anything but female, with bodies to die for, tight fitting clothes and flawless makeup although others deliberately tried to confuse with more androgynous looks or even sported the odd moustache. A group of us paid our money and went into the show – which was an hour and a half of pure entertainment. The series of songs all lip synched and with the dancers wearing fabulous costumes ranged from sophisticated and stunningly beautiful performances, through the raunchy and fun Lady Marmalade set to out and out outrageous campness which involved the girls kissing the majority of men in the audience and touting outrageously for tips to be pushed into their cleavages.
A 40 minute scooter ride up the twisty mountain which looms above Chiang Mai will bring you to the bottom of a long flight of staircase flanked by long nagas or serpents. These green tiled snakes guide you up to the temple where the faithful come to pay their respects and if you are lucky with clear skies, you will be rewarded with some lovely views of the city far below.
The Summer Palace
A few kilometres further up the mountain above Doi Suthep is the Summer Palace. The building itself is almost ordinary but it’s set in lovely gardens and grounds and high above the city, has great views in the clear air and is a peaceful place to wander. It is worth visiting if you have hired a scooter for the ride alone as the road has very little traffic and switchbacks up into the clouds
The Sticky Waterfalls
We spent one fun day out in the countryside about an hour away from Chiang Mai. Four of us from my hostel hired a songthaew for the day and were driven to the Sticky Waterfalls. Water cascades a long way down the hillside running over big smooth bubble-like boulders. We left our shoes at the bottom and stepping onto the rocks were surprised to discover that they were indeed ‘sticky’. They had a slightly rough texture which ‘glued’ bare feet to them, enabling a safe clamber up through the shallow warm water to the top. In places where slippery algae had grown, ropes hung down so that you could safely haul yourself up – it was like a giant climbing frame and stacks of fun. Reaching the top, the four of us grinned like lunatics then pelted back down the wooden steps to do it all over again.
Whether you prefer gold, silver or the original brick, you will find a temple to suit you in Chiang Mai. Many of the temples have giant brick structures secreted behind them from times past and most are especially spectacular under floodlights after dark. Wat Lam Chang (temple of the tethered elephants) is the temple where the royal elephants were once stabled and all were hung with lanterns and the monks sat quietly chanting during Yee Ping. The silver temple of Wat Srisuphan gives the impression that it is floating as it shimmers with a purple glow in the dark or blindingly stabs at your eyes in the sunlight during the daytime and Wat Lok Molee has an especially good pair of guardians at the gate.
Chiang Mai has a reputation as one of the best places from which digital nomads can work. It is well served with many co-working office spaces, good wifi and it has very reasonable accommodation in modern apartments. I chose to avoid the upmarket end of town where most of the online workers tend to rent their apartments and I took a room in the Mango Guesthouse in the old city, but I would regularly join with other bloggers and online workers for workshops and discussions and evenings out, and several times I even got up at the crack of dawn to join a group led by Nathan from Fit Living Lifestyle doing circuit training under the trees in a park.
Supporting good causes.
After several weeks in Thailand I was rapidly becoming addicted to Thai massages and I was very happy to support two worthwhile projects in Chiang Mai. Firstly, the Supattra Jino centre is staffed by blind and visually impaired masseuses where I had the best massage of my life (to date) from the extraordinary Thon. I explained to him that I had a problem with my knee and somehow by manipulation he managed to improve it by about 85%, something that no other masseuse had managed to do prior to him. I told him that he was a fantastic masseuse and he simply shrugged and said ‘I’m Thai’ like it was a given that he was amazing. You can find these magic hands at 15/5 Sripoom Soi 1 in the north east corner of the old town. The Women’s Massage Centre by Ex-Prisoners gives vocational training to female prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences. They then work in the centre giving various massages and the profits build up into a small pot of money which will help them to rebuild their lives once they are back out in the community.
Many people visit Chiang Mai with the intention of staying a couple of days and many of those end up staying as long as possible or even relocate to the city. I stayed there for four weeks and I grew to love the old town.
It began to feel like home with my hosts at the Mango Guesthouse – Vincent and Diana, Bee who made lovely fresh juices from here cart opposite and the other long term guests at the Mango – Chema who was setting up a fish farm, Basilio who was in love with Bee and my Italian friend Enio who spent nearly a month in Chiang Mai taking Muy Thai (Thai kickboxing) classes and who discovered an unhealthy passion for the gross smelling durian fruit. And there is so much more – such as they make the most amazing Khao Soy – which turned out to be my number one dish of choice in Thailand Don’t discount Chiang Mai as being all about Bangkok’s second rated sister – it’s a fascinating city with much to offer – but be careful – you may never want to leave!