On my 2 month trip through Southeast Asia, I spent a full week in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Chiang Mai is one of my favorite cities in southeast Asia. Though this city is the largest city in northern Thailand, it feels more like a large busy town rather than an actual city. The city is placed right by the mountains, the traffic is a lot less hectic compared to Bangkok, and there are no giant skyscrapers.
My favorite part of Chiang Mai is the old city section which is a square part of the city that is surrounded by a brick wall and moat. Within these walls, there are tons of great restaurants and bars, decorated temples, and shops.
I arrived in Chiang Mai on a plane from Bangkok. You can take a bus or train from Bangkok, however, they both take around 10 hours. Since I was only in SE Asia for 2 months, I decided I would fly to Bangkok and found a plane ticket that was only $38 USD. Personally, I rather spend more money to get somewhere faster than spend time traveling to my next destination. From the Chiang Mai airport, I took a taxi to my hostel which was right outside the Old City which cost about 50 baht ($1.56 USD).
The hostel I stayed at is called Big & O’s House 2, Chiang Mai. The hostel was in the perfect location. Right across the hostel is an amazing bakery with chocolate croissants. The hostel is about two blocks from the south gate of the Old City and four blocks from the largest night street market.
When I arrived at the hostel, the owner Big immediately greeted me and he was so helpful. He pulled out a map of Chiang Mai and circled everything he thought that was super important to see in the city. He was very honest and directed me to more local places rather than the usual tourist attractions. He offered to help me if I needed to book any tours. Throughout my time at this hostel, Big was always interacting with the customers and was a great host.
The hostel itself is fairly small but homey. I stayed in a room with six beds and each bed was protected by a mosquito net.
Since I arrived in Chiang Mai in the afternoon, on Day 1 I decided to walk all around the Old City. If you want to see temples, there are three major temples I recommend that you visit: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Phan Tao.
There are many more temples in the city, however, I thought these were the most beautiful and interesting and they are very accessible. I think the best way to see temples in Chiang Mai is to just walk around the Old City and visit the temples you stumble upon. If you do it this way, you will feel more like a local than a tourist and I think you will get a better appreciation for the city. While I was in Chiang Mai, there was the Flower Festival. The Flower Festival happens the first weekend of February and it is a three day event. The southwest corner of the old city is closed down and covered in flowers. The local park (Suan Buak Haad city park) is decorated in colorful flowers and has live music and hosts a flower competition. The street next to the park is closed off and local stands are set up selling flowers, street food, and clothes. Each stand is more beautiful than the next. On the weekend, there is a giant flower parade with traditional dresses and again more flowers.
That night, I got dinner at the Night Market on Rachadamnoen street. Among all the street markets I have visited, this one seemed the largest. It stretched for miles and there was so much variety. There were lots of different types of food, art, clothes, and trinkets to buy. The beginning of the street can be really crowded. However, if you walk a few blocks down the market is less packed and more enjoyable.
On Day 2 I booked a tour to visit Doi Inthanon National Park. The park is an hour and a half from the city. The national park has hiking trails, waterfalls, and the largest mountain in Thailand. We began the tour visiting the Royal Twin Pagodas of Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon. The pagodas were built to honor the King and Queen of Thailand. The pagodas have a great overlook of the mountains and also have beautiful gardens you can walk through.After visiting the pagodas, we hiked the Giew Mae Pan Nature Trail. The hike takes about 2 hours and is 2.5 km long. You have to either book a tour or hire a guide if you want to hike this trail. The trail brings you through the forest to a beautiful view point and then you walk along the side of the mountain. There are some parts of the hike that are steep but it is not too challenging. There are signs throughout the trail that tell you information about the nature.
After the hike, we stopped at the Siriphum and Wachirathan waterfalls. There are many waterfalls within the park. These two waterfalls were very accessible by car. The Wachirathan waterfall is the biggest waterfall in the park.
For Day 3 and 4, I did a two day one night trip to the Elephant Nature Park. This was one of the major highlights of my seven weeks in Asia.
The sanctuary is a rescue and rehabilitation center for elephants but is also home for dogs, cats, and water buffaloes. The dogs and cats run around all over the sanctuary. While the elephants are magnificent, you can also spend a lot of time just hanging out with the dogs and cats and you can even adopt them! The sanctuary is located about an hour and a half from the city and the sanctuary will provide transportation for you. The sanctuary is a paradise. I felt like I was in a dream the whole time I was there.
The minute you arrive to the park, you immediately see elephants roaming around the grounds. The sanctuary does a great job at informing you all about elephants and how to protect them. They make sure when you visit you do not get too close to the elephants and that the only time you can touch them is when you are feeding them. The first activity we did was feed two elephants bananas and watermelons. Each elephant has their own personality and you will immediately see this when you first start interacting with them. Some of the elephants were really sassy, others were loving, and others were very playful. After we fed the elephants, we walked around the grounds and learned about each family of elephants. We learned about where the elephants were rescued from and how the sanctuary helps rehabilitate them. We then watched some elephants play in the river, throw piles of mud onto their backs, and run around the grounds. After, we went to the river and bathed our own elephants by feeding them bananas and throwing water on them.The rest of the day we were able to hang out in the main area of the sanctuary. The sanctuary is located at the foot of some mountains and by a river so it is truly picturesque. We spent the night drinking beer and watched the sunset while the elephants walked around. Throughout my time at the sanctuary, the food was incredible! For each meal, they set out a large buffet with many different types of local food. The food is all vegetarian and so delicious.I definitely recommend staying overnight at the sanctuary. It is really relaxing and you don’t get to fully experience the magic of the place. One of my favorite moments at the sanctuary was waking up to the sound of elephants trumpeting!
The next morning, you walk around the grounds to each family and watch them play and eat. We also made sticky rice balls for an elephant. We mashed rice, oatmeal, and ripe bananas together and handed them directly to the elephant. The elephant was so picky. If the rice ball didn’t have ripe enough bananas in it, it would pick it up then throw it away. I tried to fool her by picking up the rice ball she threw away and tried feeding it to her, but with one sniff she grabbed it with her trunk and threw it again!For the last activity of the day, we went by the river side and fed an older elephant individual little bananas. It is so incredible watching up close how an elephants trunk works. When you touch their trunk it feels like soft moist leather. I cannot stress enough how amazing this experience was. The two days at the sanctuary were the best moments of my life! If I had more time, I would have definitely stayed at the sanctuary for more days and volunteered for some time. The Elephant Nature Park is an animal lovers heaven.
My Day 5 in Chiang Mai was a day full of food. I love food and I can eat a lot and I’m telling you this day was the fullest I have ever felt in my entire life. I signed up for a full day cooking class with the Thai Farm Cooking School.
For a full day cooking class, we learned how to cook:
- Choice of red, green, or yellow curry
- Choice of tom yam soup or coconut milk soup
- Chicken stir fry with basil
- Pad Thai Fried Noodles
- Bananas in Coconut Milk
The menu is different depending on what day you visit the farm. You also get to choose what type of protein you would like in each meal such as tofu, chicken, or shrimp.
I absolutely adored my instructor. She was very sassy, funny, and loved teaching us how to cook.
At 9am, the teacher picked me up from my hostel and took our group to a local market. Our teacher taught us about the different types of rice, how to make fresh coconut milk, and how to choose seasoning products. We got some free time to walk around the market and explore what was being sold.
After the market, we drove 20 minutes to the farm. The farm is adorable and hidden away from the city. Our instructor led us through the farm and taught us about different the different ingredients we will use in our dishes and how they are actually grown.After learning about all the important ingredients, we went to our cooking stations and prepared our curry paste. I decided to make a green curry paste. This was the biggest workout I have ever experienced while cooking. I really broke a sweat! To make your curry paste, you use a mortar and pound your ingredients for about 5 minutes.After you make the perfect curry paste, we then learn how to make soup. For the whole course, no matter what you pick to cook, you will learn all the different options. So if you pick to make tom yam soup, you will learn how to make both tam yam soup and coconut milk soup.
The tom yam soup was my absolute favorite dish of the day! This was the best tom yam soup I had in all of Thailand and I am not just saying this because I made it.After the soup appetizer, we made Pad Thai, curry, and chicken basil stir fry. What really surprised me during this class was how easy it was to cook all this food and how fast it took! Each dish took about less than 5 minutes to actually cook the food. Also, there is not much preparation needed for these dishes besides cutting up the vegetables. I now no longer can use the excuse that I have no time to make this food because it honestly is just so quick and easy!For dessert, we made bananas in coconut milk. To be honest, I was very hesitant about this dish. I thought it was a strange recipe, however, when I tried it I did not want to stop eating it. I was even so incredibly full I finished my dessert because it was so good! The dessert is sweet and crunchy and reminds me a little bit of pudding but way better. We achieved the green color of the milk by naturally coloring it with pandan leaves.I really loved this cooking class because it is very hands-on, easy and relaxing. Your instructor teaches you step-by-step how to cook each meal but you are the one who cooks it. It is so satisfying after cooking all the food being able to sit down and enjoy the delicious meal you just cooked!
I was really impressed by how amazing my food tasted. I am not much of a cook, but I learned so much in just one day. I think I now can open my own Thai restaurant 🙂Lastly, before you leave the farm you are given a cook book with all the recipes from the day. It also includes important information about Thai herbs and ingredients. This book is a perfect souvenir and when you get home you can make all your friends some delicious Thai food and you can’t use the excuse that you forget how to make it!
Day 6 was a very relaxing day because I honestly was recuperating from a food coma from the day before.
In the morning, I decided to take a taxi up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is a temple on top of the mountain Doi Suthep and overlooks downtown Chiang Mai. The taxi cost 50 baht and it was about a 20 minute ride from the city.
You have about a 10 minute walk up stairs from where the taxi drops you off to the entrance of the temple. There is an admission fee of 30 baht for foreigners.
The temple is really beautiful and coated in gold. Unfortunately, I could not see downtown Chiang Mai from the lookout point because it was a fairly hazy day.After visiting the temple, a few friends and I went to the Mae Sa Waterfalls which is in Doi Suthep National Park.
The waterfalls consist of ten levels. There is a hiking path along the ten levels. The hike is pretty easy and you can do this in sandals. We stopped at each level to take pictures and swim in the pools. The waterfalls are really peaceful and we did not see many tourists.That night, I went to a different night market near the east side of the old city called the Ploen Ruedee Night Market. This was one of my favorite places in Chiang Mai. It is a more touristy area of the city, however, the food is amazing. This area has a variety of food carts. You can get Thai, American, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and many more different types of food. There is a stage in the middle of the market and there is often live music. There are lots of tables and chairs in this area so you can enjoy the music while you get lots of different delicious food. This market is also close to a larger night market where you can buy lots of cheap souvenirs.
For my last day, Day 7, I booked a full day hiking tour with Panda Tours. I decided to book a hiking tour because I really wanted to see more of the mountains in Chiang Mai.I got picked up from my hostel and we drove for about an hour and a half to the mountains. We arrived in a village and started our hike through the jungle. The guide was very informative and taught us about the flora, fauna, and the local people.
The most interesting thing I learned was that the local people climb up the tallest trees to collect honey. It looks so insanely dangerous. In the picture below, you can see the small rungs on the tree trunk! Would you climb up this tree??The hike through the jungle was challenging and there were some sections that were very steep. Our first stop on the hike was to a waterfall that we could swim in. We stopped here for about 20 minutes to enjoy the nice cold water and take a break. We then ate our lunch on a nearby bamboo hut.
After lunch, the hike was more strenuous but the views were beautiful of mountains and cabbage farms. At the end of the four hour hike, we arrived to a small bat cave that you could go inside of.I was so pleased with how I spent my last day in Chiang Mai. The scenery was incredibly beautiful and the hike was enjoyable yet challenging.
Chiang Mai is one of the best cities in Thailand. There are endless activities to do in this charming city. It is so easy to make this city home for a week.
Have you been to Chiang Mai?
Let me know of other great ways to spend your time in this amazing city!