Everything To See and Do in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Oh hello, my name is Helene Sula and one time I went to Asia months ago and barely recapped the trip. Yes, I made a quick video diary of our entire trip, and covered a 3 day Bangkok City Guide, and told you all about the Chiang Mai Lantern Festival. But I've made it a priority to (hopefully) recap this trip. Because it was incredible and weird and wonderful and if I don't recap it now then I won't be able to remember all the different facets as we went along.
Below you can find a map of all the places discussed in this post:
Chiang Mai is situated in the northern part of Thailand. Unlike Bangkok, it's a laid back, smaller community with more temples in it's one square mile city center than most places in the world. These ancient temples, or wats, were decorated ornately when we went in November since they were preparing for the Lantern Festival, Yee Peng.
How to Get There
We started our trip in Bangkok, and took a short plane ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Royal Thai Airways. Once we arrived at the airport it was a quick taxi ride to the city's center.
How to Get Around
Once you're in Chiang Mai it's very walkable. There are also “red taxis” which are basically trucks with rickety wooden benches in the back and you gape out the open back as mopeds squeeze in and out of traffic. We spoke to the travel agency in Chiang Mai and asked why he rode in his car instead of just biking the short, flat 3 miles from work back home. He looked at us as if we were bonkers, “I am not an athlete!”
Thailand has a program called “Bike for Dad” that encourages people to take a bike rather than drive to work. You can see why, there is a lot of pollution, particularly in Bangkok. But it seems they feel like it just wouldn't be worth it. Like our friend in the travel agency noted, he'd rather wait an hour in traffic than bike just 3 miles.
Where to Stay
There are tons of hostels and hotels nearby. I suggest staying near Wat Chedi Luang. This is the main center of the city and puts you close to anything and everything you want to see.
I wasn't thrilled with our lodging (we stayed at Hotel Anodard). The beds were the hardest things I've slept on in my life. However, we did run into an interesting characters. To give you more ideas on budget accommodations and attractions in Chiang Mai, check out this blog on Where to Stay in Chiang Mai: Nimman or Old City by HotelsCombined.
One morning, before we left to go on an elephant ride, the power flickered out. This didn't bother us too much since we weren't spending much time in the hotel. We waited outside for our ride, the thick heat already beating down on us at 7am. The “bell boy,” as his name tag stated, was an old, thin, gray-haired man missing a few teeth, went outside to meet the electrician.
They peered into the broken transformer, and with bare hands, reached in and pulled out the culprit for the power outage: a squirrel. The elderly bell boy came back, delighted, squirrel in hand, and held it up to the hotel guests. A Chinese child, not older than 7, with pig tails was eating yogurt and asked to hold it. Her parents said “Sure!” and the bell boy gave her the squirrel. Her parents took a photo. Then she went back to eating her yogurt. I was in complete shock. A dead squirrel and she held it with her bare hands AND he brought it into the hotel. To do what with it? Eat it, I suppose.
What to See
Chiang Mai is full of temples and it's hard to pick which ones to go to. Just wandering around the city you'll discover ancient wats of all kinds. Wat Chedi Luang dates back to 1441 and has a “fat” Buddha. Many of the Buddhas in Thailand are the more traditional “thin” Buddhas, but you'll see fat Buddha here.
Wat Chedi Luang stands as a beacon, reflecting light, as monks pace the grounds. You see the monks, their bald heads and bright orange robes paint an interesting picture of life in Chiang Mai.
Side note: make sure you have appropriate clothing to enter the temples (shoulders covered, no tight clothing). Otherwise you won't be able to go in.
Since we were only here for 3 days, we made the most of our time by walking around the city and trying out the local food as we went along. One of our friends bought a suit while he was there. It's a custom fitted suits and uses the same fabric that Giorgio Armani and the like use. for about 1/4th of the price!
When you walk through the markets (check out the Night Bazaar going on almost every night) you'll see lots of fresh fruit, tea, spices, and other goods on display. But one of my favorite items were the fresh flowers that were used as an offering to Buddha for the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festival.
For the Loy Krathong festival, you buy a small floating offering made from the leaves of banana trees and can place additional flowers. On top are candles and you have the option of putting a lock of your hair or nail clippings. Then, you place your “krathong” in the water to join the thousands of others floating down the river.
It's a unique way to pay homage to the city, the river, and its people.
There are hidden gems on every corner. You could stay for months and continue to explore the exttaordinary treasures and wats of Chiang Mai.
Another great place to check out is the Orchid-Butterfly farm. Lined with thousands of orchids and butterflies, it's a beautiful place to check out the flowers and relax. They also sell orchid flower necklaces, which are PERFECT gifts. Michael and I each bought one for our moms. They take the live orchid and put a clear glaze over it.
Where to Eat
One of the best spots we stopped to eat was Cafe de Thaab Aoan. We ordered chai tea and mango shakes. It was delicious and slightly different from what I was expecting.
The food was inexpensive and the small cafe had great service. Hot steaming bowls of chicken and spices with minimal wait times.
If you're sick of Asian food (like we were, since we were there for Thanksgiving) a great, upscale restaurant is Flora. This Italian restaurant has a twist on traditional pasta dishes.
What to Do
Of course, if you're there in November, go the Yee Peng Lantern festival! You can read my full post about how to get to the festival here. But there are so many things to do. First and foremost, you MUST get a massage.
They are so inexpensive, it's a crime if you don't get one. Speaking of crimes, the “Women's Prisoner Massage Center” (yep, that's real) is one of the top places to get a massage. Whether they're hardened criminals or not, they know how to work magic. It's only $3 for a massage. An HOUR massage.
We also went to Lila Spa, and Michael was called a “giant” and his tiny masseuse couldn't resist laughing the whole time she gave him a massage. You can see why:
Now that I've given you the run down of almost everything, it's time to get to my favorite and most controversial part: the animals. We saw elephants and tigers. One was extremely humane and well executed. One was so bad I cried looking inside their cages. I bet you can guess.
If you ever go to Chiang Mai, I HIGHLY suggest Mr. Sun's Elephant Camp. Mr. Sun's story is one that should be written in a book. He started out very wealthy but unhappy. He changed his life and realized that what he wanted to do was give back.
Now, he's started an elephant sanctuary.
When you go to his home, you take a 45 minute bumpy ride outside of Chiang Mai to his elephant camp. There, the elephants have 1,000s of acres to roam. They are fed, washed, and taken care of by Mr. Sun and his few employees.
We rode the elephants bare back, fed them whole bananas, and laughed as they spout water at us. It was an incredible experience and I cannot recommend it more.
Now, I understand that some of you might have concerns. But remember this, elephants have been bred and trained for 1,000s of years to work with humans. Elephants, much like horses, were used to transport people. The way that the camp was run, Mr. Sun's in particular, is incredibly humane. You can tell this is a wonderful way to not only bring understanding of these incredible creatures, but awareness.
The next day was a very different experience. We did our research and found that “Tiger Kingdom” was the most humane place to see the tigers. You pick your package (which tigers you'd like to see and have pictures with- you're given a photographer) and then you enter their cages.
We went early in the morning because apparently throughout the day they get tired of taking pictures with people. I would too.
Here's the truth: while the cages are fairly large, they're still in cages. The tigers are over weight so that they aren't hungry when visitors come by to see them (and subsequently, eat them). I truly do not think they are drugged (as some websites claim) but they are in captivity and so very bored.
Unlike the elephants, they are constantly taking pictures with people and being prodded to do so. While Tiger Kingdom does claim they are bringing awareness and support to Tigers it seems difficult in this setting.
Tigers are not domesticated animals. They are wild and need space to roam. While it was cool to get pictures with them, it was kind of hard to know that this was their life.
Out of all the places we traveled to in Asia: Bangkok, Thailand; Krabi; Thailand; Siem Reap, Camodia; Ha Long Bay; Vietnam; and Hanoi, Vietnam… Chiang Mai was my favorite. There is so much rich history and culture and you will find unending treasures sprinkled throughout the friendly city.
I highly suggest you add it to your list! Have you been to Chiang Mai? Would you go?