Chiang Mai Insider: US expat, Diana Edelman
Chiang Mai … the gem of Thailand’s north. This city, which ranks as the second most visited in the country (behind Bangkok) is far cry from the hustle and bustle of the capital. With no major public transit system, no major bus system, no major tropical islands nearby, and certainly not the swelling of people, Chiang Mai still regularly makes it onto plenty of “top” lists of places to visit in the world.The former capital of the Lanna Kingdom attracts 5 million plus visitors a year, and with good reason.
It’s the perfect spot to hideaway, bond with nature, hang with elephants, sample the delicious and famous cuisine of the north and more.
There is so much to love about Chiang Mai. Today we’re skipping the guidebook and giving you the local lowdown.
1. Explore the local locals market
Every guidebook will tell you to hit up the famous Sunday Walking Street, or its sister, the Saturday Walking Street. Sure, you can get some handicrafts to take home, sample the fried bugs and bargain for all of it, but to get a true taste of a local market, hit up Warorot. Located by the Ping River, this market serves up many of the same goods available at the walking streets (and the Night Bazaar), minus the higher prices and super tourist crowds.
2. See rescued elephants
Northern Thailand is filled with outfits offering elephant excursions. Not all elephant experiences are created equally, and without knowing, often times tourists can cause more harm than good when it comes to spending time with these pachyderms. Opt for a responsible option and spend a day (or more) at Elephant Nature Park or Pamper a Pachyderm. Unlike other elephant attractions in the area, these two don’t make the elephants work for humans. In fact, the elephants living here are rescued from tourism and trekking, street begging, illegal logging and more. The programs let you observe these rescued animals, learn about them, feed them and bathe them. There are no shows, painting or performances here, and no hooks or other instruments are used to get the animals to listen.
3. Explore the Old City’s many sois
Sois, or small streets off main roads, are loaded with undiscovered places in Chiang Mai’s Old City. The heart of the tourist area, these sois often are hideaways for cozy coffee shops, tiny bars, boutique guest houses, shops and more. Take a wander and get a glimpse of some of the town’s best kept secrets.
4. Hit the river
Sunset boat cruises are just one way to spend time at the city’s waterfront on the Ping River. This major water thoroughfare is home to some of the most popular restaurants for locals, including Riverside Market. To get a taste of life for those who live here, head to one of these restaurants on the east side of the river after dark for live music, Thai whisky and traditional meals.
5. Explore Nimmanhaemin
Located near Chiang Mai University, the neighborhood of Nimmanheamin is home to the young and cool. Take a day and head to this hip area west of town to sample some seriously great coffee shops, restaurants and boutique stores. By day, its digital nomads and students hanging out, and at night, its comes alive with plenty of places to sip beer or dance until the wee hours at spots like the uber popular Warm Up.
6. Meet expats and locals
There are a lot of activities going on year-round that bring together locals, expats and travelers. From yoga events to shows and special screenings, options abound to get in some culture while making new friends. A favorite is Documentary Arts Asia, a nonprofit that hosts twice-a-week documentaries, photo exhibitions, workshops and more.
7. See the view from Doi Suthep
The second highest peak in the area, Doi Suthep offers some seriously amazing views of Chiang Mai, some 1,600 meters below. Plus, there’s also the popular Wat Pra That Doi Suthep, the gorgeous temple perched on the mountain. Visitors can hire a songthaew (red truck) or a car to get up the mountain, or opt for the more adventurous hike or bike ride to the temple. Try to skip the middle of the day at the temple, that’s when it gets filled up with tourists. Instead, head up before the sun rises to watch the city below turn gold.
8. Temple hop
Chiang Mai is home to more than 200 temples, many of them dating back to when the city was originally founded in 1296. Bop around the Old City to experience ones like Wat Phra Singh or head out from the moat and check out ones with less tourists.
Photos: Wiki Commons/Elephants: Elephant Nature Park