Chiang Mai, translated literally as “new city”, is a must see for all backpackers wanting to get the most out of their trip to Thailand. Being the largest city in Northern Thailand, it offers a variety of opportunities for travellers to immerse themselves in local culture and embark on a new and exciting adventure. Everywhere you go the tempting smells of Northern cuisine tease the senses, whilst the misty mountains and ornate temples provide breath taking views. The Old City, surrounded by a square moat and city walls, is the first stop for most travellers, boasting a rich history and lively nightlife. Packed with temples, markets, restaurants and bars, you are never short of things to do. However, like most cities or provinces in Thailand, venture a little further out and you’ll find the hidden gems. With so many things to do and see, it’s impossible to do them all, particularly with limited time on your hands so I will draw your attention to, in my opinion, the “must sees and dos” in Chiang Mai.
Ask any local and they’ll say the same thing; “You haven’t experienced Chiang Mai unless you’ve been to Doi Suthep!”. I was told this on my first of many trips to the city, and they were right. Situated in the mountains, overlooking the city, it is a symbol of extreme holy and cultural significance to the Thai community. Tourists visit to see the stunning temple, gold plated Chedi and incredible views, whilst the locals go to pay their respects. Be prepared for a steep climb though. The temple lies at the top of 306 stairs and in blistering heat, this can be a challenge for even the fittest of people!
Within the old town, you’ll find a wealth of smaller temples too, some renowned for their beauty, some for their wonderful and mystical backgrounds. All are, very conveniently, situated on a loop, meaning each is within manageable walking distance from the last. I couldn’t possibly name each one, but several deserve a mention here. Wat Phra Singh is probably best known as the home to a large lion buddha. Wat Chedi Luang, my personal favourite, is made up of three temples, but it’s the city pillar shrine that caught my attention. The decorated high ceiling is simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It literally took my breath away. The Three King’s Monument is also a very popular attraction, with an iconic sculpture of the three King’s credited with devising the layout of the city. Most temples also offer something called ‘Monk Chat’ and it’s exactly what it sounds like! Have a conversation with a monk! It’s a fascinating and authentic experience and offers real insight into Buddhism and a monk’s way of life.
Before I move on, I want to say something about my decision to include these temples in my list. Don’t think for a second that I’m not aware of the term “templed out”, regularly used by travellers in Asia who began their journey by visiting every temple, only to get sick of the sight of them! I do understand where they are coming from. But I would urge those new to Chiang Mai, at the very least, to visit Doi Suthep. Not only is it a sight worth seeing, photo worthy in anyone’s opinion, but it holds incredible significance to Thai people. If the culture of the country is important to you, you won’t be disappointed with this site.
Cooking class/food markets
Wherever I go in Thailand, sampling local food is always high on my list of things to do. Thai food is as much part of the travelling experience as witnessing the sights and, when you spend time with Thai people, you will realise how important food is to them too! Northern Thailand in particular has some local dishes that are a must try. Khao Soi, just like Doi Suthep, must be experienced. It is essentially a curry noodle soup, normally teamed with egg noodles, meat and vegetables. I tried it on a whim, not knowing it’s significance, and ended up eating it for a week! The spicy Northern sausage is also worth testing, and goes particularly well with sticky rice, another Northern favourite.
Whilst Chiang Mai has big weekend markets, the daily Night Bazaar is perhaps most famous, and a great place to sample different dishes. If you’re going by taxi, direct them to Anusarn Market, located at the back or bottom end of the Night Bazaar. This is where my Thai friends eat, as the food is relatively low priced and it offers the most variety, as well as being delicious! Once you’re finished feasting, take a stroll around the market. The number of stalls seems endless and, although offering what you’ll see at most other markets, it’s still worth a browse. But the food is the real talking point.
Once you’ve rolled yourself home after eating far more than you should have, you may decide that you need to learn how to make some of these dishes. Excellent choice! Chiang Mai hosts many Thai cooking schools, most reasonably priced and all good fun. You can normally choose from a full or half day course, and the number of dishes you learn will depend on your choice. The class begins with a trip to a local food market, where you get to buy and learn about the ingredients used in Thai cooking. This is an experience in itself, being educated about the history of dishes and picking fresh produce. Then you are taken to the school, where you start cooking the dishes you have chosen from a pre-set list. Will you remember how to make the dishes when you get home? Probably not! But it really is great fun and a must-do in Chiang Mai. Be warned, if you do the full day course, you will be eating every dish! Have a light meal the night before and don’t eat on the day!
Huay Tung Tao Lake
This is a lesser known attraction and a little further out of the city, but make the time to visit. This is where the locals like to relax during their time off and, once you get there, you’ll understand why. The lake itself, is not especially impressive. Whilst people do swim in it, many wouldn’t want to! It’s a bit sandy, so looks a little dirty when you’re in the there but you’re going for the atmosphere here. Find yourself one of the wooden huts to sit in on the lake, get lost in the mountain views, calm, glistening water and luscious green surroundings (in rainy season that is!) and enjoy some good Thai food from one of the many restaurants. There are plenty of activities on offer here, swimming, boating, fishing, paintballing, and others but, apart from swimming, I have never felt a need to do any of these. This my sanctuary, a time for calm and to escape the bustling city life that you’ll be experiencing on a daily basis. Put aside a few hours for this trip, maybe after a busy, action packed couple of days, and let the peace wash over you and enjoy the tranquillity. I have spent a lot of time here and never get bored of it. Do as the locals do, slow everything down and just relax.
It had to feature, didn’t it? There’s a reason why every article you read about things to do in Chiang Mai will mention visiting an elephant sanctuary. It is a unique experience that gives you a chance to spend time with the elephants, understand their behaviour and routines, and get a quick history lesson on the animal, as well as their importance to Thailand. I will preface this suggestion by stressing that you should not ride elephants. You probably know this already, having done your research and most places will make a point of saying that this is strictly prohibited at their camps. However, there will always be options available to those who want to do this. Put simply, this is cruel to the animals. Please don’t do it.
Now for the positives! You will be given the choice of a full or half day experience. I would suggest a half day, simply because a full day involves repeating the tasks you performed in the morning. A half day tour really does suffice and allows you to make the most of your time, especially if yours is limited. You can expect to be picked up from your hostel and driven to the camp. On the way, you will often stop at a market to buy supplies for the elephants, normally fruit and sugar cane as a treat. Once there and briefed on safety procedures, you will be given some free time with the elephants, just to stand in awe of these gorgeous animals, have a feel and take some photos. You will be given the opportunity to feed them, walk with them, bathe them and then have a little fun in the water with them. It truly is a once in a lifetime experience, even for those who wouldn’t identify as animal lovers. They are so good natured and it is a wonderful way to spend the day. It will be one of the more expensive excursions during your time in Thailand, but well worth the price. You can do your own research online, about somewhere you feel comfortable with, but it’s worth having a conversation with your hostel owner about the best one too. Remember, they live in the city! Their advice is valuable.
Bua Tong Sticky Waterfalls
Finally, my number one pick. Not only is this my favourite place in Chiang Mai, it’s actually my favourite place in Thailand. Put simply, due to mineral deposits that have collected over many years, the surface of this waterfall is like no other. It is sticky, as the name suggests, allowing your feet to grip to the surface and for you to climb up the waterfall, into the direction of the oncoming water. Sounds scary right? Well, yes, when you are finding getting your bearings, it is. After all, surely this can’t be possible? You climb down waterfalls, not up them. This is what makes this attraction so special, and by far the most exciting thing you can do.
It’s located about an hour and a half outside of the city, and you won’t see many, if any tours to take you there. I would suggest either renting a scooter or gathering a group at your hostel and sharing a taxi there. The second option might be preferable, especially if you’re a solo traveller looking to meet people. You arrive at the top and walk the rickety steps down to the bottom. There is a little emerald pool here that is nice to cool off in before you start to climb. Then, the fun part! With one very shaky step after another, you begin your journey to the top. Don’t worry, it is multi-tiered, so it isn’t a continuous hike from the bottom to the top! Your notice your steps are becoming steadier, once you realise the incredible rush you’re getting from climbing and sticking to the waterfall. For steeper, more dangerous parts, you can find ropes to support your climb and keep you on track. When you make it to the top, you suddenly realise that your heart is beating hard and fast. You feel amazing and I guarantee you’ll want to do it again! This is all whilst being surrounded by green forests and crystal-clear water. When you reach the top, there’s a nice area for a little picnic too.
If you have a go-pro or equivalent, strap it to your chest and record the journey. You won’t regret it, and your friends won’t believe it! I cannot overstate how much fun this is and so many people haven’t even heard of it. Don’t miss out!
As I said at the beginning of this article, there are so many things to do in Chiang Mai it is overwhelming. What you want to do and see depends entirely on your reasons for choosing to visit Thailand. I hope this list gives a little insight into just how varied your trip can be. Chiang Mai is great, whether you’re backpacking or coming for a holiday. I would always say allow yourself at least a week for it though. It deserves more but that isn’t always possible. Yes, it has its’ flaws. There are better times to come than others (I would recommend rainy season) but it is always an exciting and authentic place to be. If you aren’t planning to visit it, change your plans! You won’t regret it.