Very much the heart of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is packed full of culture, temples, night markets and delicious restaurants. You’ll find everything you need within the old city walls, from mouth-watering Thai curries to affordable accommodation.
Outside this amazing city, the surrounding countryside is the perfect playground. It’s great fun to just go exploring on a motorbike, or partake in one of numerous treks nearby. These tours can include unforgettable visits to elephant sanctuaries and authentic home stays.
The markets in Chiang Mai are incredible, especially at the weekend. We went on a Saturday night (the Sunday one is apparently smaller), and the entire area was transformed into the longest market we’ve ever seen, stretching for almost 3km. They sold an amazing variety of food, from delicious spicy sausage skewers to durian dumplings (yuk!) There was also hundreds of stalls selling souvenirs, jewellery and clothing.
If you just can’t wait until the weekend, there’s also a brilliant bazaar every night just outside the city walls. With plenty of food and souvenir stalls to choose from, we often found ourselves gravitating towards this area for a quick snack or a wander around.
You can’t walk more than a few streets in the old quarter without stumbling across a temple. They come in all shapes and sizes, making it great fun to just wander around and see what you find.
On one of our walks, we visited Wat Phra Singh temple and happened to time it with a service. Buddhist monks of all ages chanted mantras in unison, as curious tourists gazed on. Most surprisingly of all, several stray dogs also attended, sitting obediently and watching.
One of the highlights of Northern Vietnam is certainly the cuisine. Not only is it crazy cheap, but the flavours are immense and every meal is a special treat.
Our favourite restaurants in Chiang Mai included Mamory Delicious. It was slightly expensive compared to other Thai restaurants (still very cheap), but the flavours were unparalleled by anywhere else we experienced. The curries were beautifully creamy and were perfectly spiced. We also loved Coconut Shell, which equally had some amazing curries and what’s better, the prices were ridiculously cheap.
Northern Thailand is famous for exceptional green scenery and Chiang Mai is no exception. You’re never far from the countryside, with beautiful green rice paddies, creaking wooden bridges and powerful waterfalls all waiting nearby.
Exploring by Foot
We were eager to get out in the open, so we booked onto a two day trek and had the most amazing trip.
Our first stop was at an elephant conservation camp. We were taught all about the elephants and made some medicine to help with their toilet habits.
We then got to get up close and personal with the elephants, even getting to feed bananas straight into their mouths.
The highlight was getting to bathe them in mud (which consequently we started throwing at each other as well!) The elephants then started marching off towards the river, as they wanted to wash off the mud. Becci and I definitely had the most fun, though, as we splashed and swam around in the refreshing water.
We were very sad to leave the elephants, but shortly after lunch we had to start walking towards our home for the night. Our guide, who five minutes into the walk bought a bottle of rice wine and drank every few steps, was an interesting character to say the least. He did teach us some brilliant tricks, though, including how to blow bubbles from a leaf. On the way we passed through rice paddies and farm fields, where we even picked and ate passion fruit.
On the second day, we only had to walk for around an hour from our home stay to our next activity. Hilariously, our guide was swapped overnight and we now had a much less interesting one who just listened to his music (at least this one was sober!)
The last stop was at a river, where we went on a cruise on a bamboo boat. The word “boat” is used loosely here, as it was in fact just 10 meter long pieces of bamboo bound together. It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable of rides, as the cold water constantly soaked us, but it was a great traditional way to experience the river.
Exploring by Bike
One of the best ways to explore the countryside is to hire a motorbike, as the roads are quiet and great fun to drive on. Passing through the countryside, you will come across numerous tourist attractions such as waterfalls, snake shows and strawberry farms.
Just be careful of the corrupt traffic police in the centre of Chiang Mai, who will fine you 500 bhat for whatever reason they can think of.
Our favourite place to drive to was the top of Mon Jam. The steep and windy roads were challenging to ride on, but upon reaching the top, we were rewarded with spectacular views. There was also several cafes and bars, where we sat for awhile drinking in the amazing scenery (and maybe a few Chiang beers as well).