Chiang Mai is a rad city. It’s less hectic and more laid back than Bangkok, and it’s a big city but is surrounded by beautiful nature on all sides with TONS to do. The ‘old city’ is shaped exactly like a square, and is surrounded by a small moat and crumbling city walls that were built hundreds of years ago. Most people get around on motorbike and drive absolutely ridiculously, but you get used to it… I think. It’s still really dangerous, but I was lucky I had a vespa all through college so driving one was second nature to me! Chiang Mai might not be a totally off-the beaten path Thailand destination, but it’s a great base to find some. It’s also an expat and digital nomad haven!
The night life is pretty dead to be honest, with all bars closing promptly, and I mean lights-off-gates-down promptly, at 12. They are fun up until 12 though to give them some credit! There were some really cool and trendy bars, and to my pleasant surprise, millions of insanely trendy and earthy coffee chops. This city is great to travel by yourself of have a tour take care of all the planning for you.
There are dozens of organized treks and jungle adventures going from Chiang Mai, and also dozens of hiking trails you can find if you utilize your googling skills a little bit. Most hotels and hostels have 1-3 days trekking adventures that go through the mountains and jungle, often visit hill tribes and waterfalls, often include elephants or rafting, and camp at night. We found a trail and went there ourselves one day, and did an elephant, trek, AND rafting adventure in one day! With all the northern Thai mountains around Chiang Mai, the possibilities are endless.
One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai is see elephants. There are lots of elephant sanctuaries and even wild elephants in the area. The one thing to remember, though, is not to ride them! Riding elephants is very bad for them and is not natural to their species to be ridden. Good thing there are tons of places in Chiang Mai to see and interact with elephants where your presence helps, not hurts, them. There are plenty of places you can feed, wash, and play with them, and it is such an amazing experience! Check your hotel or hostel for places where they treat the elephants with the care they need.
As a very spiritual city, there is a lot of yoga offered in Chiang Mai. You can find some in the city, or go to a retreat out in the countryside. Either way, yoga is a wonderful way to start (or end) your day here.
Chiang Mai coffee shops effortlessly create the open air, earthy, wood-trimmed, and well-designed vibe that tons of coffee shops in LA or London attempt to accomplish. Think, running water, koi ponds, beaded curtains, patches of grass, hanging jewel chandeliers, and menu’s on little rustic clipboards, to name a few. I definitely want to go back and explore more of these amazing coffee shops and breakfast places because there were SO many!
The night bazaar here has some of the best (and cheapest) shopping options I have seen in Thailand! I got my first pair of flawy gypsy pants here for only 110 baht – the best price I saw in the country. The night bazaar street is lined with shops with beautiful clothing and bracelets – a must-see if you are in the city.
Volunteering at Care for Dogs in Chiang Mai was definitely a highlight of the city for me. You can do a day tour here or spend as long as you like helping these dogs out by playing with them and getting them ready for adoption. If you;re a dog-lover like me you should definitely check it out – see the link to my post above for details!
The Tiger Kingdom is also in Chiang Mai. I did not personally have time to visit, but I know a lot of people have! Make sure to check up on the treatment of the animals first to make sure they are treated with the right care.
Chiang Mai’s Grand Canyon, also a great adventure spot, is a beautiful little watering hole with cliffs protruding from the blue water. You can go cliff jumping or swimming here, or hang out on one of the many wooden rafts. When you are done playing, head up to the cafe at the top to watch the sun set over the water. It’s a beautiful sight to see!
Views are always better from higher vantage points!! If you are going on a multi-day trek or have time to get up a mountain, chances are the sunset will be spectacular from up there! Just make sure to get down before it’s too dark 😛
SoI lost all my photos from my phone during this time (damn you Full Moon Party) and don;t have photos, but I still have some of my favorite places to eat written down! This list is not even remotely covering of all the amazing places to eat – we didn’t stay long enough to discover everything but here are a few great places we discovered!
Overstand – Overstand is a tremendously trendy little cafe with amazing food as well. Make sure to get the coconut coffee!
Blue Diamond Breakfast club – This was an adorable cafe with a garden-like atmosphere and an extensive, cheap, and scrumptious menu!
Cowboy Hat Lady – This famous Chiang Mai street food veteran can be found amongst the street food stalls outside the city’s south edge. She wears a cowboy hat and is famous for making simple and cheap, yet scruptious food each night. The menu is not extensive, and depends on what she decided to make that night! When we went we had a beautiful dish with duck, noodles, and egg. So good we went back for more!
Zoe in Yellow (Nightlife) – At night, the most lively place seemed to be a few little streets of bars near popular bar Zoe in Yellow. There were a few reggae places and lots of electronic music blasting from all the bars in this area.
Hug Hostel – We stayed here a few nights when we first arrived. It was a really cool backpacker hostel with a great atcmosphere and sense of community – I would definitely recommend it for going out and meeting people. The beds were like concrete but hey, that’s the norm in Southeast Asia isn’t it?!
Tipsy Manor – When Hug Hostel was full when we extended our trip, we stayed a few nights in Tipsy Manor. You absolutely cannot argue with $3.50 for a night’s stay! The rooms were clean, there were no bunks, and the bathrooms were pretty much what you would expect! It was’t as social as Hug but it was honestly so worth the price.