Thailand has been on my travel bucket list for so long now, and after our honeymoon to Indonesia it went top of the list. We planned an incredible 3 week trip around Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Our first stop – the jewel of the North, Chiang Mai. There are so many things to do in Chiang Mai, so here are my top picks.
We arrived in Chiang Mai at about 5pm, just before the sun began to set. Laden with backpacks and tired from nearly 20 hours of travelling and three planes we jumped into a taxi and straight to our hotel for the first 2 nights of our trip. As we drove through the outskirts of Chiang Mai, approaching the moat which surrounds the walls of the square Old Town, I was feeling super excited.
I had wanted to come to Thailand for so long and I was finally about to experience it for myself.
We were splitting our time in Chiang Mai into three stages: 2 nights in the Old Town, a 2 day 1 night trek and 2 nights in Nimmanhaemin (new town). We wanted to see the different sides to Chiang Mai! We loved our time here and there is lots on offer. Here’s what we got up to.
Things to do in Chiang Mai
1. Thai Cooking Course
My absolute favourite thing we did whilst in this wonderful city was attend a Thai cooking course! I suppose this is not particularly specific to Chiang Mai as you can do these all over Thailand, but this was one of the highlights of our trip. And if you’re a foodie like me, it’s a must!
I definitely recommend Siam Rice Cookery School. We found them last minute after a Tripadvisor scroll. We just rang a couple from number 1 until we could get 2 spaces on one later that evening. We left it quite last minute to book! We wanted one that included a market trip so we could learn about the ingredients we were going to use and one that didn’t require a full day out of town. There are some incredible cooking courses on offer where you can go out for a full day, but they are expensive and we only had a few days here and there is lots to see!
It was about 4 hours in total which we found to be perfect. We learnt a lot and most importantly it was fun! Our course included: pick up and drop off from our hotel, a market tour and you select the 5 dishes you want to make. It cost about £16 per person which is great value for everything we did. I’ll definitely be trying to recreate some of these dishes at home!
2. Street Food
I definitely class this as one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai! I pretty much plan all of our trips around food. Eating is always my top activity on holiday, ha.
The street food in Chiang Mai was the best of our trip. I think this was for two reasons: we loved some of the more regional dishes like Khao Soi and the atmosphere in the night food markets was just electric.
I still remember the first night of our whole trip, wandering from our hotel not knowing what to expect as it was our first time in Thailand. Reaching the market we suddenly felt quite overwhelmed. We had no idea what we were doing! After a couple of laps we decided on a spot and just pointed and ordered: Khao soi, won ton soup and some kind of beef thing! That was the beginning of my true love affair with Thai food.
Markets to check out – We went to the market at the Southern Gate of the Old Town on Saturday night. There is also a big market here but it was just too busy for us so we stayed by the food!
We also went to the Sunday Market/Walking Street which offered great food which you can read more about below!
3. Sunday Market/Sunday Walking Street
This is on most of the lists for things to do in Chiang Mai. But it’s not on my list for the shopping. Oh no, of course it makes the list because of the food!
On Sunday afternoons Thanon Ratchadamnoen is taken over by market stalls, food vendors and all the people! The shopping on offer is so so. Lots of cheap clothes, sandals, jewellery, trinkets, etc. But that’s not why you should go. You should go because the atmosphere is brilliant!
The courtyards of the Wats (temples) all around the area are filled with energetic food markets that are filled to the brim with locals and tourists. People of all ages gather to eat good food and eagerly chatter away. There was a great selection of food from sushi to fresh juices to soups like Khao Soi.
Okay, so technically this is not something to do actually in the city of Chiang Mai. But the great variety of trekking options available in the surrounding areas is the main reason for a lot of travellers to stop is Chiang Mai.
There really is something for everyone. There are week-long adventures in the jungle to day trips out to the national parks close by and there is something to suit all budgets. You can book ahead or, like we did, book a trek when you arrive in Chiang Mai. We had the most incredible two days on our trek. I can’t recommend it enough, even for someone like me who is pretty unfit and never been camping. I LOVED it. Full review to come.
My main tip? The smaller the group the better, for whichever type of trek you go for. You don’t want to be there with 30 others on a track well trodden by hundreds. It’s something special you should be able to savour.
5. Explore the Old Town and Temples
Spend time exploring the Old Town. This was one of my favourite things to do in Chiang Mai. It is filled with beautiful temples, little shops, street food and cafes. We actually planned our walk around the key temples we wanted to see.
The Old Town is almost perfectly square and surrounded by a moat and is a warren of streets. It really reminded me of Ubud in Bali actually. There’s such a laid back vibe. Don’t have an agenda and just wander!
6. Coffee shops
The coffee scene in Chiang Mai has exploded in recent years. You are never more than 500m away from a quirky coffee shop.
Don’t worry if you’re not a coffee drinker because the iced juices and teas on offer is astounding.
The newer part of the city, especially around Nimmanhaemin Road is full of hipster cafes and coffee shops – you could easily spend a day ‘cafe hopping’ around there. I really enjoyed trying some of these out, especially after all the walking we did!
I feel we only just skimmed the surface of Chiang Mai. I really loved this laid back city and really do hope I can return one day soon. Have you been to Chiang Mai? What were your highlights?