Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city – but with only 300,000 people it comes a long way after Bangkok and its 8 million. It’s a less visited spot in Thailand than Bangkok and the southern islands and beach resorts, up in the north, a 14-hour sleeper train or 1.5-hour plane journey from Bangkok. But it’s worth the trip. It has a charming, relaxed feel, with a huge number of temples (approx. 300), and with a rule in place within the old city moat (yes, it has a moat) that a high-rise can’t be built within 93m of a temple, the old city has a very different feel from Bangkok. Here’s our pick of some of the highlights of the area.
1. Elephant Nature Park
Thailand is all about elephants – pictures are everywhere, in temples, art, and being sold as keyrings. But for complex reasons, but all to do with humans, elephant numbers have declined rapidly in the last 100 years (wild elephants dropping from 300,000 to 3500). Elephant Nature Park is the best place to get your fill of elephants – a place that looks after 34 rescue elephants, that you can spend the day with. There’s no riding here – the methods which are used to ‘break’ elephants are considered inhumane by ENP – but you can feed them, bathe them in the river, and generally just hang out in their wonderful, peaceful and picturesque home in the mountains just north of Chiang Mai.
209/2 Sridom Chai Road Chiang Mai, 50100 – www.elephantnaturepark.org
2. Walking Street Market
An absolute institution of Chiang Mai, the Sunday Walking Street Market is a fabulous place to browse, bargain, chat and mooch. Higher quality and more original goods are offered here than some tourist markets offer, and the craftsmanship of the products, from all over Northern Thailand, is excellent and very well priced. It’s also one of the least ‘pushy’ markets in Thailand, with polite and smiling vendors. Many locals attend – there’s a real ‘buzz’ about it.
Starts 4pm at Thapae Gate and runs along the length of Ratchadamnoen Road
3. Temples – particularly Wat Phra Singh and Wat Doi Suthep
As described above, there are a plethora of temples in Chiang Mai. We particularly recommend Wat Phra Singh, a temple built in the 1300s with the city’s most important and sacred Buddha image, where you can eat at the delicious Pun Pun vegetarian restaurant, and on M, W and T, meet and talk with Monks in their ‘Monk Chat’’.
Another gem of a temple is Wat Doi Suthep, on Doi Suthep mountain (only 30mins from the city centre), which has stunning views up the 300 steps (there’s a cable car if you don’t fancy them!).
4. Live music at the North Gate Jazz bar
For a change of pace, visit the North Gate Jazz Bar, appropriately up near the North gate of the old city. Tuesday night is jam night, and the mix of styles is eclectic. Frequented by cool locals and hip tourists and travellers, also a great place to people watch. It’s small though, so get there early – on some nights patrons sit on the wall outside!
Open 9pm-midnight, located on Sri Phum Road. Tel: 08 6797 2176
5. Café culture
There’s a thriving café culture in Chiang Mai, and tourists and travellers fill these with handheld devices and laptops, as the majority have free Wi-Fi. Definitely no need to go to Starbucks – which is twice the price with no free Wi-Fi. Great espresso can be found, but you’re more likely to fancy an iced mocha given the heat. We suggest trying Good Morning Chiang Mai (smooth coffee and great breakfasts), The Old Chiang Mai café (excellent espresso), and if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous as it’s outside the city walls in a residential area, for what is possibly the best coffee in Chiang Mai and full of Thai students, Akha Ama.
Also an honourable mention for iberry, which as well as coffee does the most amazing cake and ice cream, and has a giant plastic dog in its lovely garden.
6. Ziplining with Flight of the Gibbon
Get out of the city and soar above the rainforest with Flight of the Gibbon ziplining. Featuring 18 ziplines (including one at 800 meters!), as well as abseiling, shaky bridges and beautiful vistas. Sky rangers take excellent care of your safety and crack jokes throughout your excursion. Includes transport from Chiang Mai (50 minute drive) and lunch or dinner.
Two other locations: in Siem Reap near Angkor, and near Bangkok at Pattaya.
Blog by Ellen Bard