Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s treasured spots for backpackers whom traverse this part of the world. Once a best kept secret has now become a major destination point on everyone’s travel map. Located about 435 miles north of Bangkok you’ll be greeted by a mountainous backdrop lined with green treetops. Whether you take a night train, day bus or simply fly into Chaing Mai there is NO reason why you should skip this gem.
The vibe here is undoubtedly chill, the weather warm, and the food spicy. You will run into plenty of travelers, backpackers and vacationers alike, from every corner of the globe here. There are no shortage of expats setting up permanent residency here either and for good reasons. Whether the mountains are calling your name, a Muay Thai bout is on the docket or finding your inner peace surrounded by monks you’re in good company here.
HALF DAY TEMPLE RUN
By now you are probably burnt out by temples as Thailand is home to over 30,000 of them, but there are a few worth visiting in Chiang Mai. The city’s layout, a grid more or less, makes it easy to get around by foot with most of the temples located within the square. Most of the temples were free to enter which made it a very pleasant surprise.
The architecture of the temples are very reminiscent of what you will find throughout Thailand with a few boasting a more outlandish design. From ancient statues (Wat Chiang Man) to chedi ruins (Wat Chedi Luang), and temples boasting gold and copper Buddhas (Wat Phra Singh) you can easily get lost in a day trip around the city. Plan an early morning exit before the heat really gets on hot and a few hours to spare to explore.
Some of my favorites I visited on a half day trip were (with the mentions above):
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Phra Singh
- Wat Chiang Man
- Wat Pa Pao
- Wat Chiang Yuen
- Wat Lok Moli
- Wat Phantao (my favorite)
CHEER ON A MUAY THAI FIGHT
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, could arguably be hands down their national sport. A visit to Thailand and not seeing to a match is just wrong. Skip Bangkok and head straight to Chiang Mai to witness a more down and raw match without all the bells and whistles. Thaphae Boxing Stadium, located across the gate of the same name, hosts bouts every night so you can always catch some action. Most of the hostels and hotels can set you up with tickets in advance, 500 baht will get you through the doors, or you can always purchase them in person.
Once through the doors you are transported into the proper world of Muay Thai fighting. The seats were all close to the action, ours was on the furthest back row, still provided outstanding views of every blow. They also have giant projectors displaying the fight from all angles. Each night there are five matches where local schools from the area all come to show off their fighters. With so much action you can surely satiate your Muay Thai appetite. The main bout is always a draw and on this night it was Thai local versus New Zealander. I won’t spoiler it but will say worth all the baht I paid for admission.
CARVE THE MOUNTAINS
Nearby Chiang Mai there are two mountain ranges, Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon, in which I would highly recommend grabbing a scooter to explore. The former is much closer than the latter, making for a great leisurely day trip with no rushing involved. Thailand traffic is quite tame compared elsewhere in Southeast Asia making it the perfect place to harness your scootering skills.
Aside from a great view looking back down towards Chiang Mai there is also Wat Phra That Doi Suthep located near the base of the mountain. A Hmong Village is up north, deep within it. My big suggestion is head up into the mountains towards the Hmong village and start your descent down from there. You will find people living a much simpler life with VERY FEW tourists nearby. These kind people make their living off of small shops selling great eats and locally made crafts. It was a hit with our crew that day.
If you’re the adventurous type then you need to ride towards Doi Pui Viewpoint. The road is a little bit more harrowing but the view is just too spectacular to miss. Once you navigate the rocky dirt terrain your efforts will be rewarded handsomely. You could even spot the Hmong Village from up here!
On your way down make a stop at the mentioned Wat Phra That Doi Suthep as it’s one of the more important temples in Chiang Mai. They have an escalator where you can take up for a few bahts but the real attraction is all the steps one can accrue by taking the stairs! Marvel at the gold laden pagodas and the immaculate view of Chiang Mai at a closer glance. Do note that when we were here the air pollution was bad but no where near the levels it is at time of writing. I can’t promise the views to be clear but it’s one of those risks you just have to take.
INDULGE YOUR TASTE BUDS
Thailand is one of those countries brimming at the rim with culinary delights from a vast array of ethnic influences. Anywhere you go within its borders you are assured to find great eats and Chiang Mai is no different. Night markets are a HUGE staple in SE Asia. Once the sun goes down the streets are bustling with life from patrons and vendors.
The once walled off city hosts a plethora of night markets on any of its given gates. Whether you are on the north, east, south or west gate you’re going to be in a for a treat. During me short stay there I saw to it to eat at as many different vendor stalls as possible, indulging in my every taste bud.
Whether you’re a connoisseur of meats on a sticks, freshly grilled seafood, stir fried noodles, curries of red, green or yellow, even if you’re vegan, there is a stall waiting for you. Fruit and dessert lovers don’t fret as plenty of options are available for the taking as well (try the banana/nutella crepes!). Be adventurous and try some durian!
NOTE: If you’re on the North Gate go about searching for the woman with the cowboy hat. Her stall, featured on the late Anthony Bourdain show, is a must visit for pig lovers. I won’t hit you with the details but if you love slow stewed pork – this is a must go.
GO TO A DAY RAVE – IT’S A THING
Located just a mere 25 minute tuk tuk ride outside of Chiang Mai is the Grand Canyon waterpark. Think of it as the actual Grand Canyon on a MUCH smaller scale, full of backpackers and locals alike. With sunscreen in one hand and a beer in the other it makes for a great way to spend a hot afternoon. Usually this locale is a very family friendly outing but on some occasion, mainly big holidays and special weekends, you can catch a bunch of electronic music blasting from this oasis.
It’s a great spot to unwind especially if you have been traveling a long time, living out of your backpack and hostel to hostel. Sit back, have a beer or jump off the 30 foot rock wall on the opposite side and relax to good vibes all the way into the morning. This is the easy life of Thailand I tell you.