Thailand’s Northern capital Chiang Mai boasts the best of both worlds; all the perks of a bustling, lively city, whilst still retaining some of the laid-back charm of its neighbour Pai. Here are some of our favourite (and least favourite) things we discovered during our time there.
What to do
There’s so much to do in and around Chiang Mai, so make sure you plan enough time to fit it all in. In my opinion the most unmissable experience is a visit to one of the nearby elephant sanctuaries. There are lots of companies offering this, but make sure you do your research and choose one that’s cruelty free and doesn’t offer riding or anything else that’s painful and unpleasant for the elephants. We chose one called Paradise Park. They only had four elephants who had all been rescued from less humane elephant camps, and I was really happy to see the bond they had formed with the guides here.
Another excursion that’s really popular is the jungle ziplining, and again there are several companies you can do this with. Embarrassingly I freaked out halfway round and refused to finish the course, meaning we had to trek back ages through the *literal* jungle with the guide. Honestly it’s SO high – I thought doing Go Ape would have prepared me for this but it’s not even on the same scale. I felt awful spoiling it for Jordan but I was that terrified I’ve actually had two nightmares about it since!!
One other thing worth mentioning is the Chiang Mai Grand Canyon, a huge manmade lake (so no creepy crawlies) that you can go swimming in. The water is really deep (forty meters!!) so it’s perfect for diving, or you can just float around in your rubber ring or life jacket. Unfortunately though the only way of getting there is by moped, as it’s a little outside of the city. In my Pai blog I spoke about happily cruising round the peaceful roads there on a moped, but it’s a very different ball game in Chiang Mai. The roads are so busy and everyone drives like lunatics – someone came off their moped right in front of us on the way there (luckily they were fine). I hated the journey but once we were there it felt totally worth it.
In terms of nightlife Chiang Mai is pretty diverse, with wild nightclubs and some seedy bars but also some quieter drinking streets too. There’s a square of bars and clubs around Rajvithi Road in the Old City which are always really busy with backpackers and Thai people. There are a few cool bars here – Babylon, 48 Garage and Roots Rock Reggae bar are all good. The most well known bar/club here is called Zoe in Yellow, it’s huge and pretty much takes over the whole square. We never got round to going here even though we thought it looked cool, however I’ve since read horror stories about corruption and violence against Western tourists by the staff here (like this one from The Wanderlist) so I’m really glad we didn’t. Obviously trouble can start anywhere when you’re travelling, but I’d say check their Trip Advisor reviews to get an idea of what this place is really like before deciding to go, as it’s where most unsuspecting westerners head.
Apart from this, the other main nightlife area seemed to be around Loi Kroh Road. There are loads of bars down this street, but upon closer inspection they all seemed to be inhabited by greasy old white men with young Thai girls hanging off each arm. Best avoided I’d say.
Northern Thai food is supposed to be the best, however I haven’t been to the South yet so I can neither confirm nor deny. We did have some incredible food in Chiang Mai though. Our favourite restaurant was Ugo in the Old City; we ended up eating here three times because the food was SO good. Jordan had the khao soi here which is a Chiang Mai staple, a coconut curry with heaps of crispy fried noodles on top. I loved the massaman curry with chicken and potatoes!
Another place we couldn’t stay away from was A Taste From Heaven, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant on Ratmakka Road. We initially went here as we were trying to get ourselves on a health kick, but you know it’s good as us two meat lovers kept going back for vegan stir fries and veggie breakfasts.
THE place for foodies to hit up though is the Ploen Ruedee Night Market, the food court to end all food courts. They cater to literally everything here, there’s no cuisine you won’t be able to find. We visited multiple stalls but the one you have to try is the bao truck. This was my first experience of eating bao (baos?) and I’m still not sure what exactly it is/they are. It’s basically a little doughy steamed bun that’s apparently Taiwanese; I had mine stuffed with fried chicken and teriyaki sauce whilst Jordan had fish cake and sweet chilli in his. Confusing but delicious!
All in all I really liked Chiang Mai – it’s a bit like a smaller, inoffensive Bangkok!