I first visited Chiang Mai in 2008 and it quickly became my favorite city in Thailand. It’s just the right size – big enough that you’re never bored but small enough where you can get around quickly and the traffic never becomes insufferable. It’s a city that you can understand in a couple of days but will hold surprises and slowly reveal itself over the course of many weeks, months or even years. This time Chiang Mai marked the beginning of our trip to Thailand and also a place we’d stay put for about 2 weeks.
Where to stay
We enjoyed staying in the Nimman area. Nimman is a hip and modern neighborhood, with lots of great eateries, cafes and the very modern Maya mall. It’s also close enough to the old city that you can either walk it or hop on one of the ubiquitous songthaews. I would say that the only downside of Nimman is that planes frequently fly over (the airport in Chiang Mai is very close to the city) so you might hear it from time to time.
It has plenty of hotels and Airbnbs at very affordable rates. The buildings are all quite new and have great amenities like pools and gyms.
The Lantern Festival
We thought this deserved its own section since it’s a sight to behold and was thoroughly confusing for us to figure out.
First – The lantern festival happens near the end of November each year. The exact date seems to change from year to year based on the lunar calendar so make sure you look it up before you book your tickets.
Second – The festival goes by Loy Krathong and/or Yee Peng (sometimes spelled Yi Peng). Loy Krathong is celebrated throughout Thailand while Yee Peng is a northern tradition and is where the lanterns are released.
Third – If you google for Yee Peng you will find sites that offer to sell you tickets for the coordinated mass release of the lanterns. You do NOT need to buy these tickets to get spectacular views of the lanterns. We were able to get spectacular views from the bridges that cross the Peng river. Just head that way around 9 or 10pm and you won’t be able to miss it. You can buy your own lantern for around 50 Baht and make a go at releasing them.
What to do
- Rent a scooter! A scooter is very affordable and a great way to get around the city on your own terms. We got our bikes from Mango Bike Rental which was recommended to us by fellow travelers. Besides having great prices, Mango Bike rental also does not require you to leave your passport with them which some of the other shops do.
- Once you have a scooter, take a day to do the Samoeng Valley scooter loop. If you google for it you can find maps that show you the route. It’s a pretty long day so be prepared for a sore butt at the end, but the views are worth it.
- Visit an Elephant camp. There are many outfits that offer Elephant related activities and some are more ethical than others in terms of how they treat the animals. We encourage you to do your own research to make sure that you feel comfortable with the company you choose. We ended up doing a full day tour with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary which we enjoyed. They pick you up from your hotel in the morning and drive you to one of their sanctuaries where you will feed the elephants & bathe the elephants. We especially liked the fact that this company brings a dedicated photographer on the trip and makes the photos available to you free of charge.
- Visit the night markets. In addition to street food, you can also find your souvenirs and other random trinkets here. The quality won’t be that great and the prices won’t be that low unless you’re comfortable haggling but it’s a fun way to spend an evening. The markets tend to get incredibly crowded, to the point where it’s difficult to move forwards (or backwards) so we preferred going right when they opened when the crowds are a lot of thinner.
- Get a Thai massage. Massage shops are literally everywhere so check up on reviews before you decide on one. We enjoyed a 2 hour message at Khunka Massage for 600 baht/person. Be aware that the more popular places might require a reservation as they tend to get booked up fast.
- Take some goofy photos at Art In Paradise, 3D Art Museum. Check out photos online to study up on your poses and give yourself plenty of time – this place is huge. There is also an app that turns some of the installations alive. Great way to kill a hot afternoon.
- Get some dental work done – This one obviously depends on whether you need something done, but Thailand is famous for medical tourism. L had a great experience getting some routine dental work done for a very reasonable price. Call around a few places to get quotes since the prices can vary quite a bit.
Where to eat
- Ristr8to (Nimman) – Really great, artisanal coffee. They have 2 locations, Ristr8to and Ristr8to Lab. Both were excellent.
- Cherng Doi Roast Chicken (Nimman) – Delicious roasted chicken which they seem to cook spatchcock style. The skin is extremely crisp while the meat is tender and moist. Our normal order here was chicken, papaya salad (thai style), and some sticky rice.
- Chang Phueak Pork Leg Rice AKA Cowboy Hat Lady (by North gate) – We ate here at least 3 times. Featured on venerable shows like No Reservations ,this lady is an institution. We recommend that you get the pork leg and rice separately which affords you more of both.
- Street vendors on Nimman street – If you walk down Nimman street on any night you’ll see a ton of street food vendors that were all pretty decent.
- Khao Soi Mae Sai – Khao Soi is a legendary northern Thai dish and this is a great place to give it a try.