*updated 2 Feb 2018
I’ve pretty much lived in CM since 2009, although there was this brief Ecuadorian intermission, and an important 2007 visit that sparked my desire to live here…
And since I’ve been here, I’ve lived in 5 different neighborhoods, so I feel I can offer my experience and unique perspective as an American half-Thai, a teacher, a student, as well as a bookworm who grew up playing with Barbies and Star Wars figures.
By now, I hope you know to grab the essential Nancy Chandler map which can be bought at used book stores like On the Road, and Backstreet books. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be working off of that map, and generally staying within the Old City unless I say otherwise.
And don’t forget:
>>>The temples<<< after all, CM has A LOT of them, A LOT. (*Tip! Most drivers don’t know street names, but they do know their temples. So find the closest wat to your guest house or destination to get where you want to go.)
Doi Suthep. It’s on top of the mountain. It’s big. There are a lot of bells and stairs. You should probably go. It’s 11km from the base to the top. During the holidays, prepare to sit in traffic.
Wat Phra Singh. (at the end of Ratchadamnern) Good place to visit during the Sunday walking street and during most major holidays. Stop by SP Chicken on Singharat soi 1 for the most excellent chicken and papaya salad. Old school CM.
Wat Chedi Luang. (on Phra Pokklao) I like this one at night, but it’s another great temple to visit during most holidays.
Wat Pan Tao. (next to Wat Chedi Luang) One of my favorites, natural wood, old school sandy ground, love it during Loy Kratong.
Wat Bupparam. (on Tha Phae Road) Has a special place in my heart, not because Donald Duck is eating a bowl of ramen, but because this is where the fortune teller told me to go to “make merit” for love and romance. And it worked 😉
>>>The malls<<< for when you are in the mood for “civilized living” as my Australian friend Nick coined it.
Kad Suan Kaew. I like Kad. It’s Old School Chiang Mai. It’s funky, it’s old, it’s affordable. It’s where Songkran gets wicked loud and crazy. On Thursday to Saturday evenings an outdoor market sets up in the front. Food, second-hand clothing, and an excellent massage sets up here too.
Airport Plaza. Before those fancier malls opened, Airport Plaza was the fanciest cat. It’s where my students went and it was the weekend hangout for teens. It’s still going to be popular for those of us who live on this side of town, but it resembles too much a mall back in the States for my cup of tea. What makes it interesting is, unlike malls back home, they have “events.” So, you might stumble upon a talent show, a Japanese anime dress up contest, or a food or travel fair right on ground level.
Central Festival. Brands like Topshop have moved to CM, making Central Fest the place to be – especially for the folks living on the other side of the Superhighway near Payap University. They have an ice skating rink!!!
Promenada. Interesting architecture, but quiet. Unlike typical Thai malls, Prom spreads out instead of up. It’s where they have moved Immigration. They do offer a free shuttle bus service which I heard works well:
*More shopping continues to crop up. For example Maya, at the horrendous intersection of the Superhighway and Huey Kaew and Niminahemin and Niminahemin One which is a fancy hi-so place, but actually Niminahemin is, in general, a fancy-cat area. Lots of boutique and coffee shops.
I think the idea is all these malls will keep folks in their respective neighborhoods and reduce traffic, but I haven’t experienced that yet.
>>>The markets<<< Oh, what fun it is to shop, until you drop! Okay, I can’t cover all the wats, and I certainly can’t cover all the markets. There are a lot of little markets peppered throughout CM. Wherever you are, chances are there will be an open food market nearby.
Warorot Market (aka Kad Luang). Is considered CM’s “Chinatown” and this is where Chinese New Year comes alive. It has rows of everything imaginable and the Chandler map has a detailed section of this great market. This is primarily a morning market with vendors closing down around late afternoon. At night Warorot becomes a used clothing shopping area, and noodle/nibble eats.
Mueng Mai. North of Warorot is the “whole seller’s market” where I frequently see restaurant owners and cooks buying their supplies and produce. For those who have a kitchen and love to cook, this is a great market to go to.
Chiang Mai Gate. When I lived over here, I would stop by this market for breakfast. Many Thais on their way to work roll through here for a quick to-go meal. Consignment clothes vendors set up here too. This market is dead in the afternoon, but picks up in the evenings for street food.
Somphet Market. (on Moon Muang) Seems to be where the tourist mainly trapeze through, mainly for cooking classes, but Thais do shop here as well. DaDa Bakery is located here. I love their chocolate croissants.
Sunday Walking Street. “Starts” at Tha Phae Gate. Go early if you don’t like crowds (4-5pm). Enjoy the food at Wat Pan On or any of the other tucked away places. Don’t forget to bargain!
Saturday Walking Street. On Wualai road, this smaller arts and crafts market is usually overshadowed by big brother Sunday, but I think it’s great. Contrary to popular belief, this walking street doesn’t have the same things as Sunday.
Extra credit: If you happen to be by Payap University (the International side) on Friday evenings they host a little walking street of their own behind Big C Extra. Also by Chiang Mai University on Huey Kaew, there is a fun trendy evening market. Lots of good food, too.
>>>The parks<<< the need for green. One of the big downfalls of CM, in my humble opinion, is the lack of green traffic-free walking spaces. So, if you are anything like me, here are some ideas to get your nature fix.
Buak Hat Park. (in the SW corner of the moat) Is the only park within the Old City and it is teeny tiny. In the mornings there is tai chi, and Thais work with what they have by running or walking around area multiple times. If you love fish like I do, you can admire and feed them. My favorite are the ginormous whiskery catfish.
Huey Kaew Fitness Park. On Huey Kaew on the way to the zoo, is another tiny green space where Thais exercise.
Huey Kaew Waterfall. Pass Huey Kaew Fitness Park, and the zoo, this waterfall is part of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Thais love to swim and picnic here. Enjoy exploring.
Wat U-Mong. (off of Suthep, red truck drivers will know where to go) Yeah, I know it’s technically not a park, but it’s quiet, with tall trees and a bit of nature among the clever signs and temple buildings.
Chiang Mai University. (between Suthep and Huey Kaew) My friend and I used to walk around the reservoir and campus to get our walking and talking dose we missed from being away from the States. *You might have to pay these days to get in because Chinese tourists were sneaking in to relive this super popular movie that has made CM famous in China.
Extra a-little-out-of-town credit: Tweechol Botanic Garden on the way to Doi Saket, Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens (Mae Rim area) and Ratchaphruek (aka Royal Flora next to the Night Safari) for starters…
Miscellany and etc. and my attempt to give you even more ideas…
1. Riding and renting bikes. When I first lived here I used a bicycle to get around town, but one day my friend and I rented bikes with gears for a ride to Huey Tung Tao. ChiangMaiCycling.org is a great resource.
2. Recently, my friends went on a drinking coffee binge – I don’t know how they did it – visiting coffee shop upon coffee shop. So for those who love their bean, CM is a pretty good city to get your espresso on. Recommended: Akha Ama Coffee, Ristr8to or even the Cat House, you can’t go too wrong.
3. Art in Paradise is a 3D art museum. Good rainy day or hot afternoon escape. I wrote about it here.
4. Insect museum. I like bugs. My friend Eric wrote an outstanding post about it.
5. Bo Sang and San Kampaeng day trip for handicrafts and souvenir shopping.
6. Day trip to San Patong market (quite expansive) and Ban Tawai.
7. High tea at the Mandarin Oriental. (Take a good look at the map, it’s hard to find the turn off road) You can book a tour of the grounds in advance, for free, I believe, and/or you can head over to the fancy tea bakery with a gaggle of friends for some hi-so nibbling and treats.
8. Lampang’s elephant conservation center was a fun excursion in a natural setting. All day outing.
9. Thai boxing at Lanna Muay Thai boxing off of Canal Road is a bit challenging to find. If you are heading west on Huey Kaew take a right at the Canal Road intersection (Dunkin Donuts will be caddy corner). Once on Canal, take the first left, go slow, it will be a small road that will shortly take you to a T. Turn right, pass a market, mini-Tesco, and temple, stay left, and then after the Flora House sign, and generic-looking convenience store, the gym will be on your right. It’s easy to miss, lots of vegetation. *If you hit 7-11 you’ve gone too far.
10. Peruse the art galleries along the Old Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road between Nakorn Ping Bridge and The Good View Restaurant. Recommended: Vieng Joom On tea house on the river.
12. Keep an eye out on CityNow! for special events at various venues for music, food, and art.
13. CMU’s art center exhibits are worth checking out, and they also show free foreign movies here on Saturday nights The art building is also next to the only mud house restaurant, Café Din Dee!
14. Go swimming in the saltwater pool at Centre of the Universe, or at a regular, but large pool at the Lotus Hotel next to Kad Suan Kaew. The last time I went the Lotus pool was 100 baht to get in. They provide towels.
15. Visit the Zoo and/or aquarium. I’ve enjoyed my visits, but avoid these places during the holidays unless you don’t mind crowds and traffic. Popular destination for Thais.
16. I hope it goes without saying – get a Thai massage. Learn more about asking for what you want in Thai here.
17. Get sustainable at Earth Home Thailand or take a workshop at Pun Pun and check out the Panya Permaculture project. My friends are really into this, so that’s how I can share this with you!
18. Take a kung-fu class! I know, most people don’t even think about kung-fu in Thailand, but my friend (and his friend) went through the training at Kung-Fu Chiang Mai and can attest to its true and rigorous style.The family also has an amazing story and the teacher is a prodigy – something out of a movie.
19. Hopefully you will take the time to learn Thai. I wrote about my experience at Payap University on my friend’s blog although I have since taken classes at AUA and with a private tutor. You’d think my Thai would be amazing, but it’s not. Boooo.
20. There is also Chiang Mai Expats Club’s OGA or Outside Group Activities where they have a lot of different groups from gardening to chess if you have a special interest you want to pursue with like-minded others.. And there is also ChickyNet, an all-women’s expat group for Thailand that is another solid resource. I’m a member.
21. I’ve mentioned ice skating, but I can’t forget bowling (at Kad Suan Kaew).There’s always bowling…
22. Quiz night at the UN Irish Pub (on Rathwithi) starts at 8.30, but you should arrive at 8pm on Thursday to secure a table. 200 baht fee per team. No more than 8 on a team. Warning: some expats take this very seriously.
I know I can’t possibly cover it all. I deliberately did not suggest a cooking class or Thai massage course or meditation retreat because I don’t have any direct experience with any of those. But I have heard only good things about cooking classes. And I have never taken a Ping River cruise, mainly because it’s out of my budget.
I’d love to hear your suggestions and thoughts. Hope you got something out of this list.
9 replies on “Best of Chiang Mai (great list of things to do here!)”
I am from Singapore. I must say that I really love Chiang Mai for its people and its climate! 🙂
Hey thanks. That’s really nice to hear. I need to make it to Singapore one day if you are any indication of how nice Singaporians are! Cheers.
Wow! full of Chiang Mai information. I will contact you, when we visit there. Maybe, we can talk over lunch and coffee. What do you think?
I’m glad you found this post helpful. Keep in touch, and thanks!
Hi Lani, I’m from Malaysia. Stumbled across your post while researching on where to go while in Chiang Mai. I’m coming over in May, got a nice deal from Air Asia. Keep writing!
Thanks Pauline from Malaysia 😀 I will and good luck on your May adventure!
Hi Lani! I am planning to move to Thailand next week to teach English and a college alum I reached out to suggested I check out your blog. I am hooked perusing through all of your posts, they’re wonderful! I originally had Chiang Mai in mind as the most probable place I’d want to settle in, but some people seemed to think there wasn’t enough to do there, that I’d get bored of it easily. I did not want to settle in Bangkok at first because I’ve been wanting to escape the overcrowded streets and exaggerated bustle of NYC life, but I considered it may be easier to travel around if that is home base. Then I thought- hell, why don’t I just live on a beachy island? But this post makes me still consider Chiang Mai- maybe its not too much of a small town that I’d be underwhelmed in and just the right mix of calm and city that I need?
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Sorry for the late reply as I have just moved to Siem Reap Cambodia and I have not had time for my dear blog! Gah!
But to answer your question, I think CM is plenty exciting enough. There is a very vibrant expat scene and plenty of things to do. I don’t think you will have a problem at all, but if you do, you can always move again.
Hope it works out well, good luck and let me know 🙂