Thailand’s unofficial “Second City,” Chiang Mai offers a vastly different Thai experience than you can get in the country’s bustling capital of Bangkok. Once known as Lanna, the “Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields,” Chiang Mai is no longer a sleepy little spot with an agricultural atmosphere. Instead, you’ll delight in ancient wats and traditional street markets alongside adventure tours and unique nightlife venues.
Our own recent experience in Chiang Mai — celebrating New Year’s festivities — gave us so many memories that we resolve to return! So whether you’re planning a first-time trip, itching to go back, or just dreaming of an across-the-world adventure, here are our ten essential Chiang Mai experiences (in no particular order) to live it up in the land of Lanna:
Khao Soi: Chiang Mai Noodles by their real name are Khao Soi, and they are arguably northern Thailand’s most famous dish. You’ll want to slurp up some of these noodles in a curry broth (then topped with more crispy noodles) at every meal. And then you’ll likely want to throw back a glass of bai bua bok (Asian herbal tea with pennywart) to cool off from all of those spices!
Doi Suthep: You’ll see this mountain landmark from the city of Chiang Mai and feel its draw. Perhaps best visited in the early hours of the morning (crowds gather to pray at this working monastery all day), not only will you feel a sense of accomplishment after mastering the 300+ steps of its Naga staircase, but you’ll see sweeping views of the city that are equally as fascinating as Doi Suthep’s architecture and spiritual features. Feeling adventurous? Rent a scooter to head up the mountain as most of the locals do!
Flight of the Gibbon: This popular — and widely advertised — 5 kilometers of zip line through a forest canopy receives rave reviews.
Street Shopping!: There are lots of markets and walking/shopping streets to suit everyone’s tastes scattered all over the city, but a select few are a must-not-miss on the itinerary. The Sunday (Ratchadamnoen Road) Market, The Saturday (Wua Lai Road) Market, and the Night Bazaar (including Kalare & Anusarn) are the three biggest, especially catering to tourists for tchockys and souvenirs. Warorot Market is where the locals shop — also definitely worth checking out.
Festival Lanterns: Ok, so you won’t see these every time you go to Chiang Mai, but if you happen to visit during a festival, like New Year’s Eve or Chiang Mai’s Loi Krathong Festival, you’ll delight in tens of thousands of paper lanterns (Khom Loy) set off to sail into the sky. Chiang Mai celebrates holidays in boisterous style while also observing some ancient traditions.
Wat Phra Singh: This is the city’s most visited temple. Founded in the 14th century, this major monastery that houses some 700 friendly monks (really, they’ll likely approach you to practice their English!) houses two medieval Buddha statues and so much more.
Wat Chedi Luang: Wat Chedi Luang is an impressive ruined temple in the center of Chiang Mai that has an unmatched grandeur. Important because for a short time it housed the most important object in Thailand — the Emerald Buddha — before that relic got its own temple in Bangkok, the ruined chedi (believed to be destroyed by an earthquake) still has several Buddha shrines and remains an active place of worship frequented by monks in their orange robes.
Hot Springs: The popular hotsprings of Sankhampeng are very near Chiang Mai. You might think these are worth skipping due to Thailand’s hot tropical climate, but the geysers and natural warm pools are still a popular attraction, loaded with minerals that are believed to offer benefits to the body, not to mention a relaxing experience.
Thai Cooking Classes: There are a few well regarded Thai cooking classes available in Chiang Mai, which usually include a trip to the market to learn about and purchase ingredients before heading to the kitchen to learn to cook traditional dishes. Love Thai food? Learn to make it for yourself!
Thai Massage: Some massages allow you to zone out, relax, even fall asleep! Not so with Thai massage, which encourages you to become more engaged and energized. The therapist uses his or her hands, knees, legs, and feet to move you into a series of yoga-like stretches while also hitting your pressure points and working out muscle tension. It’s a must-try (and crazy affordable in most places!) that will get you geared up for more sightseeing!