Chiang Mai is one of my favorite places in Thailand. I know this is a destination that divides many travelers, with other bloggers claiming it has no soul, that there is nothing special about it and there is a concentration of older western men with young asian women. The last of which is true – but that is also a not well hidden part of many cities in Thailand. I think in Chiang Mai these relationships are more pronounced because of its smaller size – compared to Bangkok and whether you approve or not, it is a part of their way of life.
Despite this, there were so many things I loved about Chiang Mai: where we stayed, beautiful temples, Doi Suthep, one of the best night markets in Asia – and the best oil massage I have ever had! Check out my recommendations below:
Where we stayed:
Top Garden Boutique Guesthouse (now known as V Lodge)
We were greeted on arrival with huge smiles and shown a compact but very clean double room (standard) at the back of the property. There are three levels of accommodation – suites, deluxe and standard rooms. The larger rooms looked great, but we didn’t feel like it was necessary to spend any more on having the extra space.
The room and all public areas were spotless with a lovely terrace and seating area adjacent to a computer/ reading room at the front of the property. Victor (the owner) was really helpful with recommendations and pointed us in the direction of Chit Chai – great local restaurant & Paradise Massage who gave the best aromatherapy massage I have ever had!
The guesthouse is ideally located just outside the moat around old Chiang Mai with everything in walking distance.
Overall we had a great stay and wished it could have been longer.
where we ate:
I highly recommend Chit Chai Restaurant – super cheap, high quality food in a little cafe just a couple of streets down from Top Garden, outside the moat. Great curries and local cusine made fresh and super tasty.
Also, don’t be afraid of the street vendors, pull up a stool and point at what you want from their carts – you won’t regret it!
What we did:
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Located over 3000 ft above sea level, the road to the top through the national park was picturesque in itself.
We had paid one the the red tuk tuk/minivan-esq drivers 600 baht for the return trip with waiting time for us to explore, and to this day I’m not sure if we were ripped off, but considering how long the trip up took with the traffic (it’s usually only 20 mins) we definitely got our money’s worth.
At the top, there were 300+ steps to get to the temple and although there is a cable car, we were unable to see it with the crowds and so decided to tackle to stairs.
Inside the temple was mostly quiet and peaceful and we enjoyed wandering round soaking everything in. At the back of the temple you could see all across Chiang Mai, the views were amazing.
We really enjoyed the temple and national park and feel it was worth the effort to get up there without joining a half day tour which would have restricted our movements – we went in the late afternoon where most tours are morning or lunchtime departures.
Our guide was brilliant and so knowledgeable that not only did we get to spend a whole day with the elephants we learnt all about how the park works, where the elephants come from and why they do what they do.
We fed them, learnt basic commands, rode them through the jungle and bathed them in the lake. Words cannot describe how amazing and awe inspiring the whole thing actually was.
Our guide was also more than happy to take pictures with our cameras and advised that all the ones taken with their camera would be available on the Internet for free download and gave us an address to access them.
In going to Baanchang you pay a little less than at other parks but it does not mean they are not as good, both for your experience and that of the elephants. In turn your money is spent on caring for their current elephants and providing funds to rescue more. (the owner had just paid 1,500,000 baht to rescue a 2 year old baby from a company using elephants for illegal logging and hoped to rescue 3 more this year.)
I can honestly say this is one of the most amazing things I have ever done and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
Wat Chedi Luang
A lovely temple in front and the ruined stupa at the back illustrates the history of the site. And the reclining Buddha at the very back of the complex is worth a look.
Related: If your looking for something a little off the typical tourist trail read 5 Unique Things to Do in Chiang Mai
Saturday & Sunday Markets
As recommended by fellow travellers and reinforced by our Host at Top Garden Boutique, we steered clear of the aptly named ‘Night Bazzar’ who had a reputation for ripping off tourists and being really pushy. Instead – and luckily for us that we were there over a weekend – we attended both the Saturday and Sunday markets. The Saturday market was at the far end of town from the guesthouse (approx 20 minute walk) but the Sunday Market also known as the Walking Street Market was in the centre of the old city. Use the Tha Phae Gate as your starting point and get ready to get lost in the masses of stalls and bag yourself some great bargains in the process – clothes, souvenirs, artwork – its all here! Remember to haggle for everything – but not to the extreme – it can be considered disrespectful. Happy Shopping 🙂
For those adrenalin/adventure seeking junkies consider an ‘Adventure Day’
Ours encompassed a visit to the Butterfly & Orchid Farm, an Elephant Trek (which is where there is a cage on the elephant’s back – something we were not all that keen on after our day at Baan-Chang), White Water Rafting, a 19 Canopy Zipline (not for the faint hearted – minimal safety briefing and the use of a stick to slow you down – we were lucky and had zip-lined before and so kind of knew what we were doing), visit to a Waterfall, and as we were unable to participate in Bamboo rafting down the river due to an incoming storm, the itinerary changed to include a visit to the Karen Hill Tribe (also known as the Long Neck tribe). This was a little awkward and felt somewhat like a human zoo.
The Karen people are a tribe that have been exiled from Myanmar and reside in northern Thailand who use brass rings to elongate their necks. Many explanations have been hypothesised – from protecting their necks from tiger bites, to making the women less attractive and so less likely to be taken as slaves – but the most concerning is that they might do this for tourism. As such, we had not wanted to visit the tribe (also at an additional 600 THB fee), and why it was not on our original itinerary for our adventure day. After visiting, I couldn’t tell if it was for tourism and none of the women seemed interested in discussing why they do it – just that they do. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds…