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Chiang Mai, Thailand is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. With its abundance of beautiful temples, delicious Northern Thai cuisine, rich expat culture, and overall laid-back atmosphere, Chiang Mai is a city I could see myself revisiting time and time again. I would recommend adding at least three days in Chiang Mai to your Thailand itinerary, but if you have more time, you can easily stretch this itinerary over four or even five days, perhaps adding a Chiang Mai walking tour or a couple of day trips from Chiang Mai to your itinerary. Here is the perfect 3 day itinerary for what to do in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai General Tips
Currency: Thai Baht (1 USD = 34.61 Baht, May 2017)
Dress Code: Casual and Western. Shorts and tank tops are acceptable for ladies, except inside temples. Make sure your knees and shoulders are covered when visiting temples (this applies to men and women).
Transportation: Walk/Uber/Shared Taxi. Most places within Chiang Mai Old City are walkable. The best alternative to walking is Uber. It is extremely affordable compared to most major cities in the U.S. Since Uber is illegal in Thailand, Uber drivers may ask you to sit in the passenger seat so as to give the appearance that you are a friend of the driver, and not a customer. If there are no Uber cars available, take a shared taxi. Look for red trucks with an open back and a long bench on both sides of the interior. You will see them everywhere on the street. Simply stand on the side of the street and wave one down, and make sure you negotiate the cost of your ride with the driver prior to getting into the truck.
Language: Thai. Most people who work in the hospitality industry will know enough English to sell you a coffee or sandwich, but it can’t hurt to learn some basic phrases in Thai, like “hello” and “thank you.”
Accommodation: De Lanna Boutique Hotel. This beautifully designed boutique style hotel is centrally located in Chiang Mai Old City and within walking distance to many temples and restaurants. Guests at De Lanna Hotel receive a complimentary buffet style breakfast, access to the outdoor pool, access to the hotel bar, and many rooms even have private balconies.
First time in Chiang Mai? Here are some tours you might want to check out:
Day 1: Tikky Cafe, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Eat Is Life, Ice Love You Ice Cream
If you are arriving in Chiang Mai in the morning or during the day, follow this itinerary. If you are arriving at night and have a full day as your first day, start with Day 2, and move Day 1 to the end of your itinerary.
After checking into your hotel, head over to Tikky Cafe in Chiang Mai Old City for a delicious and affordable lunch. Here, you can find authentic Thai cuisine, as well as vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options on their large menu. The owner of Tikky Cafe is very friendly and speaks good English. You will want to load up on food here as you’ll be spending your afternoon exploring a few of Chiang Mai’s most well known temples.
With over 300 wats (Buddhist temples), Chiang Mai has more temples than you’re able to see in a lifetime. On your first day in Chiang Mai, take a few hours to visit three of the city’s most iconic temples: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The first two are located within Old City walls and are within walking distance from each other.
My recommendation would be to download the map for Chiang Mai from Google Maps and save each temple as a pin on your map. From Tikky Cafe, walk first to Wat Phra Singh. This walk is approximately 700 meters and should take less than 10 minutes. Next, walk to Wat Chedi Luang, which is approximately 1.1 kilometers from Wat Phra Singh and should take less than 15 minutes. Finally, order an Uber from Wat Chedi Luang to take you roughly 17 kilometers (30-40 minutes by car) to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep.
Wat Phra Singh was originally built in 1345 by King Phayu as a place to house his father’s ashes. About 250 years later, Northern Thailand was overtaken by the Burmese, and Wat Phra Singh was abandoned. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the temple was restored by King Kawila. The entire temple again underwent extensive renovations in the 1920s. Most recently in 2016, the chedis (stupas, or dome-shaped structures erected atop Buddhist temples) were decorated with a gold-color covering, giving Wat Phra Singh the iconic look it has today.
Wat Chedi Luang is a must have on your Chiang Mai itinerary. It was my favorite temple in Chiang Mai because of its towering stature and departure from the traditional Lanna-style chedi seen on many temples in Chiang Mai. Construction on Wat Chedi Luang started around the same time as construction on Wat Phra Singh, but Wat Chedi Luang was left unfinished until the mid-15th century. Shortly thereafter, the Emerald Buddha was installed in the eastern portion of Wat Chedi Luang but was subsequently moved to Luang Prabang due to an earthquake that struck Chiang Mai and destroyed a portion of the temple.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was founded around the same time as Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang and expanded over time with more and more shrines. Although it is oftentimes referred to as “Doi Suthep,” this is a misnomer as Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain where the temple sits. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is located approximately 30-40 minutes from Chiang Mai Old City. The easiest way to get there is by Uber. If you are unable to order an Uber on your way back, there are shared taxis parked near the entrance that you can take back to Chiang Mai Old City.
Rather than going straight back to Chiang Mai’s Old City, however, I decided to explore the area west of the Old City for dinner and dessert. For dinner, I met a few of my friends at a restaurant called Eat is Life, a clean and modern looking restaurant specializing in vegetarian and vegan food. There are plenty of options for non-vegetarians as well. Next door to Eat is Life is a beer bar, and there are many other bars and restaurants in the same area. We decided to end our night with some ice cream from Ice Love You Ice Cream, which has a huge selection of ice cream flavors and creative ice cream concoctions. This is one of the few ice cream shops I’ve seen with a special vegan ice cream menu in addition to its main menu. The ice cream here was delicious and the atmosphere lively. After spending a while unloading our sugar high onto each other, we headed back to our hotels for an early night’s sleep.
We didn’t get a chance to go to Chiang Rai, but it’s a worthwhile and easy day trip from Chiang Mai if you want to see some beautiful temples. These tours will get you there stress-free:
Day 2: Elephant Sanctuary, Khao Kha Moo, Night Bazaar
One of my favorite memories from Chiang Mai, and by far one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai, was volunteering at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. It was by no mistake that the day I went to the elephant sanctuary was also my birthday. For as long as I can remember, my favorite animal has been the elephant, so when my friends asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, my only request was a trip to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
The four of us got up early on Day 2 and were picked up from our hotel at 8:00 AM in a shared taxi. There was only one other girl in our taxi, but we met up with a larger group once we reached the sanctuary. The ride to the sanctuary took approximately two hours, and the latter part of the trip brought us through jungle dirt roads, which was very bumpy.
Once we got to the sanctuary, we were given special shirts to wear while handling the elephants. The guides explained the plight that elephants face in Southeast Asia and the history behind that struggle. A long, long time ago, minority groups in the mountains used elephants as mules, to help carry and transport products and people. Despite the native people’s love for elephants, they could find no other means of transportation and were thus faced with no other option. Later, as riding camps opened up across Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, and as the market for elephant riding grew, those who owned elephants sold their elephants to riding camps as a way of making a living. Today, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary houses seven elephants, including one baby, who were all rescued from riding camps across northern Thailand.
After explaining this depressing bit of history, our guides passed out bunches of bananas to each volunteer and instructed us on how to feed the elephants. We were given the option of allowing the elephants to take the banana out of our hand using their trunks, or shouting “BON BON!” while raising an arm to get the elephants to raise their trunks so that we could place the bananas directly inside their mouth. At one point, my friend accidentally allowed an elephant to grab a bunch of bananas still attached to the stem out of his hand. We both panicked that the elephant would not be able to digest the stem and that we had just caused harm to the elephant. Just as quickly as our panic rose, our fears were acquiesced as we watched the elephant rip the banana off the stem efficiently and with ease, and drop the stem onto the ground. I was, and still am, amazed by how smart and adept these animals are.
Here are some other ethical elephant visits you might want to consider:
After a full day of feeding the elephants, making medicine (vitamins) balls for them, playing in the mud with them, bathing them, and observing them, we took the two hour ride back to Chiang Mai Old City. This was by far one of the best day trips from Chiang Mai that we could’ve taken, but our first order of business when we returned to Chiang Mai was to take a long, much needed shower before heading out to eat and explore Chiang Mai’s night markets.
Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar opens from 6:00 PM to midnight every day. You will find a lot of delicious food in and around the Night Bazaar, including Khao Kha Moo, a street stand famous for its pork leg. In addition to being known for its pork leg, this street stand is also famous for the “cowboy lady,” who works at the stand every day while wearing a cowboy hat. The famous plate of Khao Kha Moo came out with rice, pork leg, and an egg. While I thought the pork leg was very good, I’ve tasted similarly delicious dishes before. I’m glad I checked it out, but the hype around this being one of the top things to do in Chiang Mai may be more about Anthony Bourdain’s strong marketing than the food itself.
We ended the night by walking around the Night Bazaar. As I typically refrain from buying anything abroad, partly due to my light packing, I quickly lost interest. However, the markets sold everything and anything, so if you are looking for gifts, souvenirs, or products of any kind, you will most likely be able to find them at the Night Bazaar.
Day 3: Thai Cooking Class / Doi Inthanon, Thai Massage, Khao Soi Khun Yai, North Gate Jazz Co-Op
On your final full day in Chiang Mai, I would highly recommend signing up for a Thai cooking class with Thai Farm Cooking School. As a full disclaimer, cooking is one of the things I least enjoy doing in life, although eating is one of the things I most enjoy. However, since I had heard such great things about the cooking classes in Chiang Mai, I decided to give it a try, and let’s just say I was not disappointed. I would add this to the list of best day trips from Chiang Mai as well.
My friend and I were picked up from our hotel at 8:30 AM by our cooking teacher and guide for the day, Yummy (what a fitting name for a cooking instructor). The first stop on our journey was a local supermarket, where Yummy showed us some of the ingredients we would be using in our dishes, many of which I had never seen or heard of before. After walking around the market and buying a fresh coconut to sip on for the duration of the ride, we got back in the van, and Yummy drove us the rest of the way to the organic farm where we would spend the rest of our day.
Once we arrived at the farm, Yummy gave us a tour of the gardens and showed us even more plants I had never seen or heard of before. All of the plants Yummy introduced to us ended up being key ingredients in our dishes. We made a total of seven dishes that day, including appetizers, main entrees, and a dessert.
Here are a few other Thai cooking classes you might be interested in:
The cooking class typically concludes at around 2:00 PM, and the drive back to Chiang Mai Old City takes approximately one hour, so expect to be back at your hotel by 3:00 PM. After arriving back in Chiang Mai Old City, use your downtime before dinner to take a nap or get a famous Thai massage. One great way to support local women in need is by getting a massage at Lila Thai Massage, a massage parlor inside the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. The massage parlor was founded by a former Director of the Women’s Prison in order to help incarcerated women gain the skills necessary to reintegrate into society once they are released.
While I did not need dinner that night as I was stuffed from eating all the food I made at the cooking class, if you are hungry, head over to Khao Soi Khun Yai and order a bowl of their famous khao soi. Just a few dollars will get you a steaming hot bowl of khao soi, a dish native to northern Thailand. Finally, finish off your night at the North Gate Jazz Co-Op, just a few minutes’ walk from Khao Soi Khun Yai. North Gate is one of the coolest music venues and bars in Chiang Mai, visited by locals and tourists alike. When the inside bar area is full, patrons simply stand outside and enjoy the live music from the sidewalk.
An alternative to taking the Thai cooking class, or if you have an extra day to add to your Chiang Mai itinerary, is to visit Doi Inthanon National Park, the tallest mountain in Thailand. Doi Inthanon is part of the Himalayan range, and, in true Chiang Mai fashion, is home to numerous temples. The best way to get there is to rent a car for the day and drive there, as it is quite a distance from Chiang Mai Old City. Alternatively, if you do not wish to drive yourself, you may wish to hire a private driver for the day to take you to the mountain and back. Keep in mind that it is possible to hike around Doi Inthanon for hours while visiting its numerous temples and waterfalls.
Our perfect 3 day itinerary for what to do in Chiang Mai will help you to see the main sights but leave you wanting more. I have no doubt I will return to Chiang Mai one day, and when I do, I hope to see you there!
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