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Chiang Mai is the second most visited city in Thailand after Bangkok. Its rich culture is seen everywhere, from the numerous temples to its delicious cuisine. Here are seven of the most unique experiences you can have while visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand!
1) MEDITATE IN THE TEMPLES
Chiang Mai is home to over 300 Buddhist temples. While it’s impossible to see them all, it’s equally impossible to not see any while in Chiang Mai. Some of my personal favourite temples in the city include Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Suan Dok. Seeing the intricate architecture of these temples is an experience in itself, but to deepen your experience there, you can participate in the monk chats offered at many of these temples. You can ask them anything about Buddhism or their day-to-day lives and in exchange, the monks can practice their English.
Outside the city, the temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep shouldn’t be missed. The temple is on top of a mountain with stunning views of Chiang Mai below. Aside from being one of the most beautiful temples in the area, Doi Suthep also offers meditation retreats. The meditation courses range from 4-21 days during which you’re paired with a monk teacher who will guide you in your meditation practice.
2) ENCOUNTER ELEPHANTS IN A SANCTUARY
Unfortunately, Thailand has a long and dark history with elephants, with many facing poaching or otherwise being forced to work in the logging and tourism industries. While more and more ethical sanctuaries are now popping up in Thailand, there are still some unethical ones to avoid. In general, steer clear from any place that offers elephant rides or forces their elephants to perform tricks. A true elephant sanctuary won’t focus on entertaining tourists but rather on providing a safe place for elephants to live and be how they please.
The most popular ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai is Elephant Nature Park where you can visit or volunteer with the elephants. You’ll learn so much about the elephants and their unique personalities, as you watch them play and help feed them.
3) TAKE A THAI COOKING CLASS
There’s no better way to learn about a country’s culture than through its cuisine. No visit to Thailand would be complete without learning about its complex and delicious dishes. Fortunately, Chiang Mai has developed as a hotspot for learning Thai cuisine, with hundreds of cooking classes to choose from.
While there are plenty of good cooking schools at various price ranges, I highly recommend taking a class with Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. The class starts by visiting a local market where you learn about and taste the local ingredients that you’ll later use to cook. You then watch the instructor cook each dish then go back to your station and cook them again from memory. The school offers 5 different menus with 6 courses each. With dishes like Pad Thai, green curry, and mango sticky rice, you’re guaranteed not to leave hungry.
4) DRINK COFFEE AT THE TRENDY CAFES
This was an unexpected surprise but Chiang Mai has one of the coolest coffee cultures I’ve ever seen. There are hundreds and hundreds of coffee shops and roasters in the city, serving up picturesque coffee concoctions from locally-sourced beans. While the coffee culture is fairly new here, Chiang Mai has quickly become a haven for coffee fanatics.
Some of my favorite cafes in the city are Graph Cafe and A Better Cup and Design. You’ll find crazy drinks that will make you question if you’re drinking a coffee or a cocktail. If you’re a traditionalist, don’t worry – they also serve all of the classics.
5) BARGAIN AT THE SATURDAY/SUNDAY WALKING STREETS
On Saturdays and Sundays, several roads close down in Chiang Mai centre to make way for two different eclectic markets. You’ll find handmade goods such as clothing and jewellery and food vendors serving up tasty Thai dishes (side note: street food is delicious all across Chiang Mai and you can eat well for under $2/meal). If you aren’t keen on spending money, you can still enjoy the street performers, road-side massages and buzzing ambience. These markets are extremely popular so come prepared to rub shoulders with locals and tourists alike.
6) SEE LANTERNS LIGHT UP THE SKY AT THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS
If you’re in Chiang Mai in November, you could experience one of the most magical festivals in the world: the Yi Peng Lantern Festival. Each year, the city transforms into a fairytale, with lanterns hanging from every tree and building in sight. For the main event, thousands of paper lanterns are released into the air, creating a dazzling display of lights across the sky. The lanterns are said to take away bad luck and if you make a wish while you release the lantern, it should come true.
Make sure to book your flights and accommodations well in advance if you plan to visit Chiang Mai during this festival as everything quickly sells out. The exact dates change every year but it generally takes place during mid to late November.
7) ESCAPE THE CITY TO VISIT CHIANG RAI
Technically this isn’t in Chiang Mai, but Chiang Rai was one of the most unforgettable places I visited in Thailand so I thought it was worth putting it on this list. While Chiang Rai certainly deserves more than one day to visit, if you’re short on time, the day trip from Chiang Mai is well worth it.
Chiang Rai is much more relaxed than Chiang Mai, and even more affordable too. There’s plenty to do between its beautiful tea plantations, mountain scenery, and local markets, but the main draw is its incredible temples. The White Temple and the Blue Temple are two of the most stunning temples in all of Thailand, and look like they could be on the set of Game of Thrones.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG MAI
One of the best parts about Chiang Mai is the abundance of cheap accommodation! There’s something for every budget, and you’ll find that even luxury housing can be found well under $50/night. I recommend staying in either the Nimman area on the west side of town or in the old town itself.
Nimman is the trendiest area in Chiang Mai, with endless cafes serving immaculate lattes and smoothie bowls. If you’re looking for easy access to Western food, this is the place to be. The Old Town is populated with many of the city’s temples and you’ll find tons of hotels. There are more hostels and backpacker housing in old town. I recommend booking through Booking.com, as you can find some good deals, even if you’re booking last minute.
WHEN TO VISIT CHIANG MAI
The best time to visit Chiang Mai for the best weather is between November and February. This coincides with the high season so expect higher prices and crowds, especially if visiting during the lantern festival in mid-late November. On the other hand, Mid-February through April is Chiang Mai’s burning season. Avoid visiting at this time since the air quality can get pretty bad due to forest fires in the region.
GETTING AROUND CHIANG MAI
While scootering is the cheapest and easiest way to get around Chiang Mai, the police have been cracking down on licenses. Make sure you have an international motorcycle license in case you get pulled over. The local Songthaew, or red truck taxi, is another popular way to get around, and Grab is available too.
Chiang Mai is the perfect place to immerse yourself in the rich culture of Thailand.
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit Chiang Mai. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Chiang Mai, Thailand:
- The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai
- Wintree City Resort
- The Astra Chiang Mai
- Find the best price on hotels in Chiang Mai, Thailand
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