Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai has become a hub for digital nomads and other travellers that came to visit and ended up staying. A world apart from the chaos and stickiness of Bangkok, a few days here makes it easy to understand why. The climate is cooler in the northern part of the country. The structure of the city around the river and gates makes it easy to navigate. It’s friendly and fun but much less sleazy, and you can use it as a base to go out and explore in the Northern hills and beyond. Here is a rundown of my recommendations for a week of travel in Chiang Mai:
Learn about Buddhism
Buddhism is the beating heart of Thai culture and it would be ignorant to visit this country and not learn more about it. It’s a thought system that appeals to me for its peace-driven ethics, but I knew only a little of its history and practices.
‘Monk chat’ is a programme run by many monasteries with the dual purpose of teaching Westerners about Buddhism and helping the monks to improve their English. I went for a day course that was an introduction to Buddhism held at the Chiang Mai campus of the Buddhist University. Who knew monks are hilarious? Phra KK spent a day teaching us about Buddhist history, ethics, meditation practice, and constantly cracking us up.
Visit Chiang Mai’s temples
Every corner in Chiang Mai seems to be home to a temple, or wat, with a history hundreds of years old, exquisite architecture and murals that tell ancient stories. Chiang Mai is no exception. Within the city, make time to visit Chedi Luang, arguably the most interesting since it dates back to the 14th century and part of the site is a ruin. Wat Phra Singh displays iconic Lanna architecture, while Wat Phra That Doi Kam is home to a huge Buddha that gazes down the steps as you approach it.
If you only have time for one temple, prioritise taking a songathew (a kind of pick up style bus with two benches in the back) up the mountain to visit Wat Phra Doi Suthep. You have short sharp hike up to reach the golden chedi but views, let alone the complex at the top, will reward you.
Go to an ethical elephant sanctuary
Sadly the majority of tourists still don’t seem to have got the picture when it comes to the abhorrent cruelty of elephant riding. However, as awareness has been raised in the last few years Chiang Mai has become home to a variety of sanctuaries for elephants rescued from the entertainment and logging industries. Do your research as some ‘sanctuaries’ still keep elephants locked in boxes at the end of the day – TripAdvisor is your friend for honest reviews.
I would recommend Ethical Elephant Sanctuary. It’s run by members of the Karen Hill Tribe, who have always lived with elephants. You can read more here about my wonderful day meeting, feeding, going for a walk with, and washing down the elephants. Although I prefer to see them in the wild, it is magical to be able to be up close and intimate with these gentle giants and to know that they are being well cared for.
Take a day trip to Chiang Rai
If you have more time I’d recommend staying overnight in Chiang Rai because a day trip is a bit of a rush. However, apparently the city isn’t much at night and since I was short on time I arranged a one day tour of the main sites through an agency. In a packed trip we managed to see the White Temple, that is downright bizarre, the beautiful Blue Temple, and the ‘Black House’ full of historical artefacts. You can also opt to visit the longneck hill tribe.
Eat your vegan heart out
Chiang Mai is home to some of the best vegan food in Thailand. Taste from Heaven makes the hottest and most fragrant green thai curry served in a coconut. The vibe in Aum kept tempting me to return again and again, enjoying a mix of local dishes and fresh sushi while enjoying the views from their open veranda upstairs. If you’ve had too much to drink, Munchies offers western style vegan junk food. Free Bird is a non-profit that uses the proceeds from its restaurant and zero waste shop to fund projects that support refugees from Myanmar. There is another branch of the fantastic May Kaidee restaurant chain. The markets are also a great source of cheap vegan snacks, particularly V-Secrets where you can get four small dishes for a steal to share with a friend.
Check out the nightlife of Chiang Mai
The North Gate Jazz co-op is the go-to spot for locals and tourists alike. It has a super chill vibe with regular musicians performing improv, cheap beers, and so many people come that they spill out onto the street, some perched on stools, others swaying and dancing along.
Another popular night time destination are the ‘cabaret’ shows. I was a bit wary of the ‘ladyboy’ aspect, partly because I’d never use that word to describe trans people or those who enjoy wearing drag, although it seems the norm here, and partly because of my concern about trafficking. That said the performers in the street convinced me to pop in and see a remarkable rendition of Rhianna’s ‘umbrella’ that was fabulous, fun, and the performer seemed to genuinely be loving life. (I swear to god if I hadn’t known I genuinely might have thought she was the real Rhianna). So I leave you to make your own call on that.
I stayed for a week and only managed a fraction of what this city has to offer. So whatever you do, make sure you make time for it in your trip to Thailand.