From everything I heard and read about this place, I had a feeling I would fall in love immediately and I was absolutely right.
Of the four places we visited on this trip, Chiang Mai stood out as my favorite.
From sampling the delicious food to exploring the markets to interacting with the friendly people to understanding the culture... it was easy to understand why it's known as "The Jewel of the North."
Chiang Mai, you shine bright like a diamond.
Where to stay: U Chiang Mai
Not only was Chiang Mai my favorite locale of our trip, but our hotel here was my favorite as well. U Chiang Mai Hotel is a beautiful little oasis located in the heart of the Old City. Perhaps one of the best features of this boutique hotel: it is located on Ratchadamoen Road, so if you are planning to visit either the Saturday or Sunday Night Walking Markets (which you absolutely should), this hotel is literally steps from all the action.
The service was impeccable, and if you need help booking activities, the staff is extremely helpful. The pool is gorgeous, and a great option to unwind after a long day of exploring (though we didn't really have too much time to take advantage of it.) Breakfast is included in your stay, and you have the option of a continental buffet and also a hot cooked dish and espresso drinks (as random as it sounds, the noodle dish they have at breakfast was awesome.) You are treated to your choice of welcome beverage from the mini bar, as well as your choice of signature soaps and bottled water each day. There is also a rooftop bar that overlooks the street, a great place to unwind and people watch after exploring the walking market. Speaking of which... that's where my Chiang Mai "to-do list" begins...
*They do offer airport transfer for only 600 baht, but I would recommend just taking a taxi. It's much cheaper, and in our case would've been quicker (our driver got stuck in the airport arrival traffic on his way to get us.)
Stroll the night markets (Specifically: Saturday & Sunday Night Walking Market)
Although there are markets every night of the week in Chiang Mai, I planned our visit specifically around the Sunday Night Walking Market. While the Night Bazaar is filled with mostly knock off designer labels, the Saturday and Sunday Night market on Ratchadamoen Road features more unique art and trinkets made by the people of Northern Thailand. I purchased a painting of an elephant directly from the artist for about $10 US that I now have proudly framed in my home. I also found some handmade coconut soaps as gifts, as well as some loose leaf green tea. You will also stroll by several beautiful temples and enjoy street performers. And if your feet get tired, you can get a 30 minute foot massage for 80 baht, or the equivalent of about $2 (trust me, do it.) But perhaps most importantly: you will eat some really amazing food...
*The market starts setting up around 4pm, but doesn't truly get going until 5pm. I recommend going early, as it will get considerably more packed as the night gets later. The market wraps up around midnight.
Chow down on some street food: Regardless of whether or not you are a foodie, the street food of Chiang Mai is as much as a draw as any of the wonderful activities or attractions. We did most of our damage at the Sunday Night Market, where you can sample pretty much anything and everything. (We passed on the fried bugs though). Check out the video above to get a "flavor" for what we ate. (pun intended)
What to eat: EVERYTHING! But more specifically:
Shumai (top left): Steamed dumplings with different types of filling, often pork.
Noodles (top right): All of your favorites from your favorite Thai restaurant back home, except a million times better. Pad Thai made to order, Pad See Ew, and endless variations to try!
Papaya Salad (bottom left): Not too far from our hotel, there was a woman making fresh papaya salad in a little booth on the street corner, and it was one of my favorite things I ate all night. If you've never had it, it's not a sweet salad, as it's made with green (unripe) papaya and bird's eye chili peppers. A little spicy, a little sour, a little salty, and a touch of sweet. (We made it later in our cooking class!)
Chiang Mai Sausage (bottom middle): Also called "Sai Aua," you will see this everywhere in Chiang Mai, sold on the street at various times throughout the day. It's generally made with minced pork meat, herbs and red curry paste. Sometimes they will also be stuffed with some rice, which is delicious as well.
Khao Soi (bottom right): My favorite dish in Thailand! More on it below...
Khao Soi: As I mentioned above, Khao Soi was my favorite thing I ate the entire trip. It is a spicy curry soup made with both boiled egg noodles and fried ones. The flavorful broth is generally made with either beef or chicken and topped with the crunchy noodles, pickled greens, onion and a squeeze of fresh lime. It is a Burmese-influenced dish that is really only eaten in Northern Laos or Northern Thailand, so you should definitely seek it out while in Chiang Mai. It's generally enjoyed as a lunch dish, so I was a little worried about finding some considering our days were pretty packed with excursions and activities. If you know me, you can imagine how pumped I was to find this lovely woman's Khao Soi stand at the Sunday Night Market. That smile says it all: I was in my happy place.
*If you have time during the day, Khao Soi Kuhn Yai is said to very popular spot to eat Khao Soi. Additionally, you can read more about Khao Soi spots here (including the same stand where I found mine at the Sunday Night Market!)
Khao Kha Moo: If Khao Soi was my #1 dish of the trip, Khao Kha Moo is #1a. It is stewed pork leg cooked with a variety of spices including cinnamon and star anise and generally served over rice. What it lacks in photogenic qualities, it absolutely makes up for in taste. I didn't realize until I took my first bite that I had actually had this before at my favorite Thai restaurant in San Francisco (and had been obsessed with it.) The flavors are insane and the meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender. And if you have a chance, you should venture up to Chang Phueak, the North Gate in Chiang Mai, and get it from the lady in the cowboy hat, you can't miss her. (Genius marketing.) If she looks familiar, it's because she's been featured by Anthony Bourdain in the past. And for good reason. Her stuff is amazeballs. On the tables, you will find pickled greens, raw garlic and bird's eye chilis for garnishing. However, I actually didn't realize this until after I was almost done eating because I was excitedly devouring my pork leg.
Speaking of food... Take a cooking class! Even if you don't cook as much as I do, I think pretty much everyone would enjoy this unique experience in Chiang Mai. Almost all of the cooking schools include a visit to a local market, where you will learn more about the interesting ingredients you've been sampling on the streets or in restaurants. You will cook with produce you've likely never seen or maybe even heard of, and you will gain a better understanding of what makes this cuisine so special.
Zabb-E-Lee Thai Cooking School: From what I saw on Trip Advisor, you have a lot of great schools to choose from in Chiang Mai. So do a little research and pick the one that best suits your tastes and schedule. We settled on Zabb-E-Lee because they offer a morning class, which allowed us to fly out later that afternoon. (They also offer an evening class if you are doing other things during the day.) It also had Khao Soi as one of the menu options, so you know I was sold when I saw that.
Everyone gets their own cooking station, and each person gets to choose which dishes they would like to cook. In all, you will make an appetizer, a stir fry, a soup, and a curry paste (to be made into a curry dish), as well as mango sticky rice. (Definitely come hungry!) They will also send you home with a recipe book so you can try making them once you return home and are craving those unforgettable Thai flavors. The school will pick you up at your hotel, and offer to either drop you back there or at one of the main Chiang Mai attractions (such as a market, a temple or spa.) It is open air, so keep that in mind when deciding what to wear, especially if it's a warm day.
*I'm definitely planning to share some of these recipes on the blog, so if there are any you are interested in learning, please let me know in the comment section. Among some of my faves we made: Pad Thai, Tom Yum soup, papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, and of course... Khao Soi!
Take a bath with an elephant: Another activity that should be at the top of your Chiang Mai bucket list is an up close and personal experience with Asian elephants. As I learned first hand in South Africa, elephants are majestic creatures that should be revered, not harmed. And that is why Elephant Nature Park is so special, making it the #1 outdoor activity in Chiang Mai on Trip Advisor.
While there are several companies can offer elephant encounters, there are very few that are truly humane. Whichever one you choose, please PLEASE please do not ride them or buy paintings "made" by elephants. It's all achieved by torturing these animals, and it's heartbreaking. On the hour or so drive to the park, you will watch a video to learn all about these horrible practices and how this park actually works to rescue and rehabilitate them. At the time of our visit, they had 71 elephants in the park, including a baby! During your day long adventure, you will have the opportunity to feed, bathe and interact with the elephants, and your visit also includes a delicious vegetarian lunch (tip: skip the salad bar and go straight for the noodles and curry.)
Elephant Nature Park: I could go on and on about this place, but I feel like this video says it better than I ever could. In short: make your reservation now! (It will sell out in high season.)
Reward those tired muscles with a traditional Thai Massage: There are no shortage of options for massages in Chiang Mai; there's even a spa at U Chiang Mai Hotel. However, it was a little pricier than some of the stand alone spas, and Fah Lanna Spa gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor. The space itself is beautiful, and the massage was awesome as well. Just a heads up: this is not like the massages you likely get at home. There are no lotions or oils involved. In fact, they will actually give you a loose-fitting outfit to wear during the treatment, which includes a lot of stretching and even walking on your back! Best of all, it will only cost you 600 baht (about $17). They will also arrange to pick you up at your hotel if you'd like.
Temple run: It seemed like at every turn in Chiang Mai, you ran into a temple. In fact, there are more than 300 "Wats" spread throughout the city and neighboring countryside... more than any other provence in the country. Put simply, they are stunning. Depending on your interest level, you can seek out some of the more famous ones, and check them all off your list. Or you can simply wander into one and take a moment to appreciate the culture and history of these wonderful people. (We chose the latter). If you are pressed for time and staying in Old City, Wat Chedi Luang is very convenient. (Though funny story... we thought we got dropped off here, and accidentally went into a much smaller wat next door... oops.) Keep in mind you will be asked to remove your shoes, and women need to cover their shoulders and legs (they do provide wraps at the entrances, but if you are a germaphobe, bring your own!)
*For a more comprehensive list, check out this website, complete with photos. (You will also wonder how we missed Chedi Luang when you see the pictures. I'm dying laughing as I type.)
Overall, it was a jam-packed two days in Chiang Mai, but I wouldn't change a thing. After eating everything possible, it was logically time to go lay on a beach in bathing suits. Speaking of which... check out Part III from of our trip: the islands! (And click here if you missed my post about Singapore.)