Ten Things Do In Chiang Mai
Visiting the north of Thailand is sometimes forgotten when people think of a Thai holiday, but Chiang Mai is definitely a place that demands visitors. With a population of approximately 1 million people, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city behind Bangkok. The weather is less erratic than Bangkok and the food is definitely different to the capital.
‘Lanna’ clothing, food and Handicrafts are distinctly different from other major tourist centres within the kingdom but this place has a charm and culture that makes it the best kept secret in Thailand. I have taken people to Chiang Mai that have loved Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya and Hua Hin and they have all said that Chiang Mai is a place they must return to the next time they arrive back in Thailand.
I am going to give you 10 must do’s for Chiang Mai, things that I believe are crucial to get the ‘feel’ of the city and things that will make you desperate to return.
Hire a bike
The transport network in Chiang Mai is much different from Bangkok and the easiest way to see this city is on a motorbike or moped. They have Automatics available and at 150-250 baht per day this is the most effective way to see the city. Golden rule here is always wear a helmet (you and passenger to save you from a 200 baht fine) and don’t park along curbs with red and white stripe painted gutters. Signs are clearly placed in English so there is no confusion. If you go without a bike you will be paying 40-100 baht each time you get in a Tuk Tuk which are scarce compared to the volume in Bangkok or the Red Pickups with a bench seat in the back, which will cost about the same as a Tuk Tuk. Trust me the bike is the first thing you should do after checking in. Make sure insurance is included before taking the bike and ensure it works before leaving. Chiang Mai is basically a big square and the roads are almost all straight so if you get lost inside the moat area (The Old City) then just head in any one direction until you hit the moat. The road runs the border of the moat inside and outside, everything you need is basically inside the moat or the streets running directly off the moat except for the Airport Central Shopping Centre which is near the airport and a short 5-8 minute ride from Loh Kroi.
Wat Pra Sing
This temple is located in the heart of the old city and is a remarkable temple. There are living quarter’s onsite and many English speaking young monks keen to test their English language skills. This temple conducts blessing and water ceremonies which tourists are encouraged to participate in. If Buddhism is something that interests you them this temple is a great place to talk to monks and explore the religion. If you are not interested in the religion side of it the building and hospitality alone are worth the visit. Just get on your bike and head towards the middle of the Old City and you cannot miss it.
The night Bazaar runs every night but is pretty quite on the nights the markets are held at Thae Pae Gate (opposite Starbucks) and the ‘Walking Market’ inside the moat which runs on Sunday nights. This is the place to get Handicrafts, clothing, DVD’s, artwork/paintings, and some of the best food on offer in the food area behind McDonalds. For those looking for a portrait some of the most talented artists in the kingdom ply their trade in the underground part of the market, which is sitting behind the Le Meridian Hotel and diagonally opposite to the Food Area. Barter hard here but keep smiling, you will be surprised by the bargains.
Airport Central Centre
Located near the airport and a short drive to the city this centre is over 5 floors and has all the usual suspects in KFC, Swensen’s, McDonalds etc but many one off stores with great clothing and furniture buys plus a great local food area on the basement level. The cinema is also on the top floor of this complex and has enough to occupy the retail lovers for the best part of a day. Motorbike parking area is right around the back of the centre so turn into the car park from the main road and follow the outline of the building around to the back area (which is actually the front of the centre as it backs onto the roads facing the airport.
Chiang Mai is remarkably cheap when it comes to massage. Most places are sub 200 baht per hour for Oil Massage, less than half the going rate in Bangkok. As for Foot Massage there are many places along Loh Kroi Rd and every afternoon portable chairs, stools and fans come from everywhere to set up Massage shops on the footpath doing half hour foot massages for as little as 60 baht. When it comes to the quality of massage versus Bangkok I would say the quality of the premises in Bangkok would be higher but actual massage skill is higher in Chiang Mai than their capital city cousins. Loh Kroi is definitely the place to find them, many are scattered throughout the city but the density of shops here ensures a great price.
Loh Kroi Road
Home to massage shops, travel agents, many restaurants and beer bars. Most bars on this stretch have a pool table and a mass of ladies looking to play ball. The environment is a ‘buzz’ and really is the nightlife area of the city. Loh Kroi starts at the moat and runs all the way to the Night Bazaar. About half down it goes from bars to restaurants and massage shops before becoming a stretch of convenience stores, Art sales on the footpath and becomes the start of the Night bazaar itself. Bars are open until 2am and beer prices are very reasonable compared to Bangkok. A great selection of street vendor food is also available along this street with Banana Roti, BBQ, fruit and Thai food carts constantly trolling the stretch from the moat to the canal and a street table restaurant that opens at 5pm each night on the corner of Loh Kroi and the canal. Great Thai food for 30-50 baht including the favourites Pad Thai (30 baht) through to Green curry chicken (40 baht) plus steamed rice (10 baht) definitely is among the best food available in Thailand.
Aroon Rai Restaurant
This quaint little family run restaurant faces the Moat on Kotchasan and has the reputation of the best food in the north. TV presenter Anthony Bourdain filmed part of his hit TV Show ‘No Reservations’ in this restaurant. Many people the world over seek this place out and the food is prepared with love by 3 generations of this family. The food is authentic, very reasonably priced and has a great view to the moat. The dining area is under the upstairs floor but has open walls so it has the alfresco feel without the risk of the evening downpour ruining a great meal. With most dishes around the 50-60 baht mark and all the Lanna traditional foods available including Chiang Mai sausage and some great local fish dishes that make the taste buds dance. The food is great for the lovers of spicy and with some mild options available for the not so brave this place is one you can turn up with 3 friends and have a starter, main meals and a few beers and leave with a bill less than 300 baht. This place is a must do….. Do not leave Chiang Mai without trying it.
The walking market is on a Sunday night and runs from the Siam Commercial Bank on the inside of the moat down Rachadamnoen Road for about 400 metres. The market has artworks, food, performers and various handicraft items that seem to be at better prices than the Night Bazaar. The only downside to this market is it is only on once a week. Most young Thai’s hang around this area, it is similar in feel to Siam Square in Bangkok as a young people’s hangout zone. There are tarot readers, young kids playing instruments and snow cone vendors among many other attractions on the once a week event. The market starts late afternoon and runs until about 11pm. Police shut the streets off to traffic so park your bike around the moat and walk down about 100 metres to the start of the market.
While this Pantip Plaza is a pale in comparison to its Bangkok big brother, it has some great deals on all levels. Like its Bangkok brother it gets cheaper the higher up you get. The top (5th) floor has a great food court and some other food retailers and coffee shops that you can get a great meal while using the free wifi internet available in the centre. The bottom floor has a mix of office furniture, DVD’s, food shops and camera shops. The next floor has some great gadgets and accessories for your phone and PC and the next 2 floors are more of the same (mostly PC items). This place has great items for sale at prices less than the Bangkok Pantip retailers so I would strongly suggest you give this centre a look if you are looking for IT products. As for DVD’s if quality is a concern (and it is in the Night Bazaar area) the stores in Pantip Chiang Mai will let you inspect the DVD’s one by one before accepting them. Pantip Plaza Chiang Mai is on the corner of Chang Klan (Night Bazaar) and Sri Don chai Roads.
There are some great Karaoke bars in Chiang Mai, along the Chiang Mai-Lampung Superhighway and both Moonmuang and Chang Klan Roads. With names like Palace KTV, Music Room and Night Station Karaoke Club all these places are within a 2 minute bike ride of each other. I would suggest you not pick anyone over the other, the venues are all pretty much the same with a similar selection of music but going to a less crowded one maybe the best option. A night of beers and singing with a selection of backup singers that also double as your fan club or cheer squad is a great night of entertainment. This is a cheap night (depending on how many drinks you have) and is a much nicer experience than similar venues in Bangkok itself.
So there we have it, 10 things you must try in Chiang Mai. If you haven’t visited this beautiful city there are 10 reasons you should. If you have and have not tried each of the 10 things, we have given you some things to try on your next visit. Chiang Mai can be reached by air, bus or rail. Buses leave Bangkok from the Northern Bus Terminal in Bangkok, trains from Hua Lam Pong Station and flights from both Don Mueng and Suvarnabhumi airports depending on your airline. I personally fly Air Asia from Suvarnabhumi and the flight is just over 1 hour in duration. The bus and train are similar in duration being around 10 hours each to get there. So what are you waiting for??? Time to say Sawasdee to Chiang Mai.