Once the seat of the Lanna Kingdom, the mountainous Northern city of Chiang Mai retains a culturally rich heritage with hundreds of Buddhist temples across the city and a population proud of its traditions and "northern-ness." Get out of the always bustling historic center and Chiang Mai has a decidedly chill vibe, with laid-back cafes, quiet residential streets, and delicious local eats. As a backpacking hub, fellow travelers are easy to find in Chiang Mai, but for those who want a more authentic experience there are plenty of friendly Thais willing to show you around their home. Go out of the city in any direction and you will find stunning mountain landscapes dotted with numerous waterfalls and charming hillside villages. Chiang Mai is a place to recharge in, to slow down, and to simply enjoy.
THINGS TO KNOW
Thais love and respect the late King. Do not ask questions about the King or speak badly about him in public.
For the most part, Chiang Mai is a cash city. Although some establishments take credit card, be sure to have sufficient baht on hand.
Although Tuk Tuks are available in Chiang Mai, they are a more common method of transport in southern Thailand in cities like Bangkok. In Chiang Mai the most popular transport method is red trucks that you will most definitely see zooming around town. Simply wave one down, tell the driver where you want to go (they will say yes or no depending on their current route), and hop in. The standard rate is 30 baht.
UBER is available in Chiang Mai.
WHERE TO STAY
Palm Springs Nimman Condos - Located in the popular Nimman neighborhood, the Palm Springs condos were comfortable places to call home for the month. Although the apartments are compact they have everything you need and are clean and modern. Pools and small exercise rooms are available in each building. You can find rentals on Airbnb, booking.com, Agoda, and more sites.
WHERE TO EAT
Cherng Doi Roast Chicken - Kai Yang Nong Krob or grilled chicken is a classic Thai dish, and no one does it better than Cherng Doi. The succulent chicken has crispy skin and is served with a tasty tamarind sauce that pairs well with the grilled flavors. The menu is extensive and has a variety of other dishes to try. Don't miss the cucumber salad, the som tam (green papaya salad), or the pork larb (the most delicious I had after a month in Thailand). By far my favorite restaurant in the city! Cash only.
Barefoot Cafe - If you need a break from Thai food, look no further than Barefoot Cafe, a cozy restaurant serving homemade pastas. Although they have an upstairs area, try to get a seat at the downstairs counter so you can watch the pasta being made. The restaurant is located on an alley with a variety of craft and co-op like shops that are fun to peruse. There is also a coffee shop that provides drinks at the cafe as well.
Burmese Restaurant - Zero ambiance but delicious Burmese food if you need a bit of a Thai break. Don't miss the tea leaf salad and the eggplant curry. Cash only.
SS1254372 Cafe - For fresh & tasty breakfasty/brunch options, SS1254372 located in Gallery Seascape is a perfect spot. The vibe is eclectic retro with colorful tiled tables and round porthole style windows. Try the veggie rice bowl and a juice.
Dash - Although a tad touristy, Dash is a lively restaurant in Old Town serving tasty traditional Thai food and a variety of cocktails. I quite enjoyed the Tom Ka Kai (Thai coconut chicken soup) and the curries.
The Whole Earth - A vegetarian friendly spot serving a range of Thai and Indian cuisines in a beautiful indoor/outdoor garden space. The service is friendly and credit cards are accepted!
Khao Soi Khun Yai - One cannot visit Chiang Mai and not try Khao Soi, a spicy coconut based curry soup with noodles and your choice of meat (traditionally a chicken leg), topped with crispy noodles, onions, pickles, and lime native to northern Thailand. The best place to sample it is the super local Khao Soi Khun Yai.
Khao Soi Nimman - If you need a Khao Soi fix and are in the hip Nimman neighborhood then be sure to stop at Khao Soi Nimman. This restaurant is great for vegetarians that want to sample the Thai classic as they offer two veggie khao soi options as well as 10 or so different meat based ones.
POTTO Hot Pot - At last a hot pot joint you can visit without a group! Potto serves individual pots at an oval shaped counter. Pick a starter set and add additional items if you need more. The service is quick and broths tasty, albeit not the mosttttt flavorful.
Anchan Vegetarian - Likely the best vegetarian restaurant in Chiang Mai. Always crowded.
The Barn Eatery & Design - With lots of natural light, a mix of furnitures, and lofty barn ceilings, the Barn is a great place to get a few hours of work done. The menu definitely has a more western bent, but everything I tried was tasty. The coffee isn't great, so opt for a juice or a thai iced tea instead.
Tikky Cafe - Great atmosphere, great staff, and yummy Thai food. What more do you need? Be warned, if you say spicy, it will be very very spicy.
I Tim Baan Yaii - A fantastic open air little, homemade ice cream shop with free wifi and a cute vibe. A selection of always changing flavors and cheap prices make this an easy place to stop again and again.
Coconut Ice Cream/Sticky Rice Street Cart Guy - At the intersection of Nimman Lane 5 and Nimmanhaeminda Road on any given night is the coconut ice cream cart guy. Served in a coconut shell, sticky rice is topped with coconut ice cream, fresh coconut, and toasted mung beans. Go before 9pm when he runs out of sticky rice.
WHERE TO COFFEE
Despite a plethora of trendy cafes throughout town, I found that only a few served a quality cup of coffee.
Ristr8to (two locations) - Open air with modern vibes, Ristr8to has won numerous latte art competitions and their coffee is some of the best. Although they have wifi, it's not really the best place to linger for too long or attempt to get much work done. I prefer the Ristr8to Lab location on the quieter residential street.
Brew Fact - This turned out to be my favorite cafe in Chiang Mai - a nice cup of coffee, simple but modern surroundings, friendly staff, wifi, and power outlets.
Akha Ama Coffee - With roots in the Akha hill tribes, Akha Ama brings the coffee tradition of the hill tribe peoples down to the city. The cafe is all wooden with both indoor and outdoor seating.
Graph Cafe - This is where you go to try "signature coffee" or unique coffee combinations. The space is tiny!
WHAT TO DO
Visit Doi Suthep at sunrise. The golden temple on the mountain above Chiang Mai is best seen at sunrise when there are virtually no crowds, you can catch the monks praying, and the sunrise over the city is on full display from the temple's mountaintop balcony. Hail a red truck and ask for a roundtrip ride up the mountain (approx 30 mins each way). I was with a group of 6 friends and we each paid 100 baht for the roundtrip ride - our driver waited for us while we visited the temple.
Explore the Wats of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai has hundreds of temples. Although it is impossible to visit them all (and you definitely shouldn't try), pick a few to visit as they are all somewhat distinct. Favorites include Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh.
Walk Chiang Mai's Old Town. Small streets, old walls and gates, plenty of wats, exploring Chiang Mai's Old Town by foot is a must.
Shop at an evening market. Although there are several markets nightly, the best wares can be found at the Saturday & Sunday night markets.
Catch a ladyboy show at Chiang Mai Cabaret. The show starts at around 9pm and is about 400 baht. A really fun experience and one you'd be hard pressed to find outside of Thailand.
Learn to make classic Thai dishes at the Thai Farm Cooking School. Located about 45 minutes outside of town, my day at the Thai Farm Cooking School was a beautiful, peaceful, and informative one. Prices include roundtrip transport from your accommodation in Chiang Mai and you will likely go home incredibly full.
Spend a day with friendly, gentle giants - aka elephants at Elephant Nature Park. Elephants are severely mistreated around the world and especially in Thailand with elephant shows, logging and elephant treks causing considerable harm to these beautiful creatures. Elephant Nature Park is one of several in the area that rescue elephants and allow them to heal while simultaneously educating the population on their mistreatment. Don't ever ride elephants! Be sure to book your visit well in advance, as spots sell out quite quickly.
Relax with a massage everyday of your stay. Or every other day, but really massages in Thailand are so cheap that it would be a mistake to not indulge. My favorite spot was Phupaya in the Nimman neighborhood.
Escape the city and enjoy some coffees in the eco town of Mae Kampong. Located in the mountains outside Chiang Mai, Mae Kampong has become a haven for those looking to escape the hubbub of the city. Hot springs and waterfalls are also located in the surrounding jungles.
Take a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park. Doi Inthanon is home to the highest point in Thailand and houses many trails to hike or explore as well as two chedis dedicated to the King & Queen. Although the viewpoint is nice in good weather and the raised wooden platform trail is mysterious and pretty, I found the chedis to be overly commercialized and weird. Try to avoid visiting on the weekend as it can get extremely crowded, but do take a hike with a local hill tribe dweller to explore off the beaten path portions of the park.