If I were to describe the areas of Thailand as different types of friendship, Bangkok would be the excitable, slightly cheeky friend who loves getting out and about. The Thai beaches would be that laid-back friend who’s quite happy to go along with anything. Chiang Mai would be the reliable friend. A city that welcomes you back with open arms and a warm embrace. If you’ve not been for a while, you can go back expecting the same beautiful place, with charming people, delicious food and the most incredible amount of activities to choose from.
My favourite hotel in Chiang Mai (and perhaps in Thailand!) is the totally charming Tamarind Village. Feeling less like you’re a tourist to this exotic land and more like you’re visiting family friends, the Tamarind Village combines homely rooms, beautiful local touches, white-washed walls and terracotta tiles. Feeling like you’ve discovered a wonderful secret of Chiang Mai, the Tamarind village is built in an old-Lanna style, surrounded by pretty courtyards and close to some of Chiang Mai’s ancient temples. To top it all, the staff are absolutely lovely!
If you like something slightly more contemporary and polished, then the Anantara Chiang Mai is a fabulous sanctuary. Located by the river, in a great location near to the Chiang Mai night market, the Anantara has spacious rooms in a fresh style and it provides a real oasis from the heat and bustle of the town. The afternoon tea here is seriously popular and a great cure to some of that spice that you’ll be indulging in! I absolutely loved the garden area in the middle of the resort and the old British consulate which adds a bit of colonial style into the Thai mix!
Out of town
For stunning views of the Mae Rim Valley, the Four Seasons provides an epic escape to the Thai countryside, about 30 minutes away from Chiang Mai city. The Four Seasons is the best resort if you’re looking for more of a ‘retreat’ experience. It is also located in an area that is perfect for excursions and interacting with local life. Visiting a local hill-tribe village for example, or taking a day trip to one of the elephant conservation parks are some of the amazing activities this resort can organise. Surrounded by rice paddy fields and mountains, the Four Seasons offer ultimate luxury in an idyllic natural location.
Best for eating
One of Chiang Mai’s main draws (and the whole of Thailand for that matter!) is the incredible variety of food and the amount of flavours, spices and combinations that make Thai food so exciting! Cooking classes in Chiang Mai should not be missed- learning local delicacies and making these for yourself is so rewarding, fun and you learn lots more about Thai culture as well. There is also a huge range of eating places in Chiang Mai, which provide all kinds of food from cheap and delicious to sophisticated and tempting.
Here are some of our favourites:
The Whole Earth
This is an easy going restaurant surrounded by tropical gardens and serves excellent Thai and Indian dishes which are healthy and great for vegetarians too! The restaurant has a great Buddhist outlook as well which goes into all of their food- the vegetable cakes are so tasty!
The Gallery is in a lovely traditional wooden house by the Ping river and the restaurant is decorated with a quirky selection of artwork and. Serving a great range of both Thai and Western dishes, this is a really good mid-range option.
Ginger and Kafe at The House
This is a really luxurious setting for high-end cuisine. Located in a restored 1960s house, with ‘flower power’ furniture and colourful decorations galore, The House serves some gorgeous Thai-fusion dishes and I would definitely recommend making the most of the charming shop which selles some of the zany stuff that you’ll see around the dining room and lounge!
Le Grand Lanna at The Dhara Dhevi
For excellent service and exquisite Thai food, Le Grand Lanna serves the cream of the Thai crop. Located in a century old wooden villa with beautiful lush surroundings of the Dhara Dhevi, you can dine whilst enjoying a traditional Lanna music and dance performance.
The Service 1921 Restaurant and Bar
For elegant cocktails and a few delicious snacks head to the Anantara Chiang Mai for their beautifully sophisticated Bar in the old colonial house. Surrounded by vintage décor and a really calm feel- this is a great place to start off your night before heading into the busier parts of town or just relax and enjoy those drink creations!
Bus Bar is a great place to relax with the locals in a great location near the Night Market. With a cool atmosphere, live music and benches outside with views over the river and the iron bridge, this is a down-to-earth and quirky hang out, perfect for chilled drinks and people watching!
If you’re looking for lots of local life and a busier atmosphere, with the option of romantic riverside dining, then The Riverside Restaurant and Bar is a great choice. Surrounded by twinkly lights, and vibrant surroundings, this is another brilliant alternative dining option and watering hole.
The Night Market
A fantastic shopping experience and the best place to pick up trinkets and gifts for your family and friends back home. A great place to learn how to haggle and pick up seriously cheap clothes too! Really good fun and a great place to start off your night- try out some local food while you’re exploring the bargains and treat yourself to some quirky things.
The best thing about Chiang Mai is it’s such a great place to explore and see what you can find. There are temples in abundance, but one that I loved in the city was Wat Chiang Man which is considered to be the most ancient- it has really majestic architecture, and I love the variety of different styles here, but I say go and have a look at a few of them and I’m sure you’ll have a preference!
Pantawan Cooking School
You really can’t visit Chiang Mai without trying out one of the cooking classes and Pantawan is one of our favourites. Gain some more knowledge on Thai food, spices and combinations with this half day excursion. You will be taken on a culinary journey visiting a local market followed by cooking your own Thai dishes in this lovely family-run business. Based in a traditional teak wood house surrounded by gardens, this is a cooking class with a distinctly homely flavour.
This beautiful silk shop is an absolute gem found in a quiet part of town run by Lamorna Cheesman and her mother Patricia. The studio offers a collection of clothing and textiles in silk and cotton, designed with natural dyes in the style of different hill-tribes in Northern Thailand and Laos. This is also an amazing project offering work for women in remote areas. See the products being made by hand, treat yourself to some exquisite silk or admire some of the stunning works of art at the small studio.
Out of town
Elephant Nature Park
Thailand is known for the majestic elephants and they have been living and working in the country for hundreds of years. It has come to light to tourists, and the education of the Thai people, that these beautiful animals are far more than slaves for logging or as a tourist accessory. The Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai provides a true sanctuary for these amazing animals and helps to rescue Elephants from difficult backgrounds. The park doesn’t endorse tourists riding Elephants, but instead, you can feed and bathe them and learn about caring for these big friendly giants- a really fun and insightful experience!
A morning with the monks
An early start at 6.00 am will be worth it for this spiritual experience. Present breakfast to the monks and then walk the 309 steps up the mountain to reach the golden pinnacle of the famous Doi Suthep which has outstanding views of the Chiang Mai valley. This is followed by a monk blessing at the mysterious Wat Umong temple and a serving of delicious Khao Soy stew- coconut cream, crispy noodles and spices- the perfect combination of culture, exercise, incredible sight-seeing and more of that delicious Thai food!
The Thai meaning of ‘Chiang Mai’ is ‘new city’ although I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Thailand that feels quite as majestically old! Completely proud of its heritage and culture, Chiang Mai is catching up with the Western World, but the old part of the city still takes you back into Thai history. Chiang Mai can feel quite secluded, with a domestic flight from Bangkok or the long overnight train being the two main options for accessing this part of Thailand. Once there however, I realised how much of a hub that Chiang Mai is for some of the most unique experiences that really boast the best of Thailand.