Cooler, quieter and more laid back than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is well worth catching a plane or train up north for. Former capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, you’ll find ancient temples at every turn, with the moated old quarter a historic highlight. This is also a modern and stylish city, with fancy restaurants and art studios sitting next to traditional markets, backpacker hostels and luxury hotels.
Relatively small and easy to navigate by rickshaw, taxi, local bus or even on foot, Chiang Mai is ideal if, like me, you only have a day or two to see the sights.
Here’s my suggestion for a one-day tour in Chiang Mai
- 6.30am: Get blessed by a monk
Every morning, Chiang Mai’s orange-robed monks collect their alms (food offerings) from local people and, in return, chant a blessing and splash the people with holy water. One of the best places to experience this and get involved yourself is at the base of Doi Suthep Mountain – a 1,65-metre peak that watches over the city.
Head here early, buy a food offering from one of the stalls near the Kruba Srivichai memorial, then take your shoes off, place your offering in the monks’ brass bowls and kneel down as they chant their blessing. From here, you could continue up the hill in a taxi or tuk-tuk for a fantastic view from the 13th century temple at the top.
- 8.30am: Try a traditional Thai breakfast
Thais aren’t as fussy as us westerners about what they eat from breakfast, so if you fancy a bowl of green curry first thing in the morning, then go ahead. The most “breakfast-y” items on Thai menus include things like “joke” (rice porridge) with egg and pork, and “khao tom” (broth with rice). “Tom luad moo” (soup with boiled pork blood) is another Thai breakfast favourite, although “khao kai jeow” (rice and omelette) or “patongo” (donuts) might be easier to stomach!
- 9.30am – People-watch at Warorot Market
This historic China Town market is where the locals go each morning to buy fresh meat, fish and veg, and to catch up on the latest gossip. After perusing the food stalls and buying some fresh fruit or curry spices, go upstairs to the second level for a birds-eye view of the shoppers below – it’s a perfect place to people-watch.
Full of colour, the adjacent flower market is another great place to wander and, if you’re ready for a caffeine fix, do as the locals do and grab a takeaway from one of the market’s coffee carts – this local coffee is often grown by hill tribe villagers. Thais typically like it strong with a glug of condensed milk.
- 11am – Explore the old city
Full of temples and charming ruins, Chiang Mai’s walled old town gives a glimpse of its former glory as capital of the Lanna Kingdom (13th-18th century). A rickshaw ride is a fun way to soak it all up and, if you only have time for one temple site, it’s got to be the Wat Chedi Luang complex. This enormous chedi originally housed Thailand’s most sacred relic – the Emerald Buddha – which the city gave to Bangkok as a gift. An iconic feature of Chiang Mai’s skyline, the Wat was built in the late 14th century and was partly restored in 1990 by UNESCO.
Next to Wat Chedi Luang is Wat Phan Tao – a beautiful teak-wood building, surrounded by orange prayer flags. This Wat is often the focal point of religious celebrations in the city. The atmosphere here feel particularly special, particularly if you visit when a ceremony is being held.
With stunning murals, Wat Phra Singh is another highly revered Chiang Mai temple site. Dating back to the 14th century, pilgrims flock here to pay their respects to the temple’s Lion Buddha. This site also features the beautiful Lanna architecture of Viharn Lai Kham and its adjacent golden chedi.
Before you get too templed-out, finish by visiting Wat Chiang Man, the oldest wat in the city. Built in 1296 and home to the king while Chiang Mai was being founded, the Lanna-style gold and red interior is suitably sumptuous.
- 1pm – Eat Khao Soi for lunch
Truly delicious and perfect for lunch, one of Chiang Mai’s most famous local dishes is “khao soy” noodle soup (also known as khao soi or kow soi). A combination of wheat and egg noodles in a soup-like curry sauce, it can be served with meat, fish or tofu, with pickled vegetables, sliced onions, chilli paste and fresh lime on the side. I ate it an informal street stall but you’ll find it on the menu in everywhere from casual cafes to fine-dining restaurants. If you’re still hungry, have another bowl (as I did!) or try the local Chiang Mai sausage, which is often flavoured with lemongrass and chilli.
- 2pm – Experience the art scene
Often referred to as Thailand’s “Creative Capital,” Chiang Mai has some of the country’s best art galleries, studios and boutiques. Nimanhaemin Road is a good place for textiles and crafts; Documentary Arts Asia focuses on Asian photographers and film makers; Gongdee Gallery is one of Chiang Mai largest art spaces; or, perhaps the most fun, Art in Paradise is a 3D illusion gallery.
- 4pm – Relax with a Thai massage
Throughout Chiang Mai you’ll see Thai massages advertised everywhere from street-side stalls to small salons, hotels and full-blown spas. Offered at a fraction of the price you’d pay in the UK, traditional Thai massages usually last for two hours. If you don’t have time for the whole thing, ask for a foot, back or neck massage instead.
- 6pm – Sip cocktails at the riverside
Relax with an early evening drink in one of Chiang Mai’s laid-back riverside bars. The far bank of the River Ping is lined with bars and restaurants that have great waterside terraces and live music. Good View Bar and Restaurant and Riverside Bar and Restaurant are two good choices. The restaurants here are also a great place to eat, or you could save yourself for some street food at the night market.
- 7pm – Shop till you drop at the night market
From the riverside, it’s an easy stroll across Nawarat Bridge to the night bazaar on Chang Khlan Road. You could spend hours haggling for t-shirts, sandals and fake designer watches, or simply stroll through and take it all in. Food and drink is also in abundance, with countless street stalls for snacking, as well as sit-down eating areas and bars with live music.
11pm – After-hours on Nimmanhaemin Road
Chang Khlan night bazaar usually keeps going until after 10pm. After that, if you’re looking to burn the midnight oil, the area around Nimmanhaemin Road is often a good bet. Here, Warm Up Cafe is Chiang Mai’s oldest and largest nightclub, with DJs, dance floors and an outdoor terrace with live bands.
Tempted to linger longer?
With so much to see and do in Chiang Mai, you could easily spend a whole week or even longer here. There are dozens more temples to tick off, as well as art spaces like Sangdee Gallery and museums like the Chiang Mai Culture Centre. Just outside the city, you could take a taxi to an elephant sanctuary or go hiking in the hills and, on weekends, the Saturday walking market and Sunday night market are the places to go for handicrafts and souvenirs.
My favourite city during my recent trip to Thailand, I definitely recommend putting Chiang Mai on your itinerary, however long you’ve got.