we arrived in chiang mai with little planned, not knowing what to expect. we had timed our visit to intersect with Loy Krathong and Yee Peng (thailand’s annual lantern festivals), but i hadn’t thought that much into our time there beyond these events. after checking in at our hotel, we ventured out into the unknown and almost immediately found ourselves charmed by the small-town feel of one of thailand’s largest cities. thanks to recommendations from a few friends and a few locals, we were able to make the most of our time in chiang mai, and we learned quite a bit along the way.
- if possible, time your visit to intersect with a festival. i cannot say with confidence that chiang mai wouldn’t be as fun without some sort of traditional thai festivities taking place, but being there while the city was strung with lanterns and other decorations enhanced our cultural experience immeasurably. the parades, the carnival-like atmosphere, and the many traditions brought the city alive. we participated in a workshop where we learned to make krathong, boats made of banana tree, flowers, and candles that we sent down the river (in theory, along with all of the negativity that is holding us back in life). we ate, drank, and were merry as the parade of intricate floats and lanterns made their way down the tapae road to the river. we watched as thousands of floating lanterns left the hands of their senders and floated up into the sky, for hours creating a trail of lights. i don’t think i stopped smiling either of the nights the festivals took place.
2. eat. a lot. with fresh smoothies available on every corner and restaurants, street vendors, and markets aplenty, you will more than like be drooling like a teething one-year-old for most of your visit. a couple of my favorites were both recommended to us, and i am so glad we listened to the advice. first of all, regardless of where you eat, look for a place filled with all or mostly locals. our first delicious meal was recommended by a thai man at our b&b, and it didn’t even have a name. he drew us a map and said, “it is next to this place called the blue diamond.” brilliant. we ate a curry, and ’twas delish. another meal came per the recommendation of my favorite, anthony bourdain, and a friend of mine who had been to chiang mai before. khao kha moo at the chang phueak gate night market is a street food stall operated by a lady in a cowboy hat (always) who knows a thing or two about stewing a pork leg. served with a boiled egg, rice, and i’m not really sure what else, this pork dish is some next level stuff. we opted for a large instead of a small (worth it), added pickled greens, garlic, peppers, and hot sauce, and didn’t talk until we were done. lastly, you must try khao soi, a spicy noodle dish indigenous of northern thailand, and, if possible, you should get it from the food court at central airport plaza. yes, i am recommending that you eat at a mall food court. we were skeptical, too, but we trusted the advice of an american guy we met who had lived in chiang mai for a few years. we weren’t disappointed.
3. venture outside the city to see elephants. preferably, this will be done at the chai lai orchid, a gorgeous eco-lodge where we stayed for a night. while the chai lai orchid is a bit more expensive that other elephant sanctuaries, their business model is focused on human rights–with the employees, mostly burmese women who were at high risk of being trafficked, being paid above minimum wage while being taught job skills–and humane treatment of the elephants. the kind people of the chai lai orchid are even raising funds to eventually buy their neighboring elephants, hopefully freeing them from being used for inhumane, tourist-driven activities. we spent an afternoon bathing deedee, a five-year-old elephant, and we spent an evening playing with the cutest two-month-old elephant i could ever have imagined. because many other attractions feature elephants that give whip-driven rides with baskets on their backs and bull hooks in their ears, we were selective when it came to choosing where to experience this unique interaction with these gorgeous creatures. if you take the hour-long ride outside the city to mae wang, the area where the chai lai orchid is located, you might as well stay the night and enjoy the relaxing environment at the lodge. opt for an air-conditioned room, and prepare yourself for what will arguably be your favorite part of your trip.
4. listen to your gut. literally. we learned this one the hard way. if you see food that is obviously questionable, don’t suggest to your husband than you share it and begin the meal with, “if anything is going to make us sick, it will be this.” more than likely, you will end up looking like that scene from Bridesmaids (you know the one i’m talking about). if you do fall victim to a food-borne illness, prepare to spend a full day recovering. #thestruggle
5. take a cooking class. another of my favorite experiences came at the recommendation of my friend (and on the heels of our food poisoning). we took a class at basil cooking school, and it was one of our most fun and interactive experiences. after being picked up from our hotel and stopping to get a few other classmates, we, led by our wonderful instructor, apple, went to the market to learn about thai ingredients. after this fun, informative time, we headed straight to the school to spend the rest of our morning and afternoon cooking six different courses. we were given three options for each course, and my husband and i chose different items for all but our appetizers (because spring rolls always win). we learned so many helpful cooking tips during our class, had a great time getting to know our classmates, and especially enjoyed eating the fruits of our labor. it was a great way to spend our last day in chiang mai, and we have even prepared some of the recipes at home since getting back because we each received a cookbook at the end of the class.
6. explore warorot market, and don’t forget to bargain. whether you are looking for souvenirs, spices, flowers, food, or turtles (which, i found out, fall under the food category), the warorot market is the place to be. it is overwhelming to every sense, and it felt like the truest taste of thai culture that we saw. most of the vendors mark up their prices, so practice your stern “that’s too much” face and use it often. if you make the face and walk away after hearing a price, they’ll usually throw out a much lower price, thus opening the opportunity to barter.
7. get a massage…or ten. because when else will you have an opportunity to get a legit thai massage for $5-$10? most places offer various types of massage, but my favorite is head, neck, and feet.
8. devote a day to touring the wats. there is pretty much a wat (buddhist temple) on every corner, and each one has its own unique character. dress respectfully (make sure your shoulders and upper arms are covered along with your legs from the knee up) and take your time appreciating the fine detail in each building and its decor.
i hope you are able to enjoy chiang mai as much as we did! if you go, just remember that the heat can be easily remedied by stopping for a fresh smoothie and a foot massage.