Welcome to Chiang Mai! Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is a cute little town and was one of the highlights of our time in Southeast Asia. It doesn’t have the beaches of the islands or the heat of southern Thailand (thank god!). But it does have an adorable Old City, a great cafe culture and a wonderful link to exploring more of northern Thailand (i.e. elephants!). Spending 2 days in Chiang Mai is a perfect addition to your Thailand itinerary.
[Author’s note: We are currently enjoying our expat life in Prague but I have a few more Southeast Asia posts from our time there earlier in the year to share. So enjoy this throwback to our Asia trip and I’ll be back with more European content soon!]
Chiang Mai was definitely the highlight of Thailand for me. I loved spending 2 days in Chiang Mai exploring the town and then setting off for a few nights with elephants. When we do return to Thailand one day, I would love to revisit Chiang Mai and explore more of northern Thailand.
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, here’s your perfect itinerary for a few days in this awesome city!
Early Morning: Climb to Doi Suthep
On day 1, you’ll want to head out to one of the biggest sites in Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep. Doi Suthep is a large temple area just outside of Chiang Mai high up on a hill. The journey is about 30 minutes and the last 10 minutes are pretty winding, so if you get a little carsick like I do, I recommend taking some gravol and facing the right way out of the car.
We paid about $20 CAD for a roundtrip transfer to and from Doi Suthep via songthaew (a passenger vehicle popular in Chiang Mai, sort of like a bus-taxi combo). You can do it cheaper if you share a ride with other people, but we were in a weird part of town where there weren’t too many people. I would suggest asking your hotel for suggestions on where and how to best catch transportation.
Once you get dropped off, you’ll still have to climb some stairs to reach Doi Suthep. I believe there’s also a tram or cable car that goes up, but the stairs aren’t that horrible.
At the top, be prepared to be practically blinded by the gold. The structures that make up this temple are all gorgeous and bright gold in colour. It was fun to walk around and admire everything, though it was pretty crowded when we went. Hence, I recommend going first thing in the morning to try and beat the crowds.
And be sure to head to the back of the temple for some beautiful views over Chiang Mai!
Make your way back down from Doi Suthep and reward yourself with delicious brunch in Chiang Mai’s Old City. We had an awesome breakfast at Fern & Forest Cafe and I would highly recommend it. The outside garden was so cute and the food was delicious. You could easily spend all day here, as they also have nice coffees and desserts.
Afternoon: Explore the Old City
Once you’ve moved on from brunch, you’ll find yourself in Chiang Mai’s Old City. I loved walking around the Old City and it’s a must for 2 days in Chiang Mai. The best thing to do is just to wander. Put away the map on your phone and don’t bother trying to tick temples off of your list. You will run into a temple on every other corner. You’ll also walk past lots of cute shops, markets and art pieces. Just explore and enjoy it all!
Evening: Dine on Khao Soi
One of the absolute highlights of Chiang Mai is their famous dish: Khao Soi. This dish is only found in northern Thailand and it is SO GOOD! Seriously, Colin and I had so many bowls of this while in Chiang Mai and I would give my right arm for another bowl right now. Khao Soi is a noodle dish in a yellow curry, usually with chicken, and topped with crunchy noodle bits.
Would recommend It’s Good Kitchen for a great bowl of Khao Soi!
Morning: Breakfast and Wat Umong
Start your second day in Chiang Mai with breakfast at a cute cafe or breakfast spot. Chiang Mai has become something of a hipster capital with lots of expats and digital nomads calling it home. So don’t be surprised to find yourself sitting at a cafe you might find in Australia eating avocado toast and sipping on some latte art. We did just that at Overstand Cafe during our time in Chiang Mai.
From there, head out to Wat Umong. Wat Umong is another temple (a mainstay in Thailand sightseeing) just outside of Chiang Mai. But this temple is particularly cool because it’s made out of tunnels. Back in war times, soldiers used to hide in these tunnels and now they’ve become a temple. It was very cool to walk through them and discover this unique temple setting.
Afternoon: Lunch at Huay Tung Tao Lake
From Wat Umong, head to Huay Tung Tao Lake. This is also a bit out of Chiang Mai, but you’re halfway there coming from Wat Umong.
Huay Tung Tao was one of the highlights of our time in Chiang Mai. This gorgeous lake is definitely less touristed and more of a locals’ spot. If you need a break from the crowds, definitely head here for lunch. Enjoy the views by eating lunch at one of the little huts over the water. Restaurants on the shore will come to you with a menu and bring your food out. It was a surreal experience and a real breath of fresh air during our busy trip.
Evening: Enjoy a massage
One of the best things to do in Thailand is enjoy a massage, as there are massage places everywhere and they are so cheap. You can opt for the traditional Thai massage or any variation of back/foot/shoulder, etc.
Chiang Mai is actually known for massage places that employ ex-inmates. It’s a really cool opportunity where previously incarcerated people have an opportunity to gain employment, as it’s often hard for people with prison history to find work. In fact, this has become so popular in Chiang Mai that the original place that did this now has many copycats.
Colin and I got foot massages at a place called Giving Tree, as it was closest to our hotel. It was a really nice experience. They even washed our feet first and gave us a little plate of snacks before massaging our legs for an hour. Plus they worked on our shoulders and backs too!
More than 2 days in Chiang Mai?
If you have more than 2 days in Chiang Mai, I definitely recommend heading out on an elephant excursion. Spending time with elephants is a big draw in northern Thailand and there are many operations you can work with. Be sure to do your research and ensure your elephant experience is as ethical as possible. I’ve heard great things about Elephant Nature Park and you can read about my experience with elephants at Chai Lai Orchid.
There’s also lots more to do in Chiang Mai! As you likely know, I’m not a huge hiker. So nothing in this itinerary is too athletic. But I know there are some great hikes and waterfalls around Chiang Mai that would be awesome to go to. Cooking classes are also a popular activity in Chiang Mai, and some even take you out to a farm to use fresh and local produce. Many people also do trips up to Chiang Rai (home to the famous white temple) and Pai (a hippy backpacker haven) in northern Thailand.
And that is how I would recommend spending 2 days in Chiang Mai!
Have you been to Chiang Mai? What was your favourite part?
Or, if you haven’t been, what are you most looking forward to?
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