If you’re on the backpacker trail and have got 24 hours to kill in Chiang Mai, make sure you use our ultimate hour-by-hour guide to a day best spent in Thailand’s largest and most significant northern city.
8:30: get ready
Wake up, dress in comfortable clothes and pack a map, water and a top that covers your shoulders. Head down to the common room to enjoy coffee with your fellow travellers and smile – you’re about to have an awesome day!
9:00: eat breakfast
Wander outside till you smell something delectable. Eat a cheap Thai-style breakfast with students and tuk tuk drivers at the roadside. You’ll probably find rice porridge (jok), barbequed pork skewers with sticky rice (moo ping khao niao) or freshly fried Thai-style churros dipped in thick green pandan and coconut sweet custard (pa thong ko sangkaya). Afterwards, head to one of Chiang Mai’s many coffee shops for a strong brew. An excellent choice is Akha Ama, which serves coffee grown by hill tribe smallholders in the nearby mountains.
If you don’t have your own transport, hail one of the red trucks that act as taxis in Chiang Mai. They’re called songthaews and the price to anywhere inside the moat or just outside it is 20 baht per person for one journey. State your destination and simply get in the back if they agree to take you – don’t ask how much or you’ll be charged the tourist price. When you get out, pay your 20 baht and say thank you – girls say “kob khun khaa” and guys say “kob khun khrab!”
10:00: visit a temple
Hop on your motorbike or hail a songthaew and head up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple (this journey will cost more than 20 baht – don’t forget to haggle the price down!). The air up there is gorgeously fresh and on a clear day you can see all of Chiang Mai below you. Before you enter the temple make sure that your shoulders and knees are covered and remove your shoes. Wander around and take in the splendour of golden stupas, opulent Buddha statues and sonorous chanting. Light incense and candles, hear the tinkling bells and kneel in front of a saffron-robed monk to receive a traditional Buddhist blessing.
12:30: paddle in a waterfall and mini-hike
On the way back down the mountain, stop off at the lower falls of the gorgeous Huay Kaew waterfall (Huay Kaew nam tok) to paddle in the stream. The lower falls are behind a popular shrine and small food market that can be seen from the road. If you’re lucky a Thai family on a day out might offer you some fruit or tasty home cooked treats and ask you to join their picnic. There’s a lovely forty minute hike through the forest that starts at the bottom set of falls and climbs to the upper falls, following the stream. Drink lots of water! When you reach the upper falls, hail a songthaew down the rest of the mountain to go get lunch.
13:45: eat lunch
For a healthy meal in a relaxed atmosphere, head to Bird’s Nest on Singharat Soi 3, a popular café amongst the backpacker and digital-nomad crowds. Bird’s Nest chefs try to use only organic food, depending on availability. A delicious avocado and home-made pesto wrap will fill you up and a cold mint, lime and honey shake will refresh you – divine.
Eat street food if you’re on a strict budget. There are a lot of tasty choices on the way back to the Old City along Suthep Road. If the menu is in Thai, point at what you want and say “ow nee, kha / khrab”, which means ‘I’d like this, please!”
If you haven’t tried the big flat rice noodles, kale and egg cooked in soy sauce (pad see ew) yet, try it. It’s the ultimate Thai comfort food. When you’ve finished, order a cha yen – traditional Thai sweet iced tea with tamarind juice, lime and optional milk.
15:00: chat with a monk
Ever chatted with a monk? Go to Wat Chedi Luang in the centre of the Old City. After looking around the magnificent temple grounds and reading the spiritual advice tacked on to the trees, head over to the ‘Monk Chat’ sign and… chat with a monk! You can talk (in English!) about pretty much any aspect of life with him and get a personal insight into Buddhist beliefs.
16:00: re-engergise in two blissful hours
Thai massage is energetic, like doing assisted yoga. It’s definitely worth investing in a two hour massage – you’ll feel amazing afterwards. It can be hard or soft depending on your preference. A polite “raeng raeng” means ‘harder, harder!’ and “bow bow” means ‘gently, gently!’
You can be massaged by a convict! For a unique massage experience, head over to the Women’s Correctional Institution Training Centre. These women are being trained in a sustainable vocation so that they can be masseuses when they’re released, rather than returning to a life of crime. Their massages are really, really good. It’s popular, so it’s a good idea to go early on in the day and book an appointment. Unfortunately you can’t make a phone booking.
18:30: eat dinner
For delicious cheap Thai food, head to North Gate and order food from one of the many stalls. Street Pizza is a seriously cool pizza place, popular with Thais and travellers alike. Vegetarians will want to check out Anchan in Nimmanhaemin, Imm Aim in Santitham or Pun Pun. Alternatively, head to the market early and pick something up as you wander around – there’s plenty to eat.
There are two main night markets to choose from: the Night Bazaar is open every night and the Sunday Walking Street market is on, you guessed it, Sundays. Both are big and colourful with plenty of beautiful, strange, impressive and unique things to buy: handicrafts, furniture, clothes, accessories, fairy lights in a hundred different designs and art work. Prices are almost always negotiable so barter! Personally I prefer the Sunday market because you don’t have to dodge traffic. Even if you’re not all that into shopping the markets are still worth a visit for the great social vibe and all the different Thai food available.
Look out for the ‘ancient ice cream’ stalls for a tasty and cheap way to cool down. A fresh coconut, chopped open with a machete in front of you and served with a straw is ultra-hydrating and deliciously tropical.
21:30: watch Muay Thai boxing
Spend an hour or two cheering on the boxers at a muay Thai boxing stadium for around 400 baht. There are four places to choose from: Kalare Stadium, Thapae Stadium, Kawila Stadium and Loi Kroh Stadium. Kalare is more authentic and best for real fights, followed by Kawila. Thapae and Loi Kroh have more ‘show fights’ – like guys beating each other up in blindfolds. Have a beer, make a few bets and get loud! Ask your guesthouse for exact fight dates and times.
If you don’t want to buy roses or bracelets from the ladies and kids that walk around between fights, say “mai ow” firmly. It means ‘I don’t want it’.
Get a songthaew to Ratchawithi Road and pick a bar. This is a great place to make friends before the partying starts. Be warned: Chang beer is cheap but gives you one hell of a hangover – the notorious Changover! Try Singha, Leo or Beer Lao instead.
23:30 – 00:00: party
Head to the infamous Zoe area on Ratchawithi Road, fondly known as The Square of Despair. The bars play music to suit many tastes, like pop, dance, ska, reggae and metal. Some of the bars have live music, others have DJs. There are often special nights with guest bands playing a set. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest nights.
God knows what time
When all the Zoe bars have kicked out, spill out into the row of food stalls. Tacos Bell is a firm favourite for drunken eats. Ask around to see where everyone’s headed next!
Still looking for ideas of things to do Chiang Mai?
Image courtesy of Four Seasons Chiang Mai.
Article contributed by Amy – MyChiangMaiEverything.