An old-world charm and a laid-back vibe with a quintessentially Thai character makes Chiang Mai a great alternative to the crowded capital city of Bangkok. Set amidst the mountains in the northern part of Thailand and dotted with wats (temples), rain forests, and paddy fields, on your next trip to Thailand give the beaches a miss and head here! Shops which convert into make-shift bars at night, run-down public payphone booths, vibrant markets, street-side khao suey stalls- I loved aimlessly wandering around this quaint city, and reveling in its serenity.
Here’s an offbeat Chiang Mai travel guide that I hope will make your trip as memorable as ours was!
1.A tea experience in one of Chiang Mai’s oldest tea gardens
I am a tea lover so I make it a point to visit tea estates wherever I go, much to my husband’s disappointment. But we really enjoyed the tea experience at Araksa! It was the 1st time that we went tea-plucking with tea baskets propped on our back. We were showed the difference between plucking white, green and black tea- all of which stem from the same plant. Needless to say we were doing a bad job of tossing the tea leaves into our baskets.
We were then showed how the green tea is hand roasted and dried. The experience culminated with some freshly brewed hand crafted green tea and traditional rice cakes being served to us. You can also pick up some tea at the end of the tour. The oolong and short of it is (see what I did there?) that this is a must-do for tea lovers!
2.Visit the temple of your zodiac sign at Wat Ban Den
A trip to Chiang Mai is incomplete without visiting a temple or a wat. However, my husband and I not being the religious kinds were happy to skip this until our driver recommended Wat Ban Den to us. It was worth the detour we took. With intricate carvings and a sprawling view of the rolling hills- this ink blue roof temple is a treat for the eyes and the mind.
It has 12 pagodas representing the animal zodiac signs. If we were to go by ancient local belief, each one of us should visit the temple of our zodiac sign at least once in our lifetime. But, since some of these temples are far-flung, the abbot, Kru Ba Tuang decided to build 12 pagodas under one roof. I am a sucker for such legends and immediately googled my zodiac sign which was the dragon. A heads-up- the temple has a strict dress code policy, and those who aren’t fully clad should be prepared to rent and wear a sarong.
3.Brush up your culinary skills with a Thai cooking class
This was the highlight of our trip! Culinary classes in Thailand have become fairly touristy so it’s important to pick a school which provides an intimate experience. And Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School was that and more! Sammy with his jovial demenour allays any apprehensions you may have as an amateur cook. The visit to the local market was fun where Sammy showed us the difference between sticky rice and normal rice. We explored the market and picked up some Thai green and red paste. The red chillies looked absolutely fiery and I was tempted to buy some. Then we headed to Sammy’s farm on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. It was green and gorgeous with our cooking stations all neatly aligned. Sammy showed us some of the produce from his own farm which we would be using in our cooking. The scents of freshly plucked kaffir lime, lemongrass and ginger enveloped us and it was absolutely surreal. I couldn’t wait to start cooking (which is very rare in my case).
My husband and I cooked different dishes so that we could learn as many dishes possible. I picked my favourite yellow curry, a veg Tom yum, the iconic Pad thai, Papaya salad and how can we forget the famous Mango sticky rice. The class was well-spaced out with a short nap time as well. Cooking is normally a stressful affair for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. From the chopping to making the curry paste from scratch using a mortar and pestle, it was quite an eventful experience. You have to try this!
4.De-stress with a Thai massage at Fah Lanna, Spa
Vacations are all about relaxing and what better than a traditional Thai massage in Thailand to transport you to a different world altogether. Indulge away in this boutique spa in the city center, but set amidst lush greens. The spa has a charming ambience with them Thai umbrellas and bamboo walkways over lily ponds. Make sure to specify the intensity level and don’t be over-ambitious. I started out by stating the pressure intensity should be medium. But when I found it to be over-powering, I immediately asked them to reduce it after which I was fairly comfortable. The roselle herbal tea and rice cakes mark the perfect end to your rejuvenation experience.
5.Stroll down the artsy and contemporary Chareonraj road
Dotted with art galleries, swanky boutiques, tea parlours and cute cafes, this locality warrants a visit. Our hotel- Ping Silhouette was located here (which we would definitely recommend staying at). Enjoy a Thai Iced tea at Vieng Joom Teahouse with a lovely view of the Ping river, shop for clothes or quirky home décor, sample the divine Taiwanese toast at the Café des Artists, or just walk around taking some shots for your Instagram feed.
Taiwanese toast and tea at Cafe des artists
6.Shop away at Chiang mai Night Bazaar
A shout to all the shopaholics! Head over to the night bazaar that happens every day from 6pm to about 10.30pm. From touristy knick-knacks to clothes to hats to home décor, you name it and you will find it here. After your fix of retail therapy, head over to the food stalls where you can grab a bite, listen to some live music and also get a foot massage if you’re exhausted after all the shopping. It’s a fun evening out- so even though it’s a bit touristy, it’s worth the experience. This market happens at the intersection of Chang Khlan Road and Loi Khro Road.
7.Fall in love with khao soi
Owing to Chiang Mai’s proximity to Myanmar, this noodle soup has almost become synonymous with the northern Thai city. From fancy restaurants to local eateries to night markets, you’ll find it everywhere with minor variations. Our first meal in Chiang Mai was a khao soi at Ginger & Kafe marking a befitting start to our culinary journey. The curry soup was thick and not too spicy, and with its accompaniments of fresh lemons, shallots, chillies, and pickles greens- it was a great amalgamation of flavours.
The Hungry Trotter Travel Hacks
- Chiang Mai from Bangkok is about 700kms, and is best accessed by air. The flight time from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is about 1 hour.
- Chiang Mai Hotels: We stayed at the Ping Silhouette Hotel Des Artists and had a pleasant stay. A boutique hotel, it overlooks the Ping river, and is a fine blend of contemporary and traditional Lanna accents. Opt for the Willow Room or the River room.
- Best time to visit Chiang Mai: November-February. The day time temperatures are pleasant, and evenings warrant a light sweater. November is when the Yi Peng Festival (lantern festival) and the Loy Krathong festival takes place. This is when thousands of people gather to release lanterns into the sky symbolic of letting go of past misfortunes and embracing the future. This is on the bucket list of many travelers, and hence this month tends to be very crowded and expensive.