There is a lot of fuss about Chiang Mai in the travel world. People say that it is a great, lively city with plenty of things to do and a lot of places to see. I visited Chiang Mai for the first time 2 years ago. It was at the end of my 3-month-trip around South East Asia. I was tired… I didn’t want to see another temple, I didn’t want to go trekking again, visiting Tiger Kingdom and Karen villages was against my ethical believes. All I really wanted to do was to sleep and rest, but I also felt obliged to do some sightseeing and exploring the town. It was February and it was hot. I wandered the streets of Chiang Mai aimlessly for few days and I didn’t find anything interesting about it. I was surprised by all the positive opinions I had read about.
Now, I know that my disappointment was mainly caused by my poor research and the little information in my guidebook. After a year of living here I now know that this city has a lot to offer and there are wonderful places to be discovered. This is my ultimate guide on how to experience Chiang Mai in 4 days.
Day 1 Have a stroll
This is what I usually do on my first day in any new destination. I take a map, ask about a few landmarks in the city and then just walk. Chiang Mai is a very easy place to move around. The city center is surrounded by an ancient wall and a moat, and every corner has its own gate, which can be easily found on any map. My suggestion is to start from the Tae Pae Gate, which is the main tourist area. Walk into the old town, wander around and get lost in the labyrinth of little streets, lined up with coffee shops, bars and restaurants. Take it easy and enjoy your surroundings. You might want to check out a few of the beautiful temples. The main one, and the biggest is Wat Phra Singh. Wat Chedi Luang is also worth visiting for the ancient ruins, located just at the back of the new temple.
A great way of spending the afternoon is going to the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre to find out more about the local culture and traditions. But, if this is not your thing, then go for a massage. The most recommended place is the Women’s Correctional Institution, where the prisoners are the masseuses, and the money goes to their accounts so they have an opportunity to make a living once they get out. They are professionally trained, and the place is absolutely safe.
Chiang Mai is well known for its huge yoga scene. If you feel like stretching out after your day of exploration, there are many options available to you. Some city favorites among the locals are Namo Yoga and Mahasiddha.
For dinner go to the South East gate market. During the day it is mainly a place where locals do their grocery shopping, but just after the dawn it transforms into something extraordinary. You can find here all kinds of food, from sushi to pad thai, durian, shakes and smoothies. Everything is cheap, fresh and delicious.
Day 2 Doi Suthep and the Chiang Mai Zoo
On day 2 either drive, or hail a songtaew (local taxi) to the Chiang Mai Zoo. Be prepared to walk a lot as the zoo is quite big. One of the reasons why you should visit it is the fact that the zoo has pandas, white tigers and other exotic animals. You can even feed some of them. The enclosures are large and the animals are well looked after.
From the Zoo there is a straight road to the Wat Phra Doi Suthep – one of the main attractions in Chiang Mai. The temple is located on the top of the mountain and can be seen from almost any point in the city. The view from there is spectacular, but only if you happen to be in Chiang Mai outside of the burning season (from June to around mid-February). Otherwise you will only see grey smoke enveloping the city centre.
For dinner go to the market at the North Gate and eat rice with some delicious meat from the ‘Cowboy Hat Lady’. You will find her easily, just look out for the brown hat.
Day 3 Visit the Elephant Nature Park
If you care at least a little bit about animals and their welfare, this is the place to go. The elephants here were rescued from villages, tourism and logging industries. You cannot ride them, but you can spend a whole day looking after them. You can feed them, bath them and experience how amazing these animals are. You can book the trip online, but remember to book at least 2 days in advance. The price for one day is 2,000 Baht. The lunch is provided.
In the evening go for a drink, dinner and a party to Nimmen. It is a long street in the north that is full of great places to eat, drink and have fun. I recommend the ‘Salad Concept‘ for dinner, the ‘Kamrai Shop‘ for drinks and ‘Warm up‘ for a party.
Day 4 Chilling and shopping
This is your last day, so take it easy. I have a few places to recommend on this final day. One is the little park next to the South East Gate (Chiang Mai Gate). It is full of blooming flowers, fountains and cute, little bridges. You can rent a matt for 10 Baht and lay on the grass to soak up the sun. If you have your own transport then Huay Tong Tao Lake is a great place to go as well. You can swim, or just sit in one of the bamboo huts, having a drink. It costs 20 Baht per person to get in. Another great spot is the Mae Sa Waterfall, but again you need to have your own transport, or you can catch a songtaew to take you there. The entrance fee is 100 Baht, plus 20 Baht if you have a scooter.
In the evening you can do some shopping. The Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai should be on every visitor’s list. Not that far from the Night Bazaar you will find the Warrort Market, which might not be great in terms of offering souvenirs, but it is great for food and people watching.
If you happen to be in Chiang Mai on Sunday, go to the Sunday Market, where you can find even more handicrafts, clothes and of course food. To finish your day head to the Bus Bar, which is located by the river and is a nice place to have a quiet drink.
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