A Guide to Thailand's Best City, Chiang Mai
As the largest city in the North, Chiang Mai serves as a cultural hub and home base for travelers who have come to explore the region. The city feels authentically Thai, though there's still a few Westernized haunts for the expats that settle here. If you're looking for stunning scenery, extraordinary food markets and quality shopping, add this city to your itinerary.
VISIT AN ELEPHANT RESCUE CAMP
This will be your favorite day, I promise. Elephant Nature Park is the largest, most popular camp in the area, but there are a few smaller camps as well if you're looking for a more personalized experience. I LOVED Happy Elephant Home and cannot say enough great things about the property and the people. You feed the elephants, walk them to the river, take a nice mud bath and feed them some more. You MUST do your research if you're looking for another camp. Do not ride the elephants.
TAKE A COOKING CLASS
The best - and most affordable - way to try Thai cuisine is a cooking class. You'll make Khao Soi, the traditional noodle dish of Chiang Mai, and experiment with some curries, too. I'd suggest Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School - you can opt to cook in their city or farm location, and you go to the market and learn about all of the ingredients before you use them.
WALK AROUND OLD CITY
Wander around the historical center of the walled city. Pay a visit to Wat Chedi Luang (Temple of Good Fortune) and Wat Chiang Man (the oldest royal temple in the city). They're generally more quiet than the more frequented temples like Wat Phra Singh.
RENT A MOTORBIKE AND HIT THE GRAND CANYON
Chiang Mai's Grand Canyon is a short, 30-min ride just southwest of Old City. The beautiful fresh-water quarry is a somewhat undiscovered gem. Some folks jump from the top of the red-sanded cliff, while others enjoy wading in the water below. The best way to get there is by motorbike - the scenery is beautiful and the wide, long highways are easy to navigate.
EXPLORE THE NIGHT BAZAAR
Even if you don't like to shop, it's quite fun to peruse the stalls and test your bartering skills. Restaurants and bars line the sides of the market, so I'd get a few shots of tequila or Thai rum (Sangsom anyone?), and get to stepping.
HIT A FOOD MARKET
The food stalls at the Night Bazaar offer Thai, Indian, Western - whatever your heart desires. You set up shop at picnic tables in the middle of the action and order a feast while people watching. Our lineup looked like this: chicken tikka masala, garlic naan, fried pork, pad thai, green curry. You get the picture.
GET OUT ON THE TOWN
Grab some hostel buds or fly solo to Zoe's in Yellow. The chilled-out crowd overflows into the sidewalk at this indoor/outdoor bar, creating one mega dance floor. Bars here traditionally close by 12PM, but the after-party continues at Spicy Nightclub and many of the other smaller, private bars.