Chiang Mai, in the mountainous north of Thailand, has a completely different vibe than Bangkok or the islands and beaches in the south. The air is fresher and temperature cooler. Day trips from Thailand’s second city are all about getting off the beaten path and up close with nature. The old heart of Chiang Mai is filled with ancient temples. The city is famous for its night markets where you can bag a bargain and eat your fill of the country’s best street food.
Day 1 – The Old City
The crumbling old city walls at the center of Chiang Mai separate the Old Town. Wandering through this part of the city you’ll find a temple on nearly every street. Starting at Chiang Mai Gate, you can discovery a selection of the best temples on foot. Pop in to Wat Chang Taem first to admire the typical white and gold pagodas. Next, visit the sprawling Wat Chedi Luang, with its stunning ancient stupas. Finally, see the golden dome of Wat Suan Dok, just beyond the Suan Dok Gate. Total walking time between temples is about 40 minutes, but those that want to save time can hire a tuk tuk to run between the temples.
Head to Chiang Mai’s famous night markets to sample some of the best regional food at budget prices. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar in the east of the city begins every day around 6pm until 10pm. A thriving hub of festive energy, you’ll find stalls selling everything from DVDs, to handicrafts and clothes. Of course, you can also gorge on street food from any of the stalls selling spicy sausage or delicious bowls of Kow Soy noodles. If you’re visiting on a Sunday, make sure you experience the Sunday Night Market on Ratchadamnoen Road, the biggest and busiest of all the markets.
Day 2 – Elephant Sanctuary
The hills around Chiang Mai are dotted with elephant sanctuaries where you can interact ethically with these majestic creatures. You can book through most hotels, and make sure you choose one that does not allow elephant riding. Elephant Rescue Park, with offices on Ratchamanka Road offers day experiences where you can wash and feed elephants rescued from the circus and the logging trade. Most elephant experiences offer pick-up and drop-off at your hotel and begin early in the morning, returning in the evening.
Day 3 – Relax in Chiang Mai
After a busy day taking care of elephants, it might be time for some down time. Head to the Nimman area in the north-east of the city where digital nomads and hipsters have made their home. Relax in the quiet streets with a jet-black espresso, perhaps stop for brunch at Rustic and Blue. There are loads of little boutique shops in the area selling bespoke handicrafts.
No trip to the foodie capital of Thailand is complete without learning a few things about the local cuisine. Sign up for a cooking class in the evening to learn the secrets of northern Thai recipes. May Kaidee’s Cooking School offers express classes starting at 3 pm or 5 pm, where you can learn how to make delicious vegetarian and vegan local dishes.
Day 4 – Hilltribe Trekking
Up in the Chiang Dao mountains to the north of Chiang Mai there are jungle trails and ancient villages waiting to be explored. It’s an hour and a half drive to the mountains, so the trip takes all day. Trekking through the lush jungle you’ll see native birds, tropical plants and stunning mountain views between the trees. It’s a hot, sticky activity with around two-hours of uphill trekking involved. If you would rather choose a less active option, then some companies offer village tours in 4WDs instead.
Day 5 – Cycle and Spa
Perhaps you’d like to continue your active adventures in Chiang Mai. Taking a cycling tour from the center of the city and out into the countryside is a great way to watch the scenery change from one to the other. Tours leave in the morning, before the weather gets too hot. Grasshopper Adventures offer a morning tour taking in rolling rice paddies, forest shrines and little countryside villages from the saddle.
After a couple of active days, it’s time to fully relax. Head to Na Kalare Massage for a Thai-style massage to work the aches out of sore muscles. Or indulge in a full spa experience at Fah Lanna Spa in the Old City where they offer massage and indulgent beauty treatments in serene garden surroundings. Finish your final day in Chiang Mai refreshed and relaxed.
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