If you’ve ever travelled to Chiang Mai, you’ll no doubt agree: Thailand’s northern capital is nothing like its southern sisters, Phuket and Bangkok. There are no shores with white-sand beaches beaches nor bikini-clad backpackers; instead, it’s a laid-back hub steeped in tradition and culture. It’s perhaps most famous for the Loi Krathong festival, held around November, when thousands of paper lanterns are launched into the air — and thousand of Instagrams of those floating lanterns are posted. However, this beautiful destination has much to offer travellers all year round.
Home to more than 1.6 million people, the largest city in northern Thailand usually plays second, third, or even fourth fiddle to the more popular party destinations down south. But if you’re looking for an experience with soul, you’ll find it amongst the strong and proud Thais of the north. With daily direct flights from Hong Kong (via Dragonair, Hong Kong Express and AirAsia), it’s easy to jet away for a quick trip to Chiang Mai. Follow our tried-and-tested itinerary below to get the most out of your weekend.
DAY 1: FRIDAY
Arrival and Check-in
The best way to get to your hotel is by taxi or Uber. (Don’t use the airport shuttle — they charge a minimum of THB400.) To get to your hotel by taxi should be less than THB100, unless you’re staying miles away from the old city. Most of the hotels are located around the old city or by the Ping River to its east (15–30 minutes from the airport); however, some luxurious properties have sequestered themselves in locations a bit further out to provide a more scenic escape, such as the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, which is nestled in the lush hills and rice fields of the Mae Rim Valley.
For accommodations closer to the city centre, you can’t go wrong with The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai, a Lanna-style palace sprawled across 60 acres of landscaped tropical grounds. Even closer to the heart of the city, in its own charming and leafy grounds by the Ping River, is the colonial-style Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort; it is, as its name suggests, a peaceful and intimate resort ideal for couples and honeymooners. Regardless of which hotel you choose, you’ll find prices surprisingly affordable compared to some of the other top tourist destinations around Asia — all the more reason to plan several return trips to Chiang Mai.
The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai, 51/4 Moo 1, Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Road, T. Tasala, A. Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand, +66 (53) 888 888, dharadhevi.com
Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort, 1/1 Soi 9, Charoenprathet Road, Tambon Changklan, Amphoe Muang, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand, +66 (0)53 280 988, nanirand.com
Dinner and a Show
There’s no better place to start your journey than at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. They’re most famous for their ‘Khantoke Dinner Show’, held in a spacious complex featuring traditional, tiered-roof wooden architecture.
Come on an empty stomach, as they’ll keep refilling your teak tray (it doubles as your table) with northern-style Thai dishes from rich curries to fried pork rinds, served on top of a basket of sticky rice (vegetarian and Halal menus are available on request). The best seats in the house are on the floor towards the front, where you sit cross-legged. Within the Cultural Center confines, you can wander around the craft market after dinner, sign up for a Muay Thai course, or return to check out the exhibitions another day.
Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center, 185/3 Wualai Rd, Haiya, Muang, Chiangmai 50100, +66 0 53 202 993 5; Reserve tickets in advance from oldchiangmai.com
Grab a Nightcap
You don’t come to Chiang Mai for the nightlife, especially not in the year following the king’s passing last October. During this mourning period, most places are required to close around midnight. If you ask around, people will most likely point you towards the nightlife complex of Zoe In Yellow near Tha Phae Gate in the old city, where most of the budget tourist bars are. But unless you want to find yourself in a trashier version of Lan Kwai Fong, we say best to avoid it.
Instead, try places like Myst Rooftop or nightclub Warm Up Café in the trendy Nimman area. If you want to stay within the old city, hit Safe House at Duangtawan Hotel, Take it Club or Mandalay Bar, but don’t expect the same international vibe or musical diversity that you’ll find in Bangkok. We recommend grabbing one or two drinks and calling it a night to wake up early for the next day of sightseeing.
DAY 2: SATURDAY
Choose Your Own Adventure
This is your only full day, so make the most of it. Save the temples and markets for Sunday, as they’re mostly located within the old city walls. We booked all our activities through Hong Kong-based travel tech startup TripGuru. With a user-friendly platform, they help to connect the international traveler with local guides to book a range of curated, tried-and-tested experiences — all minus the hassle of language barriers, complicated payment schemes, and time wasted at tourist centres upon arrival.
There are so many experiences to choose from that it can be difficult to settle for just one. We ended up going for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and Doi Inthanon National Park. The former is a wonderful way to see elephants up close in their natural habitat. Many of the animals here have been rescued from abusive elephant-riding operators, and are now being rehabilitated by the sustainable eco-tourism project. It was wonderful to see the gentle giants forming familial relationships with fellow rescued creatures, as well as deep and loving connections with their mahouts.
Meanwhile, a day at Doi Inthanon National Park — within the premises of Doi Inthanon mountain, Thailand’s highest point at 2,565 metres — is a must for nature lovers. Our itinerary started with a stop at the cascading Siritharn and Wachiritharn waterfalls. We then took on the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, hiking through cloud forests and past cliffs with magnificent views. Finally, we stopped at the twin chedis (temples) of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit — the iconic and most photographed scenes of Doi Inthanon. We had booked a private tour rather than a group package, which gave us the flexibility to make stops and reshuffle some of the sights according to our own pace.
With TripGuru, you can mix and match half-day tours as well, but for rappelling, cycling or rock-climbing, you’ll need to block off your schedule. If you have more time, you can also look into day trips further out to UNESCO World Heritage Site Sukhothai or the city of Chiang Rai.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, 119/10 Thapae Road Chang Klan, Muang, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand, elephantjunglesanctuary.com
Doi Inthanon National Park, Ban Luang, Chom Thong District, Chang Wat, Chiang Mai 50160, Thailand, thainationalparks.com/doi-inthanon-national-park
A Nighttime Stroll by the River
The number of establishments along the banks of the Ping River are enough to keep you entertained the whole night — from spas to boat cruises to restaurants overlooking the water.
Make a beeline for The River Market, an atmospheric open-air restaurant with a plethora of authentic Thai street dishes. Alternatively, you can dine as you float up and down the river with The Riverside’s dinner cruise.
The Riverside Bar and Restaurant is one of the more popular places to drink and dance to live music — although, during busy nights, it can get so packed you can barely move. Just down the street is The Good View Bar & Restaurant, which plays more mainstream electronic beats.
Riverside Bar and Restaurant, 9-11 Charoenrat Road, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand, +66 5324 3239, theriversidechiangmai.com
The Good View Bar & Restaurant, 13 Charoen Raj Road, Watgate, Muang, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand, +66 5330 2764, goodview.co.th
DAY 3: SUNDAY
This is your day to absorb as much as you can of Chiang Mai’s old city, historically protected by 700-year-old walls and a moat built by the Lanna kings of old.
A Healthy Start to the Day
Grab a hearty breakfast in the quaint setting of Ginger & Kafe at The House (they have fusion-Thai, Western, and breakfast menus), or go wholesome at vegan favourite The Tea Tree Café. Popular amongst Chiang Mai expats is the social enterprise Free Bird Café, an organic vegetarian charity café supporting indigenous peoples and Burmese refugees. In addition to helping a social cause, their delicious smoothie bowls will give you all the energy needed for the day of walking ahead.
Free Bird Café, 116 Maneenopparat Road, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand, +66 81 028 5383, facebook.com/FreeBirdCafe
Temple-hopping and a Market Menagerie
Start your walking tour from Wat Chedi Luang, in the middle of the walled city, with its five elephant sculptures and magnificent staircases adorned with the serpent god Naga. From there, head north to the Three King’s Monument, built in honour of Chiang Mai’s founders.
Around 4pm, you can begin to walk the length of Ratchadamnoen Street for the most impressive of all Chiang Mai markets: the Sunday Walking Street. Here you’ll find a range of street food, local arts and crafts, Thai trinkets, handmade clothing and more. At the end of the street is the most famous of all Chiang Mai’s temples: the golden Wat Phra Singh (Lion Buddha). And if at any point you feel a bit tired, you can just pop into a massage place, with one on nearly every street corner.
Wat Chedi Luang, 103 Road, King Prajadhipok Phra Singh, Muang, 50200 Chiang Mai, Thailand, +66 53 276 140
Wat Phra Singh, Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand, +66 83 566 0844
If you still have time before your return flight, end your Chiang Mai trip on a full stomach. In the southeastern corner of the old city sits the Dash Teak House, a popular restaurant and bar featuring Lanna-style architecture and live music.
The restaurant specialises in traditional Lanna and central Thai cuisine, but also features a more international menu using fresh and seasonal ingredients from local Thai farmers. That’s one of the great things about Thailand: It’s hard to go wrong with food. Expand your palate beyond pad Thai and try a range of northern-style dishes such as khao soi (curry- and coconut- flavoured noodle soup) and sai oua (grilled herb sausages).
Dash Teak House, 38/2 Moon Muang, Soi 2, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand, +66 53 279 230, dashrestaurantandbar