Let me get this out of the way. I’ve long had a deep dislike for Chiang Mai. Admittedly, much of that has to do more with the expats/tourists than the city itself. After visiting six times, I wasn’t a fan. With that said, you have to visit. Why? Because it’s not “that” bad of a place to visit and no visit to Thailand is truly complete without visiting the “Capital of Northern Thailand”. And if I’m completely honest, there are aspects of Chiang Mai that blow other destinations out of the water including Bangkok and the Thai Islands. From stunning nature hikes to delicious cuisine, this guide to Chiang Mai will show you a few of the places and things that make this northern Thailand destination so popular. Let’s start with a few reasons you have to visit Chiang Mai
The Food is Outstanding and Unique
Food is my thing. Especially Thai food. And the best Thai cuisine is in Chiang Mai. It’s important to understand why Chiang Mai cuisine is so different than the rest of Thailand. Geography, as is the case with most cuisines, played a significant role in the development of this distinct food haven in Thailand. Chiang Mai was once isolated from its southern sister cities. They lacked the access to coconut milk, pal sugar, and fish sauce that was so prevalent in the south. Instead, they used herbs and roots. Not to mention lots of spice. Spicy food at is core is Lanna (northern Thailand). Specifically, Sai Oua sausage which is almost half herb, and Laab. Minced pork with chiles.
Must try dishes include Sai Oua (Chiang Mai Sausage), Khao Soi, and Laap Kua Mu (aka Laab)
One of Thailands Cheapest Destinations
Chiang Mai is crawling with digital nomads and retirees. Why? One of the prime reasons is that it’s extremely affordable. Significantly cheaper than Bangkok or the Thai islands while still affording visitors many western services and amenities. For example, renting a motorbike for the day costs only 99 Baht to 150 baht.
Everything from food to lodging is just plain cheap. And of high quality making Chiang Mai one of the world’s best travel values. If you’re looking to shop for souvenirs, make sure to wait until you arrive in Chiang Mai. Some great deals to be had. Don’t forget to haggle.
World’s Best Elephant Conservatory: Elephant Nature Park
At no other time in human history has animal welfare been such a highly visible issue. At the forefront of the anti-animal tourism industry is Lek. Founder of Elephant Nature Park, an Elephant Sanctuary, and rehab center outside of Chiang Mai. Here guest have an opportunity to see and interact with elephants in a non-abusive and educational way. With proceeds going towards the direct care of these majestic creatures. Not a bad way to spend a holiday.
Chiang Mai Travel Guide Essentials
Drop A Few Dollars
The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar has become a staple of all Chiang Mai travel itineraries. Not only can you find outstanding deals on souvenirs, but the food is some of Thailand’s best. I recommend you only buy clothes and small souvenirs here. And assume any name brand items are fakes. Excellent quality, but fake. Good place to find women’s clothing and accessories. Expect to spend a couple of hours here haggling and browsing. Lots to choose. Try to go on a Sunday evening if possible. Set uo begins around 18:00 and runs until about 22:00. Head over about 20:00 when things are in full swing.
Shopping Tip: HAGGLE HAGGLE HAGGLE. Everything is negotiable in Thailand. Especially at night markets. Remember, each vendor is a small business owner. They have the freedom and flexibility to charge whatever they want. But don’t come at them with an insultingly low offer. If something is 300 baht, suggest 150. Usually, you can meet around 200. It all depends on the vendor and item. However, a couple of things that can play in your favor are smiling, walking away, and being respectful.
Clear Your Plate at Davids Kitchen at 909
Consistently voted the best restaurant in Chiang Mai, David’s Kitchen at 909 combines fine dining with Thai affordability to create a must visit restaurant. Proprietor David Gordon personally greets every guest and ensures each meal is a memorable one. Advertised as a French fusion restaurant, I can assure you of one thing. This place is the perfect example of Thai fine dining. The one-two combination of charm and grace that is David and his wife Prom makes you feel like you’re truly in their home.
Executive Chef O is not only a brilliant culinary artist, but he’s just plain cool. Walk into the kitchen and you’ll find a t-shirt and jean clad General of gastronomy. Chef O has managed to create dishes that aren’t just delicious but filling as well. Something that’s long been lacking in fine dining circles. Classically trained under French and German chefs, Chef O has created a menu that’s his own. Combining western staples with eastern surprises. When speaking about David’s Kitchen, Chef O says “My aim is to keep this place full by consistently cooking great food.” Mission Accomplished.
I recommend the Roasted Pork tenderloin with apple chutney and red wine sauce for the pork lovers. Sweet and tangy. Also, the Braised lamb shank slow-cooked in red wine with Paris mash. To call this tender would be an understatement.
Lay Your Head at the Rachamankha
I can appreciate chain hotels. Hell, I’ve worked with and promoted several. But there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, like independent boutique hotels. The Secret Retreats brand (which also represents Davids Kitchen) has brought together a collective of beautiful properties under one banner, and my first experience was here. And might I say, I’m quite impressed. Rachamankha was an excellent introduction to the quality, service, exclusivity, and excellence that Secret Retreat properties pride themselves on.
Rachamankha’s Owner/Architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu has created a Chinese-style residence which boasts Lanna stylization. Reaching back to traditional Northern Thai design for inspiration. The property boasts 22 courtyard rooms, 2 two bedroom suites, on-site restaurant, spa, and one of the nicest libraries I’ve seen in any boutique hotel. Although the exterior is a hybrid of Chinese and Thai design, inside the rooms you’ll see a more modern take on these designs.
Architecture aside, Rachamankha just might be one of the best-located properties in Chiang Mai. Not far from several major temples and Chiang Mai attractions. It’s especially convenient if you decide to rent a motorbike to explore Chiang Mai which I highly recommend. And nothing beats a nice swim or massage after a long day of exploring. Both of which Rachamankha happily facilitate in world class facilities with a flair for the exquisite. Make no mistake. This is the perfect Chiang Mai base.
Raise Your Glass (Bar/Wine)
Chiang Mai has no shortage of places to grab a quick pint or glass of wine. But a few standout. If you’re looking for your favorite beer, you might want to try the Beer Republic. The Beer Republic rotates over 50 international draft beers on 15 in-house taps. If you’re in the mood for a glass of wine, check out The Writers Club & Wine Bar. It’s near Wat Pan Tao in the Old Center so easy to find.
Chiang Mai has something to offer nearly everyone. Even a “hater” like myself. And if I’m honest, it’s a place that can grow on you rather quickly. So be careful. You just might find yourself signing a condo lease.
This guide was produced in partnership with the wonderful Secret Retreats collective of accommodations, restaurants, and spas.