Thailand is magical, and Chiang Mai is no exception. What you’ll get in Chiang Mai is a unique opportunity to connect to nature, some amazing food, and a peculiar city that is both energizing and relaxing all at once.
Where to Stay:
The Marndadee Heritage Village is not your typical hotel, but then I suppose Chiang Mai isn’t your typical city. The grounds of the Marndadee consist of a handful of rice barns converted into wonderfully charming villas. This hotel exceeded my wildest notion of boutique. It was unique and beautiful, relaxing and endearing. A little oasis amidst a whirlwind of a trip with river views from nearly every room. I wish I could harness the calmness that awashed over me as I sipped my coffee watching the sun rise lazily over the horizon of my balcony. This picture barely does it justice.
The downfall is that the Marndadee is located 30 minutes from the city center and it is nearly impossible to direct one of the ‘cabs’ (pick up trucks with benches in the back) to the hotel. The restaurant at the hotel is also very disappointing. They attempted to cater too much to the Western diet, but it was very poorly executed. I was thoroughly disappointed by every meal I ate during my stay.
There are plenty of hotels located within the bustling town, but you don’t go to Chiang Mai for the city necessarily, you go for the wildlife. If I ever get the chance to return, I will stay at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, where I can wake up to the sounds of elephants roaming by my room. Alas the Marndadee is a great runner up for anyone who is money conscious, but still craves a genuine connection with nature.
What to do:
Before you even book your flight to Chiang Mai and think about whether or not you can empty your savings at the Four Seasons, I need you to book your visit to Patara Elephant Farm. It is life changing. Absolutely no other way to put it. Read my full review here. Please be wary of booking at any other elephant sanctuary, as some have a long history of mistreating these magnificent animals. Your trip to Chiang Mai should revolve around your day at Patara. Everything else (that you’ll ever do in your life) will pale in comparison.
For your other days in Chiang Mai, I recommend renting a vespa from Pop Service Car and Motorcycle Rentals and cruising up to see the temples and King’s Palace. The winding ride up the mountainside is breathtaking and much more enjoyable on a vespa. If we had more time, I would have suggested we do a longer and more scenic motorbike ride like the one detailed on Lonely Planet’s site (here!). Actually… we would have done this loop if the couple we were traveling with didn’t have such a difficult time getting their vespas under control. A note to the wise about renting: they drive on the opposite side of the road in Thailand. I also should mention that the winding roads are heavily populated with motorists zooming in and out of traffic. Now that I think of it, I’m not even quite sure if there are any actual driving laws in Thailand… and if there are, they definitely aren’t heavily enforced. All of this? I found absolutely thrilling. But our travel buddies didn’t share the same sentiment. They ended up having a taxi-truck follow us on our bike trip.
Vespa or not, what’s a day in southeast Asia without visiting a temple or two? Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is magnificent in all it’s golden glory and well worth the visit. At the base you’ll find vendors selling everything from fried quail eggs to my cryptonite, jackfruit. Make your way past the jewelry stands and up the 300 or so steps to the temple and enjoy the serenity of the expansive temple grounds. Make sure to stop and give a bit of change to the children dressed in traditional costumes along the climb (believe me, you’ll need the break). After you’ve admired the beautiful view, ditch your shoes, purchase some flowers, and enter into the holy spaces. Pay your respects by leaving the flowers (and a wish!) before your favorite Buddha statue.
Since you’re already so far up Mount Suthep, there’s no reason not to continue to the King’s summer palace, Bang Pa. While I don’t recommend spending too much time exploring the grounds, I would suggest taking a stroll through the rose gardens. I have never seen anything like it. Every variation of flower you could ever possibly imagine. Some of them so fragrant, others brilliantly colored. While you should be mindful to have your shoulders and knees covered throughout your Southeast Asia trip, they are particularly strict about it here. If you happen to be dressed inappropriately the guards will make you cover yourself with rented clothes.
The Night Bazaar can’t be missed. An entire section of the city is taken over by little pop up tents selling every thing imaginable… and all at unbeatable prices. Bargaining is the norm, so feel free to barter until your hearts content. Every cab driver or tuk tuk will know how to get you here, but just for your reference point, it’s located on Thanon Chang Khlan, adjacent to the walled city.
Aroon Rai Restaurant doesn’t particularly look like a friendly place to enjoy a good Thai meal, but believe me… the food is incredible. Get the curry and an ice cold Chaing Mai beer. A lot of the restaurants in town are catered to tourists, Aroon Rai isn’t one of them. If you’re looking for great atmosphere and decent food, I suggest checking out Good View Restaurant. I’m not one for slandering, but I strongly discourage anyone from dining at Dukes. The service is God awful and the owner is a pig. Aside from Aroon Rai and Good View, I’d fill up on street food as much as you can in Chaing Mai, or sneak down one of the food court stalls of the night market for some kow soy (noodle soup).