One dollar street food and 5-star hotels, hipster coffee shops and jungle-covered hills, monthly festivals and nightly markets – two days in Chiang Mai are simply not enough to do this northern Thai town justice. The country’s cultural capital is home to more artisans, food stalls, cafes and cheap massage shops than you’ll know what to do with, and that’s just in town. A trip to Chiang Mai wouldn’t be complete without at least one day experiencing its national parks, elephant sanctuaries or cooking classes in the rice fields.
If you are just going to stay in town, however, here’s where to go to fit as much into two days as possible.
Start the day with breakfast at Overstand. Thai food is excellent… unfortunately, Thai breakfasts leave something to be desired. Unless you’re happy having boiled rice soup or barbecued pork skewers for breakfast, splurge on some more international favorites in the morning then enjoy Thai food the rest of the day.
Take time to wander the 720-year-old Old City by foot. From the café, walk to Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phan Tao, two of Chiang Mai’s iconic temples, before walking northeast to hit the Three Kings Monument then get lost in the sois (small roads or alleys).
Find your way to the tiny, minimalist Graph Café for a quick caffeine break.
Next walk to Warorot Market. On the way to the market, along Chiang Moi Road, there are some interesting shops selling handmade wicker furniture, baskets and all other types of household items – even slippers!
Wander Warorot Market, a crowded, hot maze of sois with stores and stalls selling just about everything – from gold jewelry to live turtles. To really explore the market, and not get too overwhelmed, take your time and make plenty of snack stops to refuel. Make sure to head into the mass of buildings to find a three-story market hall. When it’s time to go, head east to the river (if you have your bearings, continue following the road by which you came into the market until it comes to a T at the river) to visit the stalls along the river selling fresh flowers and garlands.
Following the river to the north, cross over at the bridge then turn left at the light onto Charoenrat Road. After just a few meters you’ll come across a home on your left that serves up some of the best duck noodles in town, วังสิงห์คำก๋วยเตี๋ยวเป็ดตุ๋น or Wang Sing Kham.
From the noodle shop, turn right and walk straight through the intersection, continuing south on Charoenrat Road to walk through the historic Wat Ket neighborhood along the river. Here you’ll find several boutiques as well as cafes and restaurants.
Depending on the day, you’ll have several options for your evening activities. Chiang Mai holds popular night markets including the Saturday Walking Street on Wualai Road and the Sunday Walking Street running east-west through the center of the Old City. Make your way to that night’s market to shop for souvenirs – there are hundreds of stalls selling clothes, gifts, art, home décor, etc. – piece together dinner by trying the street eats, people watch while getting a foot massage and simply soak up the atmosphere. Both markets really get going around 6:00 PM (expect crowds) and run until around 11:00 PM.
If you’re not in Chiang Mai on the weekend but still want to pick up some gifts, grab a street food dinner at Chiang Mai Gate (the south gate of the Old City) then take a tuk tuk or songthaew to the Night Bazaar on the east side of town. Be warned that this is set up solely for tourists and lacks an “authentic” ambiance, however, you’ll find many of the same goods sold at the walking streets and it’s open every evening of the week starting around 5:30-6:00 PM.
Catch the colorful ladyboy cabaret show at the Night Bazaar’s Anusarn Market. Shows run nightly starting at 9:30 PM but you’ll want to get there early to grab a seat.
Have a small bite at your hotel then make your way up Doi Suthep – the mountain on the west side of town. The earlier you can get started, the better. If you’re comfortable driving, then the most convenient way to make your way to the mountain is by renting your own motorbike (rent it the evening before so you can get an early start.) You can also hire a taxi, driver or tuk tuk through your hotel.
Go straight up the mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep before the tour buses start arriving. Explore the mountaintop temple – the most revered in the area–and golden chedi. Afterward, drive back with one stop at another temple, Wat Palat, about halfway down the mountain (turn right when you see a large white Buddha shrine on the right-hand side of the road and follow the narrow lane down into the trees).
Continue driving back toward town stopping in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. Have a real brunch at Rustic & Blue or The Larder Café & Bar.
Wander around Nimmanhaemin Road checking out the variety of shops. Think Park, Ginger, Chabaa toward the north end of the road are notable beginnings.
Drive or get a ride to Baan Kang Wat, a charming artist’s village with small boutiques, studios and cafes.
Make an appointment at Fah Lanna Spa at 2:15 PM and head back into the Old City to the spa. While a one-hour Thai massage is the basic offering, splurge for a treatment package that will last two to three hours, including an aromatherapy steam and two different types of massage.
If you need a bite to eat, grab something from the attached Fah Tara Café (go for the khao soi or phad thai for upscale versions of the classic street food favorites) or walk about ten minutes to Khao Soi Sirichai for a bowl of Chiang Mai’s iconic curry noodle dish, khao soi, or khao mun gai, boiled chicken served on fragrant rice with sauce. Afterward, head back to hotel to relax and get ready for the evening.
Make a reservation in advance for dinner at The Riverside restaurant and bar. The Chiang Mai institution manages to be popular with locals, tourists and expats for a nice, but casual, meal complete with live music. To make it extra special, book a spot on the restaurant’s riverboat for just an extra 150 baht (about $5) per person. You can order anything off the regular menu but then also enjoy a 75-minute nighttime cruise along the Mae Ping River as you enjoy your meal.
After dinner, stick around at The Riverside to enjoy the fun cover bands, walk across the Iron Bridge for a beer at Bus Bar, or head to the North Gate Jazz Co-Op in the Old City for more live music.
Where to Stay
Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette
Where: 181 Chareonrat Road
Why: Charming boutique hotel with an eclectic mix of Asia decor on the river.
Where: 17/5 Sainamphueng Road
Why: This trendy hotel is owned by a Thai actor and has the best rooftop bar in the city.
Where: 18 Soi 8 Phrapokklao Road
Why: Boutique hotel with Buddhist design touches.
99 The Gallery Hotel
Where: 99 Inthawarowat Road
Why: Excellent location in the center of the Old City with subtle elegance.
Where to Eat & Drink
Where: 19/3 Soi 2 Rachamangkha
Why: Western-style breakfast/lunch and good coffee. Vegetarian and vegan options available.
Where: 25/1 Ratvithi Soi 1
Why: No food…just high quality coffee and inventive signature drinks, like the “Monochrome” made with activated charcoal.
Wangsinghkham Duck Noodles
Where: 203/1 Charoenrat Road
Why: Savoury bowls of noodle soup with roasted duck.
Chiang Mai Gate Street Food
Where: South Gate of the Old City
Why: Thai street food – made-to-order stir-fries, curries, soups, barbecue…everything!
Rustic & Blue
Where: Nimmanhaemin Soi 7 toward Nimmanhaemin Road
Why: Western meals made with lots of farm fresh produce and ingredients. Plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available.
The Larder Café & Bar
Where: 3/9 Sukkasame Road
Why: Western-style breakfast and lunches. Vegetarian and vegan options available.
Fah Tara Coffee
Where: 57 Wiang Kaew Road
Why: Thai and Western
Khao Soi Sirichai
Where: At intersection of Intrawarorot Road and Jhaban Road in the Old City
Why: Thai – mainly khao soi and khao mun gai
Where: 9-11 Charoenrat Road
Why: Thai and Western
Where: On the west side of the Iron Bridge
Why: Thai and beer/whiskey
The North Gate Jazz Co-Op
Where: 95/1-2 Sri Phum Road
Why: Just bar drinks
What to See & Do
Wat Chedi Luang & Wat Phan Tao
Where: Praproklao Road near Klangwiang Intersection in the Old Cty
Why: Two unique temples right next to each other in the center of the Old City.
Where: 90 Wichayanon Rd
Why: Traditional Asian market selling EVERYTHING.
Saturday Night Walking Street
Where: Wualai Road
Why: Popular night market with locals and travellers.
Sunday Night Walking Street
Where: Rachadamnoen Road
Why: Iconic night market with more than 1.5 kilometres of stalls.
Doi Suthep / Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Where: Suthep Road on Suthep Mountain
Why: Beautiful ride, beautiful views, beautiful temple.
Where: 18.799546, 98.934601
Why: Unique jungle temple that’s still under the radar.
Baan Kang Wat
Where: 18.776167, 98.949047 (across from Wat Ram Poeng)
Why: Cute artist’s village with shops and cafes.
Fah Lanna Spa
Where: 57/1 Wiang Kaew Road
Why: Thai massage!
Lady Boy Cabaret at Anusarn Market
Where: Chang Klan Road in between Loi Kroh and Sridonchai Roads
Why: Why not?
Where: Nimmanhaemin Road at the intersection with Huay Kaew Road and Highway 11
Why: Mix of boutiques and restaurants.
Where: 14/32 Nimman Promenade on Nimmanhaemin Road
Why: Brightly colored tribal clothing, accessories and décor.
Where: 6/21 Nimmanhaemin Road
Why: Eclectic clothing and accessories from a local brand.
Where: Chang Klan Road in between Tha Pae and Sridonchai Roads
Why: Open every night selling souvenirs, clothes and crafts.