Escape to Chiang Mai: 3-Day Itinerary
Do you believe in love at first sight? Well, I do! That’s exactly what I felt when I first set foot in Thailand’s northern capital. After a 2-day whirlwind stay in Bangkok, Chiang Mai was a much needed breath of fresh air. With an abundance of magnificent temples, a plethora of delicious food options and a stunning scenery of rolling hills and jungles, Chiang Mai has easily charmed its way into becoming one of my favorite cities in the world.
Once a sleepy area with a population of around 200,00 (compared to Bangkok’s 8 million), Chiang Mai has recently seen a steady increase of travelers exploring the region thanks to its idyllic setting and laid-back atmosphere; something Bangkok fails to offer. Although James and I only spent 3 days exploring the city, I instantly felt a connection with Chiang Mai. I don’t know if it’s the people, the culture or the scenery; perhaps even all three, collectively luring travelers like me to fall in love with this charming city.
Things to know before you go
Currency: Thai Baht ($1 = 33.23 Baht/Updated: August 2017).
Language: Thai and English. For the most part, everyone we met spoke some English but I recommend learning a few Thai phrases like “Thank you” or “Hello”.
Best time to visit: For the best weather (between November-April). For less crowds (between June-October). We visited in June and it was hot and humid! It rained sporadically, which I liked because it was a nice break from the heat.
How to get around: Songthaews/Shared taxis (most common transportation), Tuk Tuk, Taxi, Bicycle, Walk. From our experience, Chiang Mai is very walkable. We also felt safe walking around at night. We had no problems getting around because our hotel was close to restaurants and shops.
Where to Eat
- Woo Cafe
- Akha Ama Coffee
- The Larder
- Rustic and Blue
- Khao Soi Khun Yai
- Tikky Cafe
- Ristr8to Coffee
- Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden
Where to Stay
137 Pillars House Chiang Mai
This chic 30-suite boutique property, located in the quiet Wat Gate neighborhood, was recently named as Travel and Leisure’s #1 resort hotel in Southeast Asia. Yep, no big deal. Just the leading travel publication in the world, acknowledging how amazing 137 Pillars Chiang Mai is. After staying at their sister property in Bangkok, I noticed right away the contrast between the two properties. While the Bangkok hotel boasts a modern and sleek design, the Chiang Mai hotel is full of history and character. Full review soon!
Relax and enjoy hotel amenities, Dinner and Night Bazaar
From Bangkok, we arrived in Chiang Mai shortly after noon. Since its our first day in the city, we decided to just take it easy and relax inside the hotel property. Before sunset, we grabbed dinner at Woo Cafe – a cafe and art gallery located just 2 min away from our hotel. I really love the overall aesthetic and ambiance of this cafe. If Anthropologie had a restaurant, it would look something like this. Their food is quite tasty and their drinks are yummy! I definitely recommend stopping by for lunch or dinner.
After stuffing our faces with Thai food, we headed for The Night Bazaar. The Night Bazaar was easy to spot as the streets were filled with stalls lined up side by side. If you’re looking for souvenirs, then this is the place to be. We didn’t really plan on buying anything but we did grab a few items for our family and friends back home. They have all sorts of souvenirs like the famous elephant pants (yes I bought one haha), trinkets, antiques and handicraft wood work. Basically, any souvenir you can think of. You do need to haggle because some items are waaay overpriced. If you’re not a fan of night markets/bazaar or simply do not have the patience to haggle then just go for the experience.
A Day with the Elephants
Without a doubt, the highlight of our trip to Chiang Mai. I was so excited to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity of caring for elephants and seeing them up close at the renowned Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center located 37 miles from the city. There are so many “sanctuaries” in Chiang Mai but based from my research, ENP is the most ethical out of all of them. Every time I look through our photos from the park, I couldn’t help but smile because well, elephants are so damn cute and adorable! If there’s one thing you have to do in Chiang Mai during your visit, this is it! You have to set aside a full day for this because the single day visit is from 8:00 am – 5/5:30 pm. It’s definitely a unique opportunity that you don’t want to miss out on.
Side note: I’m writing a separate post about my experience with more cute elephant photos and details about the organization, so keep an eye out for that.
Single Day Visit (2,500 Baht/$75 per person), Lunch and Pick up/Drop off included.
Cooking Class, Temples, Thai Massage
Our third and final day in Chiang Mai was spent in the Old City. Aside from hanging out with the elephants, I was really thrilled to learn how to cook authentic Thai food. This has been on my “must do” list ever since I started traveling. And what better way to learn than from the locals themselves. I booked our cooking class through Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School. What I like about Asia Scenic is they’re very organized and booking is hassle free. Once you book through their website, they email you right away to confirm the time and date of your class. You don’t need to pay anything up front, just make sure you have cash on the day of your class. I chose the half-day morning class for us so we can explore and visit the temples in the afternoon.
The cooking school was clean, spacious and homey. I like that they separated us into smaller groups to make it easier for the teacher to help us individually. After settling in, we toured a nearby market to check out some ingredients we would be using for our dishes. I’ve never been to a Thai market before so I thought this was pretty interesting. Our instructor Chana, showed us different spices and produce often used in Thai cooking.
We made a total of 5 dishes that day. 3 were pre-selected (spring rolls, curry paste, curry) and the other 2 we had to select if we want stir fry/dessert or soup. I chose to cook pad thai, red curry and deep fried bananas. While James picked pad see ew, panang curry and sticky rice with mango. I was so proud of us because everything tasted delicious! We were so full and had food babies for the rest of the day. As a departing gift, they gave us a cookbook with all of the dishes we prepared that day. How awesome is that?
Full Day (9am-3pm) Cook in town (1,000 Baht/$30 per person) or Cook at farm (1,200 Baht/$36 per person), Pickup/Drop off included.
Half Day AM (9am-1pm) 800 Baht/$24 per person or Half Day PM (5pm-9pm) 800 Baht/$24 per person
Visit their website for more information: Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School
After our cooking class, we got dropped off at Wat Chedi Luang, a towering temple located in the heart of the city. It was once the tallest structure during its time, standing at 80 meters high but was unfortunately damaged by an earthquake in the 16th century. What I like the most about this temple is its unique appearance. It’s unlike any of the temples we’ve seen in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It looks like it belongs in Angkor Wat, doesn’t it?
The second temple we saw was Wat Phra Singh. It was built in 1345 by King Pha Yu to enshrine his father’s ashes. In present time, the temple is active and houses hundreds of monks.
Before heading back to our hotel, we soothed our aching feet by getting a foot massage at a nearby spa. It was the perfect moment to get it because just as we entered the spa, the rain started pouring. I recommend Lila Thai Massage, established by a former director of Chiang Mai Women Prison. Lila Thai Massage helps eliminate the cycle of crime and lack of opportunity by supporting the lives of newly released inmates, training and allowing them to make a living. A 1-hr foot massage cost 200 Baht/$6.