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We’ve been there and done that and here’s why you should too

Chiang Mai truly is Thailand’s hidden gem. Phuket may have beach-front luxury, Bangkok may be bursting with bright lights and bustling streets, while Koh Samui boasts stunning islands views. But the truth is the largest city in Northern Thailand hasn’t been getting the rep it deserves, until now. Temple-hoppers will wonder at the architectural masterpieces, zen-gurus can immerse themselves in the tropical hills and animal-lovers can get acquainted with one of the most intelligent creatures known to man, in an ethical environment. 

We believe Chiang Mai is one of the most enchanting places in Thailand, if not the world, and so does our content writer Ellena Rowlin, who spent a week lapping up the city’s charm and culture.

Temple hopping is the new island hopping

The Golden Temple
It was impossible to travel anywhere in Thailand without being met by some of the finest examples of Buddhist temples and architecture. Gold pagodas beamed the radiant sunlight back into my wondrous eyes many times, while I gazed in awe at the procession of orange clothed monks sweeping past me in a calm and orderly fashion. Going to temple is definitely a lifestyle here, and one that I felt I had to immerse myself in to enhance my understanding of this magnificent country. 

Bangkok’s Grand Palace may hog the limelight from what I read and saw, but Chiang Mai has both modern and ancient temples so beautifully designed and constructed I couldn’t escape their charm. Wat Chedi Luang (Wat means temple in Thai, so keep an eye out for that when temple hopping) was right at home in the Old City, constructed back in the 14th century, looking like something out of an historic civilisation. The only remaining temple out of the original three took the spotlight though, with the intricate stone carvings leading up the stairs to the grand entrances on each of the four sides taking my breath away. Wat Chiang Man is another stunner, with a striking ‘Elephant Chedi’ casting a shadow upon the elegant exterior of the Wihan (the religious house). 

The main star of the show, however, is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the golden temple, where an image akin to royalty awaits to reward you after ascending the 309 steps. And that’s after you’ve made the nine-mile journey up the 3,445ft mountain – I recommend renting your own scooter (if you can safely drive one) so you can feel the wind in your hair and hear the chimes of the temple on your way up. Once you’re face to face with a gold new world, you’ll appreciate the climb you just made with glistening buddhas, Wihans and the iconic pagoda in the middle giving you an unforgettable walkway to the sweeping views across Chiang Mai that greet you on the other side.

With more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai - they outnumber 7/11 stores, which takes some doing in Thailand – you won’t be stuck finding one to explore. Other memorable ones are the silver temple (Wat Sri Suphan) and Wat Chedi Liam. But honestly, I could’ve spent days pounding the pavements of the city coming across both grand and intimate temples, standing proud in the middle of a motorbike-rammed street, or hidden down a backstreet alley. 

WINGED BOOTS WISDOM

Remember to always dress respectfully when visiting temples or sacred sites – women must cover their knees and shoulders, and men should avoid vests or swimming shorts. If you forget you can usually buy or rent some sort of cover up at many of the temples, and you may have to remove your shoes in certain ones.

Wake me up before you go-go… on a tuk-tuk

Ristr8to
Street art outside a coffee shop
If there’s ever a reason to stick in the centre of Chiang Mai, this is it. Listen up caffeine addicts because the city has the best coffee culture across the whole of Thailand – I can guarantee you won’t know where to start and where to end when you start researching for your hit list. It’s pretty easy to lose the day finding the cutest little cafés, traditional and contemporary, some looking like they’re out of the rice fields of Bali, and some that could’ve been plucked straight from the streets of Soho. And who could turn down a deconstructed latte served on a plank of wood in temperatures of plus 40 degrees? My absolute favourite had to be Ristr8to –it may be hyped all over Instagram and visited by every vlogger possible, but the extensive menu (we’re talking over ten pages), skull shaped glasses and unicorn latte art makes it worth it. Another one I heard of but never got the chance to go to was Fact Café, where rustic wooden panels frame the exposed lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling and art paraphernalia is perched on the walls, all served alongside deliciously caffeinated beverages. The one thing they all have in common, though, is surprisingly great coffee. Northern Thailand wouldn’t be where I expect to find fabulous tasting brews, ranging from deep chocolate tones to light and airy tastes but it turns out you can’t go to this bustling city without seeing a thousand different shop fronts, all trying to earn your choice of morning pick me up. 

Thai your hand at cooking

What does one do on their birthday whilst in Chiang Mai? A cookery class, of course! Celebrating my 23 years while learning how to make a fragrant green Thai curry and turn hand-grated coconut into my very own fresh milk was as unique as it was incredibly enjoyable. Greeted by a wonderful woman named May, who spoke impeccable English, we were invited into her endearing and authentically- Thai home, surrounded by rice fields and tranquil silence. Straw hat on, apron tied, and basket in-hand we head out into her herb and flower garden at the side of the house, where we picked every herb and seasoning we would need in the recipes from lemongrass to coriander, basil to chilli. Once being shown how to do every one of the six dishes, we were left to our own devices to see how far we could get without inevitably calling May’s name in a slightly worried and high-pitched tone. 

On the menu for our full-day experience – half day classes are also available – was spring rolls, pad Thai, chicken coconut soup (Tom Kna Gai), green Thai curry, deep-fried banana and mango sticky rice with homemade coconut milk. All the courses had a few different options, so everyone’s tastes were acquired for, including my nut-allergic boyfriend, which is not easy in Asia! The way that I’ll always remember it, though, was escaping the erratic streets of the city to this serenity of home-cooking and genuine hospitality, where I learnt tricks of the Thai trade that will stick with me forever. Chiang Mai seems to be quite the hotspot to learn the art of the country’s cuisine, and while we went to ‘Thai Cooking School’, many others are on offer. Most are vegetarian and vegan friendly, as Thai recipes tend to only use coconut milk, spices and vegetables anyway! 

Elephants never forget… and you won’t either

This has to be the most memorable part of my trip to Chiang Mai. Once you pull yourself away from the sinking white sands and sapphire waters of the coastline and islands, thick tropical jungle emerges, complete with crashing waterfalls and rolling hills spread with luscious green forest. This dramatic landscape sets the scene perfectly for animal sanctuaries, in particular, elephant sanctuaries. I couldn’t recommend this experience anymore, however, please be careful when choosing where to go. A lot of so-called elephant sanctuaries claim to be rescuing and rehabilitating elephants when they’re in fact doing the complete opposite. Abuse towards elephants is not uncommon in places like Thailand, and only a handful of sanctuaries in Chiang Mai are 100 percent saddle-off and chain-free – if you care about the elephant’s welfare you shouldn’t ever ride them or fund somewhere that offers this ‘experience’. 

My personal recommendation would be Elephant Nature Park, who are recognised across the country as being a completely legitimate sanctuary, all started by one woman with a plight to save the elephants she saw so mentally and physically hurt. My day was filled with wonder and awe from the moment we got in the early morning transfer, weaving us through climbing mountains and squeezing us round the tightest corners known to man, against a backdrop of deep jungle. After two hours of travelling we arrived at a stunning, secluded elephant haven in the valley surrounded by absolute peace. First, we were treated to feeding time with three majestic elephants, where we threw bananas in their mouths and shook hands with their trunks. We then trekked up into the forest with them, still feeding of course, and learnt some more about how the tribe is being re-educated by the charity on how to treat these loving animals. After a delicious Thai spread for lunch, we got the chance to bathe with the elephants- one of the most treasured memories of my life. Lathering mud and pouring buckets of murky water all over them, I was sure I saw a glisten in their eyes longing for more. This level of intimacy was a once in a lifetime experience, and the feeling of knowing we were helping to fund amazing work made it all the more unforgettable. 

Easy as Pai

Container Cafe
Bamboo Bridge
It takes a while for the sights and activities of Chiang Mai to leave you wanting a scenery change, but when you do the small hippie town of Pai, only a few hours’ drive from the city, is the perfect sanctuary. Sitting in the valley on the banks of the Pai River, it’s known for its laid-back vibe, eco-huts and yoga camps. I rented a scooter, seeing as it’s the only way to get around and headed into the lush mountains, minutes’ away from the centre, to explore some of what this little town has to offer. Head to Pai’s answer to the Grand Canyon for great views and trepid walks along ridges, or to the Bamboo Bridge for the perfect Instagram shot. When it comes to cuisine, Pai is all about the health. Think avocado toast, buckwheat shots and spinach smoothies – and the occasional cocktail once the suns gone down. All potential visitors must be warned, however, of the journey from Chiang Mai to Pai and back because it is one to remember, for a variety of reasons. Featuring 762 bends through the Thai countryside, I could only hope that the incredible views would subside the car-sickness which it did, luckily. Although I’m sure the travel sickness tablets I popped before may have had a helping hand! The relaxed feel and magical landscape are worth it though, and I truly have never been to a place quite like it.

Lathering mud and pouring buckets of murky water all over them, I was sure I saw a glisten in their eyes longing for more.

Final Thoughts

Thailand will forever be a destination visited by a few and coveted by many, however Chiang Mai still remains fairly unknown to a lot of travellers. Now is the time to get ahead of the trend and escape to the city that offers spa getaways in the misty mountains and an epicentre of activities where you can get exploring and discover invigorating culture. Whether relaxing, rambling or running alongside elephants is your style, Chiang Mai has it all – I know that, because I did all three! Head up into the hills for the most luxurious properties, offering undisturbed views of rice fields and Lili-pad ponds. Or alternatively stay in the hustle and bustle of the city, with some of the most beautiful resorts tucked right beside famous temples.

How do I book?

If you fancy yourself marvelling at the wonders of this northern Thai gem then give one of our personal travel managers a call on 0203 816 0985 or enquire here to start designing your bespoke trip to the land of exquisite food, inspiring architecture and breath-taking landscapes. 
Ellena Rowlin

Ellena Rowlin is a Content Writer

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