21 December 2023

Four Days in Chiang Mai: Elephant Encounters, Cooking and Monastic Hikes

From Bangkok, I took a short flight to Chiang Mai and spent four full days exploring the former capital of the Lanna kingdom and the nearby area. With a wider urban population of close to 1.2 million, Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand but the Old City and central area are relatively compact and it's easy to get around on foot or by hopping into a songthaew (shared van) or tuk tuk.

From stunning temples and beautiful nature hikes, to foodie heaven and some excellent speciality coffee shops, Chiang Mai has a lot to offer. And that's without mentioning the truly magical afternoon I spent at the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary. I hope this *very* detailed post inspires you to plan your own trip to Chiang Mai!


THINGS TO DO

Wat's going on?

Chiang Mai has more than 300 Buddhist temples (wat, in Thai) and I visited several during my trip. As with all temples in Thailand, you should cover your shoulders, upper arms and legs before entering. You'll need to take off your shoes before entering some buildings so you may wish to consider wearing socks. 

Wat Phra Singh is perhaps the most famous temple in Chiang Mai and after the hectic crowds of the 'big four' temples in Bangkok, I was expecting it to be just as busy. In fact, it was much less crowded during my Friday afternoon visit. Perhaps everyone had visited earlier in the week during Loy Krathong. There were still some colourful lanterns left over from the festival. Wat Phra Singh's original construction dates back to 1345 and it has beautiful golden spires — chedi in Thai — adorned with elephants, a popular decorative feature in this city. I can't remember the last time I saw so much gold! Inside the various buildings, you can find monks praying and, in some cases, providing some information about the temple and Buddhism.


Another popular Old City temple to visit is Wat Chedi Luang, built in the 15th century and characterised by its now partly ruined stone chedi with its stone elephant 'guardians'. There is a 50 THB (£1.15) entrance fee for tourists and there were only a few other tourists there when I visited. There is also a reclining Buddha statue but if you've already been to Wat Pho in Bangkok, it's not on the same scale. Note that women are not permitted to enter one of the buildings. Just next door is Wat Phan Tao, with its wooden ceremonial hall. I visited once by day and then peeked through the gates to see it lit up by night.



Hiking the Monk's Trail

Two other famous temples in the Chiang Mai area, Wat Pha Lat and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, are located partway up Doi Suthep mountain. To get to these temples, you can join a tour, take a taxi or songthaew or hike from the city centre but you first have to walk west beyond the Chiang Mai University campus, which will take an hour or so. The next part of the route — known as the Monk's Trail — is steep but mostly shaded and goes up to Wat Pha Lat and then on to Wat Phra That Doi Sutep. I decided to take a Grab to the start of the Monk's Trail: it's labelled in Google Maps as Wat Pha Lat Hike (Monk's Trail) and in Grab as 'Pha Lat Nature Trail Information Center'. The journey took about 20 minutes and cost 180 THB (£4). It is much cheaper by songthaew but you may have to wait for enough passengers before the vehicle sets off.

From the start point, it took me about 25 minutes to hike to Wat Pha Lat. I started around 9:30 am — later than I planned and although it was still cooler (around 24C) in Chiang Mai, it soon got hot on the trail, especially as I was wearing long trousers to enter the temples. The trail is a little uneven in places but not too difficult and before long you will reach the temple and be rewarded with a great view of the city. The temple itself, tucked away among the trees and surrounded by flowing water, is a beautiful and peaceful place.


As the first hike had gone well, I decided to carry on to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. You just head through the back of Wat Pha Lat, cross the road and follow the power lines up the mountain. Simple! This section was steeper and with uneven terrain — a few parts have a guide rope — and less shade. Before long, I was dripping with sweat and wondering if I had enough water (one litre) and snacks. At least my phone still had data so I could check my progress in Google Maps. After about 50 minutes, I finally heard the sound of traffic and knew I was almost at the road near the entrance of the temple. I immediately bought an ice-cold Sprite from one of the many food stalls outside and sat down in the shade for about 15 minutes to cool off.

Then, I discovered there was a steep flight of steps to climb up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Oh noes! You can actually take a cable car for an extra fee (the temple is 30 THB, cable car an additional 20 THB) but after the hike the steps weren't too bad. I covered my shoulders before entering the temple prope; you also have to remove your shoes throughout. The views from this temple, which is located 1,073 m up the mountain, are spectacular, but you'll want to admire the gorgeous golden architecture of the temple first. It was the busiest wat I visited in Chiang Mai — many tours go there; sunrise tours are particularly popular — and lots of people were making offerings, drawing fortunes and, of course, posing for photos. Not adept with selfie mode? Don't worry; many photographers are on hand to take your photo (for a fee)! To get back into town, find a red songthaew (shared van) outside; it cost me about 80 THB (£1.80) and took about 30 minutes.



Elephant Nature Park

Near Chiang Mai there are many opportunities for encounters with elephants. These majestic creatures are a joy to watch as they eat, bathe and try to cool off by covering themselves with mud. Tragically, however, there are still many venues where elephants experience physical or psychological damage from riding, labour or circus work. Founded by elephant rights advocate, Saengduean Chailert, Elephant Nature Park is the first sanctuary of its kind in Asia and provides a peaceful home and care for rescued elephants, while limiting human interactions to an absolute minimum.

I booked onto the half-day afternoon tour (the morning tours were full during my stay), which cost 2,500 THB (£56). I paid the deposit online via PayPal but I had to pay the balance in cash on arrival (the credit card machine doesn't always work). I was picked up in a small van from my hotel just after 1 pm — there were about 10 others, all American, in my group. It took about 1h30 to drive north of Chiang Mai to the sanctuary and after a brief check-in and some background information, we walked out into the park with our guide, Korn.

There are more than 100 Asian elephants living at Elephant Nature Park. We saw dozens during our visit — all female, as the males can be aggressive and are housed separately. I've seen elephants in the wild before in Kenya and Uganda but only from afar, so seeing these magnificent creatures close up for the first time was a really special moment. Elephant Nature Park doesn't breed elephants but sometimes rescued female elephants are pregnant when they arrive — they can hide the pregnancy quite well — so we were able to see some younger elephants interacting with their mothers. Korn told us the stories — many sad to hear — of some of the other elephants we met. We also got to see the huge food store with bananas and watermelons galore. Elephants have to consume tens of thousands of calories per day and so it's almost always food time.

After wandering around the park for over an hour, we headed back to the lodge for a delicious vegan Thai buffet. Later, we headed back to the river to watch the elephants bathing (grudgingly, in some cases) and, for the finale, giving us all a mighty trumpeting sound. And then it was time to head back to Chiang Mai, my tour mates providing a soundtrack from The Jungle Book!


Small House Cooking Class

I love Thai food but I'm not a good cook, so I was excited to take a cooking class in Chiang Mai. I booked onto the highly recommended Small House Thai cooking class and had a wonderful experience. The class takes place in chef Arm's air-conditioned house just outside the city and each class has a maximum of four participants. There were only two others in my class — and Italian and Dutch couple — and Arm picked us all up from the city centre around 9 am before taking us to a local market to do some shopping.

We did the 'signature Thai dishes' class, which cost 1,500 THB (£34), paid in cash. We made five different dishes from around Thailand: spicy, sweet and sour larb pork salad; khao soi, a comforting local curry noodle dish; tom yam shrimp soup; pad Thai (my favourite comfort food); and mango with sticky rice. Arm was a great teacher and very patient, even with beginner cooks like me who run the risk of mangling mangos. He didn't even mind when I jettisoned some of the most heinous mushrooms into his saucepan. "Then what do you put in your soups?" he asked when I told him I hate mushrooms. I didn't admit that I don't really eat soups at all!

Everything we ate was delicious and Arm helped with the presentation too, as well as sharing lots of information about Thai food, cooking and culture. He also gave us lots of tips for places to eat and drink in Chiang Mai. It was a super-relaxed and very enjoyable day, ending back in Chiang Mai at 4 pm. If you've ever been curious to learn more about Thai cooking, this is the place to do it.


Shop 'til you drop

Chiang Mai has a *lot* of markets and other shops. You'll find it hard to leave without picking up at least a souvenir or two and probably a pair of the ubiquitous elephant trousers (I paid 80 THB (£1.80) for mine but I'm not good at haggling). The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Changklan Road opens at 5 pm and has stalls in the street as well as an indoor market area. There's also a big outdoor food court with Thai and international street food and live music. From clothing and souvenirs to electronics and food, there's a huge variety of products at the Night Bazaar. Most of the stalls aren't particularly unique (there are some stalls selling colourful cotton/linen clothes and with nicer Chiang Mai designs) and, of course, you should definitely haggle. Mindful of my small suitcase, I just bought a couple of cheap clothing items and a bracelet or two. I also bought fresh fruit and browsed at nearby Warorot Market.

As I was in town on a Saturday evening, I visited the Wua Lai Walking Street Market (also known as the Saturday Night Walking Street Market), located just south of the Old City. There's a big street food area close to the river; more about this in the Food & Drink section below. I then crossed the road and into the walking street proper. There were vendors selling more interesting and unique items here, particularly clothing and accessories. Some of the prices were a little high, though, even with haggling. You can also find the usual market products and lots of street food and massage options. It was busy but there was a nice, relaxed atmosphere with a lot of families and Thai tourists. If you're in Chiang Mai on a Sunday evening, Tha Phae Road, on the east side of the Old City, also turns into a walking street market.

I also found some nice independent shops in Chiang Mai. There were two lovely shops near each other on Tha Phae Road: Arthur Illustration, which had graphic prints and jewellery, and Rivers & Roads, which has a carefully curated selection of understated lifestyle goods; the perfect antidote to the ubiquitous elephant trousers and Chang beer t-shirts! East of the Old City, there are interesting shops and cafes on Charoen Muang Road, like Tiny Space, a fashion and lifestyle boutique. Chareon Raj Road, where my hotel was located, has some lovely artisan stores, like Nussara and Sop Moei Arts.


FOOD & DRINK

I ate very well in Chiang Mai, mainly at local restaurants and street food stalls. I was too late to get a table at Blackitch Artisan Kitchen  the tasting menu sounds awesome! — but I had a lovely dinner at The House by Ginger in the northeast of the Old City. I started with a colourful mai tai and then had the most beautiful dumplings and spicy but delicious crispy pork belly. The d├ęcor is lovely and there is a lively atmosphere. It's best to book but they keep tables for walk-ins and I only had to wait about 15 minutes on a Thursday evening.

Chiang Mai has a number of hawker stalls and local eateries that feature in the Michelin Guide. Many only stay open until 2 pm or 3 pm, so check the hours in Google and try to visit early. Lung Khajohn Wat Ket (east of the Old City on Charoenraj Road) was right by my hotel. I saw the Michelin sign and looked up the vendor. They turned out to sell boxes of delicious rice skin dumplings stuffed with peanut and caramelised onion and served with coconut cream (20 THB, or £0.45). These were super tasty and a great sweet–salty snack. 

Street food finds a way, especially at Go Neng (near Ton Lam Yai Market), which serves pa tong ko (Chinese doughnuts) fashioned into amazing dinosaur, dragon and crocodile shapes. I decided to sit in to watch the theatre and hilarious tourist selfies. I ordered a dino and a dragon — I was worried one of them wouldn't come out well — with pandan custard and it was too much food, but I took the dragon away for later. 


At Kao Soi Fueng Fah (Charoen Prathet Road), I had my first khao soi experience — a Chiang Mai speciality with comforting coconut and turmeric curried noodles and crispy fried noodles on top. I also visited Guay Jub Chang Moi Tat Mai (11–12 Chang Moi Tud Mai Road) for delicious rolled noodles served in a broth with crispy pork belly. I arrived just before the heavens opened for the only time during my trip so I was glad to have somewhere to wait out the downpour.


I also enjoyed street food dishes at various markets, including the Night Bazaar, as mentioned above, and Khlong Mae Kha, a regenerated canalside district south of the Old City with lots of food vendors and market stalls. The Loy Krathong lanterns and decorations were still out and the canal looked lovely by night. As dishes only cost 20 THB (£0.45) a pop, I ordered several items, even though I wasn't sure what they were, including savoury coconut pancakes that I thought were sweet and grilled flatbread with coconut and sesame that I thought was grilled steak but was, in fact, sweet! 


Before wandering down Wua Lai Saturday Walking Street, I went to the big food court by the river. I read a review of a grilled pork ribs vendor and headed straight there, enjoying watching the vendors at work at the barbecue. I ordered a small portion (about 200 THB, £4.50) but there was enough food for at least two hungry people. I picked up a few other random street food dishes in the walking street proper: ginger and coconut wrapped in bamboo (I'd describe it as healthful rather than delicious), some of the sweet crispy pancakes (khanom buang) I'd tried in Bangkok and some crispy deep-fried sweet potato balls (yum!).


WHERE TO STAY

If it's your first time in Chiang Mai, you will probably want to stay in the Old City and there is a huge range of accommodation to suit all budgets and styles. I decided to stay just outside at Hotel Ping Silhouette, a small boutique hotel characterised by the Lanna style (Chiang Mai was capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom centuries ago) and overlooking the River Ping. It was about 15 minutes' walk to the Old City, a pleasant stroll over the pedestrianised Chansom Memorial Bridge, which has lovely views of the riverside, especially by night. 


Ping Silhouette was a peaceful respite away from the crowds of the Old City after busy days of sightseeing and the rooftop pool was a delight. My room was beautifully designed, quiet and comfortable, and the staff were welcoming and helpful. I paid about £60 per night, booking four months in advance.


GETTING THERE & AROUND

Chiang Mai International Airport is three miles southwest of the Old City. I took Grab to and from my hotel, east of the Old City, which cost about 200 THB (£4.50) in both directions. The journey took 20 minutes on the way (Thursday lunchtime) and 10 minutes on the way back (early on a Sunday morning). I was worried about finding a Grab on the latter journey but I connected with one right away. Chiang Mai is also a small enough airport that I arrived 1h40 ahead of my domestic flight and still had way too much time to kill.

When I was in Chiang Mai, I walked almost everywhere (pictured below cooling off in Nong Buak Haad Public Park). The Old City is compact and pretty walkable. The only exception was when I took a Grab to the start of the Monk's Trail and then took a songthaew (shared van) back to the Old City. You can songthaews all over the Old City. The fare is 30 THB anywhere in the Old City but the driver may try to charge you more and you might have to wait for other passengers before you set off. As I value predictability and not having to haggle, I was glad I only had to use them once. There are tuk tuks too and it's easy to hail a Grab.


NEED TO KNOW

For packing tips for Chiang Mai, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.

  • Electricity. Thailand uses multiple plug socket types. All the hotels I stayed in had sockets that could be used with either Type A (USA) or Type C (European) plugs, at least, but it's worth bringing a universal adapter, especially one with several USB ports.
  • Language. The language of Thailand is Thai, which has its own script, although street signs usually include an English translation or transliteration. Many people, especially those working in hospitality or tourism, speak some English but learning a few key phrases will go down well. Most crucially, kob kuhn ka [kobb koon kaah] means 'thank you', sawasdee ka [the second 's' seems silent: sah-wah-dee kaah] means 'hello' and aroi [arroy] means 'delicious'.
  • Money. The Thai currency is the baht (THB) and at the time of writing, the exchange rate is about 44 THB to the British pound or 35 THB to the US dollar. Cash is king throughout Thailand and I was rarely able to use my credit card in Chiang Mai. I think Grab, my hotel, one shop, one coffee shop and The House by Ginger were the only places where I paid by card and unless you are booking a tour through a third party, you'll probably need to pay cash for most activities too. As there is a 220 THB (£5) charge for each ATM withdrawal in Thailand, err on the side of withdrawing larger amounts of cash or getting your baht before you travel. 
  • Weather. Winter (November to February) is the best time to visit Chiang Mai when it's cooler and drier. It ranged from 27 to 33C in the daytime during my visit, dropping to 23C or so at night. March to May is the hot season, while June to October is the rainy season. Note too that late January to March is the 'burning' season in Chiang Mai. There's a lot of smoke and haze as a result of forest fires and farmers burning their land.
  • Wifi/mobile data. I bought a 15-day unlimited data, calls and texts eSIM package through Airalo. This cost $19.95 (about £15.80) and although you can get cheaper physical sims in Thailand, the convenience of being able to set this up before my trip and hit the ground running when I arrived was well worth it. I was connected to the dtac network and coverage was great throughout Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the islands. Gone were the days of constantly hunting for the next free wifi network (free wifi was also widely available in cafes and tourist venues). Want to try Airalo on your next trip? Sign up using my referral code — REBECC3024 — and we both get $3 credit.


Read my other Thailand guides: Bangkok speciality coffee guide, Bangkok city guideChiang Mai coffee guide, Ko Lanta travel guide and two-week Thailand itinerary.

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