Chiang Mai is a place of color, charm, and even chaos. Navigate the bustling streets and explore on your own: you’re bound to stumble upon hidden gems galore, from tiny temples to the best (and cheapest) meal of your life. Use this guide as a starting point for all this bustling city has to offer!
Nowhere is the atmosphere more friendly, the rooms cleaner and more private, the hosts more accommodating than at Stamps Backpacker Hostel. Located near Chiang Mai’s popular Tha Pae Gate, Stamps is within walking distance from a host of attractions, including the Ping River, and Chiang Mai’s bustling nightlife scene. The space itself is social (though guests can retreat from the festivities into private sleeping pods) and features a barbeque and a well-stocked fridge for travelers looking for a good time.
Escape the bustle of Chiang Mai at the RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort, where you’ll be greeted with a complimentary Thai coconut drink and a bevy of smiles. The beautifully decorated spa and grounds will make you feel as though you’ve entered a different world: one whose zen is a departure from the noise of Chiang Mai’s streets. Be sure to choose a bedroom facing the enormous turquoise pool and get lost in the lush green gardens at the resort. Relax at the spa, or get a massage. Can’t sit still for long? RarinJinda has a gym and offers complimentary fitness classes, as well.
Though 137 Pillars is tucked away on an unassuming soi (street) just past the Ping River, guests will be taken with the grandeur of the complex once they enter. Built in the 1880s as the Northern Thai headquarter for the Borneo Trading Company, these teak guesthouses have been magnificently restored to their former glory. The space oozes understated elegance and is one of the most luxurious in Chiang Mai. Feeling lazy? Visitors and guests need not travel far for their creature comforts: 137 Pillars boasts its own fine dining restaurant, spa and wellness facility, magnificent garden (with green wall that is prime for event photography), and a fully equipped gym.
If you haven’t tried khao soi, have you really experienced the North of Thailand? The answer would be a resounding no from all khao soi enthusiasts. The dish (which has roots in Laos and Myanmar) is made from a coconut milk and curry base and is topped with egg noodles and pork rind, though it can be modified for vegetarians. Visitors claim that Khao Soi Khun Yai, which means ‘Grandma’s Khao Soi,’ serves up the best bowl in all of Thailand Thailand, for a whopping 35 THB (about 1 USD). The restaurant, humbly located in an empty lot, is often packed to the brim with khao soi converts, old and new.
Anna Farm & Eatery is nestled in the hills of Mae Rim, a short motorbike or songthaew ride from Chiang Mai’s Old City. This open-air restaurant serves up some of the freshest Thai food (including both traditional favorites and locally caught fish) alongside beautiful views of the countryside?. You’ll never know how much you needed a break from the bustle of the city until you reach the solitude and serenity of the mountains.
Though its number-centric name is frustratingly difficult to remember, dining at SS1254372 is an experience you won’t soon forget. There’s something vaguely futuristic about the space — maybe it’s the giant, portal-like windows that give it a spaceship-like feel. The food is otherworldly, too: order one of the cafe’s creative milkshakes or try their twist on avocado toast (SS1254372 does it with ripe mangoes and honey) for a sweet snack. Be sure to enjoy the quietude of SS1254372‘s attached art gallery and shop before you head back out to the bustling streets.
If you think size matters, you’ll change your tune when you stumble (accidentally or not) into Ben’s Cocktail Bar, a tiny dive off of Loi Kroh Road where tables are so close you may brush shoulders with your neighbor. It’s also where you’ll get some of the most inventive cocktails in Chiang Mai. Ben’s is also home to the infamous Tom Yum Cocktail, a boozy take on the infamously spicy Thai coconut soup — it’s an alcoholic experience you’ve certainly never had before.
If the words “free jazz” and “cheap beer” are music to your ears, then we’ve got the right place for you. North Gate Jazz Co-Op is an unassuming hole-in-the-wall on the northernmost side of the Old City where you can experience lively, experimental jazz up close and personal. The energy in this tiny joint is often infectious and it’s not uncommon for the appreciative crowd to grow too large for the venue and spill out onto the street in front of the building.
WarmUp Cafe has been in business long enough (since 1999) to know that you really can please everyone. At this trendy Thai club, there’s a little something for each member of the motley crew that visits: multiple music rooms with DJs cater to both young Thais and the traveler crowd, while live, mellow bands satisfy the more laid-back crew. At WarmUp, the drinks are made fresh and akin to art. There are indoor and outdoor seating areas and their delicious food is made to order, even late into the night.
While there’s certainly no dearth of color in Chiang Mai, a large percentage of it seems to be mostly concentrated at Nai 99 Shop, where the bright personalities of the shop’s owners rival that of the clothes, accessories, jewelry, and furniture. If jewel colors, beautiful fabrics, sequins, and unique designs are your thing, you could probably spend hours perusing the tiny, narrow corridors of Nai 99 Shop, which is also packed to the brim with carpets and raw fabric for more creative customers. Looking for a unique, bejewelled shawl? A pair of Aladdin-like slippers? A belt studded with shells and mirrors? Look no further than Nai 99 shop.
Warorot Market, known in Thai as “Kad Luang,” is one of the most well-known shopping locations in Chiang Mai, and probably the oldest, too. This extensive market has been in operation for hundreds of years and is where most Chiang Mai locals shop. Kad Luang offers everything under the sun for prices you probably won’t believe. Head to Kad Luang if you’re tired of haggling for souvenirs, want to find rough fabric for a suit, are looking to buy a nice gold necklace, or just want to buy a pound of chicken feet.
Long hot days in Chiang Mai call for air conditioning and a good book. The Booksmith, nestled in Chiang Mai’s uber trendy Nimman neighborhood, has both. The Booksmith is the perfect place for bibliophiles and shoppers alike, with a lovely assortment of both Thai and English editions of classics and new favorites. The shop, which also has a branch in Bangkok, is outfitted with beautiful stationery for those who still want to channel their inner Hemingway. Visit The Booksmith for a quiet afternoon, a good story, and that new book smell.
Header image by Vincent Carabeo.