Our last leg of our two-week journey was spent exploring the adventurous side of Thailand in Chiang Mai. We spent four perfect days in the North filled with elephant snuggles, homemade noodle soups, Thai cabaret shows and more shopping than any of our suitcases could take. Although I had a spot of bad luck when I sprained my ankle at the elephant sanctuary, we were still able to see some of the best that the city had to offer. Keep scrolling for your complete Chiang Mai bucket list!
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useful thai phrases and general tips
For a quick lesson on some basic Thai phrases and some general advice for traveling through Thailand, check out my post The Best Things to Do in Phuket, Thailand.
where to stay
BED NIMMAN HOTEL
Another great hotel experience proved yet again that doing your research pays off! The staff at the BED Nimman Hotel really made our time in Chiang Mai memorable. They always greeted us with a smile and were ready to help us with anything we may need at the drop of a hat. When I hurt my ankle and didn’t yet have crutches, they brought ice to my room every hour and even offered to bring me breakfast upstairs from the buffet!
The rooms were spacious, very clean and equipped, thankfully, with strong air conditioning. Although we were a bit outside the city center, we could order a Grab to anywhere we wanted to go for less than $3.
chiang mai bucket list
Now that you’ve arrived and hopefully set yourself up in a cool and comfy hotel room, what should you do to make the most of your time in Chiang Mai?
GO TO AN ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
There is plenty of controversy surrounding elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, and for a good reason. It’s very important to do lots of research before booking anything in Thailand, or anywhere in the world, that involves spending time with elephants. Many sanctuaries may come off as ethical at first glance, but a deeper look suggests that many of them are much more concerned with the profit they make off clueless tourists than the well-being of the animals. Most importantly, if you see any companies advertising elephant rides, make sure to steer clear. (Why You Shouldn’t Ride Elephants in Thailand).
After doing plenty of research, we settled on Maerim Elephant Sanctuary just outside of Chiang Mai. We booked the full day package for 2,000 Baht or roughly $65 per person. Included in this price was round-trip transportation directly from our hotel, a delicious Thai lunch and plenty of time snuggling and feeding bananas to sweet elephants. All the volunteers were incredibly kind to the animals and made it clear upon arrival that visitors can enjoy feeding and meeting the elephants, but ultimately they are free to do whatever they want to do. I would definitely recommend booking through Maerim, the experience was so much better knowing that your money was going towards an ethical sanctuary that genuinely cares about the elephants.[Side note, don’t take a running jump into the homemade swimming pool, it is NOT as deep as it looks and it may warrant a visit to Chiangmai Ram Hospital. But if you’re interested in travel insurance in case of any mishaps, I would recommend booking through World Nomads. I was reimbursed for all my hospital bills following the sprain.]
MAMA NOI’S COOKING CLASS
Although I love cooking and trying out new recipes at home, I had never actually taken a cooking class. Mama Noi’s Cookery School puts on a fun and informative class and, at roughly $25 per person, it’s the perfect activity for your Chiang Mai bucket list. When you arrive, they hand you a menu and you choose between three options for each of the three categories. I made Thai style fried noodles or “Pad Thai,” hot & sour prawn soup or “Tom Yum Kung,” and green curry. They finished off the three hour course by showing us how to make traditional Thai tea!
Everything we made in Mama Noi’s class was authentic and delicious and we had plenty of leftovers to bring back to the hotel!
WAT SUAN DOK
Like the rest of Thailand, Chiang Mai has no shortage of temples to explore. The first stop on our list was Wat Suan Dok. The white mausoleums (chedi) in the garden hold the ashes of late rulers of Chiang Mai. The largest golden chedi holds relics of the Buddha. It was extremely peaceful to stroll through the white marble and marvel at the Langa Chedi.
This was my favorite temple we explored in Thailand and the perfect addition to your Chiang Mai bucket list!
WAT PHRA SINGH
The second temple on our “day of temples,” was Wat Phra Singh. This elegant temple dates all the way back to the 14th century and is the most respected temple in Chiang Mai after Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Wat Phra Singh is also known as “The Monastery of the Lion Buddha.”
WAT PHRA THAT DOI KHAM AND WAT PHRA THAT DOI SUTHEP
You can find both the Wat Phra That Doi Kham and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temples on the top of Doi Suthep mountain in Chiang Mai. The large Buddha, Wat Phra That Doi Kham, dominates the mountain at 17 meters tall and is visible from miles away. These temples and the viewpoint from the mountain make for an unforgettable day in Thailand!
According to legend, the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple was built around a bone fragment from the Buddha’s shoulder. This bone was carried up the mountain Doi Suthep on a sacred white elephant. When the elephant reached the top of the mountain, he peacefully laid down and passed away. The temple was supposedly built on the spot where the elephant died.
Whether you believe the legend or not, one thing’s for sure…Doi Suthep has some amazing views.
SHOP IN THE NIGHT BAZAAR
If you’re looking to do some shopping in Chiang Mai, look no further than the Night Bazaar. The market is seemingly never ending. There are rows and rows of vendors selling jewelry, souvenirs, clothing, artwork, homemade Thai food and anything else you could imagine!
CHIANG MAI CABARET SHOW
If you’re out enjoying the Night Bazaar, why not stop by and witness the Chiang Mai Cabaret Show? You can find it in the Anusarn Market area of the Night Bazaar. 350 Baht, or $11, will buy you a ticket and an included drink. They mix in some humorous dances along with the normal ones so it’s a great place to have a laugh with some friends and sing along as the dancers light up the stage!
GET A THAI MASSAGE
While my friends were out hiking through gorgeous waterfalls and drinking samples of fresh coffee from the plantation…yours truly was finishing up an x-ray at Chiangmai Ram Hospital* and trying to figure out what was possible to do in Thailand on crutches. The answer? Spa Day! I hobbled into a waiting Grab and directed him to take me down the street to Masumi Spa.
Masumi was by far the nicest spa I had been to in Thailand. I figured if I needed to be off my feet all day, I might as well treat myself! I ended up booking a fantastic 2.5 hour spa package that included a jasmine rice body scrub (60 min), a body wrap (30 min), an aromatherapy massage (30 min) and a head & shoulder massage (30 min). All four treatments only cost me 2,600 Baht or around $84.
*I was nervous about going to a hospital in an unfamiliar country, but the healthcare was great in Thailand! The doctors and nurses spoke perfect English and I was seen and on my way fairly quickly.
We also tried out Banphrayalanna Massage just around the corner from BED Nimman Hotel. They were incredibly sweet and friendly while we prepared for our facials. Afterwards, we were served traditional Thai snacks and refreshments as we browsed through their tiny shop. The spa sells a version of Thai Tiger Balm that works wonders on sore muscles!
a couple restaurants to try…
Most of the meals we had in Chiang Mai came from street vendors. But we did try out a few sit-down restaurants as well! Below are our favorites.
A cute outdoor cafe/restaurant in the city center, Tikky Cafe is the ideal lunch spot in Chiang Mai. We ordered noodles and pork and tried to beat the heat with some of their fresh fruit smoothies. We still weren’t cooled off but the food and drinks were fantastic.
RIVERSIDE RESTAURANT & BAR
Riverside Restaurant had delicious food, but we really came for the atmosphere. The restaurant has a large indoor area and a ladder down to a huge patio right on the river. Inside had live music where locals and tourists alike were drinking, singing and dancing well into the night. We started the meal off well when the maître d’ had to catch me as I fell down the ladder on my crutches.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand, I would highly suggest you make time in your itinerary for Chiang Mai. The south of Thailand is beautiful and the beaches are stunning, but Chiang Mai has all the charm and half the tourist traps. Hopefully my suggestions help you to make the most of your time in this magical city!
And no visit to Thailand is complete without a stop in Bangkok and Phuket! Check out my related posts…
If you enjoyed my Chiang Mai bucket list, make sure to follow my adventures on Instagram @madisonsfootsteps 🙂