I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Chiang Mai is the best destination in Asia. I’ve gushed about this place at length in my other articles so I won’t try to wax poetic, let’s get to the point.
I wrote this because most people don’t have weeks of time to spend in Chiang Mai. Instead of wondering “Did I completely fuck up my vacation?” Use this easily digestible guide and hit the best of the best.
So whether you have 5 days or 2 days in Chiang Mai, this will provide you with more than enough to do. Keep this as your pocket guide and ditch the 15-page itinerary.
Top 3 Hostels
1. HOSTEL by BED
This place is by far #1 for me. I DON’T know WHY they capitalized HOSTEL and BED, maybe a misguided branding decision, but that’s my only criticism. The open-air lobby is full of people but somehow peaceful no matter what time of day it is. The left side of the lobby is made entirely of giant convenience store refrigerators filled with filtered bottled water. Yes, I know, it’s terrible for the environment but even environmentalists don’t care when it’s 145 degrees outside.
I’m a huge fan of the all-concrete design and they provide solid breakfast, cheap beer (100 baht for a big boy Chiang), and giant bean bags to sleep on.
The rooms are your standard 6-10 person bunk bed setups but everything is just a little bit nicer than your run-of-the-mill Asia hostel. It was the best sleep I had in Thailand because the rooms are about 55 degrees at night and my mattress was shockingly comfortable.
It’s not the most social hostel so if you’re looking to party look elsewhere. I was able to meet friends but it just doesn’t have that type of vibe. Nor does it have any daily/nightly group activities. It’s perfect for digital nomads or anybody that enjoys having a peaceful, quiet, clean place to stay.
2. Haus Hostel
Haus Hostel could also be called “Hipster Hostel”. It looks like an artsy loft on the lower east side of NYC. The lobby is quirky, cozy, and relaxing and has random books, weird trinkets and shit all over the walls and plenty of board games.
Although I didn’t stay here it seemed like the social hostel in that part of town. I met 4 of my best travel friends here and really enjoyed everybody I ran into when I visited.
The beds looked pretty terrible at a glance, tiny square cubbies for short people and a 1-inch mat. But the social atmosphere and amenities make up for it.
3. Stamps Backpackers Hostel
This is by far the best place to meet people. I didn’t actually stay here so I can’t comment on the sleeping situation (though the Hostelworld photos look good) but the bar and the atmosphere in the lobby are made for meeting other solo travelers. The place was booked for my dates but I stopped in one day to check it out their happy hour.
It’s what I like to call an Olive Garden hostel (when you’re there, you’re family), so if you’re not down to travel with a group for a few days you may feel left out. Still, everybody there is looking to make friends so it’s easy to start up a conversation.
If you’re looking to stay here make sure you book in advance, it’s a popular spot. Also keep in mind they don’t do one night bookings (annoying, I know) so you’ll have to pay for at least 2 nights.
Top 3 Places to Eat
1. Khao Soi Khun Yai
I first discovered Khao Soi at this unassuming, outdoor family restaurant with plastic furniture and concrete floors. I’m not lying when I say this is my favorite dish I’ve ever had in my life.
Khao soi is a soupy/curry-like dish made with a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chilies fried in oil, and chicken or pork in a watery, massaman-y curry sauce containing coconut milk.
It’s the most perfectly balanced dish that’s ever been in my mouth. I tried Khao Soi at many other places but nothing comes even remotely close to the quality at Khun Yai. Get here when they open at 10:30 AM or be prepared to wait in a long line of white people saying “I saw it on Anthony Bourdain! Can you believe he killed himself?”
I came here during the Chiang Mai food tour on my first day in the city and went back every afterward. There’s no better meal in the city.
2. Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak (The Cowboy Lady)
Another Travel Channel favorite that lives up to the hype, the Cowboy Lady is the most famous street vendor in Chiang Mai. So much so that she’s spawned some imitators who are trying to copy her cowboy hat schtick.
Located 5-6 blocks from Khao Soi Khun Yai, you can visit the Cowboy Lady any time after the sun goes down at her regular post on the side of the street (look for her face on the sign). She serves stewed pork leg (cooked for 15 hours) over rice served with an egg and sides of pickled mustard greens and garlic chili sauce that you can add to taste.
The food is ready in about 10 seconds and it’s 50 baht for a plate. I can’t think of a better deal for something this tasty made with this much love. The cowboy lady has a perpetual scowl on her face and looks unapproachable but she’ll take photos with you if you ask.
It’s one of the rare tourist traps that lives up to the hype.
This place was recommended to me by a friend who used to live in Chiang Mai for a few years. It’s off the beaten path so it’s not super crowded and offers a MASSIVE menu that has every Thai dish that you can imagine.
When I see a restaurant with a Cheesecake Factory-esque menu, I assume everything tastes very mediocre. I was skeptical at first but the food here is made with love and bursting with flavor.
They served me the best grilled chicken I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t know what they’re secret is but I’ve found the perfect grilled chicken and it’s at Kanjana in Chiang Mai.
No matter what you’re in the mood for, they have it.
If you’re looking for western-style breakfast: Fern Forest Cafe
Fern Forest Cafe or FFC as it’s known to most people is a western-style cafe with outdoor seating. Strong coffee, unbelievable breakfast food, and a zen-like environment. It’s a little more expensive than most other places but the price is worth it. If you’re fiending for a brunch spot this is your ideal destination.
Top 3 Places to Drink
Chiang Mai isn’t a party destination by any stretch of the imagination (that’s what Pai is for) but if you’re looking for a local watering hole there are a few options.
This is the most rachet club/bar/unofficial prostitute stand in Chiang Mai.
It turns up after midnight since it’s the only place in town still open. You’ll run into the backpacking crowd along with some young drunk locals and a harem of prostitutes, some with dicks and some without.
If a girl seems interested in you, make sure you find out if she has a price before taking her home. And shake her hand, if it’s as big as yours she’s packing a penis.
2. Zoe in Yellow
I wasn’t a fan of this place but every other white person in town seemed to be. It’s a standard backpacker club that caters to the young and careless. It plays Top 40 EDM and hip-hop way too loud and offers shots and buckets for touristy prices. If you’re a young backpacker or looking to fuck a young backpacker go here.
It’s actually two clubs directly across from each other. Don’t be fooled, this only provides the illusion of choice. They are nearly identical in every way.
3. Night Market
I know I’m being an old man by making this my #1 but I don’t give a fuck.
The night market in Chiang Mai is like a big carnival without the rides. There are little enclaves with street vendors selling knockoff designer shit and colored beads alongside terrible cover bands.
Get drunk and eat your way through alleyway upon alleyway of phenomenal food. Be careful with open containers, if cops catch you drinking in the restricted area it’s a 10,000 baht fine.
It is CROWDED on Fridays and Saturdays. Shoulder to shoulder music festival crowded. It gets sweaty and claustrophobic but also provides the opportunity to people watch.
And you get to see t-shirts like this.
There’s nothing better to me than walking through the night market, eating spicy papaya salad, drinking a massive Chiang and people watching. Trying to find the best green curry or pad thai and seeing all of the awful, lovable cover bands is the pinnacle of Chiang Mai.
Top 3 Temples
1. Doi Suthep
The big gold dome at the top of the hill. This place only takes about 15 minutes to fully explore but it’s worth visiting due to its location. The moped ride up there (don’t you dare take a bus) takes you through the mountains and offers plenty of pit stops along the way. Local food and coffee along with national parks and hikes line the trip up there. You can stop here as part of the Samoeng Loop or make a whole day out of it and just freestyle your way through the wilderness.
It’s the most popular temple in the area so be prepared for a crowd. But even on a busy day, it’s big enough to accommodate everybody. I recommend you stop here first then go explore the rest of the countryside.
2. Wat Chiang Man
The best way to see this temple is through the Chiang Mai food tour because Ling will school you on how significant it is. Without somebody explaining the history, this place is pretty standard as far as temples go.
If you don’t go with a guide, look at the art on the walls lining the inside of the temple. They explain the entire mythology and the history behind Thailand and the Hmong people.
3. Wat Chedi Luang
This is a popular temple for monks so if you’re looking to speak to one. It also has this really cool contraption where you transport water up into the temple as an offering to…Buddha? I forget what they told me.
If you just can’t get enough Temples…
Go to Chiang Rai. It’s a 3-hour road trip, it costs $5 for the bus, and the temples are top-notch. I recommend taking a moped there so you can take in the gorgeous countryside.
Top 3 Adventures
1. Moped the Samoeng Loop
The loop takes around 7-9 hours if you take your time and hit every temple, hike, elephant sanctuary, and national park. I recommend splitting it up into 2 days and taking your time.
2. Hang out with Elephants
Visiting an elephant sanctuary is a rite of passage in Thailand and the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai is one of the best places you can do it. Elephants are the size of trucks with the personality of puppies which makes them extremely lovable and very dangerous.
There are plenty of elephant sanctuaries but I recommend you go to this one. Unfortunately, there are MANY companies that take advantage of these gentle giants and subject them to Barnum and Bailey like torture in order to give tourists a more entertaining show.
Make sure you avoid these by avoiding any company that lets you ride the elephants. This usually means they’re caging and beating them to train them. Also if you literally see the elephants in cages of any kind, don’t give them your money.
Make sure you feed them some sugar packets, they snort them like cocaine and get really hyper and excited. Don’t take it too far, though, I gave like 8 of these things to one of the juvenile elephants and when I stopped he picked me up by my right arm like I was a pillow. Cute but terrifying.
3. Eat Yourself Half to Death on the Chiang Mai Food Tour
This was my favorite activity I did in Chiang Mai. In addition to the 15 meals around the city, Lin takes you around the famous temples in the area and explains the history of Thailand and Chiang Mai. It costs $40 and includes all the food, taxis, and entrance fees to the temples.
Book it for when you first arrive. You get a tour of the entire city, where the hot spots are, and a crash course into how to get around for the cheapest price (red cabs!). Lin is an absolute treat but she will test your limits for how much food you can eat.
Click here to book the food tour. You can also message her on Instagram to set it up.
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