Your Short Stay Chiang Mai Travel Guide

A few days ago I was pleased to hear that my cousin and two of his friends from the UK would be coming to the north of Thailand. I immediately began racking my brain for things to do. In being their Chiang Mai travel guide I was admittedly excited at the prospect of playing tourist again. When you live somewhere full time it’s very easy to take that place was granted. Revisiting the days of bumbling around wide-eyed whilst absorbing the sights whilst involving yourself in new experiences is a great way to reignite your passion for somewhere. As I had discovered when I first found Chiang Mai, there are so many things to do here that you are spoilt for choice. The problem for my cousin and his friends is that they had very little time. Thailand was a bit of an afterthought for them after an adrenaline soaked few months between Australia and New Zealand. Their right or wrong opinion that 6 days in Bangkok is too much however was enough for them to find an excuse to come visit me and decide to venture north.

Exhausted from night flights and lack of sleep in hostel beds, the boys opted for a sleeper train to get to Chiang Mai. Despite the relative combined cheap cost of a 700km journey and a bed to sleep on for the night, trains in Thailand are notorious for being late. This one was no different. Scheduled to arrive at 8.30am in the morning, the train eventually rocked up at 12pm. To their credit the boys emerged relatively fresh faced. Their aim of sleeping seemed to have been accomplished despite the beds only being large enough to accommodate their 6ft+ frames whilst tightly locked in the foetal position. News to me was that they would be returning to Bangkok at 5pm the next day in order to fulfil a pre-booked accommodation commitment. This didn’t leave us much time: a mere 30 hours in Chiang Mai? What can you possibly achieve!? Well – quite a lot actually. Based on our own short itinerary, if you ever find yourself in a similar spot then here are some pointers.


1. Eat noodle soup.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon meatball soup for my first ever meal in Chiang Mai. I stumbled well because the restaurant I ended up in would be the same one I’d take my cousin and his friends to 8 months later.

The boys get their first taste of Chiang Mai meatball soup!
The boys get their first taste of Chiang Mai meatball soup!

A typical Thai soup containing noodles, pork or beef slices and meatballs, no trip to Chiang Mai is complete without a taste of noodle soup. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner – or in place of a kebab after a night on the tiles. Delicious!

 

2. Wander the Old City.

 A reason so many travellers fall in love with Chiang Mai is the charm of the Old City whose cobbled lanes and winding side alleys are packed with quirky shops, restaurants and guest houses. Now more a fusion of new and old, the square mile was originally entirely protected by a large wall with gates at central points in the North, East, South and West. Whilst much of the wall has since been knocked down, you can still get an idea for what it once was by heading down to Thapae Gate in the East.

Still smiling at Thapae Gate after a long walk through city streets in the heat.
Still smiling at Thapae Gate after a long walk through city streets in the heat.

Thapae was originally the city’s main entrance. Now pedestrianised, the area is also a good starting point for tackling the weekend markets that have become famous for their culinary delights and hand-crafted souvenirs. Beyond the four gates of the square mile, the city moat is probably Chiang Mai’s most iconic feature and becomes the source of chaos and fun during the month of April for Songkran festivities. If you don’t mind getting wet there is no better time to visit.

 

3. Check out the Temples.

In being the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Mai has more temples than you can shake a stick at! Wandering through the Old City, every few blocks you will find a shrine to Buddha. Thailand is renowned for its stunning Buddhist architecture and it is easy to get ‘templed out’ but Chiang Mai has a couple of gems you should definitely take a look at. Check out Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang and if you have time take a songtaew (red truck) up to the glamorous mountain temple Doi Suthep where you’ll also be able to look out over the city. When visiting temples be sure to walk around the whole grounds as there will often be other significant interests beside the main attraction.

The chedi at the rear of Wat Pra Singh provides as good a photo opportunity as the front of the temple!
The chedi at the rear of Wat Pra Singh provides as good a photo opportunity as the front of the temple!

 

4. Eat Mookata.

More food advice? Well, yes.. Chiang Mai has so many good eats it requires a whole post to itself! For this short stay Chiang Mai travel guide however I’m going to recommend you try Mookata. Translated roughly as ‘Pork BBQ’, the first time I encountered Mookata was a confusing affair. After finding a table head straight to the buffet table to load your plates for action. Despite the misleading name, the meat is not purely pork and you’ll be spoilt for choice between different styles of chicken, beef, fish and shrimp alongside many other enticing selections. Now head back and cook it yourself on your table’s own BBQ ensuring you partake in sampling the gorgeous dipping sauces available. Repeat this sequence at your gluttonous hearts content and for between 100-150THB you’ll have had one hell of a feed.

Unlimited food for £4. Every. Man’s. Dream.
Unlimited food for £4. Every. Man’s. Dream.

To kill two birds with one stone and also enjoy buzz of a Thai night market I’d recommend heading down to Marin Plaza opposite Chiang Mai University. Accessible from the Old City by motorbike or with a 20THB songtaew, this area is very popular with students and hosts a diverse selection of relatively cheap restaurants with 4 or 5 mookata restaurants the pick of the bunch. Be brave. It can all be a bit confusing to begin with but watch other people and you’ll soon pick up what you need to do. The taste sensation is worth those few minutes of awkwardness.

 

5. Enjoy a relaxing beverage.

Come on. Done a lot of walking today? Just had an exhausting buffet for dinner? I thought so. If you’re impartial to a drink after food then Chiang Mai has a whole host of fine establishments to quench your thirst. If you’re a fan of escaping the well trodden tourist areas then I’d recommend checking out the Nimmanhaemin Road area between Marin Plaza and the Old City. On the many sois (side-streets) that branch off’ ‘Nimman’ you will find an array of trendy, hip places to enjoy a beer outside. If you really want the authentic experience then drinking Thai style involves buying a bottle of whiskey and mixers between your group and sipping the night away. This is pretty inexpensive by Western standards. However, if slumming with the backpackers is more your thing then head on into town and hit up the assortment of live music, reggae and dance bars at Boonyoo Market on Ratchavitti Road. Don’t go too crazy though. With limited time in this special city you’re going to want to get up in the morning!

 

6. Visit an elephant camp / park.

There are few animals as mesmerising, majestic and memorable as the elephant. Native to Thailand and one of the country’s national symbols, Chiang Mai offers a fantastic opportunity to bear witness to these incredible creatures through the abundance of elephant camps and parks that can be found a short drive outside the city. The subject of animal welfare is always something close to our hearts and I strongly advise you to do some research before visiting any animal based attraction in Thailand. Some are undoubtedly more humane than others. If you can afford both financially and from a time perspective to spend a whole day with the elephants I can recommend you look into Patara Elephant Farm, Elephant Nature Park or Baan Chang Elephant Park. I was fortunate to experience the latter suggestion on a previous visit to Chiang Mai and can only praise them for an incredibly fun day of elephant education and exploration. Many of these places actually give you the opportunity to play the role of the Mahout (elephant trainer) for the day. You are guided to issue instructions to the gentle giant, feed them, exercise them with bareback forest rides and finish the day by taking them down to the water and giving them a scrub. It’s certainly a day you’ll never forget!

I’m irresistible… To elephants. Smooooooch. Haha. What a reaction!
I’m irresistible… To elephants. Smooooooch. Haha. What a reaction!

On this most recent trip for my cousin, his friends and myself playing tour guide, time was a big factor. To my knowledge, the only elephant experience that does not occupy a full day is a visit to ‘Mae Sa Elephant Camp’. This camp consists of two main elements: an elephant show and elephant riding. I did find the show entertaining but it’s certainly not going to be for everyone. The elephant show features elephants playing the the harmonica with their swinging trunks, taking part in a penalty shootout, throwing hoops and perhaps most impressively painting pictures that I’m sure myself as the terrible artist that I am would not be able to replicate! It’s quite incredible how the elephants have been trained to perform but many of course will question what methods are employed to teach them to do these things. In having no insight on the subject I’m not able to comment.

Elephants painted these. Seriously.
Elephants painted these. Seriously.

Riding elephants here requires a saddle of which is obviously frowned upon in some circles but for the most part the elephants appear to be cared for and well looked after. Visitors also get the opportunity to pose for photos and feed them.

An elephant gladly accepts a banana.
An elephant gladly accepts a banana.

 

A quick note on the elephants living conditions: although it can be a bit concerning to see an elephant chained up I am reliably informed that in most circumstances this is for their own protection. Even in providing an elephant with an enormous area to roam in would they eventually encroach on farm fields. The farmer’s solution to this is to shoot the elephant. Spending portions of their day with a chain around their foot may therefore be more sustainable to their future around habituated areas than without.

 

7. Enter a tiger’s cage!?

Many of us have bared witness to a tiger from the outside of a cage but few will have had opportunity or to step inside the cage. Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom allows you to do just that. On entry you will be directed towards a combination of packages with prices dependant on what size tiger you would like to meet today. We opted for a single date with the biggest cats and found the experience unique, humbling, a little bit nerve racking but wholly awesome. If there’s a group of you splitting the cost of the photo package is well worth it so you can all enjoy the experience without constant passing of the camera. You’re going to want to remember this day.

Not often you get a snog from an elephant but end up in bed with a tiger…
Not often you get a snog from an elephant but end up in bed with a tiger…

I’d neglected to visit Chiang Mail’s Tiger Kingdom for a long time whilst I wasn’t sure about how I felt about it all. If I’m honest I’m still not sure although my visions of severely drugged up tigers being clambered all over by tourists have now dispersed. This wasn’t the case. I personally do not believe these tigers are drugged. At times you might think they seem slow, lethargic and you can imagine them to be not particularly sharp hunters, but this would be true of any captive animal. They know no different from living in cages being surrounded by humans. They are fed more food than they would ever likely catch in the wild and have little else to do but sleep. Sleep is pretty much all your domestic house cat does. They guys aren’t much different – just a lot bigger!

In the tiger’s cage: happy but slightly apprehensive expressions all round I think!
In the tiger’s cage: happy but slightly apprehensive expressions all round I think!

 

8. Explore the Mae Sa Samoeng Loop.

If you still have time to burn, both the Mae Sa Elephant Camp and Tiger Kingdom are situated on the Samoeng Loop where you’ll find a whole host of other attractions. Alligator and snake farms, off-road vehicle adventures, orchid farms and waterfalls are just a selection of nearby sights and experiences. If you settle a price with a songtaew driver from the Old City then you can effectively have them wait on you as an all-day taxi. We paid 500THB and tipped an extra 100THB since the guy was so patient and nice. I’m sure you could haggle down but between a group this is really not so much and an appreciative driver will make for a very pleasant no pressure trip.

 

So that completes my short stay Chiang Mai travel guide and should keep you pretty busy in the area if you’ve limited time on your hands. We got through much of this in a mere 30 hours. In fact, arriving back from Tiger Kingdom the boys had about 3 hours to spare before they needed to jump on the train back to Bangkok. Mission accomplished! I think the variety of activity certainly justified their long journey north and their decision to escape Thailand’s sprawling capital city was vindicated. Whilst a longer stay is always preferable, if you yourself are deliberating over whether a short stint in Chiang Mai is worth it then let me just reassert that yes it is. You can make it work. Just have a plan.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? What did you enjoy?

 

Comments

SueBullas
Reply

Great blog and makes a visit even more appealing :) think we ll go for the ” “longer than 30 hours” package though !!

Chris
Reply

Haha! 30 hours + is definitely preferred! But you can get a lot done when you put your mind to it!

jmayel & sacha
Reply

The MooKata shops look really good. Where is the best one to go to and do they speak any English there?

Christine |GRRRL TRAVELER
Reply

Love love loved Maesa, but was too cheap to do the Tiger Kingdom cage. Kicking myself a bit now. Also, didn’t know Mookata was something to eat in Chiang Mai. Good post!=)

Chris
Reply

Jmayel & Sacha: I do recommend Marin Plaza opposite Chiang Mai university because of the atmosphere but there are loads of other options. A really good option is Myeong Dong near Tops supermarket just off Santitham Road. I’ll Facebook you a link. Not speaking Thai isn’t a problem – just pick up a plate, load it up with raw meat, head back to your table and cook.

Christine: An excuse for a second visit then!? :)

Josh
Reply

Is that lady (in Mookata meal) your tour guide?

how was the atmosphere like? is it very busy?

i feel so hungry looking at the unlimited food.. but you do smell after the meal, don’t you?

Chris
Reply

Josh: Thai markets are always busy but when you sit down for mookata you’ll have your own space. Marin Plaza is a good place to people watch while you eat. As for the smell – well I guess it does get into your clothes a bit yeah.. It’s a BBQ after all!

We went to all these places independently but yes I guess I have been well orientated during my months in Chiang Mai by said ‘tour guide’ who is also my girlfriend. :)

A Cook Not Mad (Nat)
Reply

I can’t wait to get to Thailand some day. Will use all your info!

The Guy
Reply

That seems like a fun filled 30 hours with so much to do. It looks as though your visitors really enjoyed their time.

I’ve read quite a bit about Chiang Mai recently and you certainly help maintain my interest.

Thank you.

Chris
Reply

It’s amazing what you can pack in to such a short time frame when you really want to. :)

eemusings
Reply

Amazing! Not sure we’ll have time to make it up to the north, but south Thailand has been spectacular so far.

Chris
Reply

Do try! It really is a special place.

Things to do in Chiang Mai
Reply

Thailand cuisine is really amazing.

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Reply

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