Nestled amongst green hills and expansive, mist-covered forests, Chiang Mai is the jewel of
northern Thailand and the nation’s second largest city. Unlike Bangkok, which is known for its sensory overload, Chiang Mai exists in a constant state of chill and thrives at a slower pace. A longtime hub along the backpacker trail for trekking, rafting and visits to elephant sanctuaries, Chiang Mai continues to attract more and more visitors eager to try the region’s expansive cuisine and take in the endless night markets that transform various parts of the city from sleepy side streets into bustling bazaars. Easy to access via bus or sleeper train from the greater Bangkok area, Chiang Mai is a must-see for everyone exploring Thailand’s food and outdoors scenes.
In a city known for its markets, the Sunday night walking street market is universally regarded as the largest and most diverse. Thousands walk through the extensive street market, which
measures about a mile in length and connects the eastern and western gates of
Chiang Mai’s old city. Clothing, art, food, drinks, handmade crafts, jewelry, toys and bags are available just to name a few, but it’s the sheer size and volume of the market that approaches an overwhelming level. Buy a Singha or Chang beer from one of the many 7-Elevens in town and walk the crowded streets, snacking and shopping as you and your beer share in the constant sweat of the northern capital.
Khao soi, a coconut curry noodle soup specific to northern Thailand, is a local favorite and
everyone has their location of choice. However, Khao Soi Lam Duan is beloved by locals from all walks of life and was introduced to even more of the world by Anthony Bourdain on his Chiang Mai episode of Parts Unknown. Hidden down a quiet, dusty street just northeast of the old city, you could fly right by it without knowing what to look for. Appearing like a simple roadside snack shop, Lam Duan cranks out hundreds of bowls of their signature soup each day, each coming with your choice of beef, pork, or chicken. At 30 baht (or $0.83) per pop, feel free to order multiple bowls—the staff will encourage you to do so after you’ve devoured your first.
A half-hour tuk-tuk or motor scooter ride southwest of the city leads you to one of Chiang Mai’s newest and most popular attractions, the “Grand Canyon.” A onetime quarry, the Grand Canyon offers a wide range of opportunities for cliff jumping and swimming, with jumps ranging from 10 to 50 feet. Some are tempted to try doing dives or flips from the highest cliffs, especially after they notice Thai kids launching themselves freely in groups of two or three at time. However, sometimes it’s best to observe from one of the many bamboo rafts floating around the teal-blue waters below the cliffs.
Wat Lok Moli, located on the northern border of the old city just west of the Chang Phuak gate, is one of Chiang Mai’s most impressive, but rarely visited, temples that offers visitors the opportunity to explore the grounds freely and even meet the occasional orange robe-clad monk wandering the premises. The large brick chedi behind the temple itself stands in barren contrast to the incredibly ornate viharn, where a number of golden Buddhas are held for prayer and meditation. What Wat Lok Moli lacks in flash and vibrance it makes up for in its sense of presence, as it’s regarded as one of, if not the, oldest temples in Chiang Mai, dating back to at least 1367.
Unlike many of Chiang Mai’s markets, the Prathu Market, located on the southern border of the old city at the Chiang Mai gate, focuses solely on food and its variety is endless. Visiting at night provides you with hundreds of food stand options for soups, rice dishes and grilled meats and seafood of every variety, but the best time to come is when the indoor section of the market opens in the morning. The covered portion of the market serves up the greatest regional hits, including the herbaceous sai ua, northern Thailand’s specialty sausage made with lemongrass and curry paste and served with sticky rice and fiery nam prik num, a local green chile dip made with roasted peppers and fish sauce.
Chiang Mai rewards those who seek out experiences off the beaten backpacker path, none
more so than Wat Pha Lat, the secret jungle temple and monastery located seven miles west of the old city in the foothills of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Accessible via scooter, tuk-tuk, or a very determined set of legs, Wat Pha Lat is set amongst wild streams and cliff faces, allowing nature to take its toll as moss slowly engulfs stupas, shrines, and temple walls alike. Besides an occasional monk or herd of dogs, you’ll have the entire complex to yourself and you can explore it freely as you take in one of the best views of the city. Unlike the constant city urban soundtrack being pumped in through Chiang Mai’s old city, Wat Pha Lat transports you to an earlier and more tranquil time.
Khao kha muu, or stewed pork leg, is one Thailand’s most famous dishes, and the supposed favorite of King Rama IX himself. It can be sampled throughout the country, but when it comes to Chiang Mai, the best can be found by asking for the woman simply referred to as the “Cowboy Hat Lady.” Originally adorning the hat to keep the street lights out of her eyes while cooking and serving her food, it’s become her trademark and has since attracted hordes of tourists alike to her food stand located near the Chang Pueak Gate on the northern border of the old city. Stewed in a sweet broth for hours on end, you’ll enjoy your khao kha muu, served with pickled mustard greens, fried eggs and hot chile, on a rickety metal table, each of which will be turned two to three times while you devour your food. There are two sizes, small and large, but do yourself a favor and splurge. At 45 baht (or $1.25) you can afford to supersize your portion of what might be your best dinner in Chiang Mai.
Walking back from the Sunday market or drinks at the backpacker hub of Zoe in Yellow, you
might hear jazz, funk, soul or blues radiating out from the North Gate Jazz Co-Op, a longtime haunt for travelers from every corner of the globe. There’s music almost every night and, with an extensive beer and cocktail selection, it’s best to pull up a stool, either inside the bar itself or as part the crowd stretching out onto the street and sidewalk outside. The North Gate Jazz Co-Op smells like years of hard drinking, chain smoking, and musicians’ sweat, but it keeps people coming back for more each night.
Located across the street from the food section of the Sunday night walking street market, THC Rooftop Bar has become a more relaxed option for backpackers looking to stretch out on the pillow-clad floor and drink cocktails by the (actual) bucket or simply sip on a big bottle of Chang beer and watch the night float by. With a Rasta motif and accompanying reggae music playing regularly, THC offers great views and a reprieve from the market congestion happening three stories down from this rooftop oasis. You’ll end up meeting people from the opposite side of the planet or the other side of your own neighborhood back home. Simply put, THC brings Chiang Mai’s visitors together in a way unseen through the rest of town.
Photos: Max Bonem
Max Bonem is a writer and eater currently traveling through Southeast Asia. You can follow his travels via his blog, Instagram or Flickr.