Chiang Mai is a city brimming with adventure. On the outskirts of town you can ride elephants, pet tigers, or go zip lining, while in the city you can take in historical landmarks deeply sewn with Buddhist culture, sample the cuisine, or even get a Thai massage from a prison inmate (how many of your friends can say they’ve done that?).
The most discernable aspect of Chiang Mai is clear on any tourist map—a giant square moat that previously encompassed the entire city. The moat and the city wall were originally built as defense against possible Burmese invasions, but have since become a serene aspect of the cityscape and an easy touchstone for navigation while exploring the old city.
If you’re looking for living history, Wat Doi Suthep is by far the best recommendation I can give. Located a few miles outside the city, the temple is atop a mountain and visitors must climb 309 steps to reach the top (no worries, they sell icecream on the landing!). On the path up you’ll pass through a makeshift market of some of the best street food available—believe me, the climb is much more pleasant with a baggie of fried bananas. The temple itself is a fairly massive complex of glistening gold, with monks going about their duties while tourists and worshippers alike take in the breathtaking views of the city below.
If pressed for time, there are well over 100 temples within city limits as well, the best known of which is Wat Chedi Luang. Located near the center of the city and partially destroyed by an earthquake centuries ago, the temple grounds also house the city pillar and the most overwhelming sermon hall I’ve seen.
So now you’ve spent your day wandering the moat and taking in temples, when evening rolls around. You’re in Southeast Asia, my friend, there’s only one thing to do—hit up the biggest night market around at Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar. With a massive array of handicrafts and every food imaginable conveniently served on skewers, the streets are so crowded you’ll feel as if you’re floating in a sea of people. Of course, even when you’re done shopping it doesn’t mean the night is over…
One thing you’ll learn quickly in Thailand is that when someone invites you to the “disco”, don’t expect bellbottoms and the Bee Gees—turns out nightclubs are still called discotheques by the locals. Nightlife in Chiang Mai is definitely for the younger crowd, with more than a handful of clubs catering to different tastes. The biggest expat magnet by far is Zoe In Yellow, which combines a jam-packed club, low-key garden bar, and great food all at cheap prices. They hold epic parties with live music, frequent fire shows, plus they celebrate most western holidays in their own unique way.
Of course, if you’re looking for straight-up all night dancing in an all-out rave atmosphere, Bubbles should be your destination of choice. It can be a bit seedy and definitely attracts more tourists than backpackers, but still makes for a great night out.
If you plan to spend an extended amount of time in Thailand, it’s good to know that Western style places are never out of reach. John’s Place is still my favorite haunt in the city—a sports bar that perpetually plays soccer and football games while offering a variety of comfort foods and a soundtrack of classic rock. If it’s Mexican food you’re craving, Loco Elvis is the best spot to hit, directly next to Fat Elvis which serves up amazing American-style burgers with bottomless lemonade.
Chiang Mai possesses the mystical ability to provide amusement for every mood and personality—a city not to be missed!