How to live like a local in Chiang Mai
Lonely Planet Local Alana Morgan first moved to the northern Thai town of Chiang Mai thinking she would stay six to eight months. Seven years later and she’s still living and working in the city and writing all about it.
Must-see temples include… the ‘silver temple’, Wat Srisuphan, off Th Wualai and the wooden Wat Phan Tao in the centre of the old city. Chiang Mai’s better-known temples, such as Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, are still well worth a visit, but get more crowded every year. Just keep in mind there are so many others to explore!
No one should visit Chiang Mai without... keeping one day open with no plans. While there is a lot to do and see, Chiang Mai’s greatest charm is in taking it slow and seeing how the day unfolds. Instead of cramming your schedule with cooking classes and day trips to see the elephants, begin with a leisurely breakfast, then pick a direction and wander, stopping in at temples, markets and cafes that catch your eye. To escape the heat (or a sudden downpour), slip into the nearest massage shop for an affordable foot massage.
I do most of my shopping at... local fresh markets for produce and around Talat Warorot for about everything else. Most of the items from my house come from Warorot; I go to the flower stalls at Talat Ton Lam Yai once a month to fill my house with giant tropical leaves (for just a couple of dollars!) and always stock up on gifts for going back home.
For cheap and easy street food head to... the north or south gates of the old city. Street stalls are set up every evening selling both prepared foods and made-to-order dishes. You can find a range of typical Thai dishes, snacks, drinks and fresh fruit to eat there at the metal tables or for takeaway. There are plenty of other street food spots spread throughout town, but these two areas in particular offer some of the highest concentrations of stalls and are easy to get to.
After seven years I still... will walk around for hours with no set destination. Things change so quickly here that I always see something different and, aside from word of mouth, it’s the best way to ‘discover’ new-to-me places. The streets branching off from Nimmanhaemin Road, narrow sois in the Old City and along the river, like in the Wat Ket neighbourhood, are some of the best areas for getting lost.
For a caffeine fix... you don’t have to look far. Chiang Mai has the widest range and highest concentration of cafes I have ever seen, with new cafes and roasteries popping up all the time. My go-tos include Ponganes, Gateway Coffee Roasters, Graph Cafe, The Baristo at Ping River and Yellow Crafts Home Brewing... just to name a few! (Find even more cafes in Chiang Mai here.)
A typical weekend includes… forcing myself to step away from work and rediscover the city I’ve chosen to call home. Going out to a proper breakfast, for example at Khagee, Rustic & Blue or Overstand Coffee Shop, getting groceries for the week at an organic market, catching up with friends over coffee or dinner and drinks, and going for a motorbike ride out of town fills my time. Chiang Mai is small and with everything so close, you can fit in a lot of different experiences, places and people in one day.
When I want to treat myself... I book a massage or treatment package at one of the nicer spas in town, such as Fah Lanna Spa, or go with a friend to afternoon tea or sunset drinks at one of Chiang Mai’s five-star hotels like 137 Pillars Houseor Hotel Yayee.
For more upscale Thai meals that are still incredibly affordable, head to…Ginger & Kafe @ The House for beautifully presented dishes and creative cocktails, Fah Tara Coffee, a garden cafe connected to Fah Lanna Spa, River Market for standard Thai dishes in a romantic setting by the Mae Ping River or Ruen Tamarind, which boasts a specifically northern Thai setting.
Don’t leave Chiang Mai without trying... kôw soy. The northern Thai curry is Chiang Mai’s most famous dish – the creamy coconut curry, egg noodles and chicken topped with fried wontons, lime, shallots and pickled greens has a unique flavour all its own. You can find the dish at many restaurants, but it usually tastes better at small shops known for their noodles and kôw soy, such as Khao Soi Lam Duan and Khao Soi Islam.
For drinks other than Singha, Chang or SangSom, head to… Drinksmith for insane signature cocktails or Parallel Universe of the Lunar 2 on the Hidden Moon if you’re a craft beer fan. Just be aware that prices are comparable to what you’d pay outside Southeast Asia. It’s also difficult to find good wine at reasonable prices in Chiang Mai due to high import taxes, but Piccolo Wine & Tapas has an excellent selection of global wines and, of course, delicious tapas made by their Spanish chef.
The most magical time to be in Chiang Mai is... in November for the Loi Krathong holiday, and in the middle of the rainy season when there are fewer tourists in town.