We spent the vast majority of our time in Thailand in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is probably the most popular city in the world for so-called digital nomads (people who live nomadically because they can do their work from anywhere that has internet). It was easy to see why it’s so popular. It’s much smaller and calmer (and slightly cooler) than Bangkok but still a large enough city to have any type of amenity one might want or need. The internet is reliable and fairly fast. The cost of living is quite low. The people are very friendly and welcoming.
We arrived in Thailand after a two-week whirlwind road trip through Italy followed by a month in East Africa. We were exhausted, and Matthew hadn’t made much progress on the app he was trying to make because of the pace of our travels and the unreliability of internet in East Africa. So we booked an Airbnb apartment in Chiang Mai for three full weeks with the goal of resting, allowing ourselves to feel settled for a little while, and getting a lot of work done. While Matthew worked on his app, I needed to figure out what our next travel plans would be. When we landed in Thailand we had nothing booked beyond our oneway flight to Chiang Mai and no clue what would be next.
Chiang Mai was perfect for our goal of settling down and working, and many days we didn’t do anything except eat and work (either in our apartment or one of the many coffee shops in our area). However, Chiang Mai offered plenty of interesting things to do whenever we wanted to venture out and do something more exciting. Here are our favorite things to do in Chiang Mai:
Getting up close with Elephants
This was so awesome that it got it’s own post. So if you didn’t get a chance yet, click here to read my post about our day playing with elephants at Elephant Nature Park. I would consider this a must-do if you’re ever in Chiang Mai!
Taking a Thai cooking class
I love cooking, and I especially love trying new things in the kitchen. So, of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take a Thai cooking class during our time in Chiang Mai. We did a half-day cooking class with Thai Orchid Cookery School. We loved it!
In the morning, they pick you up at your accommodation and drive you to the cooking school. There’s an indoor dining area and an indoor cooking demonstration area. The demonstration area has a mirror over it so that when you’re sitting in the chairs watching, you get an overhead view of what the instructor is doing. Pretty cool!
Then outside there are a bunch of cooking stations. Each person gets his or her own prep area and stove.
For the half-day class you get to learn four courses: spring rolls, curry, stir fry, and dessert. For each course there are two options to choose from. Matthew and I chose different options for every course so that together we would be able to try them all. I made fresh spring rolls, red curry, pad thai, and banana cake. Matthew made fried spring rolls, green curry, cashew chicken, and pumpkin cake.
I thought they did a great job of breaking things down into manageable steps. It definitely made me feel like I would be able to replicate the dishes on my own at home. And they give you a recipe book to take home with all the recipes you learned (and more)!
Also included with the half-day class is a trip to a local market. Our guide took us around the market showing us various fruits and vegetables and explaining how they are used in Thai cooking.
For a long time I’ve wanted to do that thing where you drink fresh coconut water right out of the coconut, and at this market I finally got my chance. It was delicious!
Going up the mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, making it very popular with both Thai and foreign tourists. (It was very crowded when we visited.) It’s way up on a mountain looking down over Chiang Mai, so you need a ride to get there. We flagged down a songthaew (or “red truck” – read more about songthaews in this post) and negotiated a price with the driver which included him driving us to the temple, waiting for an hour, and then driving us back down to Chiang Mai.
From the road, you have to walk up 306 steps to get to the temple. There’s also a funicular that you can ride for a small fee, but we didn’t want to wait in the long line. So instead we climbed these and got a reminder of how out of shape we were.
Unfortunately, we chose an extremely hot, humid, and sunny day to visit Doi Suthep. (Okay so all the days were pretty hot and humid, but the glaring midday sun at that particular time didn’t help.) As you can probably tell from this photo, it was also quite bright.
Between the crowd and the heat, it was a bit overwhelming, but the temple was really beautiful. This was our first Thai temple, and we were surprised at how vibrant and colorful it was. I would say at least half of the visitors were buddhists who were performing various religious rituals, so we tried to be respectful and stay out of the way.
Chiang Mai has plenty of more accessible temples, but if you’re at all interested in Thai buddhist architecture, I would say Doi Suthep is worth the trip. It’s probably the most elaborate temple we saw in Chiang Mai, and the expansive grounds are also worth seeing.
Shopping at the markets
Chiang Mai has well-known Saturday and Sunday markets (each in a different part of Old Town). I’m ashamed to say that in 3 weeks, I didn’t make it to either one. Lilly and Matthew went one day, but I stayed home because I was sick. Lilly came back with a couple of cute items, including a dress and a headband.
Although I didn’t make it to the weekend markets, we did catch a mini version outside of the Maya Shopping Mall, which was just up the road from our apartment. We didn’t buy anything, but it was nice to stroll around and look at the various handmade items on display.
Visiting temples in Old Town
Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples, and the highest concentration is within the walls of Old Town. Because we stayed in the newer neighborhood of Nimmenhaemin, we didn’t spend much time in Old Town, but we set aside a day to head over there and explore. There are way too many temples for any one person to see, and after a while they all tend to blend together. I looked around online a bit before we went and picked out a few that sounded the most interesting.
Wat Phra Singh is one of Chiang Mai’s most famous and most revered temples. The grounds and buildings are quite beautiful.
Behind the main temple, there are some large gold chedis that shine brightly and loom impressively over you.
One of my favorite temples we visited was Wat Phan Tao. I liked it because it’s made of teak, giving it a totally different look from every other temple we saw. The teak gives the temple kind of a rustic vibe both inside and outside. I think there’s beauty in the simplicity.
For me, the other highlight among the temples was Wat Chiang Man. This temple was originally established around the time of the city’s founding in 1296. The oldest structure within the temple complex is the chedi, which has elephants carved all along the bottom.
We really enjoyed seeing some of the variety in Chiang Mai’s temples. I do wish that we had done some more research ahead of time to give us a better understanding of the history behind the different temples we saw. Or perhaps a guided walking tour would have been a good option. We appreciated the beauty of the buildings but had very little context with which to understand their significance.
In general, I think we did a poor job in Thailand of really immersing ourselves in the culture, reading about the history, and talking to locals to try to learn more about the country. Our time there was largely a period of recuperation from weeks of fast-paced travel, though we enjoyed everything that we did make the effort to do. There’s plenty more for us to see and learn in Thailand, so we hope to have the chance to go back one day.