Where to Eat, Stay and Play in Chiang Mai
A travel guide for where to eat, stay and play in Chiang Mai, Thailand
We’ve been home for almost a month now and I still can’t stop thinking about the magic of Chiang Mai. I felt a magnetic pull from the city, as though it was asking me to make myself comfortable and stay a while.
Chiang Mai is the cultural capital of Thailand making it home to some of the countries most beautiful temples, talented local artists and a plethora of incredible restaurants and cafes. You could literally eat out for every single meal for an entire year and not run out of new places to try. In addition the cost of living is less than half of what it is in a metropolitan city here in the United States. That means you can get a lot more bang for your buck, so to speak, than if you were to travel elsewhere.
We went during the rainy season which I thought was a lovely time to visit. It’s warm and muggy but the benefit is that everything is lush and green. We stayed for four days but could have easily found ways to keep busy for much longer than that. I would recommend at least five days to be able to experience the city, or six to seven if you want to take your time and relax.
If you plan to visit Thailand, I highly recommend adding Chiang Mai to your list! Below you’ll find a collection of the best places to eat, stay and play while you are there.
What to Pack
- Lightweight pants, maxi skirts, and casual dresses (it’s super hot and most places are very casual)
- Several sports bras (you’ll sweat right through your regular ones!)
- Lightweight scarf or shawl (for covering your shoulders at the temples)
- Bathing suit
- Comfortable sandals and sneakers for walking around the city
- Sturdy Water Shoes (for hiking with elephants, I have this brand/style and they’re super comfy)
- Hiking pants and a long sleeve Dri-fit shirt (for mosquito protection when hiking with elephants)
- Waterproof Phone Case
- Waterproof Backpack
- Natural Sunscreen
- Bug Repellent (most hotels provide it for you but I think it’s good to have some on hand in-case)
- Face Mask (sounds silly but I wish I would have had one for riding in tuk tuks, etc!)
Where to Stay
137 Pillars House
If you want to stay somewhere that will take your breath away then 137 Pillars House is the place. Rated #1 in all of Southeast Asia by Travel and Leisure, this luxurious but intimate 30-suite property is established around a colonial teak homestead built in the early 1880’s.
Every detail is immaculate, merging old world charm with contemporary elegance. Whether it’s the tranquil heated saline pool surrounded by a 15-meter wall of ivy or the gorgeous bathrooms with claw-foot bathtubs and outdoor showers, you will feel like you’ve entered a private oasis away from it all.
Location: In a lush residential enclave within walking distance to the historical Wat Gate Khar Rham Temple, Ping River, the Night Bazzar, and a local arts district. The airport is located just 15 minutes away and you can easily take a taxi or a tuk tuk to the Old City in less than 10 minutes.
Rooms: Bright, airy and spacious. Each suite features plush mattresses with 400-thread count linen sheets. Enjoy the sounds of nature from the daybed on your private balcony, relax with a warm bath then end the night with homemade cookies provided by the turndown service.
Amenities: While 137 Pillars House has an excellent location and rooms that I could easily live in for months, it’s the personal touches that really set them apart. We were blown away by how friendly and accommodating everyone was. Here are a few things you can expect:
- Private Airport Transfers- a hotel staff member greets you upon arrival and escorts you to the hotel in a personal limousine equipped with complimentary WiFi and beverages.
- Welcome Beverages- while they take of your luggage and the check-in process, you’re served delicious Thai cocktails and refreshing hand towels
- Personal Butler Service- after taking a short tour of the property, you’ll be showed to your room by your own personal butler who is very knowledgable about the hotel and the city of Chiang Mai. They’ll help you plan your stay and also allow you to choose from their extensive pillow menu and signature bath products.
- In-Room Computers- if your laptop is malfunctioning, they will personally deliver one for you to borrow during your stay.
- Mini Bar-stocked with gourmet snacks, espresso machine and kettle
Restaurants and Bars:
- Jack Bain’s Bar- a unique library-style bar serving fresh fruit drinks, coffee, and a wide array of cocktails.
- The Parlor Lounge- partake in afternoon high tea with complimentary Thai desserts.
- The Dining Room – multi-cultural breakfast is served here each morning with options for made-to-order egg dishes and fresh pressed juices.
- Palette Restaurant – located in the hotel’s original teak homestead that dates back to the 1800’s. Features a light and artistic menu made from local and organic ingredients.
Chef Thiti Thammanatr
During our stay at 137 Pillars House we were fortunate enough to be introduced to the hotel’s executive chef. It didn’t take long to realize that Chef Thiti possesses a very deep passion for what he does. His international experience has inspired his global hybrid style of cuisine that offers a unique fusion of flavor profiles and textures. He excels at creating artistic food using a combination of traditional and modern techniques which results in a meal that will delight your senses.
When we informed the chef that we’re both vegetarians, he lit up with enthusiasm and insisted on preparing us a custom five course tasting menu. From the avocado sashimi to the risotto cakes paired with curried espresso shots, we were blown away by how flavorful and thoughtful each dish was. It was an experience that neither of us will ever forget!
Here’s a video for a closer look at the hotel and what we did our first day in Chiang Mai:
Where to Eat
If there’s one place that you absolutely MUST visit, it’s Woo Cafe. Located in adorable arts district, the setting here is so picturesque but it’s the food that steals the show. I ordered a vegetarian red curry dish (I’m drooling just thinking about it), Brandon ordered the Pad Thai, and we both slurped down the most amazing (and huge!) mango and kiwi smoothies. Easily one of the best meals we had on our entire trip.
After you eat, be sure to check out the art gallery and shop adjacent to the cafe. It’s packed full of gems made by local Thai artisans. I picked up four ceramic pieces for my food photography and an adorable handmade clutch for less than $40.
If you want an organic, locally sourced delicious meal that you can trust to be vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free, then Anchan is your place. It’s located outside of the old city on Nimmanahaeminda Road which is considered to be a trendier area with many shops, restaurants, and coffee shops. The food is great and there’s plenty to explore nearby after you’re done eating!
Taste From Heaven
Another Chiang Mai veggie gem, Taste From Heaven is located in the heart of the old city, making it the perfect detour after a day of exploring temples and shopping. I had a coconut smoothie and a veggie burger (both of which were awesome) and we split the vegan chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. That brownie is reason enough to eat there on it’s own. It was so good!
Okay so I was clearly on a mission to try all of the vegetarian restaurants in the city. I didn’t even come close. There are tons!
AUM is also located in the old city and they have a huge menu full of vegetarian goodies. I ordered the Khao Soi which is a signature dish in Northern Thailand. It was a little sweet for my taste but still delicious.
There are plenty of food stalls among the streets of Chiang Mai serving up dishes that can be just as good, if not better than some of the restaurants. There’s one square off the street of the Night Bazaar that’s full of them and they even have tables with live music in the center.
Other restaurants of possible interest:
- The Service 1921 (recommended by people we met during the elephant experience, offers higher end cuisine without a lot of vegetarian options)
- Angel’s Secrets (adorable bakery with veggie sandwiches)
- Charin Garden Resort (the best pie in Chiang Mai and a tranquil waterfront setting…enough said)
- Pun Pun Restaurant (organic vegetarian food located in a temple)
- Free Bird Cafe (vegan friendly)
- Pun-Pao (vegan steamed buns)
- Imm Aim Vegetarian Cafe
Where to Play
Elephant Nature Park
It seems as though interacting with elephants is at the top of everyone’s list when they get a chance to visit Thailand. Who wouldn’t want to be close to such a beautiful creature?
The unfortunate reality is that there is a very dark side to this part of the tourism industry and it’s extremely important that you do your research prior to your visit. If a “sanctuary” allows you to ride the elephants, it is not humane for them nor is it safe for you. Even if it’s bareback. Please avoid this at all costs.
After witnessing the horrifying practice of how they force the elephants into obeying them, I spent many hours investigating as much as I could in order to avoid supporting such a terrible thing. The only place I found to be reputable was Elephant Nature Park, a true sanctuary where they rescue and rehabilitate elephants that have been abused in the logging and tourism industry.
ENP offers several different types of tours and you can even volunteer and spend the night. The most popular visit the more affordable option which can be crowded and doesn’t allow a lot of hands on time with the elephants.
The more expensive tours allow a smaller number of people to interact in a more intimate setting with the elephants. We chose to do the Karen Experience which takes you to a remote village south of Chiang Mai to spend the day with elephants that belong to the Karen people.
Historically the Karen villagers would rent their elephants out to the logging and tourism industries in order to support their families. But in recent years Elephant Nature Park has provided them with an alternative that allows the elephants to stay in the village and be properly cared for. There is no riding, chains or bull hooks. The elephants roam free in the jungle, enjoy mud baths and bathe in a nearby waterfall.
I was very careful to pay attention to how they were being treated and I honestly felt that they seemed happy. They eagerly followed the mahouts who only used food to encourage them. The closest thing I can compare it to is a dog who wants to please their owner for a treat.
The youngest one who was 7-years old (Pet) was so enthusiastic for food that if you had some in your hand, he would follow you everywhere!
We spent a good hour feeding them then walking them through the jungle before heading back to the village for a delicious vegetarian lunch in a traditional Karen home.
The houses were amazing. They’re built on stilts and have tin roofs and split bamboo as walls and floors. I was a little nervous walking around at first, seeing how the house is on the side of a hill, but they were surprisingly sturdy.
That kitty looks sweet and innocent but she was up on the table eating the buffet before she settled in for a nap!
With full bellies, we headed down the hill to give the elephants a mud bath which helps cool them down. Then we walked them through the jungle to a nearby waterfall to rinse them off.
As we were saying our goodbyes to Pet, he was trying his best to get more food out of us. He randomly started offering kisses to Brandon in hopes for a treat which had us all cracking up. It was such an incredible day!
Here’s a video for a closer look at The Karen Experience with Elephant Nature Park
Getting an authentic Thai massage is an experience in itself that I highly recommend trying. You will be asked to change into a comfortable outfit before they sit you down to wash your feet. After that the massage therapist will get on top of you and contort you in different stretches. It’s weird at first but by the end you feel so good that you wish you could do it on a weekly basis.
I had mine at 137 Pillars House and my masseuse was amazing. They also give you tea and cookies afterwards which is a major plus in my book.
Temples / The Old City
If you choose not to stay in the Old City, you can take a tuk tuk for around $100 Baht (approx. $3) to get there. Schedule at least a full day to walk around and explore the shops and restaurants, as well as visit the many nearby temples (such as Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and What Phan Tao).
Make sure you are dressed appropriately when visiting temples: no tank tops, short shorts/skirts, and remove your shoes before entering.
Every night of the week, Chiang Mai has a night market that’s worth checking out. Take advantage of the opportunity to eat some street food and do a little shopping. The handmade soaps are so cool!
Wat Doi Suthep
This temple is a bit removed from the main area of Chiang Mai so you will have to take a taxi or rent a motorbike to get there. It’s ideal to visit on a clear day because the temple’s located 3,520 feet above sea level giving you an awe-inspiring view of the city.
Side note: you have to climb 309 stairs to get there but trust me, it’s worth it!
A video of our visit to Doi Suthep
Thai Farm Cooking School
Taking a cooking class should be at the top of your list of things to do in Chiang Mai. It is a great way to experience and learn more about the local culture plus the food is phenomenal.
We chose Thai Farm Cooking School and were not disappointed. The day begins with a tour of a local market then you visit the farm to learn about the organic ingredients you will be cooking with.
After that you get to work in the kitchen preparing five different courses (they give you two options for each). I went with Tom Kaa Gai, Cashew Stir Fry, Red Curry, Pad Thai, and Mango Sticky Rice.
Everything was so delicious but I was stuffed by the end. I honestly could have done without one of the courses because it was way too much food. But food babies aside, it was an awesome day and I highly recommend it!