I’ve wanted to travel to Chiang Mai to see the elephants for such a long time. Years ago I had seen Elephant Nature Park in the media, a sanctuary for rescued elephants who have spent their lives working in the circus, ride and logging industries to live the rest of their days in freedom and ever since, Chiang Mai was officially at the top of the list. I was in Tokyo for a family trip earlier this month and thought it was just about time that I finally visited Thailand and made my way down to the Northern region to experience it for myself.
Elephant Nature Park is located an hour further north of Chiang Mai, so I spent a few days in the city first, sampling all the Thai cuisine that I could and walking my way around the maze which is the Old City.
I had been told that Chiang Mai was a beautiful town that was somewhat similar to Ubud in Bali and this was entirely true. It’s got that small town feel with a population of 130,000 and that South East Asian charm but it never really felt overly touristy or crowded.
There's no shortage of yoga studios, massage spots and raw healthy foods available around each corner that you turn so I felt really spoiled with choices. What I loved most though was the laid back vibe and the friendly locals who made me feel most welcome. I felt incredibly safe in Chiang Mai as a solo traveler.
This was my first time in Thailand and I spent the entire first day walking around in awe (and dripping with sweat) wondering why it had taken me so long to get here. Chiang Mai is charming and works at a slow pace- not to mention its super cheap to travel here.
Within the Old City is an abundance of everything I was hoping to see and do, so here’s my list of favourite spots:
Like any city I visit, my first thought is to seek out all the best cafes & cheap eats. Does anyone else get overwhelmed when there are more cafes on your list than coffees you should be drinking in a day? My list for Chiang Mai was never ending and I didn’t even make it to some of the hip areas like Ninniman Road because I just knew I didn’t have enough time. There were so many places I wanted to try in the Old City, so here’s my list!
Cool Muang Coffee
Just at the edge of the old city, this spot was super hipster and served up a really good cold brew. Great to work from if you’re living that digital nomad life.
Serving up really quirky coffee blends like rosewater & cold brew- this is the spot to try coffee art.
Overstand Coffee Old City
For a great brew
Cafe De Museum
This spot right here is the reason there’s not many other places on this list. I ate at Kanjana more times than I could count. A small local spot down a lush little alleyway, everything on the menu at Kanjana is truly delicious. Try the pineapple curry with brown rice, the green curry, the pad see ew and the green papaya salad. Cash only!
Farm Story House
Located right next door to Kanjana is Farm Story House. You have to try their mango sticky rice. The best one I had in Chiang Mai.
Pink House Garden
A vegan & gluten free restaurant with a relaxed outdoor setting just outside of the old city walls.
Khao Soi Arak
This local dish was originated in Chiang Mai and is a noodle soup that combines two different noodles- a flat wheat noodle and a crispy friend noodle. The sauce is a spicy coconut curry and it’s traditionally served with check, lime, chilli paste, shallots and cabbage. You’ve just gotta try it. This place serves up only this dish and I couldn’t recommend it more.
Cosy Vegan & Gluten free cafe
Free Bird Cafe
Another great spot for healthy vegan eats!
Bodhi Tree Cafe
A cosy vegan spot with yoga classes, too- I told you there was no shortage!
Cat Shack Cafe
An amazing little healthy cafe tucked down an alleyway, Cat House has home made kombucha and affordable, healthy plates. There’s also a little coffee hut located right next to it so it’s the perfect spot to laze around for a couple of hours away from the streets.
Green Bamboo Massage
For super cheap & casual massage treatments
Another great cheap massage spot. I had reflexology here and it was bliss.
Fah Lanna Spa
This one’s a little more of a treat as it’s a bit more pricey than the other two I recommended but is a gorgeous setting where you’re sure to feel pampered.
There’s plenty of guest houses, hotels and villas for all types of travellers in Chiang Mai. I stayed at two different guest houses here which were both really lovely, super affordable and just what I needed for this trip. Had I stayed any longer than 4 nights, I would recommend booking a place with a pool as the days are long and humid.
Mango Tree Apartments
Tambon Si Phum, Chang Wat Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Thapae Happy House
A simple & cheap guesthouse located in the Old City for $40 a night.
See & Do
Wat Chedi Luang
This stunning temple is located right in the centre of the Old City and is an impressive structure built sometime between 1385 and 1402. Wat Chedi Luang is a Buddhist Temple believed to protect the city and is definitely worth a visit. It’s beautiful at sundown, too.
There are temples located around every corner that you turn in the Old City and I'd recommend spending a quiet morning just walking the streets and alleyways spotting them out. Best done with a fresh mango juice in hand.
Weekend Night Markets
Also referred to as the Walking Street, the weekend night markets in Chiang Mai shut the streets down so you’re able to freely wander the stores and street food carts. The atmosphere is related but it gets pretty crowded so I’d recommend going just before sunset before all the crowds come out.
Elephant Nature Park
Initially my main reason for wanting to visit Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park was co-founded by Sangduen "Lek" Chailert and is located 60km north of the city. An elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre where you can volunteer and visit to help the elephants that have spent their lives working in the logging, circus & riding trades.
I did the overnight trip here and was blown away by the work that they do here to help elephants that are mentally and physically damaged by their past. A cause that I’m super passionate about, visiting here showed me first hand the severe impact that humans have had on these beautiful creatures. We spent the two days feeding the elephants, making rice treats for them, watching them bathe in the river and observing them enjoy their freedom.
Elephant riding is still very much happening and when I flew from Tokyo to Chiang Mai last week, there was a huge billboard by Mastercard at Narita Airport of people riding an elephant and it really took me surprise. How many creatives did that go through, which agency did that work and how did not one person on that campaign think that it wasn’t right? Elephant riding is still very much around, all over the world and I truly think if only we were all educated about how they’re treated, there’s no way you’d still want to jump on their backs.
I highly suggest watching the film “Love and Bananas” to see just what goes on behind the scenes and what the team at Elephant Nature Park are doing to recuse and protect these creatures. Filmed at the Park with actor/director Ashley Bell and a team of elephant rescuers led by world renowned Asian elephant conservationist and TIME Magazine's Hero of Asia, Lek Chailert, co-founder of Elephant Nature Park, they embark on a daring mission 480 miles across Thailand to rescue Noi Na, a 70-year old partially blind trekking elephant and bring her to freedom.
209/2 Sridom Chai Road, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand