Friday, 15 March 2019

The Travellers Guide To Chiang Mai, Thailand

I stood in the marketplace, on all sides I was surrounded by chaos. Charcoal burners smoked and sizzled, the contents of their grills producing aromas of lemongrass and ginger. A tubby Thai lady on a tiny plastic stool scooped ladles of soup dotted with bobbing buoys of congealed blood into bowls for sweaty men on similarly tiny stools.

Flower garlands overflowed tabletops, waiting to be repurposed as an offering for the gods. Chains of balled and fermented pork hung on rails all in a line. Tourists and locals alike squeezed through the narrow walkways between vendors who ply their wares night after night for generation after generation in the same location.

I was in Wororot market, the hub in Chiang Mai where during the day locals wander the indoor markets for their everyday purchases, everything from clothes and shoes to fruit and veg and at night the streets around the main market building serve as a place for locals and tourists to eat dinner and socialise.

As a tourist, Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north is an incredible amalgamation of Thai culture,  temples, night markets, food, animal encounters, bars, Tuk Tuk adventures and anything else the heart of an intrepid traveller desires.

When travelling to Thailand most Australians head to the beaches, the trail to Phuket and Koh Samui is well worn, but standing in that marketplace surrounded by scenes you can only truly understand by being there I was in love. Chiang Mai had me at ‘hello’ or I should probably say ‘Sawadee Ka’ as they do in Thailand.


From Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a short one-hour flight north, or if you are feeling adventurous you can catch the overnight train in a first or second class sleeper. Both options are relatively cheap so it will just depend on your time frame and inclinations.

Once there the airport is less than two kilometres from the Old Town and a very efficient ticket system will get you a clean and modern taxi for less than $5. If you arrive at night you will be mesmerised by the twinkling lights and Thai lanterns dotted through the trees and at hotel entrances. It is a magical way to see a destination for the first time.


You have a number of location options when heading to Chiang Mai.

There are many boutique and larger resorts dotted around the outskirts of the city, and whilst they afford space and view over rice paddy fields you will need to take transport every time you want to explore the city.

Then you have the digital nomad/expat hub of Nimmanhaemin Road where you might want to rent an AirBNB for a longer stay.

As a short term tourist, my personal preference is the Old Town. Located within the old city walls you have one square mile of hotels, restaurants, markets and temples, temples, temples. It is very walkable but you also have tuk tuks and the local transport Songthaews trawling for customers and you can get all over the old town and beyond for a few dollars.

Accommodation in Chiang Mai ranges from really cheap. A few dollars a night will get you a room in a locally owned guest house like Beez Guesthouse where on any given night you might be able to sit with the owners and the colourful long term guests for a Chang beer and watch the world pass by.

In the mid-range price bracket, I recommend the De Lanna Hotel.  Around $100 a night will get you a comfortable room but for a small upgrade to a deluxe room, you could be located around the pool area with a view into the lantern filled garden lined with Koi Ponds at each door.

The Old Town has heavy development restrictions which means your big brand name hotels like Anantara, Le Meridien and Shangri-la are all located outside the old town walls.


The simple answer to this is—everywhere. It is hard to get a bad meal in Chiang Mai. Try a little of everything at a wide range of places.

You can eat on the street from single person carts (and if you do be sure to try the roti which you can get stuffed with both sweet and savoury fillings), in the markets, in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and in larger establishments such as hotels. Don’t be worried about cleanliness.

Some of these places look a little shabby compared to what Australians are used to but we experienced widespread good hygiene practices and no tummy issues whatsoever. The locals are all quite educated on food for tourists and even in the night markets you will see food laid out on ice and freshly cooked in front of you, and drinks are served with pre-packed ice, not tap water.

In terms of food you, of course, need to try the Thai classics like pad thai, red and green curry, larb and all the amazing holy basil stir-fries, but you must hunt down the northern delicacies. There are two types of northern sausage: one is stuffed full of spices and curry pastes and very rich and meaty; the other is fermented pork, which may sound confronting but has a tart flavour that can be moreish.

Another must is the crispy pork belly. The northern Thais love their pork. You will come across slabs of crispy pork belly hanging in windows and on street stalls and each will have their own version. I personally love Pad Kra Pao Moo Krob which is crispy stir-fried pork belly with holy basil.

 A great way to try a wide range of foods is to head out on a food tour. I would highly recommend the Chiang Mai Night Food Tour By Local Truck. A local guide will whizz you around the city in a local red truck called a Songthaew stopping off for their favourite eats and drinks. You get history and stories and all from the perspective of a local.


We stayed for a week and were never short of something new and fun to do. In terms of markets, Wororot—which I describe above—is a must and is a much more local experience than many of the others. It is worth a visit during the day and at night for the food streets.

You will find a lot more local dishes here as there are more locals eating here. I recommend the soups—soup is ingrained in the Thai culture and the variety and flavour is nothing like what you can find in Australia.

The Night Bazaar is a more touristy option but a lot of fun and well worth setting aside a whole evening for—it starts at 6 pm and goes till 10:30 pm.

The Night Bazaar sets up every night on the outskirts of the old town walls and incorporates a maze of streets, laneways and arcades that run in all directions. The shopping is good but the range of food stalls is excellent. Moving through the streets you can grab a plate, grab a beer and watch some live music and once you have done that once you can move along and do it again and again.

The best known night market is the Sunday Walking street which pops up every Sunday night and runs end to end through the middle of the old town. Get there early—around 5 pm—not all the stalls are open yet but you can grab a selection of quick eats and some souvenirs without battling through the insane crowds.

Once the tourists descend this market is shuffle room only which makes eating and shopping a little tricky. Be sure to take the detours set up along the way—many of the temples set up their own markets within the temple grounds which allows you to explore the temples themselves which are open to visitors at night.

The temples take on a whole new atmosphere at night, their golden stupas lit against the dark skies are incredible.

Chiang Mai is known for its animal experiences, elephants being the big drawcard. The elephant sanctuaries have jumped on the no riding bandwagon in recent years and have cleaned up their practices to make these an ethical animal experience. There are dozens of these sanctuaries dotted around Chiang Mai and plenty of reviews and guides on the internet to lead you to the most ethical practices. I would steer clear of some of the other animal experiences but common sense will guide you here.

A cooking class is another must do, and whilst you will find quite a few within the Old Town it is a great opportunity to get out into the countryside to not only cook but see the local ingredients being grown on family-run farms. I recommend Grandma’s Home Cooking School.

A very professional set up, they collect you at your hotel in the morning, take you out of town to a market to see the produce and then onto the farm which is a stunning property that they have converted to have open-air pavilions for cooking in.

You then get to select your dishes to cook from a menu and as a group you are stepped through how to cook your own dishes and then enjoy lunch together. Skillwise it would suit most home cooks but it isn’t a masterclass in Thai cuisine.


Chiang Mai is incredibly affordable—not only to get to but once you are there as well. On the ground a tuk tuk will cost you $2-$5 depending on how far you need to go, a meal at a local venue can be as cheap as $2 (you can, of course, pay a lot more as well if you end up at a hotel restaurant or one of the riverfront places) and a long neck local beer will cost you around $5.

A good4-star hotel is $80-$100 a night, the temples are almost all free as is the market experiences if you don’t shop and a full days cooking class is around $50 including the transport to the countryside and back.

It is also easily combinable with a stay in Bangkok as you will need to pass through here to get to Chiang Mai and Bangkok is a wild city you must see once in your lifetime.

This article was written by Tenele Conway and first published on Her Canberra.

Originally posted on Friday, 15 March 2019 by