Out of the hustle and bustle of Thailand, you’ll find the city of Chiang Mai to be full of laid back and relaxed people. The northern city used to be the capital of Thailand (then named Lanna Kingdom) and where the King lived. Chiang Mai is where you can find the right balance of old and new. On one hand, you can find a large shopping complex with international brands, but on the other, you can still see the brick remains of the old palace walls. Even to this day, it still retains its rustic charm! I was surprised to learn that a lot of people who travel to Thailand don’t consider visiting Chiang Mai. They believe there’s nothing much to do when compared to the bigger cities, but Shad and I had an amazing 3 days exploring what the city has to offer! From markets, to jazz bars, and getting a signature massage at Chi Spa, here’s a little list on what you can do during your time there!
Where to Stay
When we were looking for a place to stay, I knew I wanted somewhere that was central to all the places we were visiting, but also quiet enough that we get some peace during the night (away from loud noises/partying, etc.) Shangri-La Chiang Mai was the perfect option for us because it’s located just minutes walk/drive away from popular attractions but it is also very secluded out from the main streets, so guests always feel a sense of privacy when staying there. The hotel also has lush gardens with the largest tropical pool that give you a resort feel in the middle of the city!
The team at Shangri-La were SO welcoming from the beginning and set us up in a Spa Cottage room for the first two nights of our stay – a room that is ONLY one of it’s kind in the entire hotel and one that hasn’t begun selling yet! The Spa Cottage is located behind Shangri-La’s Chi Spa. It used to be a couple’s massage cottage but was renovated out to become the ultimate spa cottage package ideal for honeymooners. In the room is a separate dressing area, private steam room, outdoor bath with waterfall, outdoor relaxation chairs, and a luxurious king sized bed! The staff even surprised us with an early anniversary gift of wine and cake.
Our time at the spa cottage was definitely one to remember. One of my favourite things has to be having your own personal butler service as part of the package. That’s right – a personal butler! Upon arrival you are greeted by your butler who will then give you a phone to directly call them when you need anything. Our butler was the amazing Deun, who kindly set up all our requests for us (such as complimentary in-room breakfast, treatment baths, and tuk tuk rides back to the hotel). We certainly felt like royalty!
Included in every Spa Cottage package was a signature 90-minute Chi Spa massage for two. Shad and I live for massages (seriously…I think we had 6 massages this trip), so we were excited to try the Shangri-La difference! For those that don’t know, most Shangri-La hotels around the world have their own exclusive Chi Spa’s, known for their quality products and treatments. We were first given a brief consultation on the massage that we had chosen and filled out a form listing out any previous medical conditions and our massage preferences for the day. The staff also prepared a traditional welcome drink along with a cool towel so we could begin to relax even before the massage began. Before heading off to our couple room, they gave us a selection of oils to trial and choose, based off on the aura we wanted to feel for the day (energetic, relaxed, etc.)
The atmosphere of Chi Spa feels like you’ve entered paradise. There is soft music playing all throughout, and even a water centrepiece to make you feel as if you’ve floated away to some Zen resort. Inside the couple room, we were first given a foot scrub and then led to our tables. The Chi Spa Signature Lanna treatment contains the best Thai techniques and other Asian traditions to create the ultimate relaxing experience. The therapists that we had were gentle yet firm, and knew how to hit the right pressure points without it being too painful! By the end, we were feeling so rejuvenated for the day ahead. Once we were finished with our massage, we were given some ginger tea and relaxed out on the Chi Spa deck.
Where to eat street food
Night markets / Walking st market
Chiang Mai is very famous for its night bazaar markets, which happen every night at around 8pm along the busy street of Chang Khlan Road. On weekends however, you can head to the walking street markets, located Luckily for us, the night bazaar markets were only a 10 min walk from our hotel.
Along the stretch of busy market stalls, you can find just about anything being sold! It’s a great place to find souvenirs for friends or even purchase local gems and ‘designer’ bags. The atmosphere is very busy nightly, as the markets attracts lots of tourists – be prepared to be squished once in a while and remember to bring your own bottle of water! The main market itself then breaks off into little small market areas, where you can walk further in and explore the vendors there. We decided to roam the markets on an empty stomach to see what types of street food we could find. There were many carts selling local food like Pad Thai and a lot of dessert for those with a sweet tooth. For us, we opted to have some charcoaled bbq octopus which cost us only $9!
What to do
This was recommended to me by Shangri La’s communications manager, Saranya. She told me that Warorot Market is the place to go if you want the most local Thai experience in Chiang Mai! It’s a favourite for the residents as you can buy almost everything you need for day-to-day living. Here is where you’ll find everyday fresh produce for cooking (priced very low), snack foods, spices, and ready made meals for lunch/dinner. There’s even a section of the market dedicated to just flowers! At the very lower level of the markets, you’ll find vendors selling boat noodles and rice (at local prices for $1.5 a bowl).
The Warorot Markets are open from 5am to 11pm but I would recommend going in the late morning at 10am as it only starts picking up from there. If you do happen to visit in the evening, the atmosphere is quite different as the food stalls settle on the street and the market divides into two.
A lesser known hotspot in Chiang Mai are jazz bars that run throughout the night into the early mornings. Jazz bar spots weren’t as popular a decade ago, but in the past few years they’ve sprung up in the city and now people love visiting for their live music and for a drink or two. Perhaps the most famous jazz bar in town is the North Gate Jazz Co-op. As the name suggests, it’s located at the North Gate in the old city. The Jazz Co-op has a rotating list of talented artists, and is so famous for their music that the crowd usually spills onto the streets!
Inside is a very compact bar which has rustic Thai charm, with indoor and outdoor seating. Like most jazz bars, they do serve a variety of drinks (not very expensive) and the atmosphere is very casual and laid-back. Every night there are two bands playing from 9pm and finishing at 12am. On Tuesday nights you can visit the jazz bar for free jam sessions by musicians!
Thailand is home to many elephants, and up north in Chiang Mai is where you can find them. Unfortunately, due to the rise of tourism, many shows and entertainment parks feature elephants and a lot of them are mistreated for financial gain. It is a big problem in Thailand and is why I refused to support any shows or elephant riding, as it is harmful to these animals. Instead of visiting them there, Shad and I went to visit an elephant ‘sanctuary’, where these gentle giants are able to roam around without being abused and interact naturally with humans.
The one that we visited was the Chai Lai Orchard, and they offer many activities with the elephants such as an elephant caretaker experience where you can bathe, feed, and look after these animals as if they were your own! Chai Lai also has bungalows where you can stay overnight. We did this and went for the ‘elephant morning call’ experience – an elephant and their caretaker will come and wake you up, and then you get to feed the elephant 50kg of bananas (along with your own breakfast in bed!). It was truly an amazing experience and one that you cannot leave Chiang Mai without trying.