Well on its way to becoming as popular as the islands, Chiang Mai is Thailand‘s perfect chill-out stop for travellers looking to escape the chaos of Bangkok. With colourful markets brimming with local crafts, iconic traditional Buddhist culture and hidden jungle tribes within reach there’s plenty to keep you occupied for weeks. But if you’re time-poor don’t worry – there’s a lot to be covered in just two days, as Emma Brisdion proves in her 48-hour guide to this laid back city.
Start with Banana Pancakes for Breakfast
Hop out early to catch a breakfast of scrumptious banana pancakes, then settle back in your chair with a fresh mango smoothie to watch the sleepy city begin to stir and burst into life. Don’t get too comfortable though, with only 48 hours to spend in Chiang Mai, you’ve got a busy day ahead!
Then visit an elephant sanctuary
Seeing Asian elephants sits high on any many a traveller’s bucket list, but recently the tourism boom has driven an industry where captive elephants are treated badly. But (we’re pleased to hear) there are some sanctuaries that provide a safe, caring place to rehouse rescue elephants and conserve the traditional Thai mahout (elephant carer) culture. The beautiful mountain foothills surrounding Chiang Mai are home to many such centres, in which you can spend an unforgettable morning bathing the elephants in the river and feeding them sugarcane. You’ll make a friend for life if you bring along a few ripe bananas, too.
Explore Buddhist culture and beautiful wats
Back in the city centre and dressed in those baggy cotton travelling trousers that Thailand is famous for, follow your map to some of the most beautiful Buddhist temples outside of the Grand Palace. The stunning array of wats that litter the old walled city of Chiang Mai are conveniently located within walking distance, and range from age-old, crumbling (though still very impressive) ruins to new domed Wats draped in gold leaf where you can find local monks praying and going about their daily business. In fact, if you want a sneak-peek into the lives of the monks, you’ve come to the right place – you’ll spot them everywhere. Unmistakable in their vibrant orange robes with shaven heads, you can (almost) guarantee you’ll pass one or two on the street or even sit next to one on the bus.
Don’t be too surprised when you see them sat outside on their mobile phones, though.
With over 300 wats to choose from and just an afternoon to spare, try to cram in a visit to Wat Phra Singh (pictured below) – the iconic temple of the lion Buddha is located in the west of the old town and has long been a landmark favourite with visitors to Chiang Mai. Follow this with Wat Chedi Luang, an impressive ruined stone structure adorned with crumbling elephants in the heart of historic central Chiang Mai. The temple stands tall in a complex surrounded by the beautiful architecture of more modern temples.
Flip-flops are a must though, no shoes are allowed inside the temples so it’s best to don footwear that is easy to slip on and off.
Shuffle through the walking street market
Plan your whistle-stop-tour of Chiang Mai for a weekend if possible, as every Sunday the central street and surrounding areas of the walled old town are transformed into one of Thailand’s most famous markets. ‘Walking’ is perhaps an optimistic term; after 7pm you’re more likely to find yourself shuffling through the street, carried along by the tide of visitors drawn to the market. Prepare for an awesome assault on the senses: irresistible aromas waft over from food stalls; bright jewellery, textiles and art of every colour under the sun catches your eye; and a vibrant cacophony of bartering, laughter and songs from local street performers fills the air.
If you prefer a little personal space when mooching around to snap up the best deals, then head over in the late afternoon to beat the crowds. The market is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs and gifts, not only are prices generally cheaper than in Bangkok, but the variety and individuality of products is better here too. Careful you don’t get carried away though; it’s all-too-easy to leave with five new pairs of cotton trousers, six sets of chopsticks, a singing bowl for what purpose you’ll never quite know, an assortment of ‘I found myself in Asia’ bracelets and a woven bum bag. Even though you swore you would never own one…
Trek through jungles to visit ancient hill tribes
Just a short, bumpy Jeep ride away, Thailand’s ancient long-neck hill tribes still live their traditional untouched lives in villages nestled into the mountainside. Local guides can take you on a day trip to trek through the dense rainforest and giving you the opportunity to be the only group to visit the isolated tribe that week. Don’t be surprised when the friendly children come running to ogle at you and say hi to the strange-looking, odd-sounding visitors (that’s you, but the way). You’ll also stop off at stunning natural cascades hidden in the jungle and eat lunch cooked on an open fire, using chopsticks whittled from the very coconut trees you’re sat next. If that’s only whetted your appetite for adventure, you can also try longer overnight treks and spend a few nights sleeping in the jungle – just don’t forget to pack some very strong bug spray!
Get a massage
If you can keep yourself from having a nap when you arrive back in Chiang Mai, invest 200 baht (£4) in a traditional Thai massage. You’ll leave feeling relaxed in mind, body and soul. But those who are ticklish should be warned that they might not find the experience that relaxing – I once had a poor masseuse give up entirely to spend the last 20 minutes plaiting my hair. It looked great, at least.
Visit the night bazaar
For your final dinner, venture out of the city walls, cross the canal and head west towards the river. When darkness falls the night bazaar awakens and provides the perfect place to while away your last few hours (and remaining few baht). You’ll find a delightful mix of pop-up street stalls and food vendors, covered indoor markets and open spaces featuring live music and reasonably-priced cocktails.
The bazaar is conveniently open every night so if your trip can’t include a Sunday for the city walking market, the river bazaar provides a great evening alternative with the same easy bargains and lively atmosphere.