If ever there was a place projecting the perfect fusion of east meets west, in the minds of many, it is Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Step off the plane at the international airport and you’ll find yourself immersed in an exotic Shangri-La like new world teaming in the tapestry of the exotic Thai script, with little bits and pieces of millennia old tradition and customs tucked here and there around storefronts and sidewalk cafes in a city with smiling, polite, people that greet you everywhere you go.
There’s a relaxed happiness in air. And if you buy a cup of coffee at the airport Starbucks, there’s a good chance one of the workers will never forget you and say hello to you every time you walk through the airport! Now, that’s customer service!
When you finally get a grip and pull yourself back to reality, you’ll notice you’re in a place where it’s likely you’ll have no command of a different, mysterious, seemingly strange language. What can you do?
Relax. The Thai’s have an uncanny ability and strong desire to help strangers find their way around their country. They’ll help you even if they don’t speak a single word of your native tongue.
Yet, for all of its’ “foreign-ess”, Thailand can be incredibly familiar if you know where to go and what to look for. World-class healthcare presenting practitioners trained in the west, high-end designer shopping, and first-rate restaurants abound.
What is there to do? It’s All About Choice
Don't feel like immerging yourself in Thai culture for the day? That’s OK. Go to one of the bright new shiny malls, such as the Century Airport or Maya malls, where you can easily bask in western food, books, and movies — in English with Thai subtitles! Or go hang out at one of the many ex-pat hot spots around town. You can try an upscale but reasonably priced restaurant like Dash! not far from the Chiang Mai Gate at the south side of the old city. Or you can simply hang out at any one of a gazillion ex-pat bars such as the Mad Dog Pizza Bar and Restaurant, O’Malleys Irish Pub (Anusarn Market, Chang Klan Road), the UN Irish Pub (24-24/1 Ratwithi Road), or the Downunder Pub (186/1 Loi Kroh Road), and speak in your native tongue until you're ready to go to sleep.
And if that isn’t enough, you can visit with ex-pats at the Chiang Mai Expats Club. They meet on the fourth Saturday of every month, usually at Le Meridien Hotel (108 Chang Klan Road, in the Night Bazaar area of town). Check their website to confirm the location if you’re thinking of attending.
Go Thai to Enjoy All Chiang Mai Has To Offer
But let’s face it; the true reason for visiting Thailand and Chiang Mai is to soak up the food, culture and all the wondrous things to do.
Here’s our short list of cool things to do, even if you only have a weekend to do it in.
Top Things To Do Over A Weekend In Chiang Mai
Visit the Chiang Mai Night Safari
Grab a taxi, tuk-tuk or Songthaew, and go for a 20-minute drive just south of the city and the international airport, and you’ll arrive at the Chiang Mai Night Safari. There you’ll see Elephants and other animals paraded around among the visitors and entertainment by local lady boys.
Two Tours And A Spectacular Post Tour Water Show
This place offers two tours over a 3-hour period. Before and after the tours you can enjoy other informal presentations.
The first tour affords you an opportunity to get up close to the animals. You can pet them as you drive by in the park tour buses. It features the “nondangerous” animals: giraffes, ostriches, and the like. But pay attention. More than one tourist has been known to leave the park less a cell phone or other piece of property or with a bleeding finger thanks to an Ostrich.
The second tour features the well-known predators: lions, tigers, bears, and more. But getting pix of them can be problematic as nighttime falls.
But the biggest treat of all is the spectacular water and light show! You can see it, almost in it’s entirety, here. But it’s best to see it in person.
Check out our review of this place.
Time: 4-5 hours (including time to and from the city)
Visit the Terra Cotta Arts Garden For Coffee and Pix
Looking for some exotic pix to take home with you? This garden, 1-block from the Chiang Mai Gate, presents handmade Terra Cotta reconstructions of Southeast Asian pottery and figurines.
Bring your camera — the lighting and textures can be spectacular with the canopy of trees and moss-laden walls surrounding the now new cafe on-site — as of 2015. And yes, a cell phone camera will do. And you can check your Email while you’re there — courtesy of their Wi-Fi cafe.
This place is an in-town extension of a large Terra Cotta farm in neighboring Lamphun, Thailand. This is an easy, “must see”, for the traveler with a tight time schedule over a weekend.
Directions: Look for the daily food market at the Chiang Mai gate. This place is one block behind or on the opposite side of the daily market on a back street.
Check out our review of this place here.
Note: This place was renamed in 2015 after the owners realized it’s popularity and installed a cafe on the site. It’s now called the Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden.
Time: 1-2 hours
Visit the Art in Paradise, The Chiang Mai 3D Art Museum
Revive your inner child — visit and have fun!
This is another great place to visit with a camera. And it’s for kids of all ages from 5 to 95!
Bring your camera and have fun posing in the 3D art exhibits! Friends and family will marvel at your pix on Facebook!
The fee? $10. It's worth it. It’s a short taxi or Tuk-Tuk ride from the Chiang Mai gate area.
See our review and those of others here.
Time: 2-3 hours
An Early Dinner at Mario’s
This family run business features a cook who tutored with an Italian chef in Bangkok for years. It’s a little “hole-in-the-wall” type informal place, with seating for about 15-20 people under a canopy extending to the sidewalk. The food is spectacular. The cost is low. Try the Lasagna or vegetables in mushroom sauce. We’ve tried everything on the menu and every single dish, without exception, is stellar, every time.
Check out our reviews of this place here.
Time: 30 minutes
Visit The Saturday Night Bazaar at the Chiang Mai Gate
There’s nothing like visiting a street bazaar in Southeast Asia. And this one is among the best. And that’s saying a lot given that Chiang Mai has a street bazaar every night in a different part of the city. These events are not just for tourists — they are a way of life in Asia and a source of shopping, eating, and socializing for the Thai’s.
Take a Tuk-Tuk or Songthaew or walk (don’t drive or ride — there’s too much traffic) to the Chiang Mai Gate on the southern side of the old city on any Saturday night, and around 5 pm you’ll find Woo Lai Road closed off to traffic for about 1/4 of a mile. It’ll be packed with residents and tourists alike, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of street food vendor cooking.
Want some Pad Thai? They’ll make it before you for less than one US dollar.
Looking for some gifts to take home? You’ll find countless street sellers hawking everything from silk tablecloths, knock off CD’s and movies, local art, and figurines of all sorts. You’ll even find phallic symbols in the form of whistles!
Note: As of 2015, the Thai Government has taken a dim view of what it views as inappropriate or disrespectful handling of figurines of Buddha. Signs at the international airport forbid taking Buddha’s outside the country. Check on this before you buy Buddha’s for export.
Check out our review here.
Time: 2-3 hours (this can vary given the dense crowds)
Visit the Wat Phra That Doi Kham (Temple of the Golden Mountain)
Snag panoramic views of Chiang Mai while basking in the environs of this beautiful temple and site.
This is place is up on the mountain next to the international airport overlooking the city. It’s about a 40-minute drive by Tuk-Tuk or Taxi, and one of the most popular and iconic tourist sites in Northern Thailand.
Check out the opening hours and get up there first thing in the morning before the large crowds amass. There’s a fee for the tram up to the site from the entrance, but it’s worth it if you are disabled or have little children with you.
Plan a morning departure and early afternoon arrival back in Chiang Mai.
Check out our review here.
Time: 4-6 hours depending on traffic and how much time you spend at the Wat.
Visit the Black Canyon Coffee Shop at the Thapae Gate
You’ll be ready to relax after visiting the Wat Phra That Doi Kham. Take a Tuk-Tuk or Taxi to the Black Canyon Coffee Shop at the ThaPae Gate. Why? Because it’s a great spot to stop, sit at a street side table, and flick pix of passers by, including the eclectic forms of transportation common to Thailand.
If you’re from a first world or western country, you’ll be amazed at the seemingly unregulated climate here.
This place is located at the intersection of Radmacheon and Mun Muang Road. Across the street in a small plaza is an area where a night bazaar occurs.
Also, if you’re a Starbucks fan, a shop is across the street adjacent to the plaza on the opposite side of the old city moat. Both locations offer a fantastic view of the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai City Life.
Time: 1-2 hour (if you’re into sipping coffee and flicking pix)
Visit one of the “fish foot cleaning” places near the Thapae Gate
Ok, this might sound strange and TMI for some of you. But if you're one of those people who is, shall we say, concerned about the growth of calluses on your feet, you'll find a healthy and safe alternative to reducing them with a visit to a “foot cleaning shop” featuring the infamous but tiny Gara Rupa fish.
Plop your foot in the water for a half an hour, and you’ll come out with “manicured” feet! Now you're ready to hop back on a plane or train and leave the city!
Time: 15-60 minutes
See Our Related Stories About Thailand
You've come this far. Please signup for our alerts list to see the latest stories as we post them. It’s free! And we won’t share your data with anyone – period. You can sign up here. And here's plus. Once you sign up, you can comment on our stories via Email!