Chiang Mai was my second home.
My parents fall in love with the city and used to take our family there for holidays every year.
In my past life as a swimmer, I had the privilege to spend 3 months training in the high altitude of Chiang Mai with the Thai national swimming team. I got to know every nook and cranny of the city and all the best places to eat.
The city has changed from what I remember. Nimmanhaemin road used to be filled with local shops. Those mom and pop shops are now replaced with a new shopping mall, restaurants and cafes. Yet Chiang Mai still maintains its unique traits and is still a perfect place to escape from the city and find tranquility.
If you look beyond a tacky term of the recent campaign created to promote Thai tourism called 4s, ‘Saneh’, ‘Sabai’, ‘Sanook’, and ‘Sut Saep’, you'll see that the concept actually well-captures the essence of Thailand and is the most pronounced in Chiang Mai.
Saneh (charming) can be found in the people. If you think the Bangkokian are nice, go up North. People there exude charm.
Sabai (chilling) is a way of life in the Thai Northern cities. People there embodied the way of slow living before slow living became a trend. Case in point, the Thai Northern accent is much slower. Each word takes longer to pronounce. A conversation with a local somehow sounds more pleasant in the North than elsewhere in Thailand.
Sanook (fun) is present everywhere – from the bustle of the city center to various outdoor activities you can choose to do up in the mountains. Chiang Mai is also one of the best places to celebrate Thai new year and participate in arguably the world’s biggest water fight. When I lived there, we used to hire a pick-up truck, load the back of the truck with gallons of water and drive around town splashing people with water. In case you are wondering, performing water pouring, often on the elderly’s hands or on the Buddha statues, was a ritual done during Thai new year to represent purification and to wish one good luck.
Sut Saep (eat deliciously). There are many dishes you won’t normally hear of when it comes to Thai food. Among many others, the following dishes, originally from the North, are a stable of Thai cuisine and shouldn't be missed if you visit Chiang Mai: Sai Oua (Pork sausage mixed with various herbs), Gang Hung lae (pork belly stew), Nam Prik Noom with cap moo (grilled green chilies and herb relish served with deep fried pork crackling), Kanom jeen nam ngiao (rice noodle in a spice and tomatoe-based soup), Khao Soi (egg noodles in curry broth).
Here is my personal city guide for my beloved Chiang Mai. The list does not include the typical must-see places, which I'm sure you can easily find elsewhere. It is also based purely and subjectively on my own liking. So follow at your own risk :)
หุบเขาคนโฉด: Bad Boy Valley - A hidden treasure and a charming 8 to 10-seater restaurant situated in the middle of nowhere. (There’s literally no proper road up to the restaurant). But trekking there is DEFINITELY worth the experience. Book in advance. You need a car to get there.
SS1254372 - a coffee shop/gallery space
Woo Café - another coffee shop, gallery space and a lifestyle shop
Dam Rong in Warowot Market. (ร้านดำรงค์ ตลาดวโรรส เชียงใหม่) If you fancy buying Northern food home, this place sells the best Sai Oua according to my mom.
The Ironwood – Lovely restaurant for homemade food with a view of a little stream from Mae sa waterfall.
Mit Mai - No frills, simple and delcious Yunan food
เฮือนใจ๋ยอง (“Huen Jai Young” for local Lanna food)
Han Tueng Chiangmai ฮ้านถึงเจียงใหม่ (63/9 ซอย สุเทพ ตำบล สุเทพ Soi Suthep, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai, Thailand) - There’s no website for this place. It’s a street-side local shack serving authentic and delicious Northern food. Bring mosquito repellent, though the food is worth it.
Prempacha’s collection Gorgeous ceramics straight from the factory.
Wit’s collection A simple shop with selection of well-curated items.
Thongma studio (right next to Ironwood). Khun Chamnian Thongma, a well-known local artist, specializes in making beautiful life-size sculptures. I love the contrast between the softness of the facial expressions on his work and the roughness of material. His beautiful studio is open to the public and includes a small coffee shop. Check opening times before you visit.
Baan Ngam Sang Duan บ้านงามแสงเดือน - Part coffee shop, part boutique shop. Beautiful fabrics and clothing are housed in this lovely Northern-style house. The owner bakes her own Thai desserts to serve with tea or coffee.