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5 Reasons We Fell In Love With Chiang Mai

Our love affair with Chiang Mai

We had always heard good things about Thailand in general and Chiang Mai in particular, but it still managed to exceed all of our expectations. Jason and I returned home from our week in Northern Thailand and couldn’t stop talking about the food, the massages, and dirt cheap prices. 

Chiang Mai isn’t the most beautiful city we’ve ever seen and the high heat combined with low air quality should have been oppressive. But there’s just something about this city that won us over. Maybe it was the three dollar bowls of khao soi that I’ll never forget or the endless temples of all shapes and sizes. It could have been the foot massage spa on every corner and the endless fruit smoothie stands. But somehow the combination of the food, people, history, and vibe of Chiang Mai came together to give us one of our favorite trips ever. 

Typically I like to create an itinerary after our trips to help others plan their future travels. But for Thailand, I wanted to write a love letter instead. I’ve tried to weave in plenty of specifics and practical tips, but mostly I just want to convey how much you really should visit Chiang Mai.

Pool and terrace at Thantara Resort Villa
The terrace and pool at our Thantara Villa

#1 Thantara Resort

Jason and I have been fortunate enough to stay at some seriously nice hotels and resorts around the world (I’m lookin’ at you Marina Bay Sands!), and yet Thantara is now my single favorite resort ever. And at $220 a night for a one-bedroom villa with a private pool, this is also the best deal we’ve ever scored.

Let me set the scene. Thantarra Resort is about a thirty minute drive outside the busy city center of Chiang Mai. This is a villas only property spread across thirty-one acres of bright green rice paddies and fish ponds. No cars are allowed on the resort. Guests and staff get around in electric powered carts or bicycles. Each morning we rode the bicycles provided at our villa to get to and from breakfast and then explored the grounds.

Each expansive villa features teak decor, a large picture window overlooking your private pool and terrace, a large soaking tub, and an outdoor shower. I was seriously tempted to have all my belongings shipped from home so I could move in.

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Room service lunch at Thantara Resort
Room service lunch by the pool at Thantara

While there is a restaurant on the property, we opted to order our meals by room service. (This is something I never do at home. I hate the high prices and exorbitant fees charged by most hotels.) Each meal was absolutely delicious. There’s a range of Western food like salads and sandwiches as well as a great selection of Thai food. In total we ordered five room service meals and the total price–including generous tips–was $153.

This whole experience was rounded out by excellent service. You don’t actually see staff very often, but when you need them, they magically appear. 

 A few tips for staying at Thantara:

If you enjoy beer, wine or cocktails, they are sold at Western prices at Thantara. We opted to buy these items at a convenience store before checking in.

To get into the city you’ll need to order a car through Grab. It was our first time using this service and we loved it. Like everything else, it was cheap and you can pay online with a credit card or by cash.

Khao Soi
Khao Soi

#2 Cheap and delicious Thai food

Each time I visit a new country I decide that their cuisine is my new favorite. First there was Italy, then Greece, and more recently India. And while all of these cuisines are amazing, right now, Thai food is my favorite. The variety of savory curries was endless and we never tired of it. 

The dish Northern Thailand is best known for is khao soi, a slightly spicy coconut curry served with chicken or beef over egg noodles and accompanied with crunchy noodles and pickles. On average, a bowl of khao soi is just $3–needless to say we ate it almost every single day. 

Night market in Chiang Mai
Anusarn Night Market in Chiang Mai

The best way to expose yourself to the wonders of Northern Thai cuisine is at a night market. Our favorite was Anusarn, a spot that does attract some tourists, but is clearly loved by locals as well. There are loads of vendors selling handicrafts and souvenirs, but in the middle is a large plaza with dozens of food stalls, a couple of bars, and plenty of seating. 

Typically when we travel I research specific restaurants and make reservations. Not on this trip. When we got hungry, we looked for a restaurant or market and ate there. We never had a bad meal. And for the ridiculously cheap prices, we were always willing to take a risk.

Lobby of the Nakara Spa
Lobby of the Nakara Spa

#3 Cheap massages

By day two of our stay in Chiang Mai we were getting massages and then we repeated the experience everyday. I even got squeezed in my final massage at the airport while waiting for our flight.

There are two options in Chiang Mai for massages; inexpensive storefronts and higher end spas. The first are usually large rooms filled with recliners. Guests keep their clothes on and select from a menu of foot, back, or combination massages ranging from 15-60 minutes. These places are dirt cheap, typically $5-$20. No appointment necessary, just pop in to any shop that looks appealing to you. 

However, our favorite experience was a 90 minute massage at Nakara Spa inside the Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel. We entered into a quiet and peaceful reception area, selected our treatments, paid, and then proceeded to our adjoining rooms. We were provided robes, slippers and a large bottle of water. After the most amazing 90 minutes we were given hot ginger tea before leaving. The cost was $45 each. Needless to say we went back a second time. I still dream about this experience.

Wendy cooking Thai food
Wendy cooking at Grandma’s Cooking School

#4 Grandma’s Cooking School

We’ve always enjoyed food tours when we travel. But for Thailand I was determined to take a cooking class. I love Thai food and wanted to return from this trip ready to make it at home regularly. And thanks to Grandma’s Cooking School (or as I now call it, the best cooking school in Chiang Mai) that mission has been accomplished. 

Our five hour experience began with hotel pick-up. Then we gathered with all the other participants at a local market where we were introduced to our tour guide and cooking instructor, Tay. She walked us through the market pointing out commonly used fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. We had a brief amount of time to explore on our own and then it was off to the cooking school.

We found our cooking station inside an outdoor pavilion and selected the entrees we wanted to prepare. I opted for coconut soup with chicken, veggie pad thai, and green chicken curry. Next we were led to the chicken coop to gather eggs and then toured the garden. 

Finally it was time to start cooking. After brief instructions from Tay we each got cooking. As each entree was completed we all sat down to eat. This was repeated three times and at the end we were presented with mango sticky rice. 

What a glorious way to spend an afternoon. And for just $32, it was a steal. Add in the fact that the grounds of the cooking school are lovely and you have one of our favorite travel experiences of 2024. 

#5 The temples

Buddhist temples are everywhere in Chiang Mai. Ranging from tiny boxes atop a fencepost to massive complexes that go on for days, visiting the temples throughout the city is a great way to learn more about Thai culture. 

The first couple of days in Chiang Mai we wandered through any temple we saw. But I had lots of questions and wanted to know more, so we booked a tour.

Traditionally, temples were where Thai boys went to get educated, and that does still happen. When it was time for them to marry they would leave the religious life and resume a more secular existence. A small percentage of these boys would become monks and dedicate their lives to Buddhism.

Buddhism came to Thailand directly from India, so at first Jason and I thought we were looking at Hindu temples. These are much more colorful and elaborate than Buddhist temples I’ve seen in Japan, China, and Korea. 

The tour took us through several of the larger and more notable temples. I admit we left the tour a bit early due to the extreme heat. Nothing was air conditioned and despite having plenty of water, I needed to get someplace cooler.

Tips for visiting temples

Women must have their shoulders covered and wear something that covers their knees. If you are not covered you’ll be ask to rent a skirt or wrap.

There is not much visitor signage, so having a tour guide was really helpful. Otherwise, we would have just been standing around staring at buildings. 

Only the largest temples charge entrance fees, most are open to the public. Just be sure to enter respectfully, aware of anyone in prayer. 

Why we fell in love with Chiang Mai

I hope I’ve convinced you to visit Chiang Mai. We’ve been back home for several months and we still talk about this trip regularly. And while our experience was incredible, I know we only scraped the surface. Maybe our next trip will include museums, a food tour, and a day trip to the surrounding mountains. Or, we could just return to Thantara, eat great food, and get a massage every day. Either way, it will be amazing. 

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