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By Francesca Fletcher
Chiang Mai is an incredibly visually diverse place. Stylish cafes, lush greenery, chic cocktail bars, and ancient temples are at every corner, so wandering round the city for a day will give you enough material for the ‘gram for weeks. But if you’re pushed for time and need some pointers, here are ten spots for really gorgeous shots.
1) Ancient Walls
The old city of Chiang Mai was built in a near perfect square, with a defensive wall that took 90,000 men four months to complete. Six fort-like gates were added:
They were always guarded and were only open from sunrise to sunset. Outside each gate was a bamboo bridge spanning the moat and in times of war these bridges were taken away and the gates firmly closed. Throughout their history the walls and the gates have survived the ravages of time and the onslaught of invading armies through a continuous process of decay and repair. The city gates were restored in 1801, during the reign of Phra Chao Kawila. It was the Japanese in the 1940's, during their occupation of Thailand, who ended an era when they used the bricks from the walls to build a road up to Pai.
Thapae is the most well known of the gates, and was restored to its former glory with pristine and glowing red bricks in 1975. Today it is always busy, providing the backdrop for lots of community events but also playing host to the hundreds of tourists that come to see this memento of Chiang Mai’s powerful history.
It might be a challenge to get a shot like the one below with the amount of traffic and tourists passing by and through the gate, but it’s worth the effort. Beat the crowds by arriving early in the morning.
2) Artist’s Village
Baan Kang Wat
Baan Kang Wat, at the foot of Doi Suthep, is the photogenic result of local artists gathering together to create a space where they could live, work and run their own small businesses. The sense of peace and community is palpable. It’s full of green spaces and its architecture is somehow simultaneously industrial and rustic - it even has its own little amphitheatre. It’s the perfect place to chill for an afternoon or buy something handmade after you’ve taken enough selfies to satisfy you. There’s a lovely market on Sundays, too.
3) Urban Glam
The Iron Bridge that crosses the Ping at the end of Loi Kroh road looks like a WWII construction, with its industrial steel girders and narrow road. In fact, it was built very recently as an homage to the old Nawarat Bridge which was demolished in the 1970s.
Head here at night to see the bridge illuminated in cool jewel tones. Lit up, it’s reminiscent of a nightclub, and maybe that’s why it attracts the trendy young people of Chiang Mai. Even if you don’t plan on taking photos there, it’s still fun to watch the Instagram crowd taking slightly hair-raising risks (near misses with oncoming traffic, leaning perilously far over the rails) as they compete to get the trendiest image.
4) Sacred space
Wat Suan Dok
There are so many incredible temples in Chiang Mai. Some are entirely silver, some have crumbling stupas, some glitter all over. But Wat Suan Dok is special.
It was built in the 14th Century for a famous monk to spend the rainy season, and to house a sacred Buddha relic that the monk had found. According to myth,
When the monk arrived in Chiang Mai, the bone had magically split into two pieces, one being of the original size, the other one smaller. The smaller relic was enshrined in the Wat Suan Dok.
The King ordered the larger part to be put on the back of a white elephant that was set free to go where it wanted. The elephant climbed up Doi Suthep mountain, West of Chiang Mai. It trumpeted three times and died close to the top. At that spot the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built in the year 1383.
The temple has a magnificent golden Chedi built in the Sri Lankan style and a field of whitewashed mausoleums which contain the remains of the ruling family of Chiang Mai. Once you have enjoyed the visual splendour of the temple, you are able to learn about Buddhist life from the temple’s monks at daily monk chats and meditation lectures.
Top tip: Please respect this sacred place and dress modestly. Make sure your insta-worthy outfit covers shoulders and knees.
5) Breakfast with elephants
Chai Lai Orchid
We couldn’t really miss ourselves off the list, could we?
Our home, the Chai Lai Orchid, is a haven for animal-loving instagrammers. Every moment presents a new opportunity to photograph elephants enjoying the grounds and the river at the hotel.
Guests say that their most unique pictures are taken during elephant morning call, where they are woken up, not by a shrieking alarm clock, but an elephant reaching through their bedroom window.
How to book: Elephant morning call is 1500THB per room. You can book on arrival with our reception staff.
6) Mountain vista
Mon Long and Mon Chaem
Escape the city and flee to the mountains where the air is cooler and the pace of life slows down. About an hour’s drive outside Chiang Mai city, Mon Chaem (or Mon Cham, or Mon Jam, depending on who you ask) has become a magnet for Thais and tourists who are hoping for some rest and relaxation away from the city smog.
Mon Chaem itself is part of Nong Hoi Royal Project. Thailand’s beloved last King, Rama IX, started the Royal Projects as a way to provide Hilltribe farmers with high-income crops: this successfully discouraged opium farming and logging and improved the lives of many vulnerable communities in more remote mountainous areas.
Most visitors head to Mon Chaem’s ridge-top restaurant and viewpoint where spectacular fields of lavender, strawberries and herbs roll into the distance. It can get extremely busy in the middle of the day - so it’s best to drive out there in the early morning or late afternoon.
Alternatively, go a little further to Mon Long viewpoint, where you’re more likely to get unhindered views over the Thai landscape.
Bonus shot: Stay overnight in a cute cabin or luxury tent to see the mountains immersed in morning mist.
7) Modern art
Maiiam Art museum
Contemporary art museums have always been achingly cool, and Maiiam is no exception. Even its name is smart:
The name of the museum is a play on words, as “Mai” in Chiang Mai means “new city”, and is also a tribute to Eric Bunnag Booth’s great grand aunt “Chao Chom Iam”, a royal consort to King Rama V, who lived during a time when Thailand came into modernity. The double entendre extends to the meaning of MAI IAM, which means “brand new”.
- Maiiam Museum
They have intriguing and thoughtful exhibitions like 2019’s “DIASPORA: Exit, Exile, Exodus of Southeast Asia”, as well as a permanent collection which, they say, “includes seminal works from the masters of Thai Contemporary art as well as the discoveries they have made amongst the young and emerging artists of Thailand and the region.” Where better to celebrate the notable talent of Thailand’s modern art scene?
The architectural team behind Maiiam’s clean industrial interior and glittering facade aimed to create a stage for the works inside the museum, rather than highlight the architecture itself as an attraction. Whether or not they have achieved this goal is up for dispute, though. Not many photographers can resist that mirror-like wall.
8) Rooftop cocktail hour
This is one for the luxury traveller: Rise Rooftop Bar, on the roof of Akyra Manor hotel, is absolute #travelgoals. Visitors can enjoy a cocktail while they look out at the city below, or swim in the glass sided swimming pool. Akyra’s website describes their cocktail hour as “an essential ritual and a religious experience”. Whether that’s true or not, you will certainly be able to get a taste of the high life and snap some very pretty photos.
9) Local Life
Kad Luang Market
Kad Luang, meaning Great Market in the Lanna dialect, is actually comprised of two markets close to the Ping river, Warorot and Talad Ton Lam Yai. They are both vast, connected by a network of little roads and alleys overflowing with stalls selling shoes, clothes, food, and gold.
Kad Luang was opened in 1910, when a royal consort moved to the Suan Dok area and created a space for locals to buy and sell their produce. Over time it became a melting pot of cultures as Indian and Chinese traders came to sell their wares alongside local Thais.
Despite a devastating fire in 1968, Kad Luang has continued to be a vital part of the Chiang Mai community, bringing together people from all walks of life at a common meeting point. For tourists, if you can move past the sensory overwhelm, it offers an opportunity to sample delicious Thai food on a budget and enjoy the hustle and bustle of this vibrant heart of city life.
Kad Luang is a chaotic, colourful place. Spending an hour or two wandering its narrow lanes will reward you with photographs that epitomise the intersection of Thai tradition and modern life. If you need a breather afterwards, you can head to one of the quiet cafes on the opposite bank of the Ping to watch the river flowing by.
10) still waters
Huay tung tao
Make like a local and spend a lazy Sunday morning at Huay Tung Tao. Reached by a short 15 minute motorbike or song thaew ride from the old city, the reservoir is the ideal place to while away a couple of peaceful hours.
It was built by the legenday Rama IX to solve a water shortage problem, but quickly became a popular local spot to relax. It costs 20THB to enter, and there are lots of additional activities available, but most choose to spend their time chilling with friends and eating together in the cute bamboo huts that flank the lake.
It’s still not too well known amongst tourists, so posting from Huay Tung Tao will show the world that you have legitimate traveller credentials.
Top tip: If you’re planning on sticking around in Chiang Mai for a while, Huay Tung Tao is a great place to exercise. It’s got some lovely trails for walking and biking.
That’s it for our ten Instagrammable spots in Chiang Mai. Do you agree with our choices? Which places would you add to our list?
Those of us in the Chai Lai team share a dream: to create a place that gives back to the community, provides a safe home and training for at-risk women here in Chiang Mai, and helps elephants. But we are not experts in hospitality, business or marketing - we are regular people muddling through, with the kind help of volunteers who lend a hand when they can.
Thankfully, Chai Lai is so full of magic, our marketing takes care of itself. Our wonderful guests take such fantastic photos and videos, our Instagram is at least 90% reposts. Our guests do the talking for us.
We wanted to share a beautiful video that one of our guests sent us. Thank you so much to the lovely Louise Chuah and her talented husband for this! We love it and we are so happy that you had a great time here.
Thai food is famous for seeking to combine five flavours perfectly: salt, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter. One dish might lean more heavily on one flavour, but another will balance it. This is a pretty explosive idea for a Brit who’s been brought up on yummy, but quite bland dishes, like baked potato and tuna mayo, and pasta, and pie.
I work for Daughters Rising, and live here at Chai Lai Orchid. I've been in Thailand long enough that I've had my fill of Pad Thai, green and red curry, and chicken satay. I've had plenty of cashew chicken and Tom Yum and found the best place for Khao Soi in Chiang Mai. Now I'm starting to venture into new territories to get my fix of those incredible Thai flavours. These are my favourites so far...
Please note, this list is totally subjective and is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's on offer here in Thailand. I apologise in advance to any vegetarian readers, too - this isn't the most veggie-packed list!
Pad Krapow Kai Dao
Krapow is absolute Thai comfort food. Thai Holy basil, garlic and chilli briskly fried with ground meat or tofu - quick and delicious, it's one dish most Thais know how to cook in their sleep. It should come with rice that's a little bit tackier than normal jasmine rice, sort of half way to sticky rice. On top of the rice sits a perfect crispy fried egg. Pop the yolk over the rice and enjoy the resulting deliciousness.
Originating from the South Thailand in the Muslim community, this curry is one of the fanciest foods in my list. Because it takes a long time to prepare, and uses an incredible host of herbs and spices, it's often only served on special occasions in Thai households. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves, nutmeg and mace join dried chili peppers, coriander seeds, lemongrass, galangal, white pepper, shrimp paste, shallots and garlic to make curry paste. This paste is first fried with coconut cream, and then meat (usually chicken), potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind paste, sugar, coconut milk and peanuts are added. Quite a complicated process, but definitely worth it.
This very popular dish originates in Isaan and Laos and is not to be missed. Lime, coriander, mint and chili bring a serious zing to any ground meat. Laab moo (pork) and laab gai (chicken) are the most common. There's a very delicious version made with raw fermented pork which is uber northern, but if I eat it I'm sure to drink some rice whiskey (lao khao) alongside, which Thais recommend to kill off any bugs lingering in the meat. Same goes for raw buffalo laab which honestly is so delicious, and kind of reminiscent of steak tartare.
Gai Yang, Khao Niaow, and Som Tum
So I get that this is kind of cheating because I'm sneaking in three foods in one. But this is like the holy trinity of Thai streetfood - three simple dishes that complement each other so perfectly it's as if they were made with each other in mind. Gai Yang is grilled chicken, fatty and juicy with crispy sweet skin. Khao Niaow is of course sticky rice, dense and flavourful, great as streetfood because you can eat it with your hands as you walk. And Som Tum is papaya salad made with grated green papaya, lime, fish sauce, peanuts, tomatoes and green beans - made to order, so you can choose how spicy you like it. This is the lunch of your dreams.
Plaa Kapung Neung Manao
There are many, many wonderful ways to eat Plaa - fish - in Thailand, but this is definitely worth a mention. In this dish, the fish is steamed in a marinade made with limes, coriander, chilli and garlic. It's light and refreshing. The fish is super tender. It feels a little healthier than many Thai dishes so it's great if you're feeling like you've overdone it a bit (which is basically all the time, since every meal is so good it's hard not to stuff yourself way past satiety).
The veggie option. I love this mild and flavourful curry with a slightly unfortunate name (although better than anything cooked with green pumpkin, which, since green is 'see kiew' is called 'fuk kiew' - hilarious). It's made with pumpkin that's cooked slowly with coconut milk, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves until it's soft and tender and mushy. It's wholesome and comforting and I could eat it every day.
I haven’t seen this much on the street but our cook at Chai Lai, New, makes it really well. So I’m going to say it’s a thing.
Ok, I'm definitely cheating with this one, too. Interestingly, Thais don't tend to eat dessert that often - something I find hard to understand since there's so many wonderful sweets to be found, of every colour and texture. Some are made with coconut milk and meat, others with young rice powder, and some with egg yolk.
I love them all but you've really got to try these: Khao Lam, sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, poured into bamboo pieces and roasted in the fire; Khanom Krok, tiny coconut pancakes served with sweetcorn or taro; and Sang Kaya Fuk Tong, pumpkin custard. And Nam Khaeng Sai deserves a special mention. When I was little my siblings used to tell me about their horrible experience of eating Ice Kacang in Singapore - it sold itself as 'all your favourite goodies' at the bottom of a big pile of flavoured ice, and they were horrified to find that the 'goodies' were mung beans, sweetcorn and grass jelly. Nam Khaeng Sai is like the Thai version of Ice Kacang but I love it! You fill your bowl with palm toddy, grass jelly, water chestnuts, taro balls, sweetcorn, basil seeds and and green worm things made out of rice flour (I think?), top the assortment with ice and drown the lot in neon sugar syrup and condensed milk. It's amazing, and it makes you feel like a kid again. I also really love Kluai Buat Chii, bananas stewed in coconut milk and served hot. Great in winter.
Nam Tok is a recipe which uses fish sauce, lime juice, shallots and mint leaves, ground roasted rice for crunch, and ground dried chillies - quite similar to laab, but this time the meat is grilled. The word Nam Tok means waterfall and I never understood why that had any relevance to this dish, so I spent a little time on google. One theory is that the meat makes the sizzling sound of a waterfall when it is ready to be removed from the grill and sliced - another is that there is still 'water' (blood) in the meat when it is served. I think I prefer the former explanation.
Khao Kha Moo
I've been a big fan of Khao Man Gai, or Hainanese chicken, for a long time, but only recently tried Khao Ka Moo on a roadtrip to Mae Hong Son. As with Khao Man Gai, it's simple and wholesome and relies on slow cooking the meat until it's really tender. The pork is stewed in a broth flavoured with Soy sauce, chilli, ginger, vinegar, cinnamon, star anise, Chinese five spice, and palm sugar. The meat is served over rice with an egg, also cooked in the broth, a chilli sauce, pickled greens, and a bowl of broth.
A snack which is just as much fun to make as it is to eat. These are like little green flavour bombs. Miang Kham is sold with its component parts unmixed and it is your job to put everything together. First, you take a betel leaf as use it as a wrap. Chunks of lime, ginger, chilli, shallots and raw garlic, a few tiny dried shrimps, some toasted coconut flakes, and chopped peanuts all go inside. Then add honey or a salty-sweet dollop of sticky sauce made with palm sugar and fish sauce and wrap it all up. Eat in one go - after all, the name Miang Kham translates to "one bite wrap"!
Well. That's my ten current favourites! Ask me next week and I'll probably have a couple more to add to the list...
Happy eating from one foodie to another!
(Click through on images to see image source)
This beautiful couple was game for every adventure. Chelsea and Ben decided to get up before dawn to watch the sunrise at one of the most sacred temples in Chiang Mai, Wat Doi Sutep. After a traditional Buddhist blessing for good luck and happiness they shared their vows at a jungle waterfall. They ended the day hanging out with elephants in the jungle at the Chai Lai ecolodge. Chelsea and Ben we wish you many many years of love and laughter! We are so happy you found each other.
Wedding at Chai Lai Orchid
Photography: James de la Cloche