At the risk of sounding cliché, a travel quote made me move to Thailand.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
While it may seem tired and overused now, the first time I read this quote it stopped me in my tracks. I had been thinking in circles for months about making a move, knowing wholeheartedly that I wanted to quit my job and move abroad but also not knowing where I would begin or when would be the ‘right’ time to go.
As I read the quote though, I thought, “That’s it.” I knew it was time to make a change and make a leap. It had been two years of dreaming up an exit plan…and I could easily envision it being another two years – four, six, eight – before I actually did anything.
It was true – thinking about looking back on my life I would be more disappointed and regret what I didn’t do rather than what I did do, regardless of the outcome.
Fast forward a decade later and I certainly don’t regret the decisions I made but I still find myself in the same thought patterns, mulling over ideas or dreams or changes and wondering if they’re the right thing without actually taking action.
Sometimes it’s about work or where to move to next or even if I should splurge on adding avocado to my order. Other times it’s deciding whether or not to make a memorable experience happen even if it may not be the most convenient thing to do.
That’s where the 90-year-old test comes in.
When I’m 90, how would I look back on this moment or experience or decision?
Will it matter to me when I’m 90 that I spent some extra money 60 years ago for a special experience? Or will it matter more that I actually experienced something great?
It’s like thinking YOLO but more mindful (and sounds way less douchey).
As I’ve gotten older (and am thankfully more financially secure than when I was making $700 a month teaching full time), I’m more mindful and more invested in trying to see the big picture and how what I do now will affect the future. I want to invest the time, money and effort to have more unique, meaningful and memorable experiences rather than pinching pennies or, alternatively, wasting money on a half-assed plan.
Especially a few years ago, I started trying to find a balance between saving for the future and enjoying the opportunities I have in the moment.
Around this time I started investing more in my home, finally giving in to buying basics like a toaster oven, better sheets and real wine glasses. Things I had wanted since I had moved to Thailand but not let myself buy in the name of saving money. I also went to France. With my mom and cousin. And stayed in a chateau in Provence for a week with some of the best people I know.
YOLO, but like, classy.
The chateau was so large I could only photograph small corners of it at a time
Was it the most practical trip? Nope. Was it 100% worth it? Absolutely. (Although I still couldn’t pull myself away from my computer and clients or actually take a full week off of work. That’s what I, and my future self, really regret.)
Every element of the experience was carefully planned out. The setting was perfect and the food was exactly what you would dream of when thinking about eating in Provence.
We were with a group of about 12 others and while we were all incredibly different – there was a 1-year-old and a 60-year-old, young newlyweds who had never spent nearly as much on a trip and older newlyweds who had more money than probably all of us put together – we were all there for the same reasons.
To experience something special that we couldn’t pull off on our own. To take the time to invest in our own happiness, growth and inspiration.
And to have fun in a bomb place.
Definitely a trip to make everyone’s 90-year-old selves proud and have a good story to share at dinner parties for decades to come.
Fast forward, and now I’m helping the beautiful minds behind Provence create the same, same but different special experience in Chiang Mai.
Want to make real Thai food at home? Then you need these Thai cookbooks. Tasty (authentic) recipes, dishes that go beyond phad thai, and gorgeous food photography – these are the best Thai cookbooks around.
Andy Ricker opened a small restaurant called Pok Pok in a Portland neighborhood in 2005 after spending years traveling and eating around Thailand. The shop soon became a national phenomenon (and now has more locations in Portland and New York) and in Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand Ricker shares some of the simple, tasty recipes that helped with his success.
The title says it all. Thailand: The Cookbook looks like the Mastering the Art of French Cooking for Thai food….plus gorgeous photos. Jean-Pierre Gabriel’s book features 500 recipes from across Thailand coupled with stunning photos of Thailand’s food, people and scenery. It’s probably the most beautiful book I’ve ever owned.
I’ve mentioned the Thai food blog She Simmers before for its fantastic Thai food recipes, photos and explanations. When I ate something in Thailand and wanted to know what was in it or how to make it, I would visit this blog. Now the author behind She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu, has her own cookbook filled with home-style recipes and, again, gorgeous photos. Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen also an excellent choice for American cooks as Leela’s spent many years in the U.S. and breaks down how the dishes are traditionally made in Thailand as well as how they can be adapted for ‘stateside Thai chefs’.
Living in northern Thailand, I think I know the food, but this book that just came out in the past year is a real deep dive into the culture by someone who clearly loves both the region and the cuisine. Part cookbook, part photo journal, Austin Bush traveled province by province to document the local food culture, exploring what makes it different and unique. While you may have to do some searching or make some substitutions for the ingredients needed in The Food of Northern Thailand, it’s totally worth it and you’ll be fascinated by every page. Fun fact, Austin did the photos for the first Pok Pok cookbook and got help on this one from his pal, Andy Ricker.
Who doesn’t love Thai street food? As a successful chef and restauranteur, you might think someone like David Thompson would be above street eats, but the beauty of Thai cuisine is that it works at every level, whether it’s a Michelin plate or a greasy skewer that’s perfect on the go. Each recipe in Thai Street Food, like crunchy prawn cakes or deep-fried banana fritters, comes with big, beautiful pictures and a story from David himself that gives you a better feel for life on the streets of Thailand.
Bangkok’s the kind of city where you can eat like a king for pennies or spend a real fortune eating genuine royal cuisine. And it’s delicious. All of it. Leela Punyaratabandhu’s Bangkok captures the flavors of the city in 120 incredible recipes for everything from pork belly curry to Thai iced tea. While Leela’s an excellent writer, each recipe is introduced with a personal story, she’s also clearly a recipe perfectionist. If you want to recreate the authentic taste of Bangkok in your kitchen, this book is a must-have (along with, fair warning, maybe about 20 fresh ingredients for each).
Named after the hip L.A. restaurants of the same name, Night+Market captures Thai cuisine with energy that zaps off the page. Truly the kind of cookbook that goes great with a beer, it’s as much fun to read as it is to try out the recipes, which are stripped down enough to make what can sometimes be a complex cuisine accessible to anyone, and of course you’ll want to invite all your friends around the enjoy what you’ve made together.
Because the first Pok Pok cookbook wasn’t enough, Andy Ricker and JJ Goode came back in 2017 with this followup dedicated to the wonderful foods Thai people eat when they’re drinking. The subject could have just been a great excuse for “research” but what they’ve put together are 272 pages of bold photos, bar tales and incredible food and drink. The recipes in The Drinking Food of Thailand are inspired by Ricker’s Portland, Oregon, restaurant, Whiskey Soda Lounge and highlight the flavors of Isaan, the lesser known northeast corner of Thailand with a serious taste for herbs and spice.
You think you know Thai street food, but you don’t know it the way Chef James Syhabout does. Born to a Thai mother and Lao father, these are the flavors of James’s youth, filtered through the experiences of his diverse career in fine dining. The cookbook shares, not just mouthwatering recipes and colorful photos, but the story of his parents, his upbringing, and his ethos on how to cook, eat and live well.
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Note: The links above (in the titles) take you directly to where you can buy the books on Amazon and I receive a small commission with no added cost to you.
I know I may be in the minority now, but I still like guide books. Whatever arguments people make that they’re outdated as soon as they’re published and blogs or websites have more up-to-date is not necessarily true – I have plenty of posts on this site that haven’t been updated in years – and often bloggers or writers who haven’t spent significant time in a place don’t share any true insight into a destination’s history, culture and lifestyle.
Unlike a blogger writing their list of “best restaurants” in a place they just spent five days (the amount of times I’ve seen posts like these for Chiang Mai is real annoying), guidebooks are actually thoroughly researched and include a lot of information about a region to try and give a more complete picture of where you’re exploring.
But, if you’re still off the guide book bandwagon, there are other books to help dig a little deeper into a place.
When it comes to Thailand, I’ve found the books below incredibly insightful (plus most of them are simply interesting to flip through).
The links in the titles and cover images take you directly to where you can buy the books on Amazon.
Author Jody Houton paints a vivid picture of Thailand as seen through the eyes of a young Western expat. His essays, interviews and sidebars touch on all aspects of Thailand and Thai culture, from useful do’s and don’ts to deeper dives into regional and national history and the quirks of what makes Thais tick. It’s an easy and quick read, useful for both visitors and long-term residents of the Kingdom. When I have visitors, I make sure this book is out along with other Thailand guides, Chiang Mai maps (yes, maps) and magazines I’ve collected over the years.
Going beyond the usual lore and traditions, author Philip Cornwel-Smith puts Thai pop culture front and center in the second edit of his coffee table volume. Packed with pictures, this is a fun one to turn to a page at random and see what you land on. You’ll also get excellent descriptions and explanations of all Thai culture and society’s charming/confusing nuances and contradictions.
Written by longtime resident Oliver Hargreaves, this text starts with a historical account of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city and the former seat of the Lanna Kingdom. An insightful travel guide, most of the book is dedicated to photos and useful tips for traveling through the north’s scenic hills and valleys yet weaves in way more history and cultural insight than typical guidebooks. I literally read it cover to cover to learn more about where I’ve chosen to call home.
Known for blending Lanna Thai architectural elements with contemporary styles, architect Ong-Ard Satrabhandhu’s homes, resorts and hotels are beautifully captured by photographer Francois Halard in this doorstopper of a book. If you’ve been to Chiang Mai, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of Ong-Ard Satrabhandhu’s work – he designed the elegant Rachamankha hotel in the Old City as well as the One Nimman shopping centre. I personally love his style and flipping through the pages of this architecture book is as soothing and inspiring as actually wandering the halls of the gorgeous buildings pictured.
An expert on Southeast Asia lifestyle and design, Kim Inglis has teamed up with photographer Michael Freeman to deliver this ode to all things beautiful in contemporary Thai design. From luxury properties to inventive furnishings, they capture the artful blending of traditional craftmanship and design with modern techniques and sensibilities. It’s a beautiful book to flip through and might just prompt you to splurge on a boutique stay somewhere in this stunning country. (Actually, now that I’m looking at the cover again, I’m realising it’s a shot of the incredible pool suites at The Siam hotel in Bangkok – LOVE!)
The Thai tradition of sak yan, or inking protective charms on the body, is one that’s a mystery, even to many Thais, and fascinating to all. Joe Cummings has long been based in Thailand and knows what he’s talking about (he wrote the first Lonely Planet guide to Thailand…and has continued traveling and writing ever since!). In Sacred Tattoos of Thailand, he traces the history of these sacred tattoos from tribal societies, capturing the unique rituals which surround the practice and telling the stories of the master ajarns who keep this ancient practice alive.
You may have heard that it’s illegal to use the Buddha’s image as decoration in Thailand. Well, Angela S. Chiu’s book goes some way to explaining exactly why that is. A ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism, the veneration of Buddha’s image plays a huge part in the religious and symbolic life of Thais and this book draws deep into the legends and texts that form the basis of modern beliefs.
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit draw out the threads that connect Thailand’s history and heritage with the modern day in this highly readable text. Yes, it’s a textbook, but if you have any interest whatsoever in Thailand’s history and politics, you’ll quickly latch on to their explanations of how the country transformed from sparse jungles to villages and rice paddies and into the globalized nation it is today.
A few years ago my friends from Sullivan and Sullivan Studios in Seattle wrote a post for Paper Planes about how to take travel better photos. It’s still one of my most-read posts – they know what they’re talking about. If you haven’t read it yet, do…but not before reading these words of wisdom from Laura first!
If you’ve traveled at all, you’ve probably seen the two extremes of Travelers Who Are Missing Out:
First, we have the very wealthy travelers, who tend to associate high cost with the must-do experience. They brag about eating dinner at fancy hotels (when you know for a fact that people got food poisoning there last week, the chef isn’t that great and they’re banking on their price point to convince well-heeled people to eat there). They equate spending copious amounts of money with getting the best experience in any given place, because money equals value, right?
Except…so much of what they’re consuming really isn’t necessarily that great. Just safe.
Then there are the budget travelers. (Pease note: I have gleefully leapfrogged through multiple continents with about $3 in my bank account and this is not an anti-backpacker treatise. On the contrary, many backpackers know exactly how to spend their dollars so they get exactly the value they need out of them, no frills. These are not the people I’m talking about.) I’m talking about the travelers who brag endlessly and mindlessly about having only spent 50 cents in the last week, as if the whole point of travel is to spend the least by the time you go home. But when you ask them what they’ve experienced, what has moved them, what they’ll carry with them forever in terms of flavors or experiences, they can’t tell you much more than sipping beers with other budgeters. Their main goal is make their dollar stretch as far as possible, regardless of the cost. They forget that some experiences are worth investing money, time and emotional energy into creating them – otherwise, why travel at all?
We can stay home and have TV dinners if the goal is to not spend a dime on creating memories, but…why? I’ll never forget being 20-years-old standing in the rain in Dublin with my friends having a HEATED debate about whether or not we would go see the Book of Kells for 7 euros or save that money for beers later. It was the Book of Kells! It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world! Why go to Dublin if you don’t want to experience Dublin? But I digress.
Two polar opposites in terms of traveling style but they’re similar when it comes to missing the general point: that money while traveling should be spent extremely wisely.
But it should be spent on experiences that are valuable and meaningful to YOU: it should feed your passions and expand your worldview and help you look back on your life at age 95 and think “DAMN, that was badass!”
Money is a means to an end, and the end should be to have the richest, most well-rounded experience on any given trip (and once you’re back home) that you can possibly muster.
Staying in a generic hotel that looks exactly like every other hotel in the world when its curtains are drawn? Fine, if you’re into it, but it’s not the kind of thing you write about in your journal.
Or you could stay somewhere with character and local ties to the place…
Eating the safe foods that you’re used to at home from places that are well-lit and bland? Fine, if you want to miss the entire lexicon of what a culture has to offer you (and honestly, if you’re avoiding street food because you might get sick, get over that ASAP. You’re more likely to get sick from a weird restaurant than a food truck, and I will stand on this soapbox until I die).
Saving your pennies to such a hoarding extent that you come home from a trip and wonder if you really experienced anything, or if you were too focused on penny-pinching to look up and marvel at the unexplored world around you?
No thanks to all of that.
You can have it all – you just have to play your cards right.
You can stay in the high-end hotel and eat the spicy street food that you’d never heard of before. You can set your own priorities, knock them out of the park, and look back at the experience with a full heart/stomach/memory bank, and thank every last dollar that helped you get there.
If finding balance sounds like the next phase of your travel journey, we’ve already saved you a spot at this year’s Moveable Feast…in Chiang Mai!
Join us, Alana, and a crew of your future best travel buddies in a luxurious jungle villa and experience the high/low balance of good sheets AND street food, all in the same trip. You can have it all, babe.
Chiang Mai may not be the first honeymoon destination that comes to mind but in the past few years a number of darling boutique hotels have popped up that are surprisingly beautiful…and surprisingly expensive for a town where you can still find a guesthouse for $10-15 a night.
Perhaps not the most practical on your average vacation, but worth the splurge on your honeymoon? Definitely.
The Rose of the North is a romantic destination perfect for the couple who would prefer roaming a few back roads hand-in-hand over wasting the day away sipping cocktails. Chiang Mai has a laid-back vibe, but there’s always a quiet buzz of activity. If you’re in the mood to explore, you’ll find plenty to do, but the city’s sleepy pace doesn’t make you feel the least bit guilty if you’d rather just spend the day at the spa or make the most of your honeymoon suite.
Each of the properties below are all incredibly romantic, stylish and elegant but also have their own unique vibe (from a sleek urban boutique hotel to sprawling luxury resorts complete with their own rice fields) and a range of room rates. Read on to find the perfect Chiang Mai honeymoon hotel to fit your personality.
Click on the bold hotel names to be taken to where you can look up current rates and book rooms on Agoda, a hotel booking engine that is especially good for finding the lowest hotel rates in Asia. All prices below are based on what Agoda is currently listing as the starting rates in Thai baht but they always change so please just use them as a rough starting point. That said, while you may first find the lowest deals on Agoda, it’s often worth seeing if there are any discount or special packages when booking with boutique hotels directly.
Who it’s for: The understated, yet particular, couple that appreciates the little details and a natural atmosphere.
If I were the one doing the honeymooning, I think this would currently be my top pick for a honeymoon hotel in Chiang Mai. Combining the best of Lanna heritage and modern minimalism, Raya Heritage is a serene riverside hotel just a hop and a skip north of the city center. Opened just last year, the property is so. well. done. Fresh feeling without feeling too new (I know, I’m picky). Massive suites, airy terraces and carefully curated details – from the local microbrews in the mini bars to hand-dyed indigo and ebony textiles everywhere, Raya Heritage is a unique mix on minimalist design, natural Thai aesthetics and quiet grandeur.
One of the dining terraces at Raya Heritage
The food is bomb too. When you feel like exploring town, board a complimentary shuttle and be at the heart of the action in less than 15 minutes.
Prices begin at ฿10,000 per night
Address: 157, Moo 6, T. Donkaew, A. Mae Rim, Chiang Mai
Who it’s for: The design-focused, architecture-loving couple who like secret hideaways.
The meticulously designed Rachamankha is one of Chiang Mai’s most unique hotels taking design cues from the region’s historical architecture, materials and aesthetic. Hidden down a quiet soi in Chiang Mai’s Old City, Rachamankha is a great choice for first-time visitors to Chiang Mai who want to wander the city’s twisting alleys and discover the dozens of gorgeous temples nearby before returning to the seclusion of the Rachamankha to idle the rest of the day poolside or indulge a traditional Thai massage in an open-air pavilion. If you want to live the good life and discover Lanna culture during your Chiang Mai honeymoon, then this boutique hotel is for you.
Prices begin at ฿4,500 per night
Address: 6 Ratchamanka 9 Alley, T. Si Phum, A. Muang, Chiang Mai
Who it’s for: The couple that… Actually this just for the bride who wants to feel like a princess.
There are no words for this new boutique hotel in the center of Chiang Mai’s Old City that opened last year. Even now just driving by my mouth starts to fall open… Imagine Taj Mahal-level majesty combined with Lanna (northern Thai) charm and you begin to capture the essence of the drop-dead-gorgeous Inside House. The all-white decor will make minimalists swoon but it’s the extravagant amenities and top-notch service that leave a lasting impression.
The Inside House [image from Agoda]
Choose from balcony, jacuzzi pool or sky pool suites. (Seriously, a private infinity pool with uninterrupted views of the city?!? No words.)
Prices begin around ฿6,000 per night
Address: 56 Samlarn Road, T. Phra Sing, A. Muang, Chiangmai
Who it’s for: The urban-loving couple that wants a more sleek and sexy hotel…complete with couple’s bathtub overlooking the city.
Stylish and modern, akyra Manor Chiang Mai is the perfect honeymoon hotel for the trendy couple. Whether your idea of romance is a bottle of sparkling wine and a gorgeous sunset, a couple’s massage, or a private cooking class, their bespoke, all-inclusive service is sure to impress. While you may never want to leave your gorgeous surroundings, akyra Manor is a great jumping off point from which to explore. Located in the hip Nimmanhaemin neighborhood to the west of the city center, this 5-star boutique hotel is ideally situated. The neighborhood is highly walkable, and most of the city’s best bars, restaurants and boutiques are only steps away. While akyra Manor itself boasts one of the city’s best Italian eateries, as well as a top-notch rooftop bar, if you just pick a new direction each evening and walk for five or ten minutes, you’re sure to be in for a treat. The modern couple with hipster sensibilities with love spending their honeymoon at akyra Manor.
Prices begin around ฿4,700 per night
Address: 22/2 Nimmanhaemin Road, Soi 9, T. Suthep, A. Muang, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 50200
Who’s it for: The couple that likes recognized global names rather than (and a romp in rice fields…)
The Four Seasons name alone should tip you off to the elegance and attention to detail you’re in for, but the Four Seasons Chiang Mai is seriously gorgeous. While the above hotels are newer and more intimate, the Four Seasons is one of Chiang Mai’s grandest and most established luxury hotels. Even seasoned travelers will appreciate the harmonious way the tropical landscape, Northern Thai culture and luxury amenities all come together at this 5-star resort. While the architecture and landscaping are jaw-dropping, the three restaurants, luxury spa and signature service are also excellent in their own right. Basically, you won’t want to leave the resort, and I think when you’re on your honeymoon, that’s completely justified. Located on the outskirts of the city, the Four Seasons Chiang Mai is the ideal honeymoon hotel for newlyweds looking to retreat from the world.
Prices begin around ฿15,000 per night
Address: 502 Moo 1, Mae Rim-Samoeng Old Road, A. Mae Rim, Chiang Mai
Who it’s for: The sophisticated couple who want to play it safe but still want some style.
Even with newer, cooler hotels popping up, this property still remains one of my go-to favorites. Once the home of the first British Consulate in Chiang Mai, this sleek hotel commands a prime riverside location not far from the city’s infamously busy night market. From the tranquility of the Anantara Chiang Mai, however, you would think you were miles away from the city. The grassy lawn, tall trees, open walkways and elegant verandas make this riverside resort refreshing to stay in and fun to explore. Whether you’re relaxing at the onsite spa, dining at The Service 1921 concept restaurant, or enjoying high tea (highly recommended – the live four string quartet is a lovely touch!), there’s an attention to detail and sense of creativity at the Anantara that feels really special. (And if you don’t stay here, consider just going for a drink or meal!) If you’re looking for old world charm with modern amenities, then the Anantara Chiang Mai is your perfect honeymoon hotel.
Prices begin around ฿12,000 per night
Address: 123-123/1 Charoen Prathet Road, T. Chang Khlan, A. Muang, Chiang Mai
The dreamy pool at 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai
Who’s it for: The sophisticated couple who has even more money to spend. (This place is incredible.)
Another heritage property, the 137 Pillars House was once the headquarters of the Borneo Trading Company. One of the first foreign-owned residences in Chiang Mai, this boutique hotel is located in the historic Wat Ket neighborhood and named for the 137 pillars that support the 125-year-old teakwood home at the heart of the property. Beautifully restored, the interiors are decorated with rich woods and sumptuous silks. (Sounds like a generic luxury hotel description – but it’s true!) Each suite at 137 Pillars House is individually designed while the onsite bar and restaurant pay special attention to local ingredients and highlight traditional flavors in creative, modern ways. If your definition of luxury is being surrounded by old, beautiful things and you think romance is all about the details, then this heritage boutique hotel is where you should spend your honeymoon in Chiang Mai. The neighborhood is also interesting and home to several cute cafes, riverside restaurants and handicraft boutiques.
Prices begin around ฿17,000 per night
Address: 2 Soi 1, Na Wat Gate Road. T. Wat Gate, A. Muang, Chiang Mai
Naturally, it has everything you could ever want in a 5-star luxury resort, from gorgeous architecture and design, to a highly trained concierge and an award-winning spa that’s a destination of its own. Along with crazy architecture and sprawling grounds, there’s also a strong emphasis on wellness at The Dhara Dhevi, whether it’s starting the day with yoga or restoring your mind and body through Ayurvedic treatments at the Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre.
Told you it was extra.
Special classes and events showcase the best of Thai and northern Thai culture, and five onsite restaurants also bring the world’s cuisine to you, featuring Thai, Chinese, French, Italian and international menus. If you want everything and more from your luxury all-inclusive resort, then spoil yourself and spend your honeymoon at The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai.
Prices begin at ฿13,000 per night
Address: 51/4 Moo 1, Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Road, T. Tasala, A. Muang, Chiang Mai
Who it’s for: The couple that always finds the best Air BnB.
Designed by an artist and architect couple, the Chandra Residence is a boutique pool villa just southwest of Chiang Mai’s city center. Designed around a central pool and surrounded by a tropical garden, Chandra Residence offers a private place to relax and unwind during your honeymoon. Here you can have everything you need brought to you, including a chef or massage therapist, or in minutes, a private car can deliver you to your Chiang Mai destination of choice, or whisk you off on a personalized sightseeing tour. A private paradise, Chandra Residence is perfect for the artsy couple looking for an intimate honeymoon hideaway.
Prices begin around ฿23,000 per night
Address: 443, Moo 12, T. Nhong Hwai, A. Hang Dong, Chiang Mai
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Between chatting with monks and getting a tattoo, to learning salsa and even scoring a free yoga class, there’s something for everyone on this list.
I first wrote this post in 2013 and since then, many of the experiences and places I originally included are no longer available or open. Others have been inundated with tourists over the years (the number of visitors coming to Chiang Mai is much higher than when I first moved here!) and have started charging fees, while others are still free but now strained by people taking advantage of them without providing any sort of support or donation in return. All of these I’ve removed from the listed and updated with new experiences now available.
While many of the things below are free to experience, it’s simply good manners to make a donation, buy a drink or lend a hand when appropriate.
1. See the monks in the morning – The only cost for this is getting your bum out of bed. Each morning beginning around 6:30 am monks will walk the streets collecting their morning alms and food for the day.
2. Listen to jazz – On the north side of the Old City Northgate Jazz Co-Op. The bar opens up on to the street and on busy nights people will be standing in the road and sitting on the lawn across the street to listen to the tunes. No cover and no need to buy a drink.
3. Stroll street markets on Saturdays and Sundays – Every weekend, central streets of the Old City are closed to traffic and become full to bursting with pop-up shops, street food vendors and eager crowds. Locations and details can be found in my Chiang Mai Market Guide Part 1.
4. Head to Huay Tung Tao – Spend an afternoon lounging by the lake just outside of town, only 50 baht to get in.
Sit awhile at Huay Tung Tao.
5. Eat at the Vegetarian Society – Though not 100% free, the Vegetarian Society lets you serve yourself up some veggie dishes and pay using the honor system with suggested small donations. (We’re talking 15 baht for rice and three sides!) Heading away from Central Airport Plaza on Bunrueang Road look for a green sign on your left.
6. Walk up to Doi Suthep – Every year in May thousands of people make a pilgrimage starting at the front gate of Chiang Mai University on Huay Kaew Road and going all the way up the mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple (with free food and drinks along the way!).
7. Visit some waterfalls – There are a lot of them. While some have minor entrance fees others, like the ‘sticky’ waterfall heading toward Phrao, are free.
8. Work out with the Thai ladies – It doesn’t get much more local than this. In the evenings at certain points around town (the park, Tha Pae Gate, often Tesco parking lots for some reason…) there will be group aerobics complete with obnoxious music and sweatbands.
9. Go on a meditation retreat – Yes, sitting silently by yourself for hours on end is free! One of the closest meditation centers is at Wat Umong near the mountain on the west side of town. It’s free to stay as long as you like (including a room and food), but you should make a donation.
10. Get a mini-meditation crash course – Don’t have time for a full retreat? For a taste, head to Hidden House Yoga in the Old City for Mindfulness Meditation from 9:00 am – 9:45 am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Though technically free, there is a suggested donation and it’s smart to check the class schedule online before you go to make sure times haven’t changed
Find free or donation-based meditation courses in Chiang Mai.
11. Enjoy a Cat Nap – Curl up and take a nap if you’d like, but the monthly craft market by this name might be a bit more fun. Held on the first weekend of each month on Nimmanhaemin Soi 1 (bordering the trendy new One Nimman shopping area), you’ll find handicrafts and handmade items which are definitely more hip than traditional.
12. Practice yoga – Free yoga classes are held everyday in Suan Buak Had park at 9:00am. Check out this Facebook Group before you go to make sure the time or location hasn’t changed or to volunteer to teach a class yourself.
13. Try to win at trivia night – The U.N. Irish Bar on Rathvithi Road holds a Trivia Night every Thursday starting at 8:30 p.m. While there’s a small fee to play, split between your group members it’s really nothing.
14. Wander through the Flower Festival – Every year, the inner moat road wrapping around the southwest corner turns into an impressive display of elaborate floats decorated only with flowers and plants the first weekend in February.
The parade floats from Chiang Mai’s Flower Festival will blow your mind. So. Much. Detail.
15. Go on a temple tour – There are more than 80 temples within Chiang Mai’s city limits and almost all, except Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh are free of charge.
16. Go back to college – Chiang Mai is home to several universities, colleges and vocational schools. By far the largest, Chiang Mai University on the west side of town has a leafy campus complete with a reservoir and view of the mountain – perfect for strolling and getting in some greenery. After wandering through campus check out the nearby trendy Nimmanhaemin neighborhood.
17. Sing at open micnight – You’ll find a couple of these around town, but Boy Blues Bar hosts one of the most popular on Monday nights. It’s a great place to mix with expats and those staying town for a while.
18. Visit the park – Relax in Nong Buak Haad park located within the moat on the south side of the southwest corner…that is, until the aerobics group starts up.
19. Do the Samoeng Loop – Rent a bike and take a leisurely drive along the Samoeng Loop. For directions check out this post.
Renting a motorbike is a small price to pay for views like this.
20. Get bitten by mosquitoes – This one is guaranteed to happen absolutely free! Enjoy!
21. Experience a Buddhist holiday – There are several important Buddhist holidays throughout the year where temples will organize festivals and ceremonies. In Chiang Mai larger events are usually held at Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, both close to the center of the Old City. Many of the holidays are based on the lunar calendar and don’t fall on the same day each year.
22. Learn another language – The Free Language Exchange Chiang Mai group organizes regular weekly meet-ups open to all to go practice speaking different languages. The changes are usually Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm but make sure to double check the Facebook Group and find the current location before you go.
23. Visit Mon Cham – On your way to Samoeng make a quick detour stopping at Mon Cham, a garden/viewpoint/resort/restaurant that’s part of the Royal Project agricultural program, with nearly 360-degree views overlooking the surrounding valleys. There’s no fee to enter or wander the grounds.
24. Monk Chat – Several temples around town, including Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Srisuphan, offer daily and weekly ‘monk chats’ where you can go talk to a monk about pretty much anything.
25. Head to the Umbrella Festival – Each January the village of Bo Sang just 15 kilometers southeast of Chiang Mai’s Old City holds a festival celebrating the area’s umbrella making tradition and trade. Go for food, parades, markets and to peruse the handmade goods.
26. Get lost – Easy to do in the narrow, winding sois (small streets) of Chiang Mai’s Old City. Wander around the maze, but don’t worry, you’ll never get too turned around. The relatively small Old City is shaped like a square and as soon as you hit a major road you’ll be able to find out where you are.
Street art in the Old City.
27. Get a tattoo – Yes, you can get a free tattoo – not at a tattoo studio – but at a temple just outside of town. This isn’t just an ordinary tattoo, but a special blessing performed by a monk known assak yant. There are a few places to get them, like at Wat San Makieng in Doi Saket. Talk to your guesthouse owners or check in at some tattoo shops to see if someone can help you with where to go and when. It’s difficult to figure out on your own and a local’s insight about the process will be immensely useful.
28. Chase the cherry blossoms – Cherry trees around the province are in full bloom late-December to mid-January. The closest spot to town is Doi Khun Chang Kien on the top of Doi Pui (go up Doi Suthep, pass the temple, and keep going up). You can also catch them on Doi Inthanon and Doi Khun Mae Ya in Pai, Mae Hong Son province.
29. Go dancing – For salsa, head to Warm Up Club on Tuesday evenings where free beginner classes run from 8:00 – 9:00 pm with open dancing afterward, to One Nimman on Sundays from 7:45 – 11:00 pm, or to The Canteen for Salsa Bachata on Fridays from 8:00 – 11:30 pm. Salsa not your thing? Try tango at One Nimman every Wednesday starting from 8:00 pm till late or Swing on on Saturdays starting from 8:00 pm.
30. Visit the Chiang Mai University Art Museum – Near the corner of Thanon Suthep and Thanon Klorng Chonpratha, the Chiang Mai University Art Museum features rotating temporary exhibitions free of admission.
31. Go hiking in the hills – Check out Chiang Mai Hiking for information on nearby hikes as well as weekly group hikes lead by volunteers.
32. Make it to the markets – You don’t have to be shopping for anything to make the markets an amusing experience, especially when there’s a market to suit everyone’s interests. Don’t believe me? Check out my Chiang Mai Market Guides one, two and three covering eleven different markets in town…and now there are even more.
Wandering through a fresh market in Chiang Mai – fascinating and free…unless you buys some snacks.
33. Visit the ‘farang’ cemetery – East of the river there’s a small, older cemetery on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road slightly north of the Holiday Inn, where some of Chiang Mai’s first expats (mainly missionaries) are buried with interesting tombstone markings, including one with a statue of Queen Victoria.
34. Get to know your guesthouse owner – Most of the guesthouse owners speak English well and are happy to help you with anything you may need. Take some time to chat and get to know them a little bit better.
35. Walk around the moat – Pick a direction along the inner road of the moat and start moving. To walk all the way around at a decent speed will probably take you just over an hour. Take your time to check out some of the temples and street stalls along the way though!
36. Marvel at Loi Krathong – Events associated with November’s Loi Krathong, such as parades, dances, shows and lantern releases, are free of charge. There are organized paid events which confuse visitors every year thinking they have to buy tickets to ‘do’ Loi Krathong (also known as Yee Peng in the north), but the truth is that if you head anywhere with water you’ll be able to see people taking part in floating their krathong and lighting off paper lanterns into the sky. You can read more in this post I wrote for Lonely Planet about celebrating Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai.
Lanterns during Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai.
37. See artisans at work in Baan Tawai – If you make your way out of town to thewood carving village of Baan Tawai, you’ll be sure to spot some craftsmen at work and shopkeepers putting the finishing, decorative touches onto handmade home decor and furniture.
38. Watch silver craftsmen at Wat Srisuphan – Aside from being absolutely stunning by itself, Wat Srisuphan is worth a visit to see the artisans hammering away at the onsite workshop making the silver coverings for the temple. A small entrance fee of 50 baht is asked but includes a complimentary bottle of water and is 100% worth it regardless. While the grounds are open to all, note that only men are permitted inside the shrine building.
39. Volunteer – Chiang Mai has a number of volunteer opportunities to get involved in both short and long term. Check here and here to get matched up with an organization right for you. (Know that to volunteer in Thailand you technically need a volunteer visa specifically for your placement so any volunteer activities need to be organized before you arrive in the country.)
40. Go on a photography walk – From the sparkly, detailed temples, to bright green, leafy banana trees and sizzling street stalls, Thailand is a very photogenic country. Pick a part of town and grab your camera looking for the little details of life here. Some of the my favorite areas to wander even after all these years are the south side of the Old City, the Wat Ket neighborhood and the sois on either side of Sirimangkalagarn Road in the Nimmanhaemin district.
Historic buildings in the Wat Ket neighborhood.
41. Get soaked at Songkran – The Thai New Year held in the middle of April is unlike anything anywhere else. Over the three days of Songkran the streets surrounding the Old City will be completely filled with people celebrating and there are always free parades, shows, concerts and parties held at different pots throughout town.
42. Seek out the city’s ruins – Founded more than 700 years ago Chiang Mai is an old city with a lot of history. Unfortunately, most of what you see today was built fairly recently, but there are still a couple spots where you can catch a glimpse of the past like the city’s secret moat and the ancient ruins of Wiang Kum Kam about 5 kilometers from the center of the Old City.
43. Hang out at Tha Pae Gate – A major traffic and meeting spot, grab a seat and people watch for a while at Tha Pae Gate. In the evenings there are often people playing music, selling handmade goods or showing off tricks on their bikes.
44. Head to the Tribal Museum – Learn more about northern Thailand’s hill tribes, like the Akha, Karen and Hmong, at the Tribal Museum located at the Ratchamangkla Park on Chotana Road (Hwy 197), entrance is only 50 baht.
45. Find the free water – At most street stalls there will be bottles of water you can purchase or free water for customers. If there isn’t a pitcher on the table look for a large round drink cooler near the tables or cooking area with stacked cups and serve yourself. This water is purchased drinking water and doesn’t come from a tap – don’t worry!
46. Hike to Wat Palat – Starting at the top of Suthep Road you can follow a trail leading up to a hidden temple on Doi Suthep called Wat Palat. You’ll know you’re heading the right way if you keeping following the scrap of monks’ robes tied around the trees. Find directions here and watch 8 Miles from Home‘s gorgeous video including a look at Wat Palat here.
Michelin-starred restaurants, shopping malls with massive food courts, street stalls galore. You often hear about how great the food scene is in Bangkok but the first several times I visited Bangkok I was completely clueless about where to eat.
There is food EVERYWHERE. There are THOUSANDS of restaurants. How do you even begin to narrow it down or try and fit in as much taste testing as possible? (And don’t say TripAdvisor – I don’t want to base my restaurant choices off of a tourist’s single experience…)
Now, every time I go down to the capital I have a list of places I want to check out. This is partially because I’ve now been regularly going to Bangkok for years and each time get more familiar with the city checking off another hotspot but also because I now know better how to find suggestions on where to eat or little tricks for fitting a lot in.
Be warned – you’ll get completely sucked into this site. From daily restaurant news and reviews of new openings to themed food guides, listings by neighborhood, awards and even dining guides focusing on a single street, BK nails it when it comes to sharing what’s new and noteworthy about where to eat in Bangkok. This is the resource I turned to most when planning my stay in the city.
Michelin Guide Bangkok
Nahm, a Bangkok fine-dining institution, offers a 5-course tasting menu for 2,800 baht per person or about $88 US dollars. I have no idea what a Michelin meal is in Europe…but I know it’s more than that.
While 2,800 baht is pricey compared to a 50 baht plate of phad thai, it’s also more within reach for a lot of travellers than it would be elsewhere and 100% worth the splurge.
The Michelin Guide Bangkok is still new to the city (now just on its second edition for 2019) but offers a ton of listings which are fully available online. Along with 26 starred restaurants, the guide includes a ton of additional restaurants that didn’t receive stars but are still recommended by the Michelin judges. These range from high-end restaurants to casual eateries and simple food stalls, so even if you’re on a budget they’re worth checking out.
The TimeOut brand has a Bangkok site that also features several dining guides, although it doesn’t seem to be updated as regularly or thoroughly as BK. Its “Best of…” lists (like the best ice cream in Bangkok or best afternoon teas in Bangkok) are pretty helpful though.
Bangkok Food Tours
I wouldn’t do a cooking class in Bangkok (save that for when you’re in Chiang Mai or on the islands) but I have done a food tour and would so again. Especially if you’re unfamiliar with the city, this is one of the best ways to fit in a ton of flavors in a short amount of time plus actually learn about what you’re eating. Typically tours, like the one linked above from Withlocals, offer a mix of predictable favorites – phad thai, green curry, mango with sticky rice – with some more unusual but locally popular dishes, snacks and sweets thrown in. Food tours are also a great opportunity to ask questions about how to order, local ingredients, cooking styles and eating customs that you wouldn’t figure out as easily or quickly on your own.
Find out where to go and what to try on a Bangkok food tour
You’ll find food literally everywhere in Bangkok. Step out of your hotel, with its multiple restaurants and breakfast buffet, and you’ll walk right into a street vendor. Certain districts and even specific streets offer a convenient concentration of eating places however and are a good way to both narrow down your options and allow you to hit several spots within a close vicinity at the same time – pick a neighborhood then just look up options there rather than trying to research the whole city.
For example, Bangkok’s Chinatown along Yaowarat Road is filled with small street vendors, large Chinese restaurants and seafood specialities. While touristy, the Rattanakosin district around the Grand Palace has some super-cute spots serving up elevated Thai classics and riverside dining (like Err by the same owners of Michelin-starred Bo.Lan and Supanniga Eating Room at Tha Thien or the Supanniga Cruise for dinner and drinks).
Dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River from Supanniga Eating Room
In the trendy Thonglor district, too many popular restaurants and cocktail bars to name are clustered along the main drag of Sukhumvit Soi 55 (also known as Soi Thonglor) or immediately off of it on a small soi.
The Sathorn district is home to a number of high end restaurants and international eats while the Khlong Toei has a range of smaller but popular places people are willing to travel for as well as the city’s largest wet market selling meat and produce which leads us to…
The House on Sathorn – a 128-year-old mansion-turned-restaurant in the center on Sathorn
Whether you go to a craft market or a fresh market, you’ll find plenty of food options. Night markets always have a variety of stalls and vendors while some longstanding local markets, like Nang Loeng Market and Wang Lang Market, are known for their multitude of food offerings. Markets are a great place to graze as you go but they can be overwhelming and intimidating to the uninitiated or if you have eating restrictions. Don’t worry – there are still more places to eat in Bangkok like…
Mall Food Courts
Mall food courts are one of my least favorite places on Earth. Even as a teenager, they made me feel icky. And the food was shit. I still don’t love them in Bangkok but do admit they’re about 200% better than what I grew up with and are incredibly convenient for trying a bunch of completely decent, affordable dishes at once (in air-conditioning!). Just like Bangkok’s sprawling shopping centers, the food courts are totally over the top with way more options than is really necessary. Many also have surprisingly nice atmospheres.
Eatthai in the upscale Central Embassy mall features only Thai classics within a charming atmosphere honouring Thailand’s culinary heritage. The sleek Quartier FoodHall at Emquartier offers everything from ramen to raw oysters. Of course, the malls for the masses like, Siam Paragon, Siam Discovery and Terminal 21, all have massive food courts as well. While dishes don’t tend to be the best thing you’ve ever eaten, they’re pretty good and offer an easy way to try several things at once.
So, there you have it. I may have just complicated your ‘where to eat in Bangkok’ research even more, but at least now you’re on the right track unlike I was the first few times in the city aimlessly wandering around.