On our last trip to Southeast Asia we enjoyed checking out Bangkok and Thailand’s outlying islands, but we missed the opportunity to explore northern Thailand. During this trip, we were excited to sample some of Chiang Mai’s signature cuisine and take in some of the outdoor experiences that make Chiang Mai a great jumping off point for many outdoor enthusiasts.
Four Days in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Day 1: Travel to Chiang Mai, Saturday Night Market, New Years Eve
- Day 2: Elephant Nature Park, Street Food
- Day 3: Sticky Waterfalls, Chiang Mai Treehouse
- Day 4: Bike ride to bat cave near Treehouse, afternoon in Chiang Mai, night train to Bangkok
If you have extra time
- If we had a couple more days, we would have probably spent more time relaxing in Chiang Mai. The city is known for great food and a relaxed atmosphere. It can be a welcome break from the frenzied pace and limitless sights of Bangkok.
- Take a multi-day trek from Chiang Mai. You can combine it with zip lining and a number of other attractions that make Chiang Mai a notable destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
Day 1 – Travel to Chiang Mai, Saturday Night Market, New Years Eve
We arrived in Chiang Mai from Laos on New Years Eve. Chiang Mai’s airport is served by several regional carriers as well as bus and train terminals (more on that later). After settling into our guesthouse, Absolute House, we met some friends to take in the Saturday Night Market and scout out a place to eat. We settled on Writers Club to try their khao soi, a specialty of Northern Thailand. The market is also a great area to grab a souvenir or massage! Our host mentioned that products here were cheaper than the night bazaar and could be negotiated down 20-30%.
After dinner and massages, we made our way to the Tha Phae Gate in the old city where locals and tourists alike were lighting paper lanterns to celebrate the new year. The paper lanterns are lit and released into the sky for good luck in the new year. We bought two from a vendor in the area and lit our first one on fire trying to release it! We were more successful with the second lantern.
Although we were there for New Years, we found a number of bars and restaurants around the Tha Phae Gate. It’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for an evening of entertainment in Chiang Mai’s old quarter!
Day 2 – Elephant Nature Park, Street Food
The next day, we a van picked us up from our guesthouse to take us to the Elephant Nature Park, located about an hour from Chiang Mai. The park rescues and rehabilitates elephants from the logging, tourism and entertainment industries, in addition to other animals. The elephants have free range across their expansive property, and we spent a full day exploring.
We started the morning by feeding the elephants watermelon from the main platform and wander the property to visit them in the afternoon. Tours also generally include bathing the elephants in the river, but it was too cold on the day we visited. The park also offers overnight accommodations if you want to volunteer for more than one day.
We grabbed dinner at the Chiang Mai Gate street stalls on the south side of the Old City when we returned. You’ll find a great variety of cheap Thai food here. Most stalls open around 5pm and close fairly late.
Day 3 – Sticky Waterfalls, Chiang Mai Treehouse
After a leisurely breakfast, we caught our private car to the Rabeang Pasak Chiangmai Treehouse Resort. Located 90 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, the resort is family-owned and operated. It began as a family vacation home in 2010 by a now retired architect and began welcoming guests in 2012.
We arranged to have our driver stop at the Bua Thong Waterfalls on the way. Known as the sticky waterfalls, the water flows over porous rock covered in a limestone deposit, making the waterfalls easy to climb up without slipping. We spent a couple of hours climbing the falls, checking out a nearby hot spring and eating lunch before continuing onto our sweet tree house digs. This makes a great day trip from Chiang Mai even if you don’t stay at the tree house!
When we checked in for our stay at the Chiang Mai Treehouse we had high expectations, and we were not disappointed. The resort is composed of unique, quirky tree houses built into large trees that line the property, as well as larger family cottages. A small river runs through the property, which sits on the outskirts of the sleepy village of Pasak Ngam. We stayed in the Tamarind tree house, which is the highest tree house in the resort and requires you to hoist up your bags with a rope and pulley!
Although there wasn’t a ton to do in the area, we enjoyed laying low, reading and taking some of their (frankly terrible) bikes out for a ride around town. Although it’s optional, we chose to eat all of our meals at the resort, and we were thoroughly impressed with the cuisine. Our meals were always filling, thoughtfully-presented and only a few minutes’ walk from our tree house.
Day 4 – Biking near the Tree house, Exploring Chiang Mai, Night Train to Bangkok
For our second day at the tree house, we got an early start to the day and headed to check out some local caves. We found the bats that we were promised in the caves, but not without encountering a miserable amount of mosquitoes along the way. The rest of the morning was spent relaxing around the resort until our car arrived to take us back to Chiang Mai.
We enjoyed the private car but had originally planned on renting a scooter for our journey to the tree house. We decided against it after finding out the journey was mostly on a highway where traffic moved at a fairly high speed, but our private driver ended up taking us on local roads which would have been no sweat for a moderately-confident scooter driver (lesson learned).
When we arrived back in Chiang Mai, we spent the rest of the day walking around town before heading to catch our night train to Bangkok. The train service between Chiang Mai and Bangkok received a major upgrade in November 2016 when Thailand purchased new trains that now service most of the trips between the cities. We were lucky enough to be on a new train on our trip to Bangkok, so found the overnight journey to be both relaxing and enjoyable.
Seat 61 provided the most useful information on purchasing train tickets. We booked ours in advance and had no issues picking them up before we boarded. Food on the train is expensive, so we’d recommend bringing your own snacks. Note that that they don’t allow alcohol on board. Wifi is available in the dining car. I’d also highly recommend bringing a sleeping mask as they never turned off the lights.
If you’re considering a trip to Thailand, Chiang Mai is definitely a worthy destination to add to your list. Be aware that if you are there around the New Year, you may find many restaurants and shops are closed. Early January is also a popular time for Thais to vacation.
If you’ve had the opportunity to do a trek or other outdoor activity while around Chiang Mai, we’d love to hear from you! Send us a note or leave a comment, and tell us about what you enjoyed so we can add it to our list for next time we get to see this awesome city.