Chiang Mai’s walking markets are a sight you must see for yourself. Imagine a road lined on both sides with vendors for more than a kilometer selling everything from fruit to clothes to jewelery to massages, and then add to that picture tens of thousands of people packing the street. This describes both of Chiang Mai’s walking markets, one on Saturday evening on Wua Lai Rd, just south of the Old City, and the other on Sunday afternoon in the Old City on Ratchadamnoen Rd. There are so many people perusing the vendor stalls that it can get hard to move forward at the peak of the markets. While this may sound uncomfortable, it’s actually exhilarating. There are few better ways to get out amongst the local people and see what the farmers, chefs, and artisans of Thailand have to offer. With such hefty competition, everything is cheap too: most meals cost about $1, hour massages for $6, and good deals on clothes, crafts and everything else, but even if you don't want to spend a baht, you'll have a good time!
Many hostels, hotels and guesthouses have free bicycles ready and waiting for travellers who enjoy sight-seeing on two wheels. Biking in Chiang Mai is common, and several roads have bike lanes, making it a little easier to cruise to the northwest section of the city where you’ll find the arboretum and the waterfall. The arboretum is small, but worth a visit as it boasts a paved pathway weaving in and out of tall, green trees and past exercise stations. Up the road from the arboretum, (literally, up a hill, be prepared) is a turnout with vendors and tuk-tuks galore, and the parking lot for the waterfall. The waterfall is set back from the road, and up on a hill which affords a limited, but beautiful view of the city below. Bicyclists can park at the base of the falls and walk a short distance to several flat rocks scattered about the pools in search of the perfect shady picnic spot.
If you’ve spent any time in Thailand, you’ll come to realize that there are a thousands of wats (aka temples), and that these are usually quite similar to each other. However, Chiang Mai has two unique wats that are both worth your free visit. The first is the Silver Wat, actually called Wat Sri Suphan, and also located near the Saturday evening walking market. This wat is uniquely plated in intricately laid silver, inside and out, which is fitting as Chiang Mai is in the silver producing region of the country. When we were there in November, they also had the wat’s exterior set up with a colorful light show. (Note, this wat has a rule that no women are allowed inside, but Cristina still found it worth a walk by to see the outside.) The other is the Teak Wat, actually called Wat Phan Tao, and made entirely of beautiful teak wood. Note that Wat Phan Tao is also the location of an can’t-miss light display during the annual Loy Krathong festival.
The Maya is a mall. A big, super-fancy mall, but don’t write off the idea of visiting a mall in Chiang Mai just yet. Sunset from the rooftop deck of the Maya is one of the best we saw in Thailand. Picture this: a beautiful bird’s-eye view of Chiang Mai’s hip and colorful Nimmanhaeman Road, with velvety, green mountains carving out the horizon ahead. Now add a few layers of fluffy white and whispy clouds, perfect for reflecting sunset’s peachy, pink and orange glows, and you have the makings for a stunning sunset show! Get to the roof by taking the elevators (not the escalators) to the 6th floor. Try to show up about thirty minutes before sunset to get a spot, and stay until day fades into night - the decorative lighting and views of Chiang Mai by night are not to be missed. It’s free to go to the roof and stay awhile on the extensive patio, but if you were so inclined, you could also get a drink or dinner at any of the fancy restaurants up there.
Chiang Mai University’s art museum is well done and surprisingly large. While we were there, there were two large exhibits on display, and the upstairs was under construction, but word is the upstairs usually has shows too. There is also a small but interesting set of sculptures outside in the front. While we can’t guarantee the art you see when you visit will be any good, if the quality of what was on when we were there is any indication, you’re in for a nice treat. And its free.
Go to CM during the 12th full moon (typically in November, check online for dates) for the annual Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festivals. These two concurrent festivals occur on the 12th full moon each year and it’s an incredible, unforgettable light-show. The sky fills with lanterns and the river with floating, candle-lit offerings. There are lots of preliminary events in the days leading up to the full moon, but the real deal happens that night and the best place to take part is where Loi Kroh Rd crossed Mai Ping river. You can buy lanterns or boats to launch yourself, but it’s not necessary as there will be thousands of other people doing it too and you can simply watch, take photos, and marvel at the beauty and good spirits around you. Other fun things to see during the festival include: the lightshow at the Silver Wat (as noted above), another light show at the Teak Wat (noted above), the parade of floats the day before the full moon, and fireworks displays all over town. This is one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen, so if you have any flexibility in your schedule, try to go to Chaing Mai around Loy Krathong / Yee Peng.