Where to Shop, Eat and Stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai definitely stole a little piece of my heart.

I spent February and March of 2017 in Thailand where I travelled solo to experience the country and partake in a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. A week before my 6-week course was to begin, I flew into Bangkok to kick-start my journey leisurely with a week in Chiang Mai.

After a brief hour flight from Bangkok, I arrived in Chiang Mai and hopped in a cab headed for downtown. I’m not really sure what I was picturing in my head, but in reality the city was less rural and sparse than I imagined and far more developed. The mecca of cool new boutiques, eateries, shops and cafes was something out of a magazine. With a young population (thanks to its university), Chiang Mai has a youthful energy which was a nice addition to the traditional architecture, temples and jungle surroundings.

During my time in Chiang Mai, I stayed at The Laboratory Hotel in the neighbourhood of Nimmanhaemin, and it was, in a word, awesome. I admittedly chose it based on the interior design (no shame in my decision game), but it delivered on location, vibe and comfort as well. Nestled in a quiet, safe area, it was steps from a 7-11 and all the coolest restaurants and shops, and the lobby doubled as Across The Universe Cafe, a public joint where locals would come read, dine or meet up with friends. Live music nights also took place there, and the overhead speakers were always softly playing the blues or Nina Simone.

The old, wood entry doors to the hotel beneath a neon sign..
The view of The Laboratory Hotel from the street.

From the street, The Laboratory Hotel invites you inside through a set of old, wooden doors beneath a neon sign. Inside, the cafe, lobby and hallways are decorated with anatomical posters, objects, figurines and props. The floors creaked and the breeze passed through. They served a simple but fulfilling egg and toast breakfast.

Anatomical posters and objects decorated the hotel.
Figurines and skeletal systems were also used throughout.

Considering the price (at just $60 a night. which included breakfast), it was the perfect little spot to call home for a week. Sure, the bed was a little hard, but it was calm and quiet and just what I needed. Nestled on a quiet street in the heart of Nimmanhaemin, you could enjoy shops and cafes at every corner, or hop on a Tuk Tuk and find yourself in the Old City within minutes.

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The windows in my bedroom which sealed closed or louvered open. A cat often walked across the roof below.
The view from my room. I always got to watch this red sunset.

Steps from my hotel was One Nimman, the newly opened outdoor plaza brimming with shops, cafes, rentable event spaces, art installations, and an unconventional “food court” with rotating vendors. Think indie clothing boutiques, barbers, jewelry-makers and the coolest architecture and design elements (like these amazing colourful tile floors).

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Another notable attraction was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (say that ten times fast). This was the only temple I visited in the mainland of Thailand, but it was such a cool experience that I didn’t feel the need to visit any others (though Im sure they’re all gorgeous)! The morning I went I left at 5am to catch the sunrise (I just hailed an Uber. It was a half hour drive).

I was the only soul there, save for a group of monks chanting in meditation, so I spent an hour walking around admiring the illuminated gold temple with a pack of stray dogs.

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By 6:30 am, the sun began to rise on me. I was alone and it was absolutely breathtaking! Just after 7am, buses filled with tourists arrived and as they packed in and lined these banisters, I left, but not before catching the sight of a pack of stray dogs playing on the temple steps.

As I awaited a bus back to the city, I grabbed some Khao Soi from a street side vendor. It was the best thing I’ve ever eaten at 8am.

Going into this trip, I had a vision of myself riding a motorbike through the jungle and mountains from Chiang Mai to Pai, but my dreams were quickly dashed by every single person I spoke to about it, from friends and family to local strangers. It’s quite dangerous, especially if you’ve never ridden a motorbike before, so instead I got my adrenaline fix through an ATV.

I booked a jungle adventure with Take Me Tours one night over dinner, and at 9am the next morning, my guide Kataii picked me up and off we scooted to the ATV rental shop. The whole drive, she offered travel tips and shared her local perspective on Chiang Mai. It was really cool!

ATV-wise, I cannot promise this experience would be the same for everyone, but for some reason on this particular morning I was the only person who booked the AM tour, so my experience was 100% catered to me! We went as fast as I wanted and my guide gave me trail options based on what views I wanted. All in, it was an exhilarating -hour ride through the mountains and villages.

Post-ATV adventure, Kataii picked me back up and we decided to pay a visit to Mae Sa waterfall in Mae Rim to cool off. Mae Sa is actually comprised of 10 waterfalls (levels) spread across a hike uphill of about 200 metres. There was a tiny entrance fee (equal to about $5 CAD which the tour covered for me), but once again, there was barely a soul in sight, so I enjoyed a hike up to level 6 and took a dip beneath the falls.

After Mae Sa, Kataii and I enjoyed a bean-bag seated lunch by the river before we visited some of her friends who just had a litter of puppies. My day could not be going any better…

After lunch and puppy hangs, we visited the Orchid and Butterfly Farm in Mae Rim. It’s not somewhere you can spend a whole day, but if you’re passing through, it’s worth popping-in.

Back in Nimmanhaemin, I enjoyed lots of other experiences throughout the week, some in the form of food and drink.

Coffee-wise, Ristr8to had one of the best lattes I’ve ever had. They’ve actually won title of Best Latte Art in Thailand for years, and there are two locations to enjoy your java-fix from, open at alternating hours. Both spots have a great atmosphere for working, meeting a pal, or just people-watching with a scone.

Frosé had great frozen yogurt (obviously), but they also serve all kinds of drinks and dessert. Their pistachio rainbow cake is prettier than a picture. You can’t miss their giant neon sign!

While I didn’t enjoy their ice cream, the interior of On Cloud Nine alone is worth a peep.

By dinnertime, my go-to spot was Rustic & Blue. The vegan menu never disappointed–and neither did their neon signage! The food was fresh, local and gluten-free, and the space made you feel like you were in the comfort of your own backyard.

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iBerry Cafe is famous for its Thai-style ice cream, but it’s more than an eatery: It’s an outdoor cafe and hang-out spot for locals and tourists alike. Marked with its giant pink mascot, it offers tons of seating, free wifi, and a great atmosphere.

Maya Shopping Centre and Think Park attract many locals and tourists alike. Chiang Mai is developing rapidly and these shops and corners are popular (and for good reason)! Home to a number of coffee shops, clothing stores and markets, it’s a safe place to dine, chill and listen to live music, day or night.

Located just east of The Old City, the Night Bazaar makes for a fun evening. The market comes alive around 6pm, but isn’t in full swing until 10pm. You’ll find everything from food vendors to knock-off shops to art and everything in between. Go hungry and ready to barter!

All in, I absolutely loved Chiang Mai and can’t wait to go back! If you’ve been recently, where should I explore on my next trip?

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