A weekend in Chiang Mai is just enough time to get a taste of northern Thailand’s former Lanna capital. While most travellers focus on the old walled city and gilded pagodas, the city is home to fantastic food, serious cafés, seriously good shopping, and absorbing contemporary art.
A weekend in Chiang Mai is my idea of a perfect weekend. Of course two days is never enough anywhere, especially in a city with such brilliant food, history, architecture, arts, crafts, and shopping. But a weekend in Chiang Mai, on the banks of the Ping River, with the holy mountain, Doi Suthep, in its backyard, will give you enough of a taste of Northern Thailand’s old Lanna capital to want to return to sample more.
And now is the best time to go to Chiang Mai. It’s ‘winter’ in Chiang Mai, when the daily average temperature is 21-24°C (70-75°F) between now and the end of February, although it has still been known to get as high as 33°C (91°F) and drop as low as 15°C (58.8°F) so take warm clothes.
Spending a weekend in Chiang Mai has become an increasingly popular thing to do in Southeast Asia. There are plenty of flights to Chiang Mai and the city is easy to navigate and get around, provided you do a little a planning and try to avoid the increasingly notorious traffic gridlock.
Weekend in Chiang Mai – Itinerary for Two Days in Thailand’s Ancient Lanna Capital
Thai Airways, Bangkok Air, Air Asia, and Nok Air, among others, fly to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai International Airport is a 10-minute drive from ‘Nimman’ as the area on and around Nimmanhaemin Road is called, and a 15-minute drive from the Old City. There are two pre-paid private taxi companies at Arrivals. Head to the counter, tell them which hotel you’re staying at, get a coupon with the rate on it, and then pay the driver at your destination.
If this is your first weekend in Chiang Mai, stay in the walled Old City. If money is no object don’t think about checking in anywhere but enchanting Rachamankha or charming Tamarind Village. Good central mid-range options include Lamphu House, 99 the Gallery Hotel and Thapae Loft. If you’ve been to Chiang Mai before, then try a hotel on the Ping River such as Sala Lanna, the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, or Hotel des Artists Ping Silhouette. And if you’ve done that, we highly recommend a room at the Eastin Tan Hotel on hip Nimmanhaemin Road. Click through for more of our Chiang Mai hotel recommendations.
A weekend in Chiang Mai must begin with drinks. Slip into Service 1921 for a tipple on the patio of this handsome bar-restaurant at the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort. Located in a grand colonial villa built in 1915 that became the British Consulate in 1921, you’ll be overlooking a manicured lawn that once hosted garden parties and games of cricket and croquet, and a serene pond. Try the signature cocktail, the British Consulate (Ketel One Vodka, tangerine infused crushed ice, cherry brandy, Angostura Bitters, and fresh lime juice) and if you’re peckish, order a tasting platter (chicken wings, Sichuan style pork skewers, and Vietnamese ground beef rolled in betel leaves; the cuisine is Pan Asian), but save room for dinner. 123-123/1 Charoen Prathet Road, Changklan, Muang, Chiang Mai, 053 253 333.
It’s hard to beat Dash Teak House for your first dinner to kick off a weekend in Chiang Mai. You’ll find fewer warmer welcomes than you will from this mother-son team, Noi and Dash, who returned to Noi’s hometown to open the restaurant after living in the USA for some years. Noi oversees the kitchen, while Dash looks after diners – and occasionally joins the band for a song. The menu focuses on well-executed Thai classics made with produce Noi sources from local farmers. While the Lanna dishes are lovely, the Massaman curry is sublime. Spread across a beautiful two-storey teak house with balcony and fragrant garden that was Noi’s home, the restaurant is tucked down a lane near Tha Pae Gate. Some find it tricky to locate so call the moment you get lost rather than waste time. 38/2 Moon Muang Rd Soi 2, Old City, Chiang Mai, 053 279230.
Chiang Mai Food Tours will provide your best introduction to Chiang Mai’s wonderful Lanna cuisine, from street food to home-style cooking. On their Taste of the North and Old Town Walk, which kicks off at busy Somphet Market, you’ll feast on some 10 dishes at specialty stalls, simple family owned eateries and an off the beaten track restaurant, including khao soi (coconut curry noodles), sai oua (Chiang Mai’s famous local sausage), and homemade young coconut ice-cream at six locations on a 4-hour tour (10am-2pm). They squeeze in a proper lunch at Huen Muan Jai restaurant, which has a very similar menu to the more famous Huen Phen in the Old Town and specialises in similar dishes – nam prik ong (tomato mince dip), Lanna style larb moo (a rich chopped pork mince salad) and the gaeng hang lay moo (spicy pork curry) – and it ends with afternoon tea. On ambles in between eating, you’ll visit a few of the most impressive Chiang Mai Old Town sights, including Wat Chedi Luang.
The splendid Wat Chedi Luang was constructed of brick in the early 15th century but damaged in a 16th century earthquake (that’s why there’s a bit missing on top). In 1468, the Emerald Buddha – which was apparently removed from Angkor Wat – was installed in the temple’s eastern niche and remained there until 1551, when it was moved to Luang Prabang. It now resides at Wat Phra Kaew at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
You certainly won’t need lunch after the food tour, but if you’re feeling a little sleepy after all that food make a beeline for Akha Ama café (175/1 Ratchadamnoen Road), not far from Wat Phra Singh. Owner Lee Ayu Chuepa is from the indigenous Akha people and the beans are grown in his village, Mae Chan Tai, near Chiang Rai. Akha Ama is a social enterprise aimed at improving the lives of the coffee growing community.
After your caffeine hit, see some more temples. Chiang Mai has some three hundred of them! Head to the gilded pagoda Wat Phra Singh nearby for a wander around the lovely grounds of another of Chiang Mai’s most significant temple complexes. Said to have been established in 1345 by King Mengrai, the last king of the Lao kingdom of Ngoenyang, he became the first king of the Lanna kingdom (1296-1558) and was the founder of Chiang Mai.
One of the most fun things to do on a weekend in Chiang Mai is to wander along Wualai Road Walking Street (pictured above), one of many popular evening ‘walking street’ markets in Chiang Mai. It starts up around 5pm on Saturday nights and finishes around at 10pm. (If you can’t get to this one, try to get to the Ratchadamnoen Road market on Sunday). You’ll find everything for sale here from street food and drinks to hill tribe textiles, handmade jewellery and hippy clothes.
When you’re done, head to the hip university neighbourhood of Nimmanhaemin. For us, a weekend in Chiang Mai is missing something if we don’t spend an evening on Nimmanhaemin Road. Both the main drag and the narrow side streets (‘sois’ in Thai) are home to an abundance of cool independently owned shops, cafés, bars, and restaurants. On ‘Nimman’ itself, funky communal space Think Park is worth spending some time at for its craftsy shops and cool bars. Identifiable by a colossal bronze cat statue in the public square at the entrance, this fun place hosts dozens of miniscule boutiques ran by creative locals selling beautiful handcrafted things, from handmade leather bags to embroidered t-shirts and accessories on skinny alleyways. Across the (very busy) road, you’ll spot swanky Maya Mall, which is home to several floors of designer shops, a gourmet supermarket on basement level, and up on the rooftop a handful of buzzy bars.
A weekend in Chiang Mai isn’t complete for us without dinner at cool, casual Tong Tem Toh (it generally closes at 9pm; don’t be late), which is little more than a beer garden that does outstanding Lanna food. Look for the smoking barbecue out the front. We love the Northern Thai style hors do’oeuvre platter, which includes their superb sai oua (spicy pork sausage), fiery nam prik num (green chilli, garlic and onion dip) and nam prik ong (a milder red chilli, tomato and pork relish), with crudités and pork crackling. 11 Nimmanhaemin Soi 13, Chiang Mai, 053 854701.
End your Saturday night in Chiang Mai with some music. After dinner, return to Think Park on Nimman and settle into Doqaholic bar for some live music. Do as the locals do and order a bottle of Thai whiskey which they’ll bring with a bucket of ice; it’s best enjoyed on the rocks. Up for more? Just down on Nimman road at #40 the Warm-Up Cafe has three different spaces for live music, with anything from indie rock to hip-hop and acoustic music, generally in the beer garden. A 10-minute ride away, the North Gate Jazz Co-Op (91/1-2 Si Phum Road) just inside the Old City’s Chang Pheuak Gate will have some live jazz or rock.
It’s not a weekend in Chiang Mai without a morning hike up Chiang Mai’s holy mountain, Doi Suthep, whose summit is a lofty 1676-metres high. From the base, you can climb 309 steps up the naga serpent staircase to visit the gleaming Buddhist pagodas and chedis of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the site of which was founded with the building of the first stupa in 1383. (Dress modestly.) On a good day (the Chiang Mai skies can be very smoggy in the sweltering months of March and April), you’ll be able to soak up sweeping vistas across the city. It’s 15kms outside of the city, so take a songthaew, the red pick-up trucks that serve as shared taxis (hotel staff can help flag one down) or have the hotel arrange for a taxi to take you and wait for you.
There’s no better place to linger over Sunday lunch on a weekend in Chiang Mai than at Huen Jai Yong. Have the hotel arrange a taxi to take you and wait for you (organise a fixed price in advance, don’t use the metre), as it’s a 30-minute drive from the Old City. Bangkok-based Australian Thai chef David Thompson (of Nahm restauranat) and American Thai chef Andy Ricker, a part-time Chiang Mai resident, both recommend this rustic restaurant specialising in authentic, earthy Lanna food. We went with local restaurant owners who appeared to order everything on the menu, but make sure to try the nam prik num (roasted green-chilli, garlic and onion relish), pork crackling (kep moo), naem (fermented pork sausage), and gaeng hang lay (pork curry). Reservations necessary. 65 Moo 4, San Kamphaeng Road, Tambon Buak Khang, Chiang Mai, 086 6718710.
A weekend in Chiang Mai would be incomplete without some art. If you haven’t whiled away the afternoon feasting on the fantastic Lanna food at Huen Jai Yong, then spend some time at Chiang Mai’s marvellous Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum. Opened in mid-2016 in a breathtakingly remodelled warehouse in the craftsy area of Sankhampaeng, half an hour east of the Chiang Mai’s Old City, the building is clad in a mosaic of mirrored tiles, so that it shimmers in the changing light. The wonderful space hosts around 600 art works from the private collections of the late Patsri Bunnag, her surviving husband Jean Michel Beurdeley and their son Eric Bunnag Booth, as well as rotating shows of works by Thai and international artists, exhibitions of costumes, installations, and film screenings. Adults 150 Baht, students 100 Baht, children under 12 free. Wed-Mon 10am-6pm. 122 Moo 7 Tonpao, Sankampheang, Chiang Mai.
Skedaddle over to the Sala Lanna well before sunset and sink into a bean bag and sip a Thai craft beer, such as Chiang Mai’s own Red Truck as you savour the sunset over the Ping River at their River Bar. Only open over the cool winter months it’s a perfect spot to toast to a successful weekend in Chiang Mai. On a fine winter’s evening you should be able to see the top of Doi Suthep in the distance.
But if you can drag yourself away from the riverside, head to Ploen Rudee Night Market, which has loads more local flavour than the adjoining and much more touristy Night Bazaar. Popular with hip young locals, it has a laidback vibe, with plenty of food trucks and stalls selling folksy crafts and handmade jewellery by Chiang Mai designers. After some browsing, pull up a hay bale at a packing-crate table and snack on everything from burgers to tonkatsu which you can wash down with icy beer. Now that’s a very local way to finish your weekend in Chiang Mai. Chang Klang Road, Chiang Mai. Nightly from 5pm to late.
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Have you been to the old Lanna capital? How do you like to spend a memorable weekend in Chiang Mai?