Things to do in Chiang Mai, Thailand: 20 reasons to visit Chiang Mai

1. WALK THIS WAY

Walking street night markets have all the fun of a fair plus some of the best shopping in town. On Saturdays, the action happens on Wualai Road. The street is closed to traffic from 5pm, when vendors and street food cooks start to set up their stalls. The next day, the area around Thapae Gate is a hive of activity as hundreds of vendors set up temporary shops. In addition to handcrafted jewellery, lamps, handbags and the like, this is also the place to meet some of Chiang Mai's artists and admire their original works for sale.

2. DRINK THE LION PURPLE COCKTAIL

The House Lounge is a glamorous new cocktail bar that opened its doors in December 2017. Part of The House by Ginger complex, the new bar is a nice addition to the existing restaurant, cafe and luxe homewares store in a restored 1930s mansion. Close to the city moat and lavishly decorated with antiques and sensual fabrics, the Lounge has quickly become one of Chiang Mai's favourite date spots. Pricey by local standards, it's worth the spend. thehousethailand.com

3. APPRECIATE THE STYLE

On the luxe end of the spectrum of design-led hotels and guesthouses, akyra Manor Chiang Mai is an all-suite five-star boutique hotel in the heart of trendy Nimmanhaemin. The GM actively encourages guests to interact with local artists through showcase events and auctions, as well as organising private art lessons and gallery tours on request. Don't miss sunset happy hour, with a view of Doi Suthep mountain, at Rise rooftop bar and infinity pool. theakyra.com

4. EAT LOCAL

Chiang Mai is a destination all about food, from high-end restaurants to inexpensive local markets where diners sit on plastic stools to eat scrumptious dishes. With culinary influences from all corners of the earth, be sure to make time to sample the local specialties. The classic Northern Thai dish of Khao soy is practically synonymous with the city, found everywhere. The morish mix of rich and spicy coconut milk curry broth, chicken and noodles is a satisfying meal. Seek out the Khao soy stand at the Wualai market, go for air-conditioned comfort at Khao Soy Nimman, or follow the locals to Khao Soi Mae Sai.

5. TASTE YOUR WAY AROUND THE WORLD

Yes, you're in Thailand, but no, that doesn't mean you have to eat curries and stir fries every day. Chiang Mai is bursting at the seams with top-notch international cuisine. At Street Pizza & The Wine Houzz, it's a toss-up between the Italian wood-fired Parma ham pizza or the four-cheese version, but whatever you do, don't miss the zucchini fries. Francophiles will love the duck confit, foie gras, chocolate mousse and more over at Chez Marco. And no need to travel to Tokyo for some of the best Japanese food in Asia. Thanks to a large Japanese expat community in Chiang Mai, you'll find habit-forming katsu, sashimi, ramen, teppanyaki and okonomiyaki at dozens of restaurants around town.

6. LEARN TO COOK LIKE A LOCAL

Cooking classes are popular in Chiang Mai, and none come more highly recommended than the first to open its doors, Thai Cookery School. Founded 25 years ago by former monk and master chef, Sompon Nabnian, the school offers training in Thai home cooking, as well as more advanced techniques to make your own Tom Yum Goong and Massaman curry from scratch. All classes can be modified for vegetarian participants. Friday night takeaway will never be the same. thaicookeryschool.com

7. STAY AT X2 CHIANG MAI

The newest luxe hotel to open in the city. Pronounced "cross to", the X2 resort flagship property is in a prime waterfront location on the Ping River. With just 30 suites, the five-storey resort offers an intimate, exclusive experience for guests. Already attracting the Bangkok hi-so (high society) elite and well-travelled international guests, X2 features a river-facing restaurant with menus curated by Nicolas Isnard, a Michelin-starred chef from France. x2resorts.com

8. INDULGE IN A THAI MASSAGE

Known as yoga for lazy people, oil-free Thai massage will have you stretched out, limber and relaxed like never before. You can barely walk 10 paces without coming across another no-frills massage shop, where a one-hour massage or foot reflexology treatment typically costs around 200 baht. For air-conditioned comfort and a few added frills (mango and sticky rice served post-treatment, for instance), pay a bit more at the Let's Relax chain of spas. letsrelaxspa.com

9. STRETCH IT OUT

Active yoga for the not-so-lazy people is widely available in Chiang Mai, as part of a rapidly growing wellness and recovery scene. At the Yoga Tree, daily classes of yoga, transformational dance, qi gong and movement meditation will inspire, tone and energise, while working off all those banana rotis. Thinking of making the leap into teaching? Starting in November this year, a 200-hour intensive Yoga Teacher Training program will be offered. theyogatree.org

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10. FOLLOW THE ART AFICIONADOS

Since its launch in 2016, the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum has been mentioned in the same breath as New York's Whitney Museum and the Pompidou Center in Paris. MAIIAM's eye-catching exterior is composed of thousands of decorative mirror tiles that reflect light. Inside, the private collection of the Bunnag-Beurdeley family – amassed over several decades – is on permanent display, alongside changing exhibitions that challenge and delight visitors. maiiam.com

11. PLOT YOUR NEXT MOVE

Over the past decade, Chiang Mai's cheap rent, great food, mod cons and easygoing lifestyle has attracted thousands of digital nomads. You'll meet plenty of writers, web developers and online entrepreneurs who base themselves in the Rose of the North, with co-working spaces mushrooming as a result. Get some solid work done at Punspace Nimman and its offshoot, Punspace Tha Pae, or at CAMP (Creative And Meeting Place) on the top floor of Maya mall. If you need some help transitioning out of the rat race, talk to The Life Change People, who provide life-coaching getaways. thelifechangepeople.com

12. TOUR CHIANG MAI'S TEMPLES

On a clear day it's worth the drive up Doi Suthep mountain for a visit to the historic Theravada temple. Those who climb the 309 steps to the summit (and even those who take the elevator) will be rewarded with panoramic views of the city. Back in town, there are impressive temples and ancient pagodas sitting side by side the latest Starbucks and souvenir shops. Seek out Wat Sri Suphan, the Silver Temple, off Wualai Road. Dating back to the 16th Century and completely covered in silver, it's a dazzling sight.

13. CELEBRATE A THAI FESTIVAL

Two of Thailand's most famous celebrations, Loy Krathong and Songkran, are worth the trip to Chiang Mai. Loy Krathong, the lantern festival, lights up the sky over three nights in November. The Ping River glows with the light of candles from decorative krathongs, small banana leaf baskets adorned with flowers and incense. Parades and beauty contests provide plenty of photo opps. Best to put the camera away during Songkran, the Thai New Year's water festival held in the sweltering heat of April. Expect epic water fights that last for days.

14. CHOOSE WISELY

If you're considering where to visit Thailand's elephants, the Elephant Nature Park is a rehabilitation centre for neglected and abused working elephants, of which sadly there are many. At the park, 60 kilometres from Chiang Mai, visitors can help to feed and bathe the lovable giants. Then, take home a reminder of your visit from Elephant Parade Land. The worldwide project raises funds for Asia's elephant population through the auction of life-size ele statues painted by celebrities. Buy a mini version of their design, or paint your own creation. elephantnaturepark.org, elephantparade.com

15. SOAR THROUGH THE AIR

Located in a beautiful rainforest location a short drive from Chiang Mai, Flight of the Gibbon is one of Asia's longest and highest ziplining attractions and is an unforgettable experience that brings together a series of zip lines, abseiling, sky bridges and elevated forest walks. The rainforest is home to a family of gibbons; while not all participants will be lucky enough to spot them, most will hear their calls. While the three-hour tour is advertised as suitable for everyone from children to senior citizens, be aware it includes some steep walks. treetopasia.com

16. CHAT WITH A MONK

Many temples around town organise chat sessions where visitors and young monks converse to learn about each other's lives. For foreigners, it's an opportunity to hear about Buddhism, monk life and Thai culture. For monks, it's a great way to practice speaking English. Chats are free, though donations are welcomed. Remember to wear temple dress (shoulders and knees should be covered). At Wat Chedi Luang, chats are offered daily from 9am-6pm. Just turn up and strike up a conversation with an orange-robed monk.

17. GALLERY HOP

The city's artists and gallery owners have collaborated to plot out the Chiang Mai Art Map, a free annually updated listing and guide for art lovers. Available from any of the listed galleries and exhibition spaces, the map takes the pulse of the rapidly changing creative spaces around town. Pore over it while you enjoy a coffee and cake at Gallery Seescape, and then see what's on at Chiang Mai University Art Center nearby. Art Mai is an art-focussed hotel and exhibition space, with floors designed by contemporary Thai artists. And Chiang Mai House of Photography provides inspiration for budding snappers. cac-art.info

18. DUST OFF YOUR GUITAR

Join a jam session at North Gate Jazz. The grassroots bar has been going strong for 10 years now, with crowds regularly spilling out onto the footpath (and even across the road to the moat wall) to listen to jazz and blues live music. Open mic nights are always popular, with a welcoming atmosphere that should allay any first-timer nerves. What's more, the drinks are cheap, the beer is cold and the night is young.

19. SHOP AND SHOP SOME MORE

Chiang Mai's retail options cover the high/low gamut from ritzy designer malls to rustic artisan villages and night markets where bartering is part of the fun. Air-conditioned malls such as Maya, Central Festival and Airport Plaza can be a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the day. Their state-of-the-art cinemas and tasty food court options offer tempting diversions when experiencing temple fatigue.

20. SEE TO YOUR BEAUTY NEEDS

For pampering pleasures, book in for a hair cut and colour, manicure, pedicure and facial at a local salon. Ask your hotel concierge for recommendations.

Kristie Kellahan travelled to Thailand with assistance from Cruiseco.

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