I did NOT like Thailand when I first went. My friends and I visited Bangkok and Pattaya, and everywhere we went was filled with grumpy tourists and depressed sex workers. Plus the heat, humidity, smog, and crowds did not make me happier.
Yes, the food was amazing. And yes, the temples were gorgeous. But, it wasn’t enough to make me want to come back.
Until six months later… somehow I was on a flight back to Thailand, to Chiang Mai. I don’t know why either.
Though still full of tourists and also “digital nomads”, the vibe was completely different than in Bangkok. The city was more laid back. The weather was slightly cooler. There were still sex workers but at least they looked 12 instead of 8. Plus, the food was even better, and the temples were arguably cooler.
Are you planning a trip to Northern Thailand too? There are a ton of activities to enjoy in this area: ethical elephant sanctuaries, cooking classes, tens of temples, night markets, day trips to mountain towns, etc.
These are fun, but they weren’t what made it so amazing for me. There are soooo many places you can do those things. Instead, I thought these two cities were full of unique experiences that are hard to find anywhere else. So here’s what not to miss in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai!
Loy Krathong and Yi Peng
Thailand’s famous lantern festivals
If you’re headed in November around the full moon, do not miss these incredible festivals! Loy Krathong and Yi Peng are holidays where people launch lanterns to release bad luck and energy for the next year. Seeing the lanterns light up the skies and waterways is such a beautiful and unique experience
You can read more about their history, see the upcoming dates, and see the official schedule of authentic events here. Maejo University has the huge lantern launch, but you need to buy tickets beforehand. Also, the Old City has its own thing going on with more of a party/tourist vibe. Last, check out the the do’s and don’ts before you go here.
By the way- these celebrations happen all over the country, so even if you’re in a different area, you’ll be able to check it out.
Wat Rong Khun
The White Temple
The White Temple is one of the most unique art exhibits/temples ever. It uses dark sci fi images and modern pop culture to explain Buddhist teachings. Where else in the world do you have Batman and Hellboy telling you to give up sinful temptations? Technically, it’s still under construction, but so far each room has a different focus. For more details, you can read here.
To get here, we bussed from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai using Green Bus, then biked from our hostel to the temple. You can even buy your bus tickets the same day if you decide last minute.
Hang Dong Canyon
Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
This is a perfect escape from the city. You can swim, float, and cliff jump in the water, even though you’re in the middle of the country. It’s actually a quarry- not a natural canyon, but it’s still gorgeous and completely different from what you normally imagine you’ll see in Thailand.
We rented scooters and drove over here from Chiang Mai. The drive itself is another great experience because you’ll be on highway rather than the Old City streets. This site has more details about the canyon.
Northern Thai Food
Not pad thai
Northern Thai food is totally different from the food we usually have at Thai restaurants in the US. There’s less of an emphasis on sweetness and coconut milk, but the dishes still have a complex, strong flavor profile. It’s also influenced by the different ethnic groups who live in this area, including its neighbors in China and Burma. You can read more about the differences here and which foods to try here.
My highlights are sai oua (a super flavorful sausage), laab (a ground meat salad), and of course, khao soy (a curried noodle soup). One of my favorite places to get khao soy was Lamduon Fahrm Kaosoi which was technically recommended to me by Serious Eats.
Also, I would recommend going to your own places and trying out stuff that looks interesting to you, instead of just following lists. One of the best things I ate was a coconut waffle that the owner of a hole in the wall place brought over to us. The best soup I had was a pork blood soup that didn’t have a name or picture from a food stand. The food in Chiang Mai is amazing.
And that is my list of what not to miss in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai! These experiences made this trip to Thailand so unique. What would you add? What are you most excited to try? Let me know in the comments!
PS: Headed to southern Thailand after? Pattaya can be a great city for entertainment- check out my review of a few of the popular shows here.