What to do
The great thing about Chiang Mai is that unlike Thailand’s tourist-soaked beaches, it offers a look at Thai living without the gloss of corporate tourism. You can spend hours just walking along the ancient, crowded streets of this walled city. Be sure to visit a few of the Buddhist temples (there are over 300), but be mindful: These are “working” temples to serve the local Buddhist community, so be respectful of local customs.
What to eat
Street food is plentiful in Chiang Mai (it’s also safe — just be sure it’s cooked in front of you to alleviate all doubt). Best of all, you can have an entire feast of noodle dishes, drinks, desserts and exotic fruit for just a few bucks.
They’re big in Thailand
Chiang Mai has a money-making industry revolving around elephants. Sadly, some operations are exploitive. Luckily, a trustworthy experience can be had at the Patara Elephant Farm. Their “elephant owner for a day” program lets you feed and clean “your” elephant. Then, jump aboard and ride it through the jungle. www.pataraelephantfarm.com
What to buy
Chiang Mai is famous for its street fairs and markets. Grab souvenirs and dinner at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, located in the heart of the city, any night of the week. But the Sunday Market is a can’t-miss institution. Thais and tourists alike pack the streets, cheerfully haggling for the best price on Thai nicknacks and clothing well into the evening hours.
Where to stay
With jasmine-scented rooms, tree-shaded courtyards and cool breezes, Tamarind Village is a luxurious, yet down-to-earth, place to stay. It’s such a serene oasis, it’s hard to believe the bustling streets of Chiang Mai lie just beyond its walls. The friendly, attentive staff will help you plan outside excursions — but it’s highly recommended that you tag along with them for their daily Tam Boon Tak Baat or “making merit” ceremony, where you offer food to local monks and they bless you in return. For an intimate insider’s view of the city, there’s also complimentary walking tours of local attractions. www.tamarindvillage.com