Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thailand's northern capital, Chiang Mai, is a historical city full of delicious street food, busy markets, and Thai culture. You can leisurely wander the streets, shop the markets, or choose from a long list of available activities in and around the city.
DO spend a day with elephants. There are many elephant organizations in Chiang Mai, but we chose to do a full day with baby elephants at Ran-Tong. The full day includes transportation, a tasty traditional lunch, and most importantly time to feed and play with both baby and adult elephants. The day ends with washing/massaging the elephants in a mud bath (in the river). We can't say enough awesome things about our day. However, we do want to mention that we were lucky and ended up being the only two people in the group so we ended up with about twelve elephants to ourselves. It sounds like the adult riding program that Ran-Tong offers might give you more one-on-one time with elephants if you aren't lucky enough to have a private day like us! Ran-Tong claims their riding program is safe and kind to the elephants as you ride them bareback. If you go with a different company make sure they aren't using hooks, chains, or riding seats. We've also heard great things about Elephant Nature Park but you'll likely need to book your excursion a little further in advance.
Take a full day cooking class through Asia Scenic. There are two locations for the class - in the city or on the farm. We highly recommend doing the program on the farm. It costs approx. $5 USD more but seemed like a unique experience. After learning about traditional local ingredients, we made/ate a soup, curry, salad, spring roll, main chicken/noodle dish, and dessert. The day was full of interesting lessons and our group was super fun. It's definitely a lot of food for the cost!
Get massages. Most places you can find an hour massage for approx. $5 USD. Beware that the traditional Thai massage is not relaxing (in fact it can even be painful), but it does relieve a lot of pressure.
Ride a scooter to Wat Phra Doi Suthep to see one of the more impressive temples in Chiang Mai and also get a great view of the entire city. From Old Town, it's an easy 20 minute ride up a scenic mountain road. (There are strict guidelines for your attire when visiting temples. Most temples require shoulders and knees to be covered so come prepared.)
EAT lots and lots of street food! We tried all sorts of local food from fresh fruit, to random meat on sticks, to delicious pad Thai. Eating at local markets or street vendors is the best way to go in Chiang Mai. Khao Soi is a traditional curry soup only found in Northern Thailand. You cannot come to Chiang Mai without trying it! We also highly recommend trying mango sticky rice for a delicious dessert (or breakfast - we aren't judging)!
DRINK Chang beer at the Ploen Ruedee Night Market for a fun Portland food cart and beer garden vibe. There's a huge outdoor area with trendy seating, lights everywhere, and live music. The food is slightly more expensive than typical market food but the atmosphere is worth the cost. There are also beer, wine, and liquor carts.
CAFFEINATE at Wawee Coffee Co. There are many locations throughout Chiang Mai, and the coffee is delicious. In general around Chiang Mai, we also loved the Thai iced tea or iced green tea with milk.
STAY near Thaphae Gate in old town. It's central to the various night markets and walking distance to anything you want to see in Old Town.
CRUISE by foot, tuk tuk, or scooter depending on how far you need to go in the city.
KNOW that traffic can be quite bad throughout the city. Plan accordingly for travel days as driving will often take longer than expected.