Chiang Mai Thailand: From Elephants & Festivals to Food & Local Culture


Yi Peng Festival

Thailand isn’t all about beaches and Bangkok. Be sure to check out Chiang Mai in the north. Below are some interesting food trends, local culture and tips on travel to Thailand’s north including background on how to travel responsibly.

1. For those wanting to have a lesser-known Chiang Mai experience, some of the best things about the city aren’t the things a guidebook would write about. To me, the best thing about this city is how friendly and open people are and that the experiences you have when you just wander outside of the walls of the Old City can truly be some of the most memorable moments from a visit here.

So, for those wanting have a Chiang Mai experience not in the guidebook, my advice would be to go and get lost. To go, map-free, for a wander across the moat that separates the “old” from the “not as old” and explore. Head to some of the more local markets, like Warorot, and across the river and through the maze of sois (small streets that oftentimes are barely large enough to fit a car). Get in one of the public cabs, called songthaews, that aren’t the red ones which take you within the city limits. Yellow, white and other songthaews lie at the bank of the Ping River just near Warorot market and for under $1 USD can whisk you to smaller towns nearby.

2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Chiang Mai, befriend shop owners at places you frequent and talk to them. It isn’t always easy to find the local hot spots, but they are there. I recently came across an adorable little restaurant/bar about a minute from my house and had no idea it even existed. There isn’t even a sign outside saying what it is called, just a square block of twinkling lights.

The greater distance you get from the Old City, the greater the cultural opportunities are, in my opinion. The northern part of the “Downtown” area of Chiang Mai is far more Thai than other parts, and across the moat from the Old City is a neighborhood called Santitown. Here, you can find some great coffee shops and food stalls. If you’re looking for Thailand nightlife, head to spots like Warm Up in the college/hip Nimmanhaemin or northeast of the city to D Bar and the line of clubs/bars there.

khao soy

3. No trip to Chiang Mai would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, they should try Khao Soy! This soup is a northern Thai specialty and extremely flavorful and delicious. It is a coconut milk-curry soup with egg noodles and then served with pickled cabbage, red onions, shallots, a wedge of lime and roasted chilies and topped off with crispy noodles. It often comes with chicken or pork, but can also be vegetarian/vegan depending on where you go. Hands down, that is my favorite dish.

4. For those wanting to take a cooking class or have a culinary experience that goes beyond eating in a restaurant in Chiang Mai, cooking classes in Chiang Mai can be found everywhere. I prefer to recommend ones which source organic products or are vegetarian/vegan, so am a big supporter of Anchan’s cooking class. Outside of restaurants, some amazing culinary experiences include hitting up a local’s BBQ — locals here are really friendly and if you get to chatting with some, a BBQ invite could be forthcoming — as well as trying some of the street food offerings.


5. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, there are a few Thailand cultural tips I would recommend for visiting Chiang Mai. I see so many travelers come here who unknowingly are quite insulting to the culture. For one, cover up. It is absolutely not appropriate for females to wear skimpy clothing. I lost count at least a year ago of how many females I have seen wearing those muscle tanks that clearly show their bras or tiny shorts. This is especially important when visiting temples. Shoulders and knees should be covered.

Also, travelers tend to not remove their shoes when stepping into businesses. A good rule of thumb is if there are shoes lined up outside the door, then you should take off your shoes, as well. Moreover, never put a Thai person in a position to lose face. Losing face is a big deal in the culture and Thais will do what they can to avoid this.

Confrontations — be them quiet or loud — are not appropriate. Don’t ever touch someone’s head. If you are a female, don’t touch a monk. And the list goes on. But, these are good starters!

6. For a local accommodation with personality, locally-owned guest houses are everywhere in Chiang Mai. They are cheap and often times have a lot of character. It really depends what a person is looking for, though. I personally am dying to stay at 9 Moo 9, which is a tiny hotel with artistic rooms themed after the zodiac signs. The place I stayed and really liked when I was traveling here before I moved no longer exists, sadly.

7. For a drink paired with a beautiful view in Chiang Mai, any spot on the river is gorgeous. Riverside is popular with locals and at night, the river looks so pretty with the lights of the city reflected in it.

8. Must-experience day an weekend trips from Chiang Mai are abundant. My personal favorite for a day trip is Sri Lanna National Park (Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai). Here, you hop on a long-tail boat and take it to an area where there is a floating dock with a restaurant and little bungalows. Chiang Rai is a popular option with the White Temple. But, Pai, hands down is the most popular weekend trip. It’s nestled into the mountains and has a laid back vibe that people relish.

elephant nature park

9. For those visiting Chiang Mai concerned about responsible tourism, understand that ways to be an irresponsible tourist far outweigh the responsible options. Animal exploitation is prevalent here, so skip the places which sound like they are too good to be true options, or place the animals in situations which are not normal. Elephant tourism is prevalent, but the not-so-good trump the good.

I always suggest spending a day or night at Elephant Nature Park. The elephants here are rescued from tourism and more, and don’t have to work for people. They get to spend their lives off chains, with their other elephant friends, and don’t face abuse. The park does not allow bull hooks or other instruments of pain to get them to listen, there are no shows, there is no riding, no painting. Here, people can observe them be happy, and feed them and bathe them. Personally, spending the night is amazing! There’s nothing like falling asleep listening to elephants chatter.

Disclosure: I volunteer for ENP, but I truly believe it is the best example of responsible elephant tourism in the region.

 Contributed by travel writer Diana Edelman. Top photo Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival. Photo courtesy of [email protected]



Jessica Festa
Jessica Festa is the editor of the travel sites Jessie on a Journey ( and Epicure & Culture ( Along with blogging at We Blog The World, her byline has appeared in publications like Huffington Post, Gadling, Fodor's, Travel + Escape, Matador, Viator, The Culture-Ist and many others. After getting her BA/MA in Communication from the State University of New York at Albany, she realized she wasn't really to stop backpacking and made travel her full time job. Some of her most memorable experiences include studying abroad in Sydney, teaching English in Thailand, doing orphanage work in Ghana, hiking her way through South America and traveling solo through Europe. She has a passion for backpacking, adventure, hiking, wine and getting off the beaten path.
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