Chiang Mai travel guide: 24 hours in the friendly northern Thai city

By Nicole Moraleda

Visit a herd of hungry elephants at the Mountain Sanctuary and try a bowl of delicious curry noodle soup in beautiful Chiang Mai

By Nicole Moraleda |

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Visit the Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary but don't visit any sanctuary that endorses riding on the animals.

When planning a trip to Thailand, people usually set their sights on the country’s southern islands, which are famous for their white-sand beaches, or the nation’s capital, Bangkok, with its vibrant floating markets and bustling nightlife.

But further up north there is just as much beauty and culture to behold. Enter Chiang Mai, an underrated northern Thai city that is home to hundreds of decadent temples and delicious bowls of curry noodle soup. The city is quite small, but you’ll be surprised to find there’s a lot to do in a day. 

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There’s no better way to spend your first few hours than with a herd of hungry elephants. Book a half-day visit to Chiang Mai Mountain Sanctuary. The sanctuary allows visitors to feed the gentle giants and bathe them. The programme includes transport to and from the sanctuary, as well as food. If you decide to visit another sanctuary, make sure it is not one that endorses riding on the animals. There are plenty of other great ethical sanctuaries to choose from, too.


A visit to the northern Thai city is incomplete without a bowl of khao soi. No matter how hot it may get, tourists and locals still order this hot, spicy dish. There are different variations served around the world, and even in Chiang Mai no two restaurants will give you the same combination of flavours and textures. In general, though, in northern Thailand, you will get thick egg noodles in a spicy curry soup with coconut milk, and either a tender chicken leg or beef, topped with crispy, deep-fried noodles and pickled mustard greens.

Khao Soi is a spicy noodle curry soup that's famous in Chiang Mai.
Photo: Nicole Moraleda/SCMP

One popular joint is Khao Soi Muslim Noodles on Charoen Prathet 1 Alley, which offers flavourful bowls of creamy soup and noodles with a good bite to them. It’s the perfect place to grab a quick cheap lunch to re-energise you for the rest of your day’s activities. After lunch, you should have time to visit a couple of nearby temples while the sun’s still up. There are several temples within the walled Old City that you can hit, with one of the more famous holy buildings, Wat Chedi Luang, located in the centre. Less than a 10-minute walk away is Wat (wat means temple) Pantao and Wat Chang Taem, which are also worth a visit.

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As the night sky dims to black, street food stalls and souvenir shops light up Chang Khlan Road, making up the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. There are many tasty local snacks to try at dirt-cheap prices. Even on a student budget, you can eat like a king. In between chowing down on grilled satay skewers and mango sticky rice, you can pick up some nice souvenirs, from bookmarks to bags, to bring home.

Chiang Mai is a food-lover's paradise.
Photo: Nicole Moraleda/SCMP

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge