Wanderlust Wednesday: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Welcome to a brand new series here on Root + Revel: Wanderlust Wednesday. Just as important as eating well and opting for natural, safe products, is exploring the world. Travel allows us to learn from other cultures and nourish our bodies and souls along the way.
If you haven’t gathered yet, I’m addicted to Asian food. Sushi, curry, noodles, pho…you name it, I’m eating it. In fact, I’m so addicted that for our honeymoon, Matt and I decided to go to Japan solely to eat sushi and slurp ramen (that’s true romance in my book). So this year, for our one year wedding anniversary, we jetted back to Asia for seconds. This time we hit up Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I truly can’t say enough positive things about the country of Thailand. We’ve also been to Phuket (technically, to an island off of Phuket called Yao Noi) and Bangkok, and after visiting Chiang Mai, I can safely say that nobody does hospitality better than the Thai. Everyone we encountered was incredibly warm, welcoming and gracious, eager to help, easy to make fast friends with and man, do they know how to eat! Couple the hospitality and food with some of the most jaw-dropping scenery I’ve ever encountered (from the mountains to the beaches and even the city skyline) and nature and wildlife like you won’t find anywhere else (monkeys and tigers and elephants, oh my!), and you’ve got one country that needs to be on everyone’s bucket list. So, without further ado, I give you Root + Revel’s first travel guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai: Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai
As a travel writer, I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in dozens of luxury hotels around the world. The Four Seasons Chiang Mai may just be the best one yet. I mean, just look at that view. The above photo was taken standing in the lobby of the hotel. Not bad, eh? Admittedly, I was hesitant to stay at this hotel as it’s a bit outside Chiang Mai city proper, but between the stunning mountain views, the free shuttle the hotel provides into the city multiple times a day and the proximity to the other activities you MUST do when visiting Chiang Mai (see below for details on ziplining, hiking and elephant camps), the location actually turned out to be ideal. We loved being a bit further out for the peacefulness and, as it turns out, when you do off-site activities, the tour company sends a large group shuttle to pick guests up at all the hotels around town. The location of the Four Seasons meant we were the last to be picked up and the first to be dropped off, so we didn’t waste any time driving around picking everyone else up.
Plus, check out these gorgeous rooms:
WOW! I couldn’t believe that this is what their standard rooms looked like. No detail was left undone and our private gazebo overlooking the rice paddies and infinity pool were just the cherry on top.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai: Restaurants, Cooking Classes and Food Tours
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to stay at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai by now; but if you’re somehow not sold yet, let me push it over the top by telling you about their incredible food. Normally I’m not a big fan of hotel restaurants, especially those in foreign countries which are often neutered to please Western tastes. But at the Four Season’s Sala Mae Rim restaurant, the food is authentic, full of flavor and a true taste of Chiang Mai. We tried many of the same dishes at hole-in-the-wall eateries, world-reknown restaurants and street food carts around the city, and Matt and I both agreed that Four Seasons’ food was just as good as, if not better than, everything else we ate.
Pictured above (from top left to bottom right) are some of our favorite dishes at Sala Mae Rim:
- green papaya salad with extra crunchy soft shell crab
- spicy Northern-style minced pork salad (larb)
- prawns wrapped in crispy noodles
- Northern Thai sausage (hands-down our favorite dish from Chiang Mai) with chile paste (nam prik noom)
- steamed whole snapper in three flavour sauce
- wok-fried Chayote with garlic and chiles
- red coconut curry with BBQ duck, pineapple and lychee
- Chiang Mai curry noodles with braised beef (khao soi)
- and, of course, mango sticky rice (also known as the best dessert in the world)
Though we never made it to the hotel’s Italian restaurant, Terraces (why would I go all the way to Thailand to eat chicken parm?), we did have many a cocktail and snack (I was addicted to their nuts spiked with hot basil) at the Ratree Bar by the pool. Perhaps my favorite part of dining here was the fact that every time we came back, the staff greeted us by name and would immediately ask if we wanted “2 Singha beer?” Obviously the answer was always yes.
The breakfast at the hotel was equally spectacular. Especially if you opt to eat outside on the mountain-side terrace overlooking the rice paddies. Though most of their buffet options are geared toward Westerners, they have a few special Thai stations serving rice soup (it’s like their version of oatmeal, but savory and spiked with pork, preserved duck eggs and crispy dried fish), curry (yes, they eat curry for breakfast, and you should too!) and the Thai sausage we were completely addicted to.
Take a Thai Cooking Class
Foodies can’t travel to Thailand without learning a bit about the cuisine. Definitely check out hotel’s Cooking School. The class starts in the morning by taking you to a local market in the city of Chiang Mai called Siriwattana.
The market was bursting with fresh produce, herbs, chiles, sauces, meat and tons or prepared foods, snacks and desserts (don’t miss the sticky rice with palm sugar and mung bean cakes!). I was amazed at how clean and manageable the market was–they even rub their chickens in turmeric to keep the bugs away (if you see a yellow chicken, it also means that it’s a pasture-raised chicken, rather than factory farmed).
Locals flocked to a stall dishing out Thai-style chicharones and another serving the city’s famous Chiang Mai-style sausage. You know it’s good because there’s a sign above the stall marked with a soup bowl. Our guide explained this was the equivalent of Michelin stars in Thailand, and one bite into the herbaceous sausage, I had to agree.
Back at the hotel, we made our offerings to the grandma and grandpa statues (a Thai ritual) and started cooking. We learned how to make green papaya salad, a spicy Thai soup, stir-fried minced chicken with hot basil (pictured below) and wok-fried noodles. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to whip up these exotic dishes. Turns out, it’s all about having the right ingredients: galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, palm sugar, garlic and, of course, lots of chiles… and a good wok!
Our instructor, Meow (yep, that’s actually her name…perfect for a crazy cat couple like us!) was so informative, sweet and fun, and she taught us many valuable lessons about how to cook Thai food. Such as:
- “If you’re going to cook without chiles, just don’t cook.”
- “If you’re cooking Thai food and somebody isn’t coughing, you’re missing something.”
- “Ginger is never ever a substitute for galangal.”
Noted! Thanks, Meow 🙂
What to do in Chiang Mai: Ziplining, Elephant Camps, Temples and Hiking
Chiang Mai is an outdoor adventure lovers paradise! The countryside is full of mountains poised for memorable hikes, unique wildlife and dozens of exhilirating attrations. But first: one of my favorite activities was at the Four Seasons: learning how to plant and harvest rice in their on-site rice paddies.
If those outfits alone don’t convince you to hop into the rice paddies, I don’t know what will. Making rice is such a labor-intensive endeavor. Learning about the process really gave us a newfound appreciation for every last grain.
Visit Temples and Wats
This is Thailand, so you’ve got to set aside some time to visit the incredible temples and wats, most of which are found in city proper.
Once you get into town, flag down a tuk-tuk and ride to some of the temples on your list. To be honest, I wish we had hired a tour guide for this part. The structures are beautiful and amazing, but with nary a sign in English, we often had no idea what we were looking at, which made it tough to truly appreciate.
Another thing we didn’t appreciate: the Night Market, which somehow makes every list written about Chiang Mai. We couldn’t have been more underwhelmed. Unless you’re looking for thousands of the same cheap trinket from hundreds of vendors seemingly selling the same thing, there’s really nothing of interest at this overrated junk store. Fortunately, these beautiful ruins made up for it.
For something that will really blow your mind, sign up for a zipline tour with Eagle Track Zipline Chiang Mai.
Truth be told I’m terrified of heights (like get dizzy even watching movies where they shoot from the top of a building terrified of heights) and was really uneasy about doing a zipline tour. After my first line, I was hooked! Ziplining isn’t scary, it’s exhilarating. It’s beautiful. It’s like nothing I’d ever done before. Go for the Gold package to get the most of your time–the views are breathtaking, the ziplines are incredibly safe and secure, the guides are super friendly and helpful, and the experience was truly unforgettable.
Speaking of unforgettable… no trip to Chiang Mai is complete without visiting one of their many elephant camps.
I can’t recommend Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre more highly. First of all, the setting is just gorgeous (see above for proof). But most importantly, the elephants are the most majestic beings you’ll likely ever pet.
Like many of our experiences in Chiang Mai, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about elephant camps, as I was worried the animals might not be treated well. So we decided to spend a half-day at the baby elephant camp instead of a full day riding the elephants. What I found was more than I could’ve hoped for. Not only were the elephants such gentle, sweet animals, but you can feel the love the caretakers have for the elephants at Ran-Tong. Their well-being is top priority and it felt so good to support this rescue camp.
Spending the afternoon with these guys was a once-in-a-lifetime experience–we chopped up sugarcane and fed the elephants, played with them in a field (they weren’t tied up or chained in any way, just roaming free in a natural environment) and even gave them a bath in the river.
A few key takeaways if you’re interested in visiting elephant camps:
- Choose a humane camp. Do your research to ensure you choose a camp where the elephants are treated humanely. We learned that it’s best for the elephants to be ridden bare-back, rather than in a saddle or with some kind of seat attached. So if you’re interested in riding elephants, please pick a camp that only rides bareback.
- Opt for a half-day. We debated about this, as most of the camps offer full-day tours only. But I felt like four hours would be plenty of time, and it absolutely was. Much more than that, and I feel like we would’ve gotten bored or run out of things to do or questions to ask about elephants. If you really want a full-day, then by all means, but if you’re on the fence, know that a half-day is more than enough time to get the full experience.
This little guy was only four days old, though he sure looks like an elderly grandpa with all that wrinkly skin 😉
Ran-Tong’s camp wasn’t just filled with baby elephants–there were literally dozens of kittens playing in the fields, completely unafraid of the gigantic animals walking next to them. Stray cats are aplenty in Thailand, which made it that much easier for us to be away from our girls back home.
Visit Doi Suthep
One of the most incredibly temples in Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep, just a 30-minute drive from our hotel. We decided to rent a driver so we could also check out the hikes and waterfalls nearby and go at our own pace. 300 steps later, you reach the temple, which is inspiring in its own right…but, truth be told, I almost preferred the panoramic views of the city you find from the top. I think you can see why:
Hike to the Waterfalls
Nearby Doi Suthep are a handful of waterfalls and short, easy hikes. It’s a great way to burn off some of the calories from all the delicious eats you’ve been devouring. Plus the hikes are beautiful, and the exercise gives you the perfect excuse to book a massage back at the Four Seasons’ spa when you return. Go for the 90-minute Royal Samunprai Treatment–it was one of the best massages I’ve ever had.
And there you have it: 4 perfect days in Chiang Mai. If you go (or have already been!), I’d love to hear about your trip. Leave your story/suggestions in the comments below.
All of the photos were taken by my incredibly talented husband, Matt Kordsmeier. Images may not be used without permission and/or a link back to this specific post, as well as a link back to RootandRevel.com.
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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