The Circus’ Guide to Chiang Mai

As I was writing this the other night, I was watching “Parts Unknown” on CNN where Anthony Bourdain goes to Chiang Mai. It’s my favorite episode and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. When I woke up, you can only imagine the shock to learn about his untimely death. I am devastated. Even now the tabs are open from looking up his quotes and recommendations. I have looked up to Bourdain for years and drew so much inspiration from his writing and journalism. To combine humor, food, and politics so flawlessly, is such a great talent. He opened worlds and inspired those who would listen and read to buy the ticket and take the ride.

Here’s to you Anthony, may you forever inspire wanderlust, culinary exploration, and a desire to make an impact on the world.

“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” – Anthony Bourdain

I am so excited to share my favorite spots in Chiang Mai with you all! I have now been to CNX, 16 times! 16! There are very few places I would even consider going to twice, and I have ended up in Thailand more than anywhere else in the world. At one point I was even looking at property there, and might still be. Here are my favorite hotels, watering holes, and restaurants. (No specific order or ranking, just things I like)

  1. Dusit D2 Hotel


Honestly the beauty of Thailand in general is how inexpensive you can eat, play, and stay. I ended up at the Dusit last year while on a business trip to get 2017’s ENP trip all set up. They have very modern and spacious rooms, very similar to what you would find on an overnight. They are around the corner from the NIGHTLY Night Bazaar, not to be confused with the Sunday night market. (Not far from that either.) Great breakfast buffet and a nice pool with poolside bar and food. What else do you need?

2. Breakfast World and Beer Garden

BW Do I really need to sell you on this? When you wake up at 4am because of jet-lag, don’t fret! In an hour the gates to Breakfast World will be open. German and Thai owned and operated, you are sure to find exactly what you are craving. From meat plates, to eggs, to all of the veggies; you will find something on this 12 page menu to satisfy your appetite. Did I mention they also have beer? Its 4pm your time at home. Have a breakfast beer. I won’t judge.

3. Chiang Mai Cabaret


Yes, it is cliche. Yes, it is loud. Yes, it will blow your mind. Go see the Lady Boy Cabaret in the Night Bazaar. (Make sure the tuk-tuk driver knows you want to go to the NIGHT BAZAAR Cabaret and not the one an hour outside of town (where some of our volunteers got talked into last year.) This is one of those things that you throw some back before you get in there. It is loud, it is glittery, and its obnoxious. Anthony Bourdain put it best, “If we had a lady boy show in a sports bar we could watch football, drink a lot of beer, and around beer number eight, bring out the lady boys.” These performers are top notch, broadway worthy, best drag show you have ever been to. It has been around for about 20 years and there’s a reason for that. My favorite is the Rhianna impersonator and she was in love with Greg. What can you do? GO! Also across the street is a food truck area with burritos and wine, those are two kinda hard to find things in Thailand. Burrito you say? Yea, after a week of vegan at the park, us carnivores might want a damn quesadilla.

4. Chiang Mai Boutique House


I end up staying here a lot. Here’s my thing; it’s usually $10-30 USD depending on the night, and it’s around the corner to the Sunday Night Market. The way we plan your week at ENP, you arrive on Sunday and finish on Sunday. I’ll talk more about the night market in a minute but this place is clean, cheap and has awesome showers. It has a great location and you really can’t beat the price. It’s not the nicest hotel in CNX by any means, but its great if there are 2 or 3 of you splitting a room and don’t plan on spending much time in it. It is my go to for a quick night in CNX and the tuk tuk to the airport the next morning is $4 USD. If you are taking the 6am AirAsia flight out the next morning to head out, it is a great option. Or if you are on a budget this comes highly recommended as it sits right on the south loop that circles the city.

5. Sunday Night Market


Yea, it actually looks like this. Do NOT plan on staying together in a group of more than 2 or 3. However, it is INCREDIBLE. Jewelry, lamps, art, shoes, clothes, tea pots, massages, and food are just SOME of the things I have brought home with me. With our trip typically falling in October, I take about $200 USD out there with me and do all my Xmas shopping for my (8) siblings as well as a few things for myself. My suitcase is FULL coming home, donate all your stuff at the park so you have room in your bag. And the food… EAT EVERYTHING. If it smells good, EAT IT!

6. DASH Restaurant


It’s hard to talk about the food in Chiang Mai. You are never going to have a bad meal. From Pizza to Thai, they know how to eat. Not to mention most of your meals are going to be about $3-7 USD even on the fancier side. Dash is in a beautiful teak wood house on the south-central loop of the city. Rated one of the top spots to grab a bite, you might even consider making a reservation if it’s a Friday or Saturday night. Grab a Chang and some Tom Yum and you will not be disappointed. Again Bourdain and his wisdom, “There’s almost an inverse relationship, the more hideous looking a dish the more delicious it is.”

7. Sathu Boutique House


So I go back and forth recommending this place. I have stayed here twice, usually for under $20. They have a really nice pool, and rooms are small but clean. My thing is that the first year we hosted this trip, I booked two rooms here for 5 people. A little cramped no matter how you slice it, however we were only there for one night and we didn’t care. The woman at the front desk and I about ripped each other apart. The website I booked through ( let me book 1 room for 3 people. She insisted that they couldn’t have 3 people in one room. I pulled up my reservation and everything and she still wouldn’t budge. So I tried to book another room to which she told me I wasn’t allowed on the property anymore. I could go on and on, I think I got one bad apple. The next year, I had someone book a room for me without asking the name of the hotel and ended up back here again. Begrudgingly, I went back and actually had a great experience here. Who knows? I like the location and the pool, walk able to everything and the price is right. More importantly the AC works and breakfast is included.

8. Cooking Classes


Chiang Mai is the culinary capital of Thailand and perhaps even southeast Asia. There are a million cooking classes and you will come home with some awesome new skills and recipes. They tend to check in early in the morning, then they will take you to the local veggie market to grab ingredients, teach you 2-3 meals, then enjoy! Make sure you give yourself an entire morning. Some are done in peoples homes, and some are done in more commercial kitchens. I haven’t read a bad review about any of them. Find one that works for your schedule. I read about one last year that does a bike tour of the city as well as the markets, sounded really fun.

9. Hot Chili Restaurant


Just off the Sunday Night Market street, west of Thai Pae gate is the Hot Chili Restaurant. They have traditional Thai as well as a selection of western dishes. The food is good don’t get me wrong but you really want to go for the atmosphere. It is so beautiful inside, with red drapes and swings covered in flowers. Paper umbrellas and vines cover the ceiling. You will for sure need a reservation on any weekend and even most weekdays. If you go early enough, around 4-5 you might be able to grab a table. If for whatever reason you simply cannot get in, walk around the building to the west and there is a pizza place with amazing pizza. I know, I know, you didn’t fly to Asia for pizza. Trust me. When you need some carbs, this is the spot. If Hot Chili is full, you bet I’ll be at the pizza place.

10. Massages


Two years ago, Alexa and I spent a day getting probably no less than 10 massages. They are standard $5-10 for an hour full body Thai massage. If you pay more than that you’re getting ripped off. My favorite place is Lila Thai Massage and Spa. They are clean, do great work, and offer some of the best facials I have ever had. I frequent there numerous times throughout my visit. I have done a few different packages, and depending on how much time you have the Gold Spa Package was divine. It was about 6 hours, so I was in it for the long haul, but for $40 USD I received:

  • Body scrub with gold leaf
  • Shower
  • Hour full body massage with gold leaf oil
  • Shower
  • Gold leaf restorative body wrap
  • Shower
  • Facial
  • Foot and scalp massage
  • Mani and Pedi

Do you know how much that would cost in the states?!? That’s easily $1000 worth of service for $40!!! If the spa is your thing, wait to do a full body package like that until after your week at the park. You will be dirty and grimy and that’s a great way to go home. If they are booked up, which does happen but not often, you can’t walk more than 10 feet without hitting another spa. Prices are posted outside, and honestly I have gotten a million massages in Thailand at a million different places and they are all about the same. You can’t go wrong.

11. La Meridian Hotel and the Holiday Inn


Two separate hotels, but they do not need separate reviews. The La Meridian is one of the few 5 star hotels in CNX. I haven’t stayed there but I had cocktails there one night. It is beautiful, probably about $80-100 night. That’s up to you. There are a million hotels and guesthouses in CNX and this one is in the city, personally I think it’s overpriced for CNX when there are so many non-brand name stunning places for a third of the price.

I stayed at the Holiday Inn after last years week because we have points and Alexa and I were flying out first thing in the morning. Rooms were much bigger than a typical Holiday Inn, and it sits off the river on the other side of the city. Meaning you will have to tuk-tuk to shop etc. The buffet though was really great. We were tired and just spent the night at the Night Market, so it was nice to be able to just go back to the hotel, eat and leave. To put it bluntly, if you are used to your creature comforts, or perhaps this is your first time abroad, there’s nothing wrong with doing something familiar. Both these hotels will feel like an overnight, I am simply saying there are a million options. Don’t stay here just because you know the brand.

12. Night Bazaar


Not to be confused with the Sunday Night Market. The Night Bazaar is on the eastern side of the city just before the river. It is a nightly market with different options from the Sunday Night Market. In 2012 Thailand’s government really cracked down on counterfeit goods. So don’t head to CNX expecting a fake bag or sunglasses. Unfortunately you will have to head to BKK or HKG to get those things (at better quality anyway), but the Night Bazaar will have some things, like backpacks and housewares; simply different items from the Sunday Night Market. You should definitely check it out if not both. The Night Bazaar is dead on Sunday because of the night market, so I try and hit both in the same night if I can. There is a great antique shop as well there if you are looking for decorative items from the late 18-19th century. Also as mentioned earlier this is where all the food trucks are with wine and live music. Grab a tuk-tuk and take a look. Make sure you go all the way back to where the cabaret is for hidden watering holes and live music.

13. Tigers, Monkeys, Bears, Snakes, Oh My!


DON’T DO IT. YOU ARE HERE FOR AN ELEPHANT SANCTUARY.  It is never ever ok to exploit an animal for entertainment. The VERY popular Tiger Kingdom and Flight of the Gibbons are tourist hell. Tiger Kingdom has been found guilty over and over again by numerous outlets including the Thai government for drugging their tigers. This also applies to the monkey and other animal shows. I am BEGGING you not to go. Is that picture really worth this tiger’s life of being so drugged up everyday? The only way we can end this and similar practices are to educate others, and obviously not go ourselves. Feel free to check out this link, it’s a tear jerker, if you don’t believe me, or better yet, share it and educate others about the atrocities that happen at places like Tiger Kingdom. If you end up doing a guided tour as well make sure there are no elephants involved. Period. MANY “sanctuaries” exist in Thailand. There are only 2 that are legitimate sanctuaries. We will talk all about riding elephants once you get to the park (not ok either) but again, please do not participate in any tourist attraction involving animals. You are going to a world recognized animal sanctuary. There are a million animals there for you to responsibly interact with and actually help the animals.

14. Wat Rong Khun


Wat Rong Khun is perhaps one of the most stunning temples in Thailand. It is privately owned and operated and recently refurbished in the Chiang Rai province, north of Chiang Mai, about 3 hours by car or bus. It is worth the drive. Stunning arches and bridges dot the landscape in this sprawling temple. There are lots of other temples and wats in the city proper. Just make sure you know the proper etiquette for entering and being in the temple. You can check out this link for how to dress and other things to know before you head to any of the temples.

As always feel free to email me or visit our website if you have any questions!

Happy Travels!

*Most photos stolen from Google image search. I have a million photos, but it would take me a year to go through all of them to find these specifics*

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