Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Your Gateway to Northern Thailand
Besides Bangkok, and some of Thailand’s notorious beach destinations, Chiang Mai is one of the most-visited cities. And there’s no wonder why! Those who are venturing out to southeast Asia for the first time can feast their eyes on a multitude of Buddhist temples, experience their first taste of the world-famous Thai cuisine, and discover the beautiful nature that surrounds Chiang Mai and offers an alternative to the heat of the beach. Though not an overwhelmingly big city, there’s a wide variety of things to do and see. And this Chiang Mai travel guide will help you out with exactly that. We’ve got tips on Chiang Mai hotels and accommodation for budget travelers, a rundown of activities and things do see, and a additional tips for the curious traveler who likes to plan ahead.
Chiang Mai is one of the biggest travel hubs in the kingdom of Thailand. That means you’ve got a choice of way to get there, from buses, to trains, to flying with a low-cost airline. The Chiang Mai airport services dozens of national and international flights, with frequent connections to/from Bangkok or various major cities around Southeast Asia. Look for low-cost carriers like Air Asia (though watch out for baggage fees) or Thai Smile for budget flights from within Thailand. Long-distance trains and buses are a good and budget friendly alternative, with the most common connection being from Bangkok. The journey is rather long, though, so you might want to consider booking a sleeper train a few days before your intended travel. These are generally comfortable and safe. If coming from Myanmar via the Myawaddy/Mae Sot border crossing, the best way to get to Chiang Mai is with the Green Bus. We took this one, and it was a comfortable (6-hour) ride, setting us back about 270 Baht per person, including free water and a snack.
Getting Around Chiang Mai Downtown
Unlike with Bangkok, the vibe in Chiang Mai won’t raise your blood pressure with frantic traffic and crowded malls. And if you choose to stay at a guesthouse in or around Chiang Mai downtown, you won’t get lost – the main downtown area is square shaped. Surrounded by a moat and a (previously) a wall on each side, this square-shaped municipality demarcates the former borders of the city. Inside the moat, you’ll find an abundance of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, temples, picturesque alleyways with cafes and interesting corners, as well as Chiang Mai’s notorious Sunday walking street, which stretches westward from Ta Phae gate.
The easiest way to get around is on foot. Dowload Maps.me or use offline GoogleMaps to stay on track. If you’re lazy, hail a tuk tuk – but be aware of the fact that tourists get massively overcharged 99% of the time. If you don’t want to be one of the easy money targets, ask around about typical rates for some sample distances – best at the reception of your hotel or guesthouse. Grab is an excellent and cheap alternative to all this, though. Just download the app and enjoy cheap rides – either with taxi or private Uber-like drivers. Watch out for posters with promo codes, especially for new members. Lastly, red songthaews can take you from A to B, usually for around 30 Baht per person. For us, this option still turned out more expensive than Grab.
Chiang Mai Hotels and Accommodations: Our Best hotel Picks for Budget Travelers
Chiang Mai gets absolutely inundated in tourists in high season. So it’s no wonder there are hundreds of accommodation options available. The historic city within the moat hosts the lion’s share of Chiang Mai hotels and guesthouses, though there’s plenty to choose from if walkable distance to downtown is not a must for you. The upside for budget travelers? Prices get lower once you stray further form the center. Obviously, though, you might have to spend a bit more on taxis or buses into the center, or rent a motorbike.
We tried a couple of Chiang Mai hotels and guesthouses. Our stay in this city was broken up by a week’s stay in Pai, and we wanted to experience different parts of the historic downtown. Our fist stay was at Nonni Guesthouse – a good choice for those trying to cut accommodation costs but still have a decent stay. The Australian host who owns the place is a hoot and a half to be around, and the resident doggo is very cute and friendly. What’s the catch? The rooms furniture is a bit dated, that’s all. Apart from that, Nonni Guesthouse is a good value for money, with air conditioning, TV, and clean and decent-sized rooms and bathrooms going for about 400 Baht (or less, depending on how well you negotiate).
For those who prefer hostels to guesthouses with private rooms, Sunday Backpackers might be a good choice. It’s local-owned and run, and there’s a bit of a social vibe (though mainly in high season) without it being too rowdy. It’s conveniently located just outside the moat, near some 7-Elevens, a laundromat, and close to some excellent and cheap eateries on the side of the Chiang Mai Market. However, out of the 3 Chiang Mai hotels/hostels we stayed in, DP House was a clear winner for us. Nice and clean rooms with comfy beds, air conditioning, TV, and complimentary water bottles – with some rooms having an additional small balcony at the back. There are cheap washing machines at the premises, which you can use for as low as 20 Baht per load. And if you ask nicely (and have lots of laundry) the staff might let you use their drying racks to speed up the process.
Chiang Mai Activities: Temples, Food, and all things Thailand
If this is your first time in Thailand and you want to throw yourself into Thai culture first and foremost, Chiang Mai is a good place to start due to its rich culture and architecture. Temple hoppers will get their fill at Chiang Mai’s flaghship sites.
Chiang Mai Temples
Wat Doi Suthep is perhaps the most-known, and you’ll find numerous tour operators and transport touts offering to take you up the mountain to visit the site – an alternative being renting a scooter and going out on your own. My personal favorite in the city was Wat Pan Tao, located next to its famous neighbor Wat Chedi Luang. It’s made out of teak wood and absolutely stunning, a nice contrast to the otherwise opulent gold and opal-adorned temples. Before you enter, borrow a wraparound scarf (free of charge at the entry) in case you’re wearing above-the-knee shorts or skirt, and cover your shoulders if wearing a tank top – the dress code is enforced. Not every temple will provide such service, though, so bring a sarong or scarf of your own if you continue your temple hopping, just in case.
Another highlight was Wat Phra Singh. The buildings in this temple complex all host gorgeous carving, Buddha statues, and elaborate wall and ceiling decoration. But what caught my eye was the garden. Hang a right from the main entry and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a manicured garden, followed by a small park with benches and tables. You’ll spot Buddhist words of wisdom on each tree, and if you’re feeling social, you can sit down for a chat with a monk in the shade.
Unwind at a local park
I’m not a huge fan of always doing the touristy highlight, so it’s no wonder that one of my favorite memories from Chiang Mai was a visit to a small, unassuming park located at the southwestern corner of the old town. Enter: was Buak Hard public park. The carefully landscaped piece of greenery in the middle of the city offers a delightful break from sightseeing and exploring. Grab a bamboo matt to sit at the pond at stare at the palm trees above you, feed the fish, people watch as the locals jog by, or use on of the (in my opinion) hilarious public gym machines to work on your fitness. It’s not very touristy here, and, truly, you’ll get a glimpse of the local Chiang Mai life. Especially in late afternoon, when the heat of the day dissipates, and the sun starts to set.
Chiang Mai Street Food
Thailand is famous for its cuisine, and Chiang Mai does not disappoint in the slightest if you’re a foodie. The good thing about this town is that it thrives on night markets. Look no further than Chiang Mai gate on the southern edge of the moat for a daily dose of goodness. Stalls serving Thai staples and local specialties will set you back 40-70 Baht per meal, and don’t forget to pay a visit to a fresh juice stand across the street from the 7-Eleven for 20 Baht juices for any fruit you choose. Fridays mark the day for the walking street leading from the Chiang Mai gate in the southwestern direction, while Sundays are THE day for night market/walking street, with Rachadamnoen Street (and adjacent alleys) being absolutely packed with stalls. Watch your belongings, though – pickpockets are common.
For a taste of the local life, head to the Kad Kom market. It’s located south off the Chiang Mai gate, mostly a place where local go to buy meat or other ingredients. Unlike Warorot Market, this one is very much a neighborhood thing – rather small and mostly unnoticed by tourists. But that’s what made it interesting for us. Apart from fresh groceries, numerous stalls also sell ready-made curries that you can take home with you in an all too familiar plastic bag, or you can pick up some homemade curry paste if you’ve got a chance to use a kitchen at your accommodation. A handful of stalls also sell snacks. Try a sweet or savory pancake for 10 Baht or some sesame balls as a treat after all the sightseeing.
Chiang Mai nightlife
Let’s be straight here: Chiang Mai is no Bangkok, if you’re looking for high-octane party streets and intense nights out. But there still is more than a fair share of fun to be had – even if it starts off a bit more tame. Numerous restaurant-bars dot the old city, with North Side Jazz Co-Op being a favorite for locals and expats/tourists alike. Check out their live music events, which are free entry.
The Night Bazaar is another crowd favorite. Shop away, browse, or check out a cabaret show – you’re sure to be entertained the whole evening. Since we didn’t take full advantage of the Chiang Mai nightlife, I’m not that familiar with the city’s clubs, unfortunately. Lots of them seem to be located in the vicinity of the Night Bazaar, though. An alternative would be to seek out a party hostel – and do your partying there! Bodega Hostel, Deejai Backpackers, and Mad Monkey are known for their lively atmosphere and may be well-suited for those wanting to turn up.
Exploring Beyond Chiang Mai
If you’re not too keen on exploring the city, you’ll be happy to know that Chiang Mai is surrounded by gorgeous nature. The best way to explore is by hiring a motorbike and visiting some choice lookout points outside the city – though taking a Grab taxi or hiring a private driver for the day would be a fine alternative. Just 3 hours north of Chiang Mai is the sleepy town of Pai, which may be well-suited for those who prefer a laid-back vibe. On the other hand, Chiang Rai is just a couple of hours east, offering some excellent temple sightseeing and rolling hills surrounded by tea plantations. If you’re considering heading down south, both the Andaman Coast and the well-known islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are relatively easy to reach, either flying or by train and ferry.