My ambitions to come to Northern Thailand were various. Yes, I was somehow looking to rediscover Chiang Mai which I had visited already a few years back. I wanted to see if the city was still as relaxed and beautiful as I remembered it and I sure wanted to find some cool like-minded people.
No matter what your ambition, I think you should pay this city a visit. The food is amazing, the markets big and colourful and the cities surrounding boasts with nature. I also think people are more friendly and genuine here, not like in Bangkok for example and just a little less ‘in your face’ like in the southern beachy areas.
Come for a few days, immerse yourself in the city, food and speak to locals and just fall in love with Chiang Mai!
Best Time to Visit
Chiang Mai is known for it’s slightly cooler temperatures than Bangkok or Southern Thailand but you can actually find three different seasons here. The hot season is from April to June with tropical temperatures of up to 40 degrees and very high humidity. From May through to November is the rainy season with heavy downpours however they only last for an hour or so.
The cool season starts in December and goes right until the end of February and it’s the most popular time to visit Chiang Mai. Temperatures in the mid-day can still go up to 30 degrees however in the morning and evening it’s rather cool and you might want to bring a jumper. The same accounts for trips into the mountains or windy motorbike rides, always come prepared with a jacket.
March is the worse time to pay Chiang Mai a visit as the air is polluted with a lot of smoke and dust as farmers in the area burn down their fields to clear them for recultivation. So far authorities have failed to manage the problem so tourists and locals are advised to remain indoors on certain days as the dust particles can be a real health hazard.
With only 150,000 people living in the closer urban area of Chiang Mai, downtown is pretty small and therefore easy to navigate. Most of the action happens inside the four ancient city walls and the moat, the so-called Old City. It attracts most visitors and houses plenty of guest houses, hotels, restaurants and the most famous temples as well as the popular Sunday Market.
East of the city towards the river and just outside the old city walls lies the bustling Night Bazar and Loi Kroh, a busy bar and restaurant street which has today become another center of attraction. The riverside is further down housing some nice cafés and accommodation options as it is developing fast with new options popping up frequently.
West of town lies the Chiang Mai University and the Zoo. On the foot of Doi Suthep mountain you will find the more upmarket Nimmanhemin area (simply called Nimman) which is popular among expats with many coffee shops, trendy boutiques, bars with live music and one of my favourite night clubs Warm Up Café – especially cool when you come in a group of friends.
You can easily walk inside the wall of the Old City as there is little traffic and you will discover some beautiful hidden places. I highly recommended this if you are fit on your feet!
Use the red pick-up trucks called Songthaews that serve as public transportation. Make sure you know a reference point where you want to go to as some drives often speak little English. Prices depend on distance and start from 20 THB up to 60 THB (US$0.60 to US$1.85) .
Very common 3-wheeled transportation which are normally going quite fast and beating traffic cleverly by meandering between the usual traffic chaos. Know where you want to go and agree on a fare before getting on to avoid over-paying afterwards. Prices depend on distance and start from 30 THB to 100 THB (US$0.90 to US$3.00). On special occasions or at night-time it can be more expensive. Travelling solo is also often pricier.
You can easily rent a scooter for about 150 THB to 300 THB (US$4.60 to US$9.20) a day to drive around town and through the wonderful mountains. Most shops ask for a security deposit of between 1,000 to 3,000 THB or alternatively you have to leave your passport whereas I always prefer to leave the money and never my passport.
Things to Do & See
This time was my second time around in Chiang Mai and I have stayed for 3 months. Long enough to know my way around and still too short to have explored all the activities this cultural city has on offer. But whatever you have on your itinerary make sure it includes food because that’s one big part why I love this city!
Temple Hopping around the Old City
Of course no visit to Chiang Mai would be complete without spending some time at the various Buddhist temples (in Thai called Wats) around the Old City of Chiang Mai. The most popular ones to visit are located right in the inner quarter of the Old City walls. Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man, Chiang Mai’s oldest temple are all worth visiting to get your temple fix. If you are looking for a peaceful place away from the crowds you may want to check out Wat Umong which is set in a leafy jungle environment outside the Old City. The temple is especially popular among photographers because of the many Buddha heads scattered around that make for some fantastic shots.
And then there is also Wat Phra That Doi Suthep sitting on top of the mountain overlooking the city of Chiang Mai. I love taking the scooter there, sometimes at sunrise or sunset you are almost by yourself and I find it very peaceful to come here. Please check my post about day trips out of Chiang Mai to find out more details about visiting this temple.
There are over 200 temples in and around Chiang Mai you can imagine that you will probably be over-templed very soon but check this list of temples for the greatest picks.
With 99% of the population of Thailand being Buddhist it may be interesting to have a chat with a monk to find out more about their lifestyle and the do and don’ts.
In Thailand, almost all young boys become a monk even if it is just for a little while. For boys from more rural communities this is a great way to get better education and learn English.
There are monk chats in different locations and times all around town.
Eat Thai Food at One of the Many Night Markets
Probably one of my favourite past time activities is visiting one of the numerous night markets in town. No matter if you are searching for a souvenir, handicrafts, fashion or yummy food. Oh that market food!!
Personally, my favourite one is the Sunday Night Market in the Old Town (despite it being quite touristy). It starts from 4pm at Tha Pae Gate and runs 1km all along Ratchadamnoen Road. There are many beautifully lit up temple grounds that serve as food courts along the way and you should definitely make a stop (or two). Try Pad Thai, Tom Yam, a northern- style Thai salad, fresh spring rolls, chicken skewers with peanut or spicy papaya salad and my beloved mango sticky rice!
The Saturday Walking Street seems a bit more local and runs just south outside the Old City on Wua Lai Road.
Another amazing night market a bit out of the Old City towards the University is called Kad Na Mor, also referred to as the CMU Night Market (as it’s pretty much opposite the Chiang Mai University) which sells mainly everything fashion. From dresses, pants to bags, shoes and accessoires and make-up you will find anything for pretty good prices (but remember to bargain!). There is also a big food court with a large BBQ buffet and amazing fresh Sushi. It’s very local and you only see a few white faces there and that’s why I like it.
Also one of my personal highlights in Chiang Mai is really close to here too: Catmosphere, the space-themed cat café! It’s open until 8pm so you can conveniently visit just before heading over to the market.
If you still haven’t had enough check this list of other markets to visit in the day and night-time around town.
Take a Cooking Course
There is a wonderful variety of cooking courses that teach visitors to cook simple but healthy and tasty Thai meals. You can choose from half day to full or multiple day classes, from beginners to master and with some schools being more fancy than others. There are schools inside the Old City while others offer the course in a beautiful Thai farm setting outside of town.
I can highly recommend the classes with Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School. I had a fantastic experience learning from Sammy in a small class with a lot of humor and set on a beautiful farm and lounging in the hammock with a full stomach in the afternoon. Very peaceful.
Meditate, Relax and Work-Out
You are probably not surprised that Chiang Mai is also sometime referred to the meditation capital of Thailand. Therefore you will find many yoga studios in town as well as retreats that run for a day or a week outside of town.
The popular Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Center offers meditation courses from 4 days up to 23 days for beginners or advanced. Be prepared to wake up early! All meditation courses are run by donation.
Additionally, there are many spas to relax and unwind after all the action and adventuring. A rather interesting massage can be found at the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution which offers a program that trains inmates on Thai Massage in order to help the women gain employment and integrate them back into society.
You could also take a class and learn how to professionally massage.
Most recently, Bootcamp Fitness and CrossFit classes have become very popular. And of course you can practice Muay Thai, the traditional form of kickboxing in Thailand which also makes for quite a tough workout.
If you are coming the the right month Chiang Mai may put on quite a show, for example Yi Peng (Loy Krathong), the lantern festival which is happening every year in November or Songkran, the water festival held annually in April.
Always check ahead on the calendar for holidays and festivals so you don’t miss out.
Things to Do outside of Town
Why not take a day trip into the beautiful nature surrounding Chiang Mai? Check out my post about the best day trips around Chiang Mai to explore the fantastic National Parks, waterfalls, caves and mountain views. Most of them are easy to organise and you can either join or tour or simply drive yourself, many sights around are very accessible.
Or how about spending a few days in the hippie town of Pai? This relaxed town is only about 3.5 hrs from Chiang Mai in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by loads of nature activities like waterfalls, caves and hot springs.
Feeling even more adventurous?
Other popular activities around town include one or multiple day trekking through the mountains, zip-lining through the jungle, mountain biking, climbing, whitewater rafting and much much more.
Check out Tripadvisor to find all possible adventure activities.
There numerous companies that offer trekking adventures with some black sheep too, so be sure to do your research before and I also recommend paying your chosen company a direct visit beforehand to discuss details and any doubts you may have. Also consider trekking a little further outside of Chiang Mai like Chiang Dao, Chiang Rai, Umphang or Sopphong.
A note on riding elephants in Thailand
While in Thailand you probably have thought about riding an Elephant and yes, I have too. However there is a dark side to elephant tourism and most people coming to Thailand are unaware of how the elephants are treated in order to make them carry baskets with people. I suggest to do your research before you sign up for anything. And I think that should count for all activities with animals, snakes, tigers, etc.
If you still want to spend some time with those gigantic creatures while in Chiang Mai, check out the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center. You can even do some volunteer work here which helps to protect and contributes to the healing of their past. Here you do not get to ride the elephants but you can feed and wash them and generally hang out with the elephants for the day as many travellers have found this being an highlight of their time in the North of Thailand.
Where to Sleep
Budget (but nice):
Chiang Mai is probably one of those few cities in Thailand where you can crash in a dorm for as little as US$3 a night. However not all cheap places are equally nice and I do like to get a good night sleep and hot shower in a clean bathroom while working wifi is almost equally important to me. So here are my “budget but nice” choices on where to stay in Chiang Mai:
Modern pod-style bunk beds in 6 or 12 bed dorms located on the northern end of the Old City. For even more privacy there are also family rooms. Of course they have free wifi, secure lockers and yes, they serve food downstairs in a little outside patio.
Prices start from US$9/night in a mixed dorm and US$11/night in a female-only dorm.
The accommodation is also very close a wonderful restaurant called Blue Diamond which is known for its fresh vegetarian dishes and also serves a yummy western-style breakfast where I stopped by quite a few times.
Located toward the west of the Old City but still inside the moat you find this accommodating and quiet hostel. You can choose to sleep in a 6 bed dorm or a private double room. Wifi is included and private lockers are available as well.
Prices start from about US$9/night in a dorm and US$13-14/night in a private room.
Choose between a 12, 8 or 6-bed dorm or book a standard double room in this modern design hostel. Great location between the night bazar and the Old City which are both just a short walk away. There is a shared kitchen and free wifi.
Prices start around US$6.50/night in a 12-bed dorm and US$25/night in a double room.
Clean and peaceful hostel close to Wat Chiang Man in the north of the Old City. Wifi and relaxed atmosphere, what else do you need in this town!
Prices for a bed in a 4, 6 or 8 dorm start from US$6/night or chose a private double room from US$10/night.
There are 4 or 8-bed dorms and you can choose a female-online or mixed dormitory or sleep in a standard twin room. Located in the heart of the Old City right at Wat Phra Singh, the hostel is close to the Sunday market and has individual lockers and free wifi.
Prices per night in a dorm start around US$13 to 15.
Looking for something more comfortable than a hostel? Without sharing your bathroom and a bit more service?
Here you go:
This friendly and comfortable hotel is located right in the center of the Old City and walking distance to all the major attractions, temples and the Sunday market. Breakfast is freshly cooked and there is free wifi available.
Special room rates per night start as low as US$30 but depending on season and room size prices may vary up to US$47.
Comfortable and modern hotel with friendly service in easy reach to the Night Bazar and other attractions around the Old City of Chiang Mai.
You have the choice between standard or deluxe rooms with prices starting from around US$41-61/night.
Lovely boutique guest house with a nice decor and perfectly located in the south-east of the Old City. There is also a great breakfast place nearby called Good Morning Chiang Mai Café.
You can find a variation of room types with affordable rates starting from US$40-50/night.