Southern Thailand draws visitors from all over the world and it’s no surprise why. Its stunning islands and world-class beaches are so amazing that you couldn’t visit Thailand and not spend some time there. But when you’re done with sunning yourself on Thailand’s white sandy beaches and partying the night away at its beach bars, be sure to find some time to head up north.
Northern Thailand is equally spectacular; with its lush mountain areas, beautiful old cities and more culture than anywhere else in the country, you’d be a fool to pass on it. The best place to start exploring northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, the region’s largest city. Chiang Mai is a haven for digital nomads and long-term travellers. Many of them spend months there, using it as a base to work and explore the rest of south-east Asia.
While we didn’t have months to spare, we did manage to spend 12 days in Chiang Mai, although we still didn’t scratch the surface of what the city has to offer. Whether you visit for a short or a long stay, you certainly won’t regret doing it. Here’s our guide to this amazing city.
Where is Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is located in northern Thailand, 700 kilometres north of Bangkok. Chiang Mai is the capital city of the Chiang Mai province and is surrounded by mountainous landscapes and lush valleys. The city sits on the banks of the Mae Ping River which is a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River.
How to get to Chiang Mai?
The quickest and easiest way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is to fly there. The flights are direct and last just over an hour. Many airlines cover this route including a lot of the budget carriers. Make sure you check on Skyscanner for the cheapest deals; you might find a bargain! Chiang Mai’s airport is located 10 minutes south-west of the Old Town.
If you have more time you can also get to Chiang Mai by train. If you go during the day you can enjoy the scenery or you can take the overnight sleeper train. The journey takes from 12 to 15 hours, depending on the number of stops that your train makes. It costs about $25 to $60 depending on the class you choose and whether or not you want a sleeper train. The train station is 15 minutes east of the Old Town. You can book your train ride online at 12go.asia.
You can also get to Chiang Mai by bus. You’ll be looking at somewhere between 9 and 12 hours and prices will also vary depending on which type of bus you take and which class you choose. It will cost anywhere between $15 and $30. The bus station is located about 15 minutes north-east of the Old Town. You can book your bus tickets online at 12go.asia.
How to get around Chiang Mai
Walking is the best way to get around Chiang Mai; It’s a lovely city to walk around and you can easily explore the old town only by foot.
Songthaews are red trucks that can be used as taxis or buses. They don’t have a fixed itinerary; you just hail them on the street, tell them where you want to go and negotiate the price. It’s normally just 30 baht for anywhere within Chiang Mai’s city centre. If you want to head out of town, you’ll need to negotiate the price. They pick up other passengers along the way and will decide in which order it makes sense to drop everyone off. So it’s not the quickest way to get anywhere but it’s one of the cheapest.
By Tuk Tuk
Just like everywhere else in Thailand, Chiang Mai has tuk-tuks. But they are more touristy and quite overpriced. Make sure you negotiate a price beforehand.
Be sure to download the Grab app. Grab is just like Uber and calling a Grab is the best option if you are heading further out of the city. There are many of them in Chiang Mai and the rides are very well priced and normally cheaper than tuk-tuks or traditional taxis.
Another option is to rent a bicycle or a motorbike. There are some for rent in a few places in the old town. Be aware that although it’s less busy than some cities in South East Asia, Chiang Mai is not quiet and there is a fair amount of traffic to negotiate.
Best things to do in Chiang Mai?
Visit the Elephant Nature Park
Many people visiting Chiang Mai want to spend time with elephants and unfortunately, cruel activities such as elephant riding are still sold all over the city. You can still have an elephant experience in Chiang Mai though, just be sure to choose the right one. The only experience that we would recommend is The Elephant Nature Park.
The Elephant Nature Park is committed to rescuing abused animals from the tourism and logging industries. Riding, circus tricks or any other sorts of unnatural activities are strictly forbidden at the sanctuary. A visit to the park simply consists of spending time with these gentle giants in their natural environment. You’ll see them bathe and play, you’ll feed them and learn their individual stories.
You can choose to visit the Elephant Nature Park for just the one day or for an overnight stay. Alternatively, you can volunteer there for a whole week. We stayed overnight and it was the highlight of our trip to Thailand. Interacting with the rescued elephants at the sanctuary is the best way by far to appreciate them. Please, please, please don’t ride them.
On another note: It’s the same with the tigers, don’t participate in tiger petting. We came close enough to a tiger on our recent safari in Ranthambore National Park and believe me there is no way those tigers will let you pet them unless they are drugged! Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
You can read more about our time at the Elephant Nature Park here.
Go temple hopping
Chiang Mai’s historical centre, the “Old City”, is a 1.6 km walled and moated square that is home to over 30 Buddhist temples. That’s a lot of temples and some are as old as the city itself. So you really can’t pass on temple hopping while in Chiang Mai.
I totally understand if you don’t want to do them all, we didn’t either; Simon was templed out after just two of them. But there are a few pretty nice temples in Chiang Mai that you really should see: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Doi Suthep and Wat Chiang Man.
Tip: In some of those temples you can participate in a monk chat. You basically sit down with the monks and talk about their beliefs, temple life etc. They do this so that the monks can improve their English. It’s free, just be sure to dress appropriately. Some of the temples that have monk chats are Wat Chedi Luang, Doi Suthep and Wat Suan Dok. Although we didn’t do it in Chiang Mai, we talked with some novice monks one night in Luang Prabang and it was a really great experience.
Looking for some fun? Why not spend the day zip-lining through the treetops in Chiang Mai’s lushest jungle. Flight of the Gibbon is the best company for zip-lining near Chiang Mai and you are guaranteed to have a great time! The scenery is spectacular and you might even spot some gibbons!
Learn to cook Thai food
Taking a cooking class is one of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai. That’s not much of a surprise though, Thai food is pretty delicious! Pad Thai, green curry, tom yum soup, papaya salad, it’s all just so yummy.
So why not learn how to do it yourself so you can re-create those dishes back at home? We didn’t get to do this but our friends did and they had an amazing time at The Thai Farm Cooking School. Most of the ingredients used were grown at their organic farm just outside of the city.
Celebrate the Yee Peng & Loy Krathong Festivals
You know all those sky lanterns that are released into the sky? Surely you’ve seen all the photos of them on Instagram; who hasn’t? Well, of course, you can only do this while Chiang Mai’s lantern festival is on. The festival takes place around November, the exact dates change with the lunar calendar. It begins two days before the full moon and finishes on the night of full moon. In 2018 the festival ran from the 21st through to the 24th of November.
The sight of the sky lanterns floating up into the night sky was one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen, it’s absolutely magical. You can easily buy a lantern and release it yourself. Just make sure you read up on how to do it first (we saw so many people causing chaos by releasing their lanterns too early before they had enough hot air in them).
The Loy Krathong Festival starts the day before the Yee Peng festival and this one involves releasing Krathongs (buoyant leaf containers) down the Mae Ping river. People also light candles all around the river. It’s a great time to visit Chiang Mai but of course, it’s also a very busy time, so make sure you book your accommodation well in advance.
Get a massage by an ex-prison inmate
While in Thailand you absolutely have to get a Thai massage and for something a little different, in Chiang Mai, you can get a massage by an ex-prison inmate. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution has a program that trains inmates in Thai Massage, in order to help them gain employment and integrate back into society upon release.
There are many massage parlours around town where these ex-prison inmates work, so why not get your massage at one of them and help these women out. If you’re afraid that your allocated masseuse might be a convicted murderer, don’t be! Most of the women have only committed minor crimes.
A full Thai massage will set you back 250 Baht.
Check out the night bazaar
Chiang Mai’s night bazaar takes place every night of the week. Vendors line up all along Chang Klan Road, so if you’re looking for souvenirs, clothes, a henna tattoo, Thai boxing shorts, jewellery or anything else you can try your luck there. You’ll quite likely find what you’re looking for.
If you happen to be in Chiang Mai for the weekend, head to the Sunday night market. It starts at the Tha Phae Gate and heads down Rachadamnoen Road into the old city. There are plenty of food stalls and vendors who once again sell anything and everything.
Head out for lunch on a floating restaurant
Huay Tung Tao Lake is a popular place for Chiang Mai locals but it’s not so popular with tourists. That’s why it’s a great place to visit! The lake is about 20 minutes north of the city and you can get there by motorbike or by catching a Grab. Alternatively, you can negotiate a price with a songthaew driver to drive you there and wait for you for a few hours. You can visit the lake for a morning run, walk or cycle but you can also have lunch at one of the many floating restaurants.
The food isn’t amazing and it’s not as cheap as some places in the city centre but sitting on a floating bungalow surrounded by beautiful lake views makes it a unique dining experience. There are many restaurants and they all appear to have similar food and prices. Just stop at one right on the water and enjoy!
There is a 50 Baht per person fee for entrance to the lake unless you get there before 7am.
Eat some Khao Soi
Khao Soi is by far my favourite Northern Thai dish. It’s a combination of egg noodles, coconut curry broth, shallots, lime and chillies (I love chillies!). You can choose to have it with chicken or beef and some places offer a vegetarian option. They top it with crunchy fried egg noodles and serve it with pickled vegetables on the side. It’s spicy and super delicious; I ate a whole lot of Khao Soi in Chiang Mai!
You can order Khao Soi at most restaurants in town but the best places are the local restaurants of Khao Soi Mae Sai, Khao Soi Nimman and Khao Soi Khun Yai (we found this last one to be very busy; even at 11 am the place was packed).
Take a day trip or two
Chiang Mai is surrounded by natural beauty and it’s worth getting out of the city to see it. You can explore its national parks, waterfalls or caves by either booking one of the many advertised tours or by hiring a scooter for the day. Some places to check out are the Huay Kaew or Mae Sa Waterfalls and the Doi Inthanon National Park.
How long to spend in Chiang Mai?
There is so much to do in Chiang Mai, so make sure you allow at least five days. You can cover the old town in much less but there are so many activities outside of town that you won’t want to miss out on.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai?
The Britannia is located on a quiet street in Old Chiang Mai and is only a 10-minute walk from the Tha Phae Gate. The rooms are basic but comfortable and there are a lot of affordable eateries nearby. It’s a good pick if you’re travelling on a budget. Check out their latest prices here.
Located near the Sunday Walking Street, this boutique hotel offers 4-star rooms with free WiFi and an outdoor swimming pool. It’s close to Wat Phra Singh, the City Art & Cultural Centre and the Three Kings Monument. Check out their latest prices here.
If you’re after a 5-star experience, the Meridien is located close to the night market and it’s only 10 minutes walk to the old town. This 5-star hotel offers a pampering spa, an outdoor swimming pool and four dining outlets. Check out the latest prices here.
If none of those hotels tickle your fancy, use the search box below to find your accommodation: