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Escape Thailand’s busy capitol city and make your way north to Chiang Mai. From mountainous landscapes and greenery to scattered temples and markets throughout the Old Town, in Chiang Mai there is no shortage of great things to do. Chiang Mai caters to all travelers — from shopping to mountain adventures. You can find both budget-friendly accommodations and activities, but also your slice of paradise at a luxury property. Plus, the Chiang Mai region is home to a number of elephant rescue sanctuaries, so that’s definitely a plus. I have visited Chiang Mai a number of times and I always discover more and more things to do!
Where is Chiang Mai located?
Chiang Mai is located in Northern Thailand. It is the largest city in Northern Thailand, located within the Chiang Mai Province. While it is definitely still a big city, it is much more mountainous and less busy than Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.
Chiang Mai Basics:
Currency: Thai Baht (THB), 30 THB = $1 USD (as of 2/2021)
Airport: Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX)
How many days in Chiang Mai?
I would recommend giving yourself at least three days to explore Chiang Mai. You could easily spend a week or two in the city, without running out of things to do! However, three days will allow you enough time to explore the city, take a cooking class (a must-do experience in Chiang Mai), and even make your way to a elephant conservation center.
How to Get to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is located 435 miles (700 km) north of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. If you are arriving from an international destination, you’ll most likely land in Bangkok. However, there are a few destinations in Asia with direct flights to Chiang Mai.
By Plane – The Fastest Way
Arriving in Chiang Mai by plane is probably the most common method. You can find cheap flights from Bangkok, as well as other major cities around Asia. Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) is serviced by a number of airlines including Bangkok Airways, Thai Vietjet Air, AirAsia, Thai Lion Air, and more. I’ve flown from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for as little as $20 USD.
Flights times from popular destinations:
|Bangkok-Chiang Mai||1 hour 15 minutes|
|Hanoi, Vietnam-Chiang Mai||1 hour 35 minutes|
|Phuket-Chiang Mai||2 hours|
|Seoul, South Korea-Chiang Mai||6 hours 30 minutes|
Luckily the Chiang Mai International Airport is only about 3.1 miles (5km) from the city center. You can expect to pay around 150 THB to get to the city center from the airport by taxi. There is also an easy airport bus option for those on a budget.
By Bus – The Cheapest Way
You can travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai by bus in 9-11 hours, depending on which company you book with. Bus travel is a bit quicker, and a bit cheaper than train travel, but in my opinion it is not nearly as comfortable. It is also a much less scenic ride than traveling between the two cities by train.
Ticket costs vary, but you can expect to pay around $20 USD for a one-way ticket. Chiang Mai is also well-connected by bus to a number of other cities in Thailand.
By Train – The Most Fun Way
Taking the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is personally my favorite way of getting between the two cities. The route between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is easily the most traveled train route in Thailand. The journey takes between 11-15 hours, depending on which train you choose. While there are daytime train options, I always choose the overnight train. It’s definitely a long ride, but you have the opportunity to not waste any travel time during the day, and you’ll save on a night of accomodation. Plus, watching the sun come up from the train is one of my favorite experiences in Thailand. Make sure to book a bottom bunk for the best window access.
Ticket costs vary, but you can expect to pay around $38 USD for a one-way ticket.
When to Visit Chiang Mai
Luckily, it is possible to visit Chiang Mai just about any time of year. This means that you can make sure to add it to your Thailand itinerary no matter what, yay! That said, there is one season you probably should avoid if possible: the burning season. I’ll touch on more of that below.
Chiang Mai has 3 distinct seasons: wet season, dry season, and the hot season.
The wet season typically lasts from June to September. This is by far the wettest time to visit Northern Thailand, and most of Thailand for that matter. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still visit! In fact, some prefer this time of year because the rice fields are super green! Plus, there are far less tourists, so you can expect less crowds and cheaper rates on activities and accomodation. The rain tends to happen in the afternoon, so this works well for early birds!
The dry season in Chiang Mai lasts from October to March. begins around October and lasts until March. Temperature tend to be much cooler, so you’ll want to make sure you pack a light jacket and some long pants.
By far the hottest time of year to visit Chiang Mai is from April to June. Temperatures tend to be hot and humid, easily reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Honestly, I don’t mind it at all, but I’m a total sunshine girl! Just make sure to hydrate well if you’re visiting during this time.
Extra Season – The Burning Season
There is actually a bonus season in Chiang Mai, and that’s the burning season for a few weeks in late February and early March. During this time, the local farmers intentionally burn their fields to make way for a new crop. This can lead to hazy, smokey conditions and poor air quality, so I would avoid if possible.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
There are a number of different ways to get around Chiang Mai. While the city itself is quite big, most tourists choose to stay in, or close to, the Old Town. If you’re staying in the Old Town, then you can get around this area easily on foot.
Taking a Songthaew (pronounced “song tail”) is the most common way to get around Chiang Mai. It is also a cheap and easy way to get around the city. Simply flag one down when you see one, even if there are already people in it, as these are shared rides. Cost is negotiated with the driver based on your specific pick up and drop off points. For reference, you should be able to get to most places within the city for around 30 THB.
You can also request a private Songthaew, at a higher price, through Thailand’s popular ridesharing app, Grab.
Taxis are available throughout the city, but they are much harder to wave down than Songthaews. However, you can ask your hotel or hostel to call one ahead of time for you. Taxis operate on a meter system.
As I mentioned above, while in Thailand you can take advantage of the popular ridesharing app. For those who aren’t familiar with Grab, it is very similar to Uber. However, in most parts of Asia you can book a ride on the back of a motorbike, in addition to shared or private cars.
Chiang Mai Things to Do
Spend the day with elephants
Seeing and spending time with elephants is definitely one of Northern Thailand’s biggest highlights. There are so many different elephant camps to choose from, however some are definitely more ethical than the others. It is important that you do your research and avoid supporting parks that have unethical practices. If you do not want to ride at all, which is what I recommend, then I’d check out Elephant Nature Park. Although it is admittedly a bit touristy, Elephant Nature Park is a great place to get up close to the elephants in a humane no-riding environment.
If you are adamant about riding an elephant during your visit, then my best recommendation would be to check out Baan Chang. This is considered to be one of the most humane of the riding camps. It is definitely on the pricier end, however a portion of their proceeds go to elephant rescue.
Temple-hopping in the city
There are tons of incredible temples within Chiang Mai, you could spend days just exploring each one. If you’ve had enough of the formal temple hopping, you can simply wander the town and easily come across plenty that you may want to stop in. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Wat Phra Singh
- Wat Suan Dok
- Wat Chiang Man
Go shopping at the markets
Chiang Mai is home to some of the best markets in Thailand, and probably the world if you ask me. Whether you’re looking for fun souvenirs, tasty bites, or just a fun evening, the following markets are a must on any Chiang Mai itinerary.
Sunday Walking Street
The Sunday Walking Street market is not only my favorite in Chiang Mai, it might just be my favorite in all of Thailand! If you can find a way to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday then it is one of the best things to do, and a must on your itinerary. You may even want to plan your trip accordingly to make sure that your visit to Chiang Mai falls on a Sunday. The market opens in the afternoon and lasts all evening. The name itself is a bit misleading, because rather than a street, the market actually stretches 1km down Rachadamnoen Road, from one end of the Old Town to the other. What this means is that you’ll find endless streets of local goods and amazing (and cheap) street food! My favorite part is getting to try all of the different food options along the way. Plus, you’re going to need that extra energy for all of the walking and shopping you’re going to be doing.
Saturday Night Market
Although the Saturday NIght market is not as extensive as the Sunday Market, it is still a great option for some fun shopping and Chiang Mai fun. You’ll find areas off to the side reserved for street vendors as well, where you can grab some delicious food for dinner!
Chiang Mai Daily Night Market
If your trip to Chiang Mai doesn’t line up with a weekend, don’t worry! The Daily Night Market is another fun option any day of the week. The market is composed of a series of both indoor and outdoor shopping areas. My personal favorite is Anusarn Market, where in addition to fun handmade goods and souvenirs, you’ll find some great sit down dinner options and cheap massages!
Take a Thai cooking class
Taking a cooking class is one of my favorite things to do in Chiang Mai, and really in all of Thailand. I absolutely love Thai cuisine, and spending a day learning to cook all of these authentic dishes is such a blast. While Chiang Mai has tons of cooking schools to choose from, I have personally attended the class at Siam Rice Cookery a handful of times and couldn’t recommend it more. For $29 USD for a full day course you will receive hotel pick up/drop off, a tour of the local market, a selection of seven dishes to cook, and a cookbook and certificate of completion to take home. This class is suitable for all levels (don’t worry if you’re awful in the kitchen) and will definitely make you feel like you’re ready to sign up for the next season of Masterchef. I’ve included a full review of the course on my blog post on Siam Rice Cookery School here!
Visit the famous Wat Doi Suthep
This temple is located right outside of Chiang Mai up a (very) windy mountain road. The large red tuk-tuks head up the mountain and can fit at least 8 people in them! The entire tuk-tuk shouldn’t cost more than 500 THB ($16 USD), so the more passengers the better. Across from Hug Hostel (right in front of the 7/11) you’ll find a bunch of tuk-tuks heading up that way so feel free to hop in one of those!
Once you’re dropped off you’ll have a quick climb up some gorgeous steps before arriving at the temple. Entrance tickets cost only 30 THB (about $1 USD). As this is an active temple it is important to make sure that you have your shoulders and knees covered.
Chiang Mai is perfectly located within mountainous Northern Thailand. This means that there are plenty of great one-day and multi-day hiking opportunities for anyone looking for a bit of adventure.
I always recommend booking a tour in person, rather than over the internet. This is the best way to get the best deals and get a better sense for the quality of the experience you’re going to have.
Ride in a Tuk Tuk (or Chiang Mai’s traditional Songthaew)
Did you really visit Thailand if you didn’t ride in a tuk tuk? I think no! Even if you’re just taking a ride around town, make sure to hail a quick tuk tuk at least once.
Additionally, as I mentioned above, taking a Songthaew is the most common way to get around Chiang Mai. It is also a cheap and easy way to get around the city. Plus, it’s a great way to meet locals and other travelers.
Try Khao Soi
Khao Soi is a soup-like curry dish filled with both boiled and deep fried egg noodles, as well as a meat of your choice. The dish is topped with shallots, limes, greens, and chilis. It is also so so delicious, and a must-try while in Northern Thailand. I’ve included some good restaurant options for grabbing a bowl of Khao Soi below.
Wander the Old Town
Many of the things to do in Chiang Mai’s Old Town are already on this list, but I think dedicating an afternoon (at least) to simply wandering around the town is so important. You’ll come across temples, restaurants, and plenty of massage parlors. Let yourself get lost and simply wander! Make sure to either dress appropriately or bring along something to cover up, as you will need to have your shoulders and knees covered to enter any of the temples.
Get a Massage
I could write an entire post about all of the incredible massage options available in Chiang Mai. Daily massages were definitely a part of my Chiang Mai routine, and I only wish I could keep up that daily routine back in NYC. One thing to know about Thai massages is that they are much rougher than your average massage in the US. Don’t be surprised when the masseuse starts bending your body this way and that. Also, unlike most massages in the West, you don’t undress at most places in Asia. Instead, when you get a massage in Chiang Mai, you’ll most likely be provided an outfit to put on. The outfit is a loose cotton top and pants.
Explore Chiang Mai’s Art District
Located just across the river from Chiang Mai’s Old Town you’ll find an area full of quaint art galleries, boutique shops, and adorable cafes. This is where you’ll find Woo Cafe, one of the food recommendations in this guide, so a visit there is a great opportunity to check out the area. Take a stroll in this area to experience a different side of Chiang Mai.
Chat with a Monk
One experience that I have not personally had in Chiang Mai, but have only heard great things about it the opportunity to chat with a monk. There are several locations throughout Chiang Mai that offer this experience, but Wat Chedi Luang is the most popular. Simply show up and strike up a conversation!
Try Mango with Sticky Rice
Although not unique to Chiang Mai specifically, a visit to Thailand is not complete without a taste of this delicious dessert. Sliced fresh mango with a sticky rice, topped with a sweet cream sauce. I could eat this every single day!
Take a Trip to Chiang Rai
Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand, and an excellent day trip (or overnight trip) from Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai can be reached from Chiang Mai by bus in approximately 3.5 hours. If you leave early enough in the day it can definitely be done as a day trip, but I’d definitely recommend a day or two if possible. The famous White Temple is a must, but there is also an awesome blue temple!
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
Okay, here is another thing on the Chiang Mai Things to Do Itinerary that I’ve never done, but I’ve heard such great things that I just had to include it! Located approximately 90 minutes by bus from Chiang Mai, I’ve heard that it is definitely worth the trek.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai Gate Food Market
Chiang Mai is filled with fun food markets, where you can try lots of different local dishes at cheap prices. The market located at Chiang Mai Gate is one of my favorites! There is a large selection of stalls available, catering to the needs of vegetarians and vegans as well!
Check out the Papaya Salad @ Chiang Mai Gate stand for the most incredible cucumber salad! Priced at 50 Baht for a large serving, this salad is healthy, fresh, and full of flavor! I can’t count the amount of times I’ve gone back to this stand just for this salad.
If you happen to be in this area in the morning you will find a fresh fruit market! However, the evening vendors start setting up around 5pm.
Khao Soi Lam Duan
As I mentioned earlier, Khao Soi is one of Chiang Mai’s traditional dishes. It is a soup-like curry dish filled with both boiled and deep fried egg noodles, as well as a meat of your choice. Topped with shallots, limes, greens, and chilis, this dish is a local classic. Khao Soi Lam Duan is a super local spot where you can get an authentic taste for this flavorful dish. Prices start at 40 Baht a bowl. You can walk here from the Old Town in about 25-30 mins or hop in a tuk tuk for around 100 THB.
Khao Soi Lam Duan is open daily from 9am-3pm.
(352/22 Charoen Rat Road | near Wat Fa Ham Temple, Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand)
While Woo Cafe is definitely a little fancier than your traditional Thai locale, it definitely deserves a mention in my opinion. Located in the art district, the cafe itself is like an art installation. Every inch of the cafe is picture-worthy, with flowers, paintings, and homemade cakes and other desserts decorating the premises. The menu offers a wide selection of both Thai and Western dishes at moderate prices. Expect to pay around 200 Baht for an entree. Make sure to check out the upstairs art gallery and the gift shop!
Woo Cafe is open daily from 10am-10pm.
(80 Charoenrat Road, Wat Gate, Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand)
Kunyai is your no-frills Thai restaurant located right in the Old Town. If you followed along on my adventures though Asia, or really anywhere in the world, you’ll know that I love finding cheap, authentic food! Entrees range from 40-70 THB and are full of flavor! My personal favorite is the Chicken Stir Fry with Roasted Chili Paste. This is a must on any Chiang Mai itinerary if you’re staying, or spending time, in the Old Town.
(Rachadamneon Rd, Chiang Mai, Thailand)
Good Morning Chiang Mai
Every so often you crave some Western food abroad. Good Morning Chiang Mai is your go-to for a great omelette and strong WiFi. Perfect for digital nomads looking for a nice spot to work.
( 29/5, Ratchamankha Soi 6, T. Wat Prah Singh, A. Muang Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand)
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
Looking for a beautiful, cozy spot to kick back on a backpacker’s budget? Haus Hostel is the option for you! I have stayed here on multiple occasions and have always been beyond pleased! The hostel currently offers 4, 6, and 8 bed dorm rooms, with both mixed and female-only options available. Each bed is equipped with a personal reading light, charging outlet, privacy curtain, and large storage locker.
Located just South of the Chiang Mai Old Town walls, Haus Hostel is the perfect base for visiting all that Chiang Mai has to offer! In just a few minutes walking you can reach a number of restaurants, street food markets, and local attractions. A few nearby highlights include Chiang Mai Old Town, Wualai Saturday Night Market, and the Chiang Mai Gate Food Market. Furthermore, the local staff is extremely helpful and accommodating for your various travel needs.
If you’re looking for an affordable hostel with a bit more of a party, social scene, the Hug Hostel is a good option for you. This is a great place for solo travelers looking to meet other travelers. With rooms starting as low as 180 THB/ night, it’s a hard price to beat. While breakfast is not included in the rate, they have a cafe on-site with affordable prices! They’ve also just opened up a second branch that I can’t wait to check out on my next visit!
Check out current rates for Hug Hostel on Booking.com.
Looking to stick to a budget but dorm rooms not your thing? Baan Ratchiangsaen hotel is a great option for those looking for a little privacy. The rooms are clean, breakfast is included, and the pool adds a nice touch! Located just down the road from Haus Hostel, you’ll have no problem reaching Chiang Mai’s best spots!
Check out current rates for Baan Ratchiangsaen on Booking.com.
99 The Gallery Hotel
99 The Gallery Hotel is great for couples, families, or those simply looking for something a bit nicer, still without breaking the budget! 99 The Gallery is a boutique hotel right in the heart of Chiang Mai’s Old Town. Here you’ll find an amazing breakfast buffet, a quaint swimming pool, and excellent customer service. Rooms start at around 1100 THB (depending on the season).
Check out current rates for 99 The Gallery Hotel on Booking.com.
What to Pack for Chiang Mai
- Sarong – I literally never travel anywhere without a sarong. It seriously has so many uses – a skirt, shawl, scarf, blanket, beach towel.. you name it! You can easily purchase a sarong in Thailand for a buck or two when you arrive if you don’t already own one.
- Outfits that cover your shoulders and knees – For ladies I recommend packing a couple of maxi skirts or dresses. This is a great way to look cute, keep cool, and remain respectful when visiting the temples or touring more conservative areas. Sarongs also work well as a makeshift skirt.
- Multiple Credit/Debit Cards – When I’m traveling I always make sure to carry multiple cards. Ideally I like to have at least 1 credit card and 2 debit cards to withdraw cash.
- Universal Travel Adapter – There are so many different outlet types in Thailand, and throughout Southeast Asia. I recommend always traveling with a universal travel adapter so you’re set.
- Packing Cubes – I actually only started using packing cubes this past year and they are seriously a game changer, whether you’re traveling with a backpack or suitcase.
- Electrolytes – I always travel with electrolyte packets, just in case. Between the hot weather, long travel days, and possible stomach issues.. you just never know! I personally love the brand DripDrop, but there are a bunch of great options.
- Quick Dry Towel – a compact, quick drying travel towel is a must when visiting warm weather destinations.
- Camera – Thailand is beautiful, all of it! Make sure to bring along a camera to capture all of that beauty. I currently shoot with the Sony a7ii but the Sony a6000 is a great budget option as well.
- Pixie Cup – this one is for the ladies! While traveling with tampons, or buying tampons in Thailand, is possible, traveling with a Pixie Cup menstrual cup is so much easier. It is also cheaper and more sustainable.
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