Chiang Mai Travel Guide
Chiang Mai is the main reason most people travel to Northern Thailand. For many travelers, Chiang Mai is the ultimate place to travel to. The city has the perfect mixture of Thai culture with Western amenities, although you have to deal with the rise in expat and tourist numbers, which makes for a crowded and increasingly more expensive place to visit in Thailand.
Chiang Mai is the 5th largest city in Thailand, and a large part of it’s charm is the fact that it is surrounded by beautiful mountains. The highest point in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, is only a couple hours drive from here. Chiang Mai was the ancient capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which reigned from the 13th to 18th centuries. Now the city is divided into the ‘new’ city and the ‘old’ city. The Old City, or the ‘Walled’ City, is set up as a square, and still has the remains of the ancient walls (most found at the corners) that surrounded the kingdom, and even the moat remains. 30 temples can be found within the city, which have traditional structures of Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Lanna Thai-styles.
The temperature in Chiang Mai stays somewhat pleasant throughout the year, and even better when you head up to the nearby mountains. March and April however, are not great months to visit, as this is the time of the local farmers burning the rice fields, and the smoke that results seems to settle over the city, resulting in many respiratory infections for locals and tourists alike.
How To Get To Chiang Mai
You can easily fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. A number of airline companies fly multiple times per day. I recommend using either Air Asia or Nok Air for the most affordable flights. You can take an overnight bus from Bangkok’s Mochit Bus Station, which takes roughly 10-12 hours, but you can be comfortable enough if you book a VIP bus, even better if its a 24 seat bus and not a 32 seater. You will most likely get dropped off at Arcade Bus Station Terminal 2 and 3 on Kaeo Narawat Road. From there you can easily take a taxi to your hotel or guesthouse. The train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station to Chiang Mai takes roughly 13-16 hours, and is also very comfortable in the A/C sleeper bed for around 1400 baht.
If you’re coming from other nearby cities, such as Chiang Rai, Pai, Lampang, etc., then you could take a shared minibus for the cheapest price. Many people might opt for flying into Chiang Rai and exploring that area before moving down to Chiang Mai.
Getting out is just as easy, just in reverse!
Where To Stay In Chiang Mai
I won’t even recommend a place to stay, that’s how many places you have to choose from. I will recommend however, that you stay either within the moat of the old city, or just outside of it within walking distance. This is where all the action takes place, and you won’t want to have to pay for tuk-tuks to transport you there all the time, or drive your motorbike among the thousands of other people on the road. Your best bet is to check with tripadvisor for the latest ratings on accommodation, but Chiang Mai has everything from hostels to 5-star hotels.
What To Eat In Chiang Mai
I’ve changed this from ‘where to eat’ because you definitely won’t have a problem finding places to eat in Chiang Mai. What’s more important is what you eat, because you’re in the North and there are some dishes there you won’t find as amazing in other places.
Khao Soi (soy) – You find this dish predominately in the North because it is Burmese-influenced. This is a curry soup made with coconut milk, usually made with homemade egg noodles, a meat such as chicken or beef (vegetarian versions available at many places, or just say ‘mai si gai (chicken), or ‘mai si neua’ (beef), crispy egg noodles on top, and pickled mustard greens, shallots, and lime.
Hang Lay Curry – A Northern Thai curry dish also Burmese-influenced (basically you see that your next trip needs to be to Myanmar!) Usually made with pork belly but also substituted with chicken, beef, or fish.
Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw – Spicy and tangy soup that is also Burmese-influenced, made with fermented rice vermicelli noodles (fermented = happy gut bacteria!), pork or beef, and diced curdled blood cakes (yes you can push those aside if it sounds unpleasant to you). Fermented soya bean adds to its unique taste in the sauce.
Sai Ua – Otherwise known as Chiang Mai sausage, this is a must dish for non-vegetarians! Basically a sausage with chili and herbs, unique to Northern Thailand
Of course there are hundreds of places to eat Western foods, including some amazing breakfast joints, but I urge you to stick to traditional Northern Thai food and you won’t be disappointed!
What To Do In Chiang Mai
Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep – located 13 km up the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, this gold-plated chedi dates back to 1383 and offers spectacular views. It is crowded – so beware, try to beat the tour buses. I recommend renting a motorbike and riding up there on your own, but if that is not an option then you can join a shared taxi, or a song-thaew, for around 50 baht per person.
Night Bazzaar – Located towards the Ping River outside of the moat, this market is sure to impress you. Hundreds of local artists, crafts, food, and other items you’re sure to spend all your money on! Runs every night, you can follow Loi Kroh Road all the way from the moat to get there.
Sunday Walking Street – located on Ratchiangsaen Road from Tha Phae Gate to Wat Phra Singh. A perfect way to spend your Sunday. Chiang Mai is your shopping destination, and prices will be lower than most places in the country, and you’re more likely to find one-of-a-kind crafts from local artists.
Saturday Walking Market– Wualai Road , again another amazing street market
Wat Chedi Luang – Unfortunately the top of this magnificent chedi toppled in the earthquake of 1345, but it is still a spectacular sight to see in Chiang Mai. Once housed the Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok). Located on 103 Road King Prajadhipok Phra Singh, within the city moat.
Wat Phra Singh (cover photo)- The best known in Chaing Mai, located within the moat, located at the end of Rachadamnoen Road. Built in 1345
Grand Canyon Chiang Mai – Once a peaceful place to escape the city with your friends, it appears to be a popular place for locals and tourists alike now. I may even have seen a photo of it with large blow up playgrounds sitting on the water. Located outside of the town (rent a motorbike), you can swim in the water here or do some cliff jumping from 50 feet up! (be careful!) There is a restaurant on site.
Elephant Tours – Many people visit Chiang Mai to go to one of the elephant camps. Please do research ahead of time before visiting as most of these house elephants in terrible conditions and their sole purpose in life is to walk around giving rides. There are some real sanctuaries in Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas that don’t offer rides but do allow you to swim with, or bathe, the elephants and enjoy them in a more natural setting. Look into Elephant Nature Park if you are still interested, they have a great reputation.
Be aware of scams in Chiang Mai, such as tuk-tuk drivers who offer to take you around for the day for a reasonable price. They will usually include a stop at jem or silver shop, which are often overpriced and possible not real, and the tuk-tuk driver gets a commission for bringing you there. Always know where you want to go.
Moving on from Chiang Mai? Head to either Pai in the North West, Chiang Dao in the North, or Chiang Rai in the North East if you haven’t done so already.