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Visiting Chiang Mai? Here’s what you need to know!
Chiang Mai is one of the most popular destinations in Thailand for a few reasons: the Isaan food, elephant excursions, the cooler weather, and just because it’s a much more relaxing city than Bangkok! It also happens to be one of my favorite cities I visited growing up—it was always the highlight of my Thailand visits as a kid. Continue reading for a first timer’s guide to this beautiful city that has both stayed true to its traditions, but also modernized to attract the younger crowd.
How to Get to Chiang Mai
There are a few different ways to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. The easiest, fastest, and my preferred method is flying. If you book in advance, the cost for these flights are under $100 per person. The flight is very short (~1 hour), and you’ll also get a meal or snack on the plane too!
Once you arrive at Chiang Mai International Airport, you can either take a taxi or Grab to where you’re staying. The airport is about 15 minutes from the city center. We thought the taxi was comparable in price to Grab and we didn’t have to wait, so we opted for that instead.
You can also take the overnight train or bus. I haven’t done either option, but on Rome2Rio, it says the train takes about 11 hours.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
When I was researching hotels in Chiang Mai, I instantly fell in love with Tamarind Village. It’s right in the heart of Old City Chiang Mai, but when you’re there, you really have no clue you’re right in the middle of the city! What I also love about the hotel is that it’s a boutique hotel that’s in the traditional Lanna style, prevalent in Northern Thailand. Check back soon for a full review!
> BOOK HERE <
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If you want a newer Lanna boutique option in Old City, take a look at the Thai Akara. How gorgeous does the pool look?! You’ll still be soaking in Lanna-style architecture, but with some modern comforts.
> BOOK HERE<
The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai
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Want to escape everyone in Chiang Mai and stay in luxury? The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai is the answer! It’s located outside of the Old City walls to the southeast, and even has its own rice fields.
> BOOK HERE<
Don’t want to stay in a hostel or a hotel? There are tons of Airbnbs to choose from! For $40 off your first booking, click here.
How to get around Chiang Mai
Pretty much the most popular mode of transportation in Thailand is the tuk tuk. I suggest haggling prices here as they tend to be less expensive. If you’re going to a specific location, be sure to have the address in Thai as there is definitely a language barrier, even when using Google Maps.
Songthaews are the red pick up trucks with roofs on top. They can accommodate a large number of people, and be an affordable option. If you’re going to Wat Doi Suthep, I highly recommend using one of these to get there. Try and and find a group to go with you because it will be more expensive if there’s just you or another person. Make sure you try and haggle here as well. You can also hire these drivers for the day too.
When we were going to specific places, we opted to use Grab to save time with the language barrier. While very similar to Uber and Lyft, it was definitely a frustrating app. If you cancel because a driver is too far away, the app will make you wait longer to get a new driver. Do it too many times and you’ll get banned for 24 hours.
What to do in Chiang Mai
1. Visit an elephant sanctuary.
If you only plan to do one thing in Chiang Mai, it should be a day with the elephants! I highly recommend Elephant Nature Park, especially their Karen Elephant Experience. None of the projects they have provide any type of elephant riding, and focus on caring for formerly abused elephants or elephants who used to work in the lodging industry.
As a note, riding without a saddle is still detrimental to the elephant, so make sure you avoid these types of elephant excursions if you opt for a different company.
- Related reading // Visiting an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
2. Visit Wat Doi Suthep.
If you visit only one temple in Chiang Mai, visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, shortened to Wat Doi Suthep, the temple on top of Doi Suthep mountain and overlooks the city of Chiang Mai. When you get there, you have the option of climbing up the 309 steps or taking the tram. Admission is free for Thai locals, but there is a small fee for foreigners. (Side note: I was born in Thailand, but felt like I definitely couldn’t pass off as non-American!)
If you want to just take in the views and architecture, feel free, but please remember to be respectful. Although very touristy, it is still a place of worship and monks do actually live here. Remember to take your shoes off before entering sacred places like the inner temple area. There are some things you can do for good luck and merit like ringing all of the bells and donating small amounts to the temple.
To get to Wat Doi Suthep, I recommend hiring a songthaew. Our driver stopped on the way up the mountain at an overlook point which had a few different street vendors. Then once we were actually at the top, he gave us 2 hours to explore and would take us back down. Also, a good time to go would be in the morning when it’s less crowded.
3. See a jazz show.
One of the highlights of our Chiang Mai leg of our trip was seeing a live jazz show at The North Gate Jazz Co-Op. My fellow blogger and friend, Krista, has been living in Chiang Mai and it’s one of her fave spots! Also, if you’re musically talented, you can sign up to play with the band too. Drinks are also cheap!
4. Explore ALL the temples.
If you’re staying in Old City Chiang Mai, there are so many temples you can explore that are walking distance. That’s part of the reason why we stayed at Tamarind Village—it’s so centrally located! Here are a few temples you should see:
5. Take a cooking class.
One of the biggest regrets on our trip to Chiang Mai was not taking a cooking class! We really didn’t have the time, sadly, as they take up about half the day. Here are few to check out below:
- The Best Thai Cookery School
- Zabb E Lee Thai Cooking School
- Benny’s Home Cooking
- Smile Organic Farm Cooking School
- Thai Farm Cooking School
6. Wander around Nimman (Nimmanhemin).
Head to Nimmanhemin, or casually called Nimman, for coffee shops and modern spots galore. There’s a ton of little food shops and a diverse number of restaurants that you can visit as well. It reminded me a lot of Williamsburg in a way!
7. Take a day trip to Chiang Rai or Pai.
If you have extended time in Chiang Mai, opt for a day trip to Chiang Rai or Pai. Chiang Rai is about 3.5 hours by car and most likely you can arrange for your hotel to take you or look for a tour operator. You can even rent a car and drive yourself—the drive is beautiful through the mountains. Don’t miss Wat Rong Khun, known as the white temple!
Pai is a bit closer to Chiang Mai at about 2.5 hours. A lot of tourists love driving a motorbike to Pai as the roads are windy, in a good way! In Pai, you’ll find hot springs and waterfalls like the Mo Paeng Waterfall.
8. Get a Thai massage.
No trip to Thailand or Chiang Mai is complete without a Thai massage! There’s a multitude of places to choose from that vary in price and service. One of the more well-known spots is Women’s Massage Center. The center provides support for ex prisoners who have little or no support financially. The program has expanded into numerous locations and is popular with visitors and locals.
9. Get rooftop drinks.
There aren’t many high rise buildings in Chiang Mai apart from a few hotels here and there. Opt for a drink or two at The Nimman Hotel rooftop. If you’re into craft cocktails and awesome tunes, you’ll love this spot.
The Nimman Hotel
29 Nimmanhemin Road Soi 17
Chiang Mai 50200
10. Explore the Night Markets.
If you don’t go to a night market, who are you?! There’s no better way to experience local life and eat like the locals than to visit a night market. From fresh seafood to noodle soup stands to clothes (you know you want those elephant pants 😉), night markets have something for everyone. Here are the night markets in Chiang Mai and the nights they’re open:
- Sunday Night Market // Sunday: 5:00pm – 10:00pm
Rachadamnoen Rd, Si Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai District
- Saturday Night Market // Saturday: 4:00pm – 11:00pm
100 Wua Lai Rd, Tambon Hai Ya, Mueang Chiang Mai District
- Warorot Market (indoors) // Monday – Sunday: 5:00am – 11:00pm
Wichayanon Rd, Tambon Chang Moi, Mueang Chiang Mai District
- Sompet Market // Monday – Sunday: 4:00pm – 12:00am
Si Phum Sub-district, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai
- Jing Jai (JJ) Market // Monday – Sunday: 8:30am – 8:00pm
45 Atsadathon Rd, Tambon Chang Phueak, Mueang Chiang Mai District
- Mueang Mai Market // Monday – Sunday: 12:00am – 11:00pm
1, 1 Wichayanon Rd, Tambon Chang Moi, Mueang Chiang Mai District
- Chiang Mai Night Bazaar //
Chang Moi Sub-district, Mueang Chiang Mai District
Where to eat in Chiang Mai
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak
If Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak looks at all familiar, it’s because it was featured on the Chiang Mai episode of Parts Unknown. The spot has become fairly famous because of the show, but also because of its owner, known as the cowboy hat lady. If you’re a pork eater, this spot is a MUST in Chiang Mai. The pork is just so insanely tender and basically melts in your mouth. You’ll find this food stall at Chang Phueak, the north gate.
Cherng Doi Grilled Chicken
Head over to Nimman to Cherng Doi Grilled Chicken for an adorable restaurant that serves mouthwatering grilled chicken! This place is really casual and you place your orders on a paper menu and the waiter will get your dishes for you. We ate ours with a side of som tum—green papaya salad—and a pork dish.
Khao Soi Khun Yai
Perhaps one of the best spots in Chiang Mai for khao soi is Khao Soi Khun Yai. Like other Isaan dishes, this khao soi is a lot spicier than travelers will expect, but still a not-to-miss spot. As khao soi is typically eaten earlier in the day, make sure you head there for lunch as it closes early and the wait is long.
Minato Sushi Bar
Okay, hear me out. The sushi in Chiang Mai, specifically at Minato Sushi Bar, was incredible. PLUS, it was insanely affordable. My friend Krista took us here and we were obsessed. The fish is so incredibly fresh and the service was wonderful.
Like a lot of spots in Thailand, Archer’s is owned by an expat married to a local Thai woman. This one is of the British variety with a Sunday Roast! It’s not terribly authentic, but was still delicious and affordable.