Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains and colourful hill tribes, a playground for seasoned travellers, a paradise for shoppers and a delight for adventurers. On a trip to Chiang Mai, the curious traveller can expand their horizons with Thai massage and cooking courses. Others will be bowled over by the variety of handicrafts and antiques. The wild child will find plenty of lively nightlife, and the epicure can indulge in wonderful cuisine. Despite its relatively small size, Chiang Mai truly has it all.
I came here for a week after another week in the hectic capital of Bangkok and all of this was part of my month long trip to Thailand. The change of pace and the change of vibe were both very welcome. Chiang Mai has a slow charm and it’s not hard to see why so many travelers flock to the northern capital. It’s also completely different from the islands in the south like Koh Phangan which might as well have been a different country!
Getting to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is well connected within Thailand and even countries in the region. As Chiang Mai is a larger city, you can expect to find flights, buses, and private transfer options all available.
From Bangkok, it is a 1h flight to Chiang Mai and these flights run many times a day. Chiang Mai is also connected with neighboring countries like Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and more.
Getting around Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a relatively small city and is much more manageable than Bangkok. I found myself walking far more than I did in Bangkok which is all you’ll need to do in order to see the main temples. Otherwise, I would recommend renting a scooter which I will get into below!
Chiang Mai Airport to City
First thing is first, the airport transfer from Chiang Mai airport is as easy as using the Grab App. I used this app all throughout Thailand wherever I could. Grab is Thailand’s Uber making it super easy to get around. The grab from the airport to the city center of Chiang Mai was roughly 300 THB ($9).
The airport is located very close to the city (about 15 minutes driving).
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)
Haggle For A Tuk-Tuk
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 afterward.
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.
Rent Your Own Scooter
Renting a scooter is by far the best way to see Chiang Mai. I rent scooters pretty much everywhere I can as I find them a far superior alternative to a car. Not only are they cheaper, but they are small so you can park them anywhere you want as well as being able to weave through traffic. It was my way of choice for seeing the Greek islands (so amazing), as well as the Amalfi Coast (way too expensive).
You can rent a scooter in Chiang Mai for 150-250 THB per day. It’s a no brainer because a Grab taxi ride around the city would cost 70-80THB and even a local Sonthaew would cost you 30 THB. With a scooter, you have the freedom to go wherever whenever you want. It was the perfect way to take day trips to the beautiful temples outside of Chiang Mai like Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Best time of year to visit Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a great destination to visit year round. It enjoys a more temperate climate than the islands in Thailand’s south. During the winter months (Nov to Feb), Chiang Mai enjoys regular sunny and warm days. Temperatures hover between 25 and 32 degrees during the day with night time temperatures dropping to 15-18 degrees. You might even need a light jacket at night times!
In the summers, the weather can be much more intense. Temperatures can regularly reach 40 degrees during the day and storms are more frequent. March is a time to consider avoiding a visit to Chiang Mai. This is the burning season where farmers burn the soil to prep it for next year’s harvest. This causes a massive drop in air quality and you will get uncomfortable very quickly. You also won’t be able to see much of the beautiful views of the mountains.
Is Chiang Mai Worth Visiting?
Chiang Mai is absolutely worth visiting in my opinion. It offers a completely different perspective on Thai culture, cuisine, and history compared to the capital of Bangkok or the islands in the south. Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas offer a landscape that’s stunning in its own right with the idyllic rice paddies, banana trees, and dense jungle. It’s also home to countless Buddhist temples, monuments, and statues that you won’t find in other parts of Thailand.
Chiang Mai itself is a smaller city than Bangkok but still very much a large city. It’s a bit chaotic at times and traffic can be intense. It’s also home to all of the digital nomads, travel bloggers (like yours truly), and other full time hippies. It’s not a place for everyone I’ll say that but it is your gateway to many other places in the north.
Should I visit Chiang Mai or the beaches in the south?
Oh man, this is probably the toughest question to answer about Chiang Mai. If you only have a week or so to visit Thailand, then you will likely need to decide if you want to visit Chiang Mai and the towns in the north, or focus on the Thai islands in the south.
Firstly, the north is vastly different than the islands in the south. The beaches and the mountainous nature scenery of the north are both incredibly beautiful in their own right. However, it all comes down to what you’re looking for. If you are dreaming of Thailand and thinking of idllyic beaches and long tail boats, then you won’t find any of that in the north. You’ll want to focus your trip on beautiful islands like Koh Lipe or Ko Phangan in the south.
If you’re dreaming of beautiful rice paddies, banana leaf trees, and staying in beautiful mountain nature landscapes, then visit the north. Chiang Mai is a city first and foremost, with the opposite vibe of Bangkok. It’s more slow paced, more relaxed, and generally more chilled. Chiang Mai is not for everyone I will have to admit but I think it is well worth the visit.
What to eat in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has no shortage of amazing restaurants on offer. Chiang Mai is in the north of Thailand which offers its own style of Thai cooking. You’ll still find the classics you’re familiar with but some of the distinct dishes from the north are things like Khao Soi, an incredibly delicious noodle soup cooked with curry flavors and spices. Laab Gai (or Moo) is another very popular dish from the north that I absolutely love.
Chiang Mai is also home to a very vibrant digital nomad and foreigner scene. I don’t use the word expat because that brings with it this aura of superiority that I can’t stand. This means you will find restaurants of all types of cuisines. I stayed in the Nimman area which is famous for these digital nomads and actually found more Korean/Japanese restaurants than I did Thai. Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find in Chiang Mai.
Kat’s Kitchen was my favorite Thai restaurant that I found in Chiang Mai. It’s located in the city center nearby to all the famous temples. This popular spot attracts locals and tourists alike. They just cook traditional Thai dishes but in the best possible way.
The food portions are huge and prices are incredibly reasonable.
Night Market of Chiang Mai
No city in Thailand is complete without a central night market serving up delicious Thai classics are basement prices. The central Chiang Mai night market is located just north of the old city square. There are also plenty of other night markets all throughout the city but this was just the one closest to the main tourist attractions.
It’s not nearly as big as the big night markets in Bangkok but there are plenty of vendors here selling an array of different foods. I came here pretty much every night to get my fix of duck with rice, pad see ew, pad kra pao, mango sticky rice, etc. Prices are incredibly affordable between 40 THB and 60 THB for most dishes.
Khao Soi Maesai
Khao Soi is a local northern Thai dish that is a must try. Khao Soi is a noodle dish made with a absolutely delicious broth of yellow and red curry spices. The curry broth is simmered low and slow along with numerous other spices, coconut milk, soy sauce, chicken broth and who knows what else to create that deep delicious flavor.
The noodles are served with chicken, pork, or beef. The beef chunks were my favorite iteration of this dish because I felt like the taste of their beef contrasts perfectly with the rich curry soup. There are countless places to try Khao soi in Chiang Mai. Khao Soi Maesae was nearby to my Airbnb and I frequented this place almost every day.
Khao soi is incredibly cheap. I paid 50 THB for my bowl of beef and it was quite filing. I could easily chow two bowls of this delicious soup however!
Temples in Chiang Mai
Visiting the temples in and around Chiang Mai is the main sightseeing you’ll be doing. There are countless temples in Chiang Mai that it is overwhelming to visit all of them. I visited at least a dozen temples and after awhile you’ll surely get temple fatigue. I’ve listed the main temples that you must visit while in Chiang Mai below.
Wat Chedi Luang
With a history that is over 600 years old, Wat Chedi Luang is a must-visit if you ever plan a trip to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. It’s probably the most famous structure in Chiang Mai and is located in the very center of the old city walls.
The name Wat Chedi Luang translates to the Royal Pagoda or the Great Stupa Temple in English. The chedi (pagoda) ruins and the daily monk talks are worth the visit alone. The pagoda is massive at nearly 90 meters high and 40 meters across. It was actually once much larger before being destroyed by an Earthquake centuries ago.
Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan
Built in 1345, the Temple is located on Sam Lan Road. It houses the North s most revered Buddha statue, Phra Phuttha Sihing which is enshrined in Vihan Lai Kham, a Chapel that features exquisite woodcarvings and northern style murals.
Located on Sam Lan Road, Wat Phra Sing’s Wihan Lai Kham is home to Phra Phutthasihing, Chiang Mai’s most sacred, Chiang sean-style Buddha image. During the Songkran festival, every April 13-15, Phra Phutthasihing is carried in a parade procession around town so locals can bath the image with scented water, which brings good luck according to a traditional belief.
I found this temple to be incredibly photogenic and if you’re going to take Instagram photos, this is definitely the place to do it!
Wat Doi Suthep
In addition to the Wat Chedi Luang, a visit to the mountain town temple of Wat Doi Suthep is an absolute must. Located up the mountains towards Chiang Mai’s east, this temple is perched high up on the hill overlooking the city.
This temple is one of the most famous temples in Thailand and is easily one of its most popular. To reach Wat Doi Suthep, you’ll need to either take a songthaew from the city, a scooter, or using the Grab taxi app. With a scooter, it’s just under a half hour to reach the summit of this temple.
Once you reach the summit, you’ll want to take the stair path up towards the peak. There are quite a few stairs here so if you are not able, don’t worry, there is also a funicular that makes the journey up for 100 THB.
Once you’re up to the top, you’ll see the incredibly immaculate and detailed temple. There is a huge buddha here as I’d come to expect from my Thailand temple adventures. It’s not quite as big as the temples in Chiang Mai or the big ones in Bangkok but I really liked that it was perched up so high in the mountains.
Wat Sri Suphan – Chiang Mai Silver Temple
The silver temple is a small temple that is entirely covered in silver colored metal. The temple is as intricate as it is unique with actual silver also used in the construction. The area that the temple is located is the silver and gold district and it’s said that blacksmiths contributed to the construction of this temple in the theme of the people it served.
The temple is very beautiful to look at and photograph. You don’t need much more than a few minutes here as the inside is nothing to marvel at.
Cooking class in Chiang Mai
One of the most popular activities to do in Chiang Mai is take a Thai cooking class at one of the many cooking schools in town. If you’re a fan of Thai food (like myself), then these classes will be the perfect day activity to help you learn how to cook Thai classics like Pad Thai and various curries, as well as do it in a fun environment.
I did my cooking class with Zaab E Lee which I absolutely adored. The class consisted of a visit to the local markets where we purchased our ingredients for the day. This part was particularly interesting for me as I really got to learn about numerous different vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, and chilies that are integral in Thai cooking. Thai cooking is very complex involving a bunch of ingredients, many of which I had never heard of before.
After the visit to the local market, we were driven to their local farm which doubles as a restaurant in the countryside. This farm was gorgeous with rice paddies, ponds, and traditional architecture all in tow. The cooking classroom was very inviting with. The space was open, filled with beautiful decorations and local artisan crafts.
We cooked five dishes in total and were able to choose which dishes we wanted to cook. I made the following:
- Spring roll
- Tom Yum Soup
- Pad Thai with Shrimp
- Green curry
- Mango Sticky Rice
We cooked each dish separately and it was so fun getting to learn about the wok and Thai cooking process. Most of the food was already pre-chopped and we just had to throw it into the wok and let it do its magic. This is good to know beforehand because Thai food seemed so easy to make after this class but I know that preparing and chopping ingredients would be a nightmare.
The entire class was an incredible experience. I had so much food, beers, and the hosts were incredibly friendly. In total I paid 1,000 THB for the entire day (from 8:30am to 3:00pm). I think in normal times outside of COVID, this would probably be closer to 1,500 THB.
Cafes and drinks in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has become of the digital nomad hotspots of SE Asia in recent years. The city is laid back, cheap to live, and offers a whole wide array of places to work from. From coworking spaces to cafes, you have everything you need here. I didn’t visit any coworking but I did visit a handful of cafes. Here are some of the favorites.
My Secret Cafe in Town
Located in the city center of Chiang Mai, my secret cafe definitely looks like the hotspot for digital nomads, bloggers, and other remote workers. It offers delicious coffee with comfortable tables to work from. There is also plenty of power plugs, solid wifi, as well as outdoor space if you want to mix it up.
Weave Artisan Society
Weave Artisan Society is one of the trendiest cafes in town. Located in an old warehouse turned into an industrial chic coffee house, this place would be my preferred place to work. It is very open given that it used to be a warehouse with very inviting decor and furniture. Wifi is also very good here and they make a damn good coffee to boot.
Rooftop at the Yayee Hotel (best rooftop bar in Chiang Mai)
I didn’t spend too much of my time drinking through Chiang Mai. As I was visiting in December 2021 right after the country reopened from COVID, there was not much going on in terms of nightlife in Chiang Mai.
The Nimman district of Chiang Mai was always known to be a party hotspot but there were hardly any people out when I visited. However, I did have many drinks at the Yayee Hotel which is the best rooftop in the city. They have fantastic views of the city and surrounding mountain ranges with a very hip decor. The drinks are actually decent as well.
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