In this post, you will find our travel guide to Chiang Mai, in Thailand. If you want to know more before or during your trip to the city, read on. What to see in Chiang Mai and its surroundings, what to do in Chiang Mai, where to sleep in Chiang Mai, how to get around Chiang Mai and its temples and landscapes … and much more!
- 1 What to see in Chiang Mai.
- 2 Important information to plan your trip to Chiang Mai
- 2.1 Best time to travel to Chiang Mai
- 2.2 How to get to Chiang Mai
- 2.3 What to do in Chiang Mai
- 2.4 Festivals in Chiang Mai
- 2.5 What to bring on your trip to Chiang Mai
- 2.6 How to move around Chiang Mai
- 2.7 Where to sleep in Chiang Mai
- 2.8 Where to eat in Chiang Mai
- 2.9 Tips and advices for travelers
- 2.10 Shopping in Chiang Mai
- 2.11 Scams and dangers in Chiang Mai
A little bit of information about Chiang Mai…
Chiang Mai, also known as “the rose of the north”, is an ideal city to begin to know the north of Thailand. In it, you can find a lot of activities in a much quieter environment than other major cities of the country. There are more than 300 Buddhist temples, trekking through the mountains of the area, waterfalls where you can escape from the heat of the sun and much more. Going on a trip to Chiang Mai is one of the favorite destinations for visitors to Thailand. There is so much to enjoy and to see in Chiang Mai.
The historic area of the city is very easy to identify because it is surrounded by a wall. It was founded in 1296, the year in which King Mengrai built a moat and a wall to protect it from the Burmans.
What to see in Chiang Mai.
1. Old Town
Surrounded by a wall and a grave; that today many believe is a river; it is one of the main points to start your visit to Chiang Mai. The walled city has four main doors; Tha Phae Gate to the east, Suan Dok Gate to the west, Chang Phueak Gate to the north and Chiang Mai Gate to the south. Today you can enter/exit through these or other places that have been open on the walls for this purpose.
In the historic old town of Chiang Mai you can find many temples, where the main ones that you must visit are:
Wat Phra Singh.
One of the most important temples in the city and a must see in Chiang Mai. It was built in 1345 when King Phayu raised a chedi to contain the ashes of his father. In this times, the city was part of the kingdom of Lanna, that later would become part of Siam. Today this temple is a big complex, where its main attraction is a huge golden stupa (chedi).
Wat Chedi Luang.
You will find many Buddha statues in Chiang Mai, however the most impressive is its stone stupa, which in past times was the largest in the Kingdom of Lanna. It measured 82 meters in height and 54 meters in diameter. However, due to earthquakes and maybe some wars was destructed and today we can only see its ruins. For years there was the important Emerald Buddha that today is in the Royal Palace of Bangkok; it was replaced by a replica that you can see inside. You can not miss this beautiful temple during your trip to Chiang Mai.
Wat Chiang Man (Wat Chiang Mun).
It is the oldest temple in the city. Founded in 1296, it was the home of King Phaya Mengrai during the construction of Chiang Mai. In it, you will find an ordination hall (ubosot), two meditation rooms (viharn), a bookstore and a stupa surrounded by elephants.
The other 300 temples:
Strolling through the streets you will find temples every 50 meters. It is said that the city hosts more than 300. It is worth visiting some randomly to appreciate how Buddhism is lived out of the most tourist areas. We visited more than 25 in just one afternoon.
2. Other temples
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep:
The best known and favorite of tourists for the breathtaking views of the city that you can see from here. It is on the top of a hill near the city. To get to it you must go through a road with hundreds of curves through the jungle. The most iconic building is the great golden pagoda at its center.
Royal Park Rajapruek.
A place that locals love and tourist don’t know so much. It was built in 2006 in honor of the 60th anniversary of the ascension to the throne of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. In it, you will find some temples, but mainly beautiful gardens where you can walk. There are small buses that take you from one place to another in the park, like Disney. It is a very nice place to escape from the crowds in the walled city.
- Price for foreigners: 100 thb (adults) / 50 thb (children)
Built about 700 years ago, it is a meditation center on the outskirts of the city. It has a large pagoda and a system of underground tunnels that lead to different places of meditation with Buddha statues.
The silver temple. It is quite popular with locals and quite impressive because is built entirely of silver.
3. Other activities and tourist places.
The ruins of Wiang Kum Kam.
This place was the first capital of the Kingdom of Lanna, founded in 1286. However, people soon realized that the area was prone to flooding and decided to move the capital a little further north, to the current Chiang Mai. They are much more modest than the ruins of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, but if you do not have time to visit them it is a good idea to go to Wiang Kum Kam and get a good idea of the architecture of the time.
Elephant Nature Park.
It is the only place “recommended” if you want to see the elephants closer and have a time with them at any cost. We do not recommend this or any other place that offers activities with animals, for more “rescued” they say they are. It is known that almost all are mistreatment or have been… if you pay to enter these places you are only contributing to the torture of animals. Here you can see more about how to avoid animal abuse while traveling.
Anyway, its said that in this place the elephants are not mistreated and they are left in wide and free places. They claim to have only elephants that have been rescued from other abusive places. You must reserve your tickets with weeks of anticipation in the following link. The price is 2500 baht per adults and 1250 baht for children between 2 and 11 years old.
Long Neck Village, Rafting, and Waterfalls.
Several tour operators offer visits to these points with transportation and guide included. You can also go on your own but is not so advisable.
If you decide to visit the Karen (or Long Neck) women, always bear in mind that they are people like you, not a zoo. Shows respect, asks before taking photographs and collaborate with them by buying some of the items that they make and sell. Do not bargain, it’s rude in these places. For more information about respecting other ethnicities, visit this link.
4. Day trips
Pai began to grow a lot in 1990 when many foreigners decided to settle in this quiet city between hills and rice fields. Today the tourists have invaded the place and the tranquility is not like it used to. The landscapes around the city are amazing and the activities both day and night in the city are quite active and entertaining. Here the atmosphere of “young backpacker” predominates.
You can go for the day from Chiang Mai or stay in the city. For more information on how to get there and what to do in Pai, check out our post dedicated to the city here.
Also north of Chiang Mai, almost on the border with Laos and Myanmar, we find this small town whose greatest attractions are the mountains around it and the famous White Temple. Also, an obligatory visit is the one the tripartite border between these 3 countries.
In general, a day in the city would be enough if you do not want to make many walks in the surroundings, so most of the tourists take minibuses early in the morning from Chiang Mai or take an organized tour. They spend the day here and return during the night.
Important information to plan your trip to Chiang Mai
Best time to travel to Chiang Mai
The climate in Chiang Mai has three distinct seasons, as well as the rest of northern Thailand. It is slightly different from the center (Bangkok) and very different from the south where the islands are located.
- November to February: The best time to travel to Chiang Mai in terms of weather. Less rain and good temperatures.
- March to April: intense heat and less rain so the pollution is quite high. The nature is quite dry.
- May to October: Rainy season, but at the same time the natural surroundings will be very green and beautiful.
How to get to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai international airport is one of the largest in the country. It connects with most of the other airports in Thailand, although it is likely that you will have to make at least one stop-over in Bangkok. Arriving in Chiang Mai by plane is one of the favorite ways to visitors because of the excellent connectivity with other cities in the country.
If you come from the South, arriving by plane will always be your best option. You will avoid days of travel at very low prices that today low-cost airlines offer.
Once at the airport, you have 3 options to get to the center of Chiang Mai:
- If you booked a hotel, check if you have a free private taxi service. Many offer the option of picking you up and taking you to the airport during your stay.
- Taxi: The average price is 100 baht. The trip takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Public bus: Take bus number 4 that passes outside the airport. It passes every 30 minutes and the journey to the center takes about 30 more minutes. The price is 15 baht per person.
The trip between Chiang Mai and Bangkok by night train is almost a tradition among tourists, however, you can also visit some cities in the way like Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Always book your tickets in advance especially in high season. Generally, the wagons with comfortable seats and/or air conditioning are sold out quickly. Enter the following link to make your reservations online.
The only train station in Chiang Mai is quite large and developed, and about 15 minutes from downtown. To reach it one of the best alternatives is the tuk-tuks.
Outside the station, there are also shops where you can rent a motorbike for the duration of your stay.
There are two bus stations in Chiang Mai:
Chang Puak Station:
Located very close to the walled area, from here leave and arrive almost all the provincial buses, connecting with cities like Pai or Chiang Rai.
It is the main and largest bus station in the city, mainly with buses that connect with Bangkok and other major cities in Thailand. It is approximately 3 kilometers from the walled city on Kaer Nawarat Road. Given the distance, it is best to hire a taxi or tuk-tuk to take you here.
If you travel to/from Bangkok, consider doing it on a night bus that is of good quality and comfortable. It’s a long road and drivers can drive quite crazy.
What to do in Chiang Mai
There are many possibilities for things to do in Chiang Mai. From a lot of temples to waterfalls and beautiful trekking routes through the jungle.
The city is also known for being one of the destinations where you can get close to elephants. We do not recommend this activity, because despite the centers saying they help elephants and rehabilitate them, the hardness towards animals and abuse is always present. Do not contribute with this practice! Find out more here about responsible tourism with animals.
Festivals in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is well known for its festivals. If you travel to any of these, remember to book your accommodation in advance; the days before the event everything will be booked. The amount of locals and tourists during festivals in Chiang Mai is huge.
1. FLOWERS FESTIVAL (first week of February)
Festival in Chiang Mai dedicated to the cultivation of flowers, one of the main economic activities of the region. During the weekend of celebrations, there are traditional dance shows, exhibitions, contests and many other activities. The streets are filled with flowers in honor of the festivity.
2. SONGKRAN OR NEW YEAR THAI (mid-April)
New Year is celebrated all throughout Thailand. During one week you will see water fights in all the streets and places as well as music and dance concerts.
3. LES FESTIVAL OR YE PENG (End of October, the beginning of November)
Celebration originated in the Lanna period and very important for the culture and history of Chiang Mai. This day thousands of Khom Loy or flying lanterns/candles are thrown into the air. It is often confused with the Loy Krathong, however, they have a very different origin and meaning.
4. LOY KRATHONG (November)
Again it is related to lanterns, but they are thrown into the river in small floating rafts made of palm leaves. Many Thais believe that letting a “krathong” float (the rafts) will bring them good luck. It’s done in honor to the water goddess Phra Mae Khongkha.
What to bring on your trip to Chiang Mai
Remember to always have with you items such as long pants, sarongs or handkerchief to cover your shoulders and legs, whether you are a woman or a man. The entrance to the temples with inappropriate clothes is forbidden, so you have to bring to Chiang Mai more covered garments…
How to move around Chiang Mai
The best way to move around Chiang Mai is by bicycle or motorbike. There are many places where you can rent them, however, it is best to ask directly at your accommodation for the nearest and most recommended place. Ask on 2 or 3 more places for the price before making a decision, so you can be sure that the hotel is not charging an extra commission,
If your idea is to move around the center of the city only, bicycles are the best transportation alternative during your trip to Chiang Mai. The distance between temples is small and even if you want to get to the Ping River it will take only about 10 minutes.
If your goal is to go to other places, like more distant temples or in the mountains, a motorbike will be your best alternative. The rent costs approximately 5 to 8 dollars per day depending on the number of days you want to rent it and your negotiation skills.
On Chaiyapoom Rd. Just outside the wall, you can find several places to rent. Always be careful and take pictures of the bike in the same store. If you want to know our tips for renting a motorcycle in Asia, enter here.
1. Tuc tuc:
Be careful to always negotiate the prices before boarding them during your visit to Chiang Mai. Make it clear where you want to go so you do not have problems later because they took you somewhere else. A good strategy is to ask at your accommodation how much they should charge you for the trip you want to make.
They are small open buses, usually red. They fit 10 to 12 persons on the rear seats and move around on shared trips. Quite recommended for longer distances; for example the visit to the temples on the hill (Wat Doi Sutehp).
Where to sleep in Chiang Mai
The accommodations in Chiang Mai are quite cheap. You can find simple rooms in hostels for only USD $5 a night or less with shared rooms. USD $10 for a single private room and from USD $15 you can find private double rooms with air conditioning.
You can stay inside the historical center or on the outside of the walls; between them and the river. This way, you will not be far from the attractions and you can also go for a quiet night walk around the city.
In general, the prices are lower outside the walls. If you are traveling to Chiang Mai with a low budget, this will be a very good alternative.
Where to eat in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is for many the culinary capital of Thailand. Many of the best chefs in the country live here and it is possible to find very nice coffee shops and restaurants both local and international.
For the same reason, finding where to eat in Chiang Mai is not difficult.
We recommend this 4 main areas/places where you can find food in Chiang Mai:
- Interior of the walled area, eastern area: There is a greater amount of restaurants in the eastern part of the walls.
- Exterior; Loi Kroh Rd and Tha Phae Rd. In these streets, you will find a good variety of restaurants and bars. At night there is a lot of activity and local bars with pool tables, live music and other activities.
- Local food market: Going out the main wall door you will find a popular market with local street stalls. Pad Thai and other Thai specialties at very low prices. There are shared tables where you can take what you buy and eat comfortably.
- Elegance: If what you are looking for something fancier, next to the Ping River there are several recommendable places. Among them The Riverside, which tourist recommend a lot.
Tips and advices for travelers
Restaurant: The Hideout. It is outside the walls, on the east side. Exquisite juices and sandwiches that made us return again and again on our visit. We do not usually recommend specific places, but we loved this one!
Shopping in Chiang Mai
- Night Bazaar: One of the most touristic markets in the city. It is open every day and you can find clothes, crafts, painting and souvenirs.
- Kad Suan Kaew: More than a market, it is a fairly large mall and the closest one to the historic center. If you are looking for something more specific, big or branded, this is your place. You can find, for example, luggage, clothes, camera accessories, etc.
- Sunday Market. It is held every Sunday evening. Clothing, food and craft stalls are located along Ratchadamnoen Street, which crosses the walled city from east to west.
- Chaiyapoom Rd: Here you will find shops to buy/rent motorcycles and bikes. It may sound strange to include it in this section, but many travelers prefer to buy motorcycles here to tour Thailand and Southeast Asia.
Scams and dangers in Chiang Mai
The same from all over Thailand. Read our post about the country for more information.