There at so many blog posts on Chiang Mai online due to the high travel blogger expat community that live there, so you’ll easily find a lot of fantastic posts about Chiang Mai. But if you’re reading this one then it’s quite possible you landed here because you trust our opinion and want to know our personal experience with the city of Chiang Mai.
So here’s all our tips on exploring what Chiang Mai has to offer…
We were very excited to finally get to Chiang Mai as this was where we would tick off a bucket list experience of visiting rescued elephants at an ethical Elephant Sanctuary. Though in our opinion Chiang Mai’s City itself seemed quite boring and we couldn’t understand why it’s so hyped up online. I guess the lack of liveliness could have been because we visited in burning season, so you’ll have to experience Chiang Mai for yourself to make your own judgement.
Tip: During February, March and April it is burning season in Chiang Mai, which is when the nearby farmers burn fields and bush to get ready for a new season of crops. It’s also the end of high season so over the previous few months a lot more traffic than usual creates a build up of air pollution from the dark smog that comes out of Tuk Tuk Taxis, and Chiang Mai is also surrounded by mountains that create a valley which traps the smoke over the city. We didn’t realise it was burning season until we got here and recommend avoiding it if you can, otherwise wearing a mask helps to protect your lungs and sinuses.
We travelled by public bus from Sukhothai to get to Chiang Mai which took almost all day, though it was cheap, air-conditioned and comfortable.
Chiang Mai is known to be really cheap compared to other parts of Thailand and we definitely noticed this when searching for accommodation options. We used booking.com to book a nice private room in a guest house with air conditioning for just 1800 Baht ($76AUD) for the week. This actually turned into 10 days as we extended our stay to include a few rest days before moving on to the next destination.
Even if you’re staying in the main square, Chiang Mai isn’t the type of city where you can walk everywhere since places of interest are quite spread out. You can get around via a ‘Songthaew’ which is like a bus that does loops of the city and only costs 30 Baht ($1.25AUD) to hop on and hop off anywhere, which is a lot cheaper than getting a ‘Tuk Tuk’ taxi. Though since we knew we’d be staying here for a while we hired a scooter for just 1000 Baht ($42AUD) for the whole week which was very convenient.
Something that didn’t even cross our minds when planning this trip though, was that legally you need to have an International Drivers Licence to ride a scooter or motorbike in Thailand. The locals don’t check your licence when they’re trying to rent out their scooter, however there are often police on the corners of Old City and on big roads outside of town who frequently pull tourists over to check.
Tip: In Chiang Mai we found that the police don’t really care whether you have a International Licence or not, they just want to make money, so if you get caught without one just give them 500 Baht (around $20AUD) and they’ll most likely let you go.
If you’re going to be riding a motorbike or scooter during your travels, remember to get travel insurance. We use and recommend World Nomads simply because they are the most trusted travel insurance site for travellers and offer the best cover for what we need. Get a free quote here.
Chiang Mai Old City
Temples & Museums
A good reference point when exploring Chiang Mai Old City is the 3 Kings (photo below). There are over 200 temples in Chiang Mai but these are the most popular: Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phan Tao, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Suan Dok, and Wat Jet Yot. Outside of town there is also Wiang Kum Kam, the Underground Ancient City, which isn’t a must see but nice to stop and take a look if you’re in the area. If you’re into learning about culture and history like me, then visit the Lanna Folklife Museum to learn about history specific to Northern Thailand.
Tip: At some point you’ll probably get ‘templed out’ and will want to relax somewhere so why not a massage. They are usually around 250 Baht ($10AUD) for a 1 hour Thai Massage.
Markets & Nightlife
The Night Bazaar is the main evening hang out area in Chiang Mai as there is a really good atmosphere, you can get street food and bargain at the Warorot Markets. From there enjoy the elegant riverside district on the other side of the river. And on Sundays be sure to check out the Sunday Night Walking Street Market too. These markets are found near the party area of Chiang Mai on Changklan Rd with copious amounts of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and Lady Boy Cabaret shows.
Tip: This area is probably not the best choice for accommodation if you’re wanting a quiet nights sleep, though very central if you’re here to party.
Nightlife at the more relaxed side of town (the top right corner of the Old City Square) has a more chilled atmosphere. Roots Rock Reggae Bar was recommended to us as it has live-music but it was actually pretty flat when we went and there wasn’t much happening for a Friday night. Though that could be due us visiting in low season.
Day Trips from Chiang Mai
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A 30 minute drive from Chiang Mai you’ll get to the top of a big hill where you can climb up to the top of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – it’s 30 Baht ($1.25AUD) to enter. If you had to choose just one temple to visit in Chaing Mai it’s this one. Then another 20 minutes or further you’ll get to the Palace, which is close to a look out where you see a nice view of the whole city.
Tip: Go by motorbike as it will be a lot cheaper than a tour/taxi and you’ll have a lot more freedom because you can stop at look outs along the way. There’s also a sign for Huay Kaew Waterfalls on your way up.
Elephant Nature Park
A day trip to the Elephant Nature Park was the only activity we had booked in advance on this trip, due to their calendar always being full with volunteers months in advance, and the main reason for wanting to travel to Chiang Mai. The torture some elephants go through in Asia for tourism is absolutely heartbreaking, so it felt really great to support an organisation that is actually making a difference. You can read all about our expereince here.
Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls
The Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls are also a must-see. It’s a 1 hour drive North of Chiang Mai and once there it’s free, and unbelievable that you can just walk up the waterfalls like without slipping!
Doi Inthanon National Park
About a 2.5 hour drive from Chiang Mai City you’ll discover the Don Inthanon National Park. I think there are day trips you can do with a tour, though if you self-drive it’s probably worth staying overnight. We planned to travel through this National Park via the Mai Hong Son Motorbike Loop, but ended up deciding to do the Ha Giang Loop Motorbike Loop in Vietnam instead (which was absolutely incredible).
Zip Lining is also a popular activity in Chiang Mai, with the two biggest operators being Flight of the Gibbon and Eagle Trekkers. It was hazy during burning season so not worth paying $100AUD to not see much, but we ended up going zip lining through the jungles of Laos over two days with The Gibbon Experience instead, which we highly recommend if you plan to travel to through Laos.
Food in Chiang Mai
Firstly, you’ve got to go to the traditional Khantoke dinner and show at ‘Old Chiang Mai’ – it’s 570 Baht ($24AUD) per person which includes a lot of traditional Kantoke dishes while watching a Cultural Thai Dance Show.
If you enjoy cooking you can join Thai Cooking classes at the Thai Farm Cooking School (though expensive), or if you’re like us you can eat out every day with these recommendations:
Our Food Recommednations
- Kaffe 151 for coffee, good breakfast options and nice air-conditioned space with good wi-fi
- Archies English Pub for a really good English dinner (and much better than the overpriced Lion Pub on the main street). The guy who owns the place is really helpful with any questions about Chiang Mai, and we also came here for breakfast on most days to order the ‘Small Breakfast Set’
- There’s also cheap local food eateries everywhere – we had one right near our accommodation that we went to for most meals
- We also tried Butter is Better – a very American themed place that’s good for coffee and a big Western breakfast, though pretty expensive for Thailand compared to other Western restaurants
Other Food Recommendations
Once we found a couple of good spots we continued going back there, but still noted heaps of recommendations from other travellers, here’s the list:
- Akha Ama Cafe and Ponganes Coffee Roasters for good coffee
- For cheap local restaurants: Grazie Thai Food, Mae Pa Sri and Central Airport Plaza Food Court
- Riverside Bar & Restaurant is popular in the riverside discrict
- Western restaurant recommendations: Rustic and Blue, Thank New Delhi Indian Restaurant, Bagel House Cafe + Bakery, By Hand Pizza Cafe, Vigie Sist Cafe, Uno Pizza Italy and Blue Diamond Breakfast Club
So there you have it, a guide to Chiang Mai. I hope you gained some value from reading this post. Happy Travels!
Have you been to the Chiang Mai before? Tell us about your experience in a comment below…
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