Chiang Mai is one of Thailand’s must-see destinations and an alternative to Bangkok’s chaotic madness. Instead of pollution and traffic and urban sprawl, you have clean air, walkable roads, and mountains. Chiang Mai is the second most visited city in Thailand and should be one of the must-visit places on your Thailand travel itinerary. Chiang Mai is also a temple heaven with practically a new ‘Wat’ (temple) every few blocks. You could easily spend weeks doing a Temple walkabout and still not see them all.
Intro to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is located in the mountains of Northern Thailand and has a population of about 400,000. It is one of the hottest tourist destinations in Thailand, possibly in the world. What draws people to this inland area of Thailand? There are no beaches, but there is tons of history, nature, national parks, and local people that make the tourists feel welcome. The fact that it is the second largest city in Thailand, with the largest having a population of nine million, makes Chiang Mai a popular and tranquil place for locals in Bangkok to escape to.
Chiang Mai was built in 1296 and way back then, it was only 1.5km square. Now, it includes what’s left of the original city walls and the four bastions, but it has grown around this old city to become the tourist mecca that it is today. The town of Chiang Mai has all the modern amenities a tourist or an expat could want, like lots of sights to see and temples to visit, natural sights like hot springs and mountains, good food and a wide variety of it, good roads, moderate weather, and modern well-equipped hospitals.
Why Go to Chiang Mai?
The list of things to do in and around Chiang Mai seems endless. Adventurists can enjoy rock climbing, white water rafting, para gliding, caving, bungee jumping, and the list goes on. There are national parks everywhere for trekkers and nature lovers. There are numerous cooking schools. You could live in Chiang Mai for a year and not see all the temples and museums in the area. There are also some more nefarious activities that I cannot recommend, such as elephant rides and tiger sanctuaries that really aren’t, but I will address both of these under Responsible and Respectful Tourism in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is one of the least expensive places to visit in all of Asia, and being a great value is another reason people want to visit chiangthis beautiful area of the country. A little money will go a long way towards an incredibly rich and fun-filled holiday. This city is known as a backpacker haven for a reason. It’s cheap and in some cases, you can get way more than you pay for.
When to Go to Chiang Mai
The time to visit Chiang Mai depends on what activities you plan to enjoy while you’re there. It’s never very cold in Chiang Mai, so this part of the country doesn’t have the four traditional seasons. They have a cool, hot, and rainy season and each one has pros and cons.
Cool Season – December to February
This is the most popular tourist season. It is actually comfortably chilly in the evenings so you will need to bring some warmer clothing, especially if you plan to ride a motorbike or trek in the mountains. Midday temps reach 30 degrees Celsius, so bring your shorts and t-shirts as well. There isn’t a lot of rain during this time of year, which is another reason why it is so popular.
Note: March seems to come with its own health warning. The hill farmers who are uneducated about responsible agricultural practices burn the hillsides which creates a haze over the city that is harmful to those living there. Most tourists stay away during this time.
Hot Season – April to June
If you are not accustomed to tropical heat, this season could really have a negative effect on your visit. It is hot at 40 degrees Celsius, but the humidity is the real obstacle that will make you want to stay in your air-conditioned hotel room. There is virtually no rain during this time, despite the humidity, and the agricultural fires that start in January create a haze over the city that prevents you from seeing the beautiful views around the city and can be a health hazard.
Rainy Season – July to October
This is low season in Chiang Mai as the rains cool the temperatures, but it is still hot, especially between showers. Hotel rooms are cheaper and the tourist numbers really drop, but you can still have a great experience. Many backpackers come to Chiang Mai during this time to take advantage of even lower prices than usual, especially in September which is the wettest month.
October is actually a beautiful time to visit. The wet weather is starting to taper off, but there is sunshine and less humidity, and few tourists means you won’t wait in line and won’t have to deal with crowds.
Note: November is the start of tourist season and prices jump back up as the rains end and sunny skies emerge without the heat. It’s a great time to visit Chiang Mai before December, which is the busiest month and when crowds are guaranteed.
How to Get There
For more detailed information on how to get to Chiang Mai, check out the following link.
Option 1: Flights
The quickest way to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is to fly. The flight is about 1 hour 15 minutes and by far, the quickest way to Chiang Mai. There are two airports in Bangkok. Prices vary depending on which airport you fly out of.
Don Mueang Airport has flights starting at 6:25am and there are over 25 flights a day. Flights run from 1500 to 2400 baht depending on time of departure. Flights are with Thai Lion Air and Thai AirAsia, as well as a few from Thai Smile.
Suvarnabhumi Airport has flights beginning at 7:00am and they have about 5 flights a day. Flights run from 3000 to 3400 baht on Thai Smile.
Option 2: Train
The train departs from Hua Lamphong in Bangkok at 8:30am and takes 11 hours. It is just under 900 baht for a 2nd class seat, air-conditioned. The next train doesn’t depart until 13:45 and there are several between 13:45 and 22:00. All of them are about 13.5 hours long and about 800 to 1700 baht depending on departure time.
Option 3: Bus
There are several bus companies that go to Chiang Mai as this is the most popular mode of transport to get there. Khao San Jolly Travel departs at 18:00 and takes 11 hours for only 600 baht.
From Morchit buses depart from 6:00am, 8:30am, 16:00, and 18:50 and several more after 20:00. The ride takes 9 hours 40 minutes and ranges from 534 to 831 baht. Now that’s a bargain worth taking a 9-hour bus ride for.
Sombat Tour Viphavadee 13 has departures at 6:30am, 15:00, 20:30 for 530 to 830 baht and the ride takes 11 hours 10 minutes.
Option 4: Taxi
A 9-seat taxi, usually a Toyota Commuter, costs 13,200 baht and takes about 9 hours. This is a fantastic way to travel if you have a large enough group or even strangers to share with. Your hotel in Bangkok can help you with booking.
Option 1: Flight
Flights from Phuket Airport depart at 9:20am, 10:35am, 12:35 and 19:20. Prices range from 2100 to 3000 baht and flights are direct. The flight takes about 2.5 hours.
Option 2: Bus
The bus departs from Phuket Bus Terminal at 15:00. This bus ride takes one day and 3 hours. That’s 27 hours on a bus for 1700 baht. Operated by Green Bus. I would choose to save money elsewhere and pay less than twice as much to fly.
Option 1: Flight
Flights from Krabi depart at 16:00 and 20:25 and take about 2 hours. The flight costs from 1600 to 2050 baht. Flights are direct. Flying is really the only practical option to get from Krabi to Chiang Mai.
From Nearby Pai
Option 1: Bus
Buses depart every hour from Pai to Chiang Mai for about 200 baht. The ride takes about 3 hours 10 minutes. Operated by Prem Pracha. Pai is a worth a visit, but if you’re staying in Chiang Mai, consider staying at least one night in Pai to enjoy the area before returning on the bus. Or, you could take Option 2 and just spend the day.
Option 2: Flight
Yes, there’s a flight operated by Kan Air. It departs Pai at 11:00 and costs about 2100 baht.
Best Things to Do and See in and Around Chiang Mai
#1 Ten Temples You Should See
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai, but not all are created equally. Ten of these are what I would describe as must-sees. Most temples in the area use traditional Lanna architecture, which means they have wooden roofs that are curved to point upward. The most famous is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is high on a mountain west of the city, but worth the trek to see. Another is Wat Chedi Luang which is inside the walls of the Old City. Wat Phra Singh has been renovated in the 19th century, so it looks pristine and impressive. The last seven to round out the list are Wat Suan Dok, Wat Umong, Wat Phra That Doi Kham, Wat Sri Suphan (my personal fave because of the glitz!), Wat Chiang Man, Wat Lok Molee, which is famous for the wooden roof with three tiers that makes it visually very unique, and Wat Phan Tao.
#2 Visit the Night Bazaar
The Night Bazaar area, located east of the Old City, is a shopper’s dream and a partier’s paradise. The shops, bars, restaurants and plethora of hotels seems endless, but the bazaar itself is actually confined to a small, walkable area. The Night Bazaar doesn’t really open until after 18:00. If you’re in need of souvenirs for the family, this is the place to come. Vivid colors and friendly stall owners will make your shopping experience fun and fruitful. You can also watch Muay Thai Boxing, an actual match, inside the bazaar. It’s in the Kalare Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road. The Baan Haw Mosque is also worth seeing, as it was built in the Chinese style rather than Arabic, although some Arabic touches have been added.
#3 Hang out in Nimmanhaemin
Just because you can’t pronounce it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit it. This is the happening area west of the Old City, and a lot of expats choose to live here. The Chiang Mai Zoo is here and unlike others in Thailand, this one has spacious enclosures for the more than 400 species living here. Entrance is 500 baht. And if those 400 living species aren’t enough for you, go visit some well-preserved ones at Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders. It’s an incredible display of thousands of species of insects run by The Mosquito Man who is, you guessed it, an entomologist. So is his wife. Entrance is 300 baht. The Huay Kaew Arboretum is also a beauty for all you nature enthusiasts. It’s next to the zoo and it’s free! Pack a picnic and enjoy an afternoon here.
#4 Chiang Mai University
Why would anyone want to visit this university campus? Chiang Mai university, which is in the Nimmanhaemin area, is a beautiful campus with amazing gardens and tranquil ponds that make you feel like you’re in a zen garden and not at a university. You can wander the university grounds for free, or for just 50 baht, you can get a bike and spend an afternoon riding through the gardens and maybe even having a picnic. Tourists need to enter from Huey Kaew Road. There is also an electric bus tour for 50 baht, but I recommend walking or riding a bike to really enjoy the beauty of the campus.
#5 Chiang Mai National Museum
Located inside the city walls near Wat Jet Yod, this is a must see for anyone visiting Chiang Mai. To celebrate the 700th anniversary of Chiang Mai as a city, the museum was renovated in 1996 and it is really well done. Inside, the exhibits take you on a journey through Chiang Mai’s beginnings to its present. The exhibits are beautifully lit and displayed. It’s open from 9:00 to 16:00 Wednesday to Sunday. Admission fee is only 30 baht.
#6 Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre
The building that houses this Arts and Cultural Center used to be the Provincial Hall of Chiang Mai. It is a perfectly beautiful representation of post-colonial architecture. It was restored in 1999 and won an award from the Royal Association of Siamese Architects. These aren’t just exhibits you observe. You can interact with them. It’s not the most high-tech museum, but that’s part of what makes it interesting and fun.
#7 Visit Suan Buak Hat Park
Chiang Mai has a limited amount of green in the Old City, and this park is a beautiful place to spend a few hours in the tranquility if you need to escape the hustle and bustle. You can relax under the trees or even take part in the numerous activities that are always happening here. There’s yoga and tai chi, or aerobics and badminton if you need a little physical activity. There’s also a children’s playground.
#8 Visit an Elephant Park
There are a couple of parks around Chiang Mai that are reputable and treat the elephants the way they deserve to be treated. They are true sanctuaries for the elephants, and some other animals as well. Here’s a description and link to both. I present two options because visitor numbers are limited at both, so if one is booked, maybe you can find space at the other.
Elephant Nature Park – This is not just a place for elephants to live. It’s a rehabilitation center where elephants live in a natural, healing environment so they can recover from the past and be happy, healthy elephants again. They have rescued dozens of elephants, and they are also a sanctuary for rescued dogs, cats, and even buffaloes. Visitors to this park and volunteers can interact with this amazing creatures in ways that benefit both the elephants and the humans. A Short Park Visit from 9:00am to 15:30 is 2500 baht and a Single Day Visit from 7:40am to 17:30 is also 2500 baht, but includes different activities. You’ll visit with all the animals, bathe the elephants and learn a lot. There are other visiting options as well. You can check their website for more comprehensive information and booking. You must book ahead. Visitor numbers are limited, so you must have a reservation. Lunch is provided.
Happy Elephant Home – This camp is appropriately named. These elephants love the human interaction while bathing, feeding, and just playing around. Be sure to take your swimsuit because you will get wet with these guys! These elephants are treated like family, or maybe even better, and it will be a day of fun for the elephants and for you. You can book a half day (1800 baht) or full day (2400 baht) with the elephants. Maximum group size is 15, so be sure to book ahead through their website below.
#9 Thai Cooking Classes
There are several cooking classes available in Chiang Mai and you can learn something different and new at each one. Do your research and find out which ones offer what you want. Here’s a couple that I recommend. You’ll be picked up at your hotel in Chiang Mai on a minibus
Thai Farm Cooking – The office for Thai Farm Cooking is on Moonmuang Soi 9 in the Old City. Some guidebooks still list their old address on Ratchadamnoen Rd. This all-day cooking school is only 1500 baht and includes pick up at your hotel at 8:30 and drop off at 4:30. Vegetarian and vegan menus are available. The menu includes six dishes, one of which is a lesson in how to make curry paste. Yum! You will visit a local market to do all of your shopping and then you will go to their kitchen, which is several kilometers outside Chiang Mai. The focus is on fresh, organic ingredients and simple techniques that you can use at home to create amazing Thai food in your own kitchen.
A Lot of Thai Home Cooking Class – Located on Lampoon Road, this Thai cooking school is hands-on and fun! Yui is passionate about food and she’s a great teacher. She found her true calling in life when she started this school 15 years ago. A full day course from 10:00 to 5:00 is 1500 baht per person, and a shorter course from 10:00 to 2:30 is 1200 baht, Monday through Friday. Yui will provide transportation if you are staying the downtown area. Classes are limited to 8 or 9 people. You will need to book in advance so ingredients can be prepared for this hands-on class, and you should book through their website.
#10 Muay Thai Camp
Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) has become more and more popular in recent years since these Thai boxers have used this unique style of boxing to win matches against much more experienced combat sport fighters who don’t know these techniques. It’s also receiving a lot more air time on international television. People come from all over the world to learn this sport by training with professionals in Thailand. They stay for months to learn from the best.
Chiang Mai has nine Muay Thai locations in and around the area. I have listed some of them that have excellent reputations, in no particular order. You should do your research first to find the location that offers what you want, because they do not all offer the same classes and not all of them have accommodation options.
Sit Thaharnaek – This Muay Thai gym was ranked #2 at Rajadamnern stadium and is a fairly new gym. It’s in the Night Bazaar area. There is no on-site lodging, but the central location makes finding lodging really easy and you’ll likely have a walking commute. They offer two sessions daily. One session is 400 baht, one day for 700 baht, one week 2200 baht, one month 8000 baht.
Hongthong Gym – Owned and operated by twin brothers Joe and Gen, both are experienced trainers and have quite a fan following. They have competed in about 700 fights between them. Gen is still actively fighting at the highest level. Joe is concentrating on being a trainer. There is no on-site lodging yet, but there are many hotels and apartments within walking distance. It’s only a few minutes drive from Chiang Mai Airport. They train twice a day, six days a week and offer daily, weekly, and monthly rates.
Santai Muay Thai Gym – This gym has grown a lot, proving it is doing something right and keeping their customers happy. Most of the trainers are from Pinsinchai camp in Bangkok and provide truly authentic training. It’s located in San Kamphaeng, about 25 minutes from the city center. They will pick you up from the airport for 250 baht. They offer on-site lodging at very low rates. You can rent a room for 3500 to 5000 baht. The more expensive ones have air conditioning. They have training twice daily.
Other Muay Thai gyms in the area are P. Silaphai Gym, Charn Chai Muay Thai, Chay Yai Gym, Lanna Muay Thai, Burklerk Gym, and KC Muay Thai.
Outdoor and Trekking Activities around Chiang Mai
The mountains and lush forests surrounding Chiang Mai are a trekker’s paradise, and there are several approaches to trekking in this area. Whether you want to spend the day trekking near the city, or you want to load up the backpack and spend three or four days in the mountains doing a hill tribe trek, you will find what you’re looking for. Due to the haze created by the agricultural burning, it is not recommended to trek in March or April.
White water rafting is another popular outdoor activity many people take advantage of in Chiang Mai. It’s best on the Mei Taeng River about 75 kilometers from Chiang Mai. The difficulty with organizing outdoor activities around Chiang Mai is finding a company that offers white water rafting and other tours while also offering eco-friendly activities and do not involved activities like elephant riding.
Siam Rivers offers multiple outdoor activities, some of which can be combined with a trip to visit and interact with elephants in their natural habitat, no riding, no tricks. They also offer jungle homestay with a family, kayaking, and hill tribe trekking in addition to white water rafting. Some of their profits go to gibbon conservation and other conservation efforts. You can find out more about their outdoor activities from their website.
Best Places to Eat in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a foody’s paradise, but not every restaurant is a win. Here are some of the best from the Old City, Night Bazaar, and Nimmanhaimin areas.
#1 Dash in the Old City $ – $$
No, this is not a Kardashian clothing store. Dash Restaurant and Bar is located on Moon Muang Road, a rather quiet street, but this restaurant is busy because it is good! This old, wooden house has a patio where you’ll want to linger with a drink while listening to the live band. They serve really great Thai food with different levels of spicy to suite many palates, and western and vegetarian dishes as well. Appetizers and mains from $3 to $7. Open from 9:00am to midnight. They also have cooking classes.
#2 The Hideout in Soi near the Old City $
This café restaurant is always busy, so be prepared to wait a bit, but it will be worth it. This unassuming restaurant serves great coffee sourced locally and they are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The breakfast is particularly popular. They serve European and Western dishes and really lovely desserts if you’re just in the mood for something sweet with your coffee. They also have free wifi.
#3 Taa-Peng-Cat in the Old City $
This excellent little restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers Thai, European, and vegetarian friendly options. They have delicious ice coffee and wonderful sweets, but coffee isn’t the only reason to come here. The food is good too. They have lovely panini sandwiches, American style breakfast, and wonderful salads in a serene atmosphere in the heart of the Old City. The price is right too, and they have free wifi.
#4 Eat Is Life near Nimmanhaiman $$ – $$$
This little gem serves a variety of Thai, Mediterranean, Asian, and even vegetarian and gluten free options. They serve brunch, lunch, and dinner and they accept credit cards. The mushroom risotto and garlic prawn and chicken teriyaki skewers are highly recommended. There is a free salad buffet offered with mains and free wifi.
#5 David’s Kitchen in Wat Kate Subdistrict $$$$
David’s Kitchen is the pinnacle of fine dining in Chiang Mai. They specialize in French and other European cuisines, and have Thai options as well. They also offer gluten free and vegetarian. David’s has a romantic indoor dining room, a full bar, and they accept credit cards. Steak a la carte, pumpkin soup, and sticky toffee pudding are highly recommended. But I think at David’s, you really can’t go wrong. It is rated 21st of all fine dining restaurants in the world by Tripadvisor.
#6 Bird’s Nest Café in the Old City $$ – $$$
This café on a quiet corner in the Old City serves up great international and Thai fusion food, but there’s something extra special about this café. They use fresh, organic ingredients that are locally sourced. The menu is vegetarian, but you carnivores can request that meat be added. What I like best is that they don’t use MSG or other preservatives, and they don’t even have a microwave. The owner, Yao, also gives cooking classes at Pun Pun organic farm. She’s lived on the farm for seven years and really knows her stuff. Vegetarians, this class is for you! They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and they have free wifi.
#7 Fern Forest Café in the Old City $$ – $$$
If you’re looking for a good cup of coffee to energize you before continuing your tour of temples in Chiang Mai, this is a great option. Fern Forest Café serves a variety of Thai, Asian, and European dishes, including desserts like banoffee pie which is highly recommended. It has a relaxing atmosphere, is clean and inviting, and even has a whiff of romance in its lovely, lush courtyard. It’s on Singharak Road, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and has free wifi.
How to Get Around Chiang Mai
Scooters and motorbikes are popular all over Thailand, and Chiang Mai is no exception. Traffic is fairly easy to navigate in Chiang Mai, so for about 150 baht a day, you have the means to be independent and go wherever you want, whenever you want, with no haggling. A motorbike also makes it easy to get outside the city to explore the national parks.
You can rent a bike from many businesses in the Thapae Gate area and some guesthouses rent them as well. If you want a bigger bike, it’s going to cost you about 500 baht a day. You’ll have to leave your passport as security, although sometimes a large deposit may be accepted. Always check the condition of the bike and note any flaws with the rental company.
Everyone is required to wear a helmet by law and you’ll likely be pulled over and fined if you don’t.
Not that many tourists choose to rent a car, but those who want to explore the surrounding mountains and parks find a car useful. Parking can be a bit of an issue, but roads and traffic conditions are generally good.
Taxis and Tuk Tuks
Taxis usually make airport runs and manage private calls, and don’t bother with people trying to flag them down. They are modern, have air-conditioning, and are great for getting from the airport to your hotel at a cost of about 120 baht. Other means are cheaper, but not easier. Taxis are safe and use their meters honestly, but you can’t negotiate the fare from the airport.
Tuk tuks are an iconic Thai mode of transport and they are everywhere, but you will find most of them in tourist areas. A ten minute trip will cost about 60 – 100 baht. The price depends on how good you are at haggling.
Buses and Songteaws
Chiang Mai has brand new air-conditioned buses running fixed routes around the Old City, the University, and the airport. They also service some suburbs. They run every 15 minutes, but in that time, many minibuses may have passed. The cost is 15 baht.
Songteaws are “red trucks” and are everywhere. You can flag one down from just about anywhere and they cost about 20 baht. They usually follow a fixed route towards the city. If they don’t have passengers, you can negotiate a private ride for a price cheaper than any other public transport, although I don’t know how it could be less than a 15 baht bus ride.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
One of the great things about Chiang Mai for tourists is the sheer variety in available accommodation. Whether you want a bed in a hostel, the charm of a boutique hotel, or the amenities of a luxury resort, you can find it all in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai has some particularly appealing boutique hotels of which I have recommended at least one in each category.
Budget $10 – $100 per night
Chiang Mai Moli Boutique Hostel
For those with a backpacker budget who don’t like to compromise on quality, this hostel means you won’t have to. Best of all, it’s under $10 a night and is located in the Thaphae Gate area, close to everything you need to fully enjoy Chiang Mai. There’s a self-catering kitchen and indoor/outdoor public areas. They provide travel information about the area. They have 4 bed male and 4 bed female rooms that have couches and open space under the loft beds, and they have private bathrooms. Common areas and bathrooms are super modern with clean lines and unique fixtures. And that’s not all. There’s a full free breakfast here that cannot be beat at any hostel anywhere. They also have free wifi.
At Pingnakorn Hotel Chiang Mai
This boutique hotel on Nimmanhaemin Road lives up to its name, but at around $30 a night during high season, it does not have a boutique price tag. There are 44 rooms and an on-site restaurant with room service. Rooms have free wifi, TV and DVD players, air conditioning, and the all-important coffee maker. You can choose from a one or two bedroom suite, or a standard room. Rooms are very spacious, beautifully decorated in a vintage style, and the hotel grounds are colorful, relaxing, and just simply beautiful.
Si Phum Heritage Boutique Bed & Breakfast
This 3 Star hotel is proof that value for price is outstanding in Chiang Mai. This boutique property is about $21 – $50 a night during high season and has 11 rooms with tasteful vintage décor. You can choose from Standard, Superior, and a Heritage room that sleeps four. Amenities include kitchenette in some rooms, air conditioning, free wifi in the rooms, and free breakfast. It is located on Manee Nopparat Road in the Si Phum subdistrict.
Midrange $100 – $160 per night
Puripunn Baby Grand Boutique Hotel
Puripunn Baby Grand is grand indeed. Situated near Wat Gate, this small 5 Star boutique hotel is traditional Lanna architecture with modern luxury. The 30 rooms are decorated with bold colors and vintage décor. Modern convenience is part of the package, of course, with air conditioning, free wifi, and a spacious bathroom with rain shower. There is a stunning pool and fitness center, as well as a great restaurant and spa. Prices start at about $140 a night for a standard room, so it’s at the high end of the midrange category, but it feels like a truly luxurious property. Rates depend on season and type of room.
Yaang Come Village
Yaang Come Village is in the Night Bazaar area of Chiang Mai within walking distance to the Ping River. This tranquil and secluded hideaway is actually in the midst of one of the busiest and most happening areas of the city. The Night Bazaar has shops, restaurants, bars, and spas aplenty, so you will be walking distance to everything, including the Old City, when you stay in this stunning hotel. It’s a 5 Star boutique hotel with lush, green surroundings. Superior rooms are spacious at 38 square meters, and décor is traditionally Thai with beautiful artwork and embroidered bedding. The pool is serene and stunning, and there is a restaurant and bar on site. Amenities include free wifi, air conditioning, free breakfast, airport transportation, and even a business center if you must get some work done. Prices range from $105 to $240 a night depending on season and type of room.
High $160 + per night
Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel & Spa
This boutique hotel is absolutely stunning. It’s the pinnacle of luxury and its riverside location is just perfect. There are 19 beautifully appointed rooms in this hotel, ensuring personalized service at this 5 Star hotel. Every room is unique. Teakwood floors and Persian rugs add to a romantic ambiance. Each room has a balcony with a table and chairs for enjoying your morning coffee. Ping Nakara has an absolutely stunning pool, as if those luxurious rooms weren’t enough to relax you. Amenities include free wifi, restaurant and bar, free breakfast, air conditioning, airport transport, and free parking. A property like this would be twice as much anywhere else. During high season rates start at $175 per night.
This stunning high end hotel is unique in every way. From the antiques in the hallways to the tranquil pool, every single touch on this hotel was closely considered by some of the best architects and designers in Thailand. Each room is different from the next. Some feel like 19th century China with bright red color accents and Chinese lanterns. It’s located in the center of the Old City and has just 22 rooms and 2 suites. This property sits on 2 acres and has lovely, tranquil gardens to roam as you enjoy peace and serenity in the midst of the Old City. Standard rooms range from $185 to $760 (suites) a night during high season.
Best Place to stay in Chiang Mai
137 Pillars House
This is a 5 Star luxury boutique hotel on the bank of the Ping River on Na Wat Gate Road that will send you back in time with its vintage Thai luxury. The service at this hotel is truly top notch. The hotel wanted to retain its historic charm, so they brought in historians as well as conservation specialists to work on the design. This building has been here since 1889, but modern touches ensure a luxurious stay.
The hotel has 30 suites, the smallest of which is 70 square meters. All room are air-conditioned and have ceiling fans, free wifi, iPod connectors, and much more. Two rooms have a private pool. The hotel has stunning verandas with rattan furniture for relaxing with a cocktail. Bathrooms have free standing bathtubs and modern fixtures.
Restaurant options include Jack Bain’s Bar, Palette, Wine Cellar and more, and they use organic produce from the hotel’s very own garden. They also have a spa, gym, and a stunning swimming pool.
What does all this cost? Average rates for a standard room start at $370 a night. Prices can go as high as $1000 a night, but it does fill up during high season, so I recommend booking early. While Chiang Mai is often considered a backpacker type of town, this hotel is proof that sheer luxury does exist here for the high-end traveler.
Chiang Mai Area Guide
Chiang Mai is located in northern Thailand in the Ping Valley, restricted from building on either side by mountains. The majority of the town is on the west side of the Ping River. The Doi Suthep/Pui mountains are to the west and the Doi Saket hills are to the east of the Ping River. It is surrounded by farmland and transport routes are excellent.
The Old City is the actual city center of Chiang Mai. It sits west of the Ping River and is about 1.5 square kilometers, or about a square mile in size. Easily navigable on foot, the Old City is meant to be explored and enjoyed. It was surrounded by old city walls and moats at one time, and while the walls are still sort of intact, the four bastions at each corner of the city are really worth seeing. The moat around the walls makes for some dramatic photos when you’re standing outside the city walls.
There are numerous sights to see and experience within the old city walls. The original gates are also still intact and Thaphae is the main gate located on the eastern side near the Ping River. Many temples and a museum district are also inside the city walls.
The Old City is a haven for backpackers with cheap food and lodging readily available and abundant. There is a vibrant nightlife and lots of shopping in the Old City as well.
By East, I mean east of the Old City as well as east of the Ping River. This area is starting to develop rapidly with lots of modern cafes and hotels with character. The center of the city has gravitated to this area where you will find a busy nightlife, Loi Kroh which is the bar and restaurant street. Chiang Mai’s Chinatown, known as Worarot, is also located here. It’s a large bazaar consisting of covered and street markets. J
Just a few minutes walk south of Chinatown is the Night Bazaar area which has numerous hotels, bars, restaurants, and spas. It’s a great location for exploring the east side, the Old City, and visiting the beautiful riverfront bars and restaurants for a relaxing meal by the water.
Nimmanhaemin is the upscale west/northern suburb of Chiang Mai. A lot of expats live here. Young locals come here for the nightlife. You can find just about any type of bar, café, or restaurant you can imagine here. There are also chic boutiques for those who love to shop.
Continue past Nimmanhaemin Str and you’ll find Su Thep district where you can see Chiang Mai University and visit the zoo at the foothills of the Doi Suthep mountains. There are several temples in this area as well, such as Wat Umong, Wat Jet Yot, and the National Museum is also here. There’s also a small market that is quite popular called Don Phayam where you will find a lively atmosphere and colorful produce, herbs, and even some fried insects.
North/Mae Sa Valley
The northern suburb of Chang Puak is where the local bus station by the same name is located. There’s also Kamthieng Market, but not much else of interest. There are several hotels and restaurants here, but not much else that is noteworthy.
General Tips for Chiang Mai Travel
Responsible and Respectful Tourism
There is much that can be said here about responsible tourism and the need for it in Thailand. But I will keep it to a minimum.
In the north of Thailand, the elephant is highly revered. Sort of. Some locals don’t really understand what it means to really respect these creatures. Exploitation of elephants is wide-spread in Thailand and many tourists are unaware of the harm that riding elephants and training them to perform tricks does to these animals. Riding them causes great harm to their spines, even if there is no chair, and performing tricks is not only harmful, it is degrading to these majestic creatures. Please do not contribute financially or otherwise to this treatment of elephants, and do not promote it by visiting these places. They will all say they are sanctuaries for the elephants, but a true sanctuary allows the elephants to live as they are meant to with no riders, no tricks, and no chains. These do exist near Chiang Mai and I will recommend a couple of places where the elephants live as they are meant to and people can still interact with them.
There are also tiger temples that are anything but a temple. These tigers are bred in captivity for the purpose of making money. They are drugged so that they are lethargic and unaware of the humans having their photos taken with them. Again, please do not contribute financially or otherwise to these inhumane operations.
Do your research before visiting any elephants or other wild animals. If something seems out of place or unnatural, that’s because it probably is.
Responsible and Respectful Driving
Be aware that there is a helmet law in Chiang Mai, so always wear a helmet when riding a motorbike. Also, be careful when riding through puddles as they often conceal potholes.
Thais don’t view traffic laws so much as laws, but more like guidelines. Not very strict guidelines at that. Driving in Chiang Mai, whether in a car or on a motorbike, means you should definitely proceed with caution, although within the city traffic is pretty orderly. Exercise caution especially when traveling into the mountains on curvy roads shared by locals.
Many hotels and resorts now offer free wifi, even in the rooms. Many internet cafes are scattered around. There is enough free wifi on offer in Chiang Mai that you really shouldn’t need to pay for it unless you’re there to work. In that case, see the next section on Coworking/Digital Nomads.
Coworking/Digital Nomads/Expat Living
Coworking/Digital Workspace for Digital Nomads
Chiang Mai is a top destination for bloggers and digital nomads because of the low cost of living. It’s extremely affordable, has excellent services, and great coworking spaces. Internet services in Chiang Mai are excellent and coworking space is plentiful, affordable, and dare I say, luxurious?
I’ve listed some of the most popular coworking spaces here with a description. With a bit of research, you can find one that’s right for you.
Punspace registers at the top of the coworking spaces in Chiang Mai. There are actually two locations and users can utilize both without any additional costs. There is a branch in Nimmanhaemin and near Thaphae Gate. Both locations are open 24/7 for members only. For everyone else, you can utilize the space Monday to Saturday from 9:00am to 6:00pm. Visitors can come during these hours to purchase a day pass. Amenities include Skype rooms, meeting rooms with projectors and webcams, printers, scanners, copiers, and more. A monthly membership is 3500 baht. Quarterly is 9000 baht. Half a year is 16000 baht. As you can see, membership has its privileges.
Located near the railway station and Arcade bus station, this space is built to enhance creativity and positivity. The workspace is bright and welcoming and the Amazon Café is a great place to recharge. There’s also a room where you can power nap if necessary. And let’s not forget the mini-golf course if you need to unwind. Starwork is air-conditioned, but it has an outdoor terrace if AC isn’t your thing. It’s open 24 hours a day and has 3 meeting rooms. The daily rate is 180 baht, monthly is 1990 baht. There is no deposit, but be forewarned, they do not accept credit cards.
Located on Nimmanhaemin Road, west of the Old City, MANA is surrounded by cheap, local food, making it easy to grab a quick, delicious bite without interrupting your work flow. There’s room for 14 people here, so it’s a small place, but that allows them to provide very personalized service. They have a café with homemade cakes and coffee, and there’s a butler circulating with free water and tea. It’s open from 9:30am to 10:00pm. Prices are daily 99 baht, weekly 650 baht, and monthly 2800 baht. They do not accept credit cards.
Chiang Mai has earned the distinction of being in the top 10 most livable cities in all of Asia. It’s relaxed atmosphere, agreeable climate, and affordability are very appealing to a lot of expats. The locals don’t mind foreigners coming to their city to live because it is beneficial to the local economy.
There are currently over 40,000 expats living in Chiang Mai. The variety of services, excellent hospitals, school, and social life make Chiang Mai an easy place to adapt to. English is widely spoken. Locals are accustomed to the high expectations of foreigners, meaning services are excellent and it is easy to adapt to life in Chiang Mai.
A visa is required to live in Thailand, but there are a variety of visa options. Permanent residency is quite difficult to obtain, but a non-immigrant visa is an option. They are fairly easy to obtain, but the process is a pain and it can be costly. For more information on the types of visas, check here.
I found this site to have some good details about Chiang Mai immigration. It is more detailed than most.
There are several employment options available for expats, but a valid work permit is required and taxes must be paid. For more information on working in Chiang Mai, there are numerous websites you can use. If you’re interested in teaching English, there are many jobs available, pretty much all the time, but they don’t all pay equally or have the same hours as a private school teaching job.
There is also a Chiang Mai expats club that meets on the second and fourth Saturday of every month. They meet on Huay Kaew Road at the Royal Orchid Hotel. Meetings begin at 10:30, but show up early and meet some new people. This is a great place to get information, even if you are just considering moving to Chiang Mai. If you already live in Chiang Mai, the meetings are a great place to meet new people and make connections, and just have fun. Having a circle of friends enhances any expat experience and makes it easier to adapt to a new place.
A Budget for Every Traveler
Chiang Mai is commonly known as a budget traveler’s dream. The affordability of this city is one reason why so many tourists turn into expats who stay here. Even during high season, a budget traveler can spend less than $20 a day on food, lodging, transportation, and activities. There are so many free things to do in and around Chiang Mai, and you can get a good meal for $2. The hostel I mentioned is about $10 a night for a bed, but there are many that are even cheaper if you don’t care about the modern touches.
The midrange traveler can enjoy semi-luxury accommodation and some seriously good eats and activities on a budget of about $40 a day. The biggest difference between budget and midrange will be accommodation. If two people are sharing a room, $40 a day is very doable.
The luxury traveler will experience Chiang Mai in a way others cannot. Even midrange lodging can feel very luxurious. For $100 a day, if two people are sharing the accommodation, the choice of food, even fine dining, and activities is limitless.
The Final Word
Chiang Mai should be on your travel itinerary and, after Bangkok, is a must-see destination and provides a nice counterpoint (and break) from the hustle-bustle of Bangkok.
After a few days of crazyness in Bangkok, you are typically presented with a choice: explore Thailand’s beachorific southern beauty (Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Phuket, etc), or head to the mountainous north, starting with Chiang Mai. You can’t go wrong with either the North or South and both are worthy of your time.
Chiang Mai is also the gateway and launch point to northern Thailand, providing easy access to other places like Pai, the incredible Mae Hong Son Loop, the mountainous city of Chang Rai, and much more.