Thailand’s fifth largest city has become hugely popular with tourists, but despite the constant new arrivals, this former capital of the Lanna Kingdom has retained its charm and laidback feel.
Chiang Mai is culturally and historically a very interesting city. Although it may appear to be a modern metropolis from the outskirts, get closer to the ancient walled centre and you’ll find many remnants of the city’s historic past. The walled city houses over 30 temples dating back to the founding of the principality in a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles.
Modern Chiang Mai has expanded in all directions but particularly towards the east and the Ping River, where Chang Klan Road, home of the famous Night Bazaar and the majority of Chiang Mai’s hotels and guest houses are located.
Chiang Mai is nestled amongst forested foothills and lush green countryside. It may take half an hour or so to escape the sprawling superhighways that ring the city, but keep going and you will reach sublime scenery, quiet country villages and bubbling hot springs as well as a wide range of different outdoor activities to take part in.
Chiang Mai is the hub of Northern Thailand and is very easy to get to from elsewhere in Thailand or South East Asia.
Chiang Mai International Airport handles both domestic and regional international flights. Domestic airports that fly to Chiang Mai include: Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, Hat Yai, Ko Samui, Udon Thani, Nan.
Lots of operators run flights almost every hour from Bangkok. Nok Air and Air Asia are usually the cheapest but keep an eye out for special promotional rates from other operators.
International airports that fly to Chiang Mai: KL, Hong Kong, Macau, Beijing, Taiwan, Seoul, Luang Prabang, Singapore, Yangon (Myanmar)
The Airport is around 3km southwest of the city centre, only a 10 – 15 minute journey by car. Legal airport taxi’s charge a fixed rate of 160 baht for up to 5 passengers anywhere in the city, except for Arcade bus terminal which costs 200 baht. Alternatively take bus number 4 to the city centre for 15 baht or get a tuk-tuk or songthaew for 50 – 60 baht per person.
A number of daily buses leave frequently from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal – Mo Chit. Prices vary depending on the level of comfort and speed of the journey. The cheapest option at around 400 – 800 baht will be a rattling government bus that will make frequent stops and take around 12 hours to reach Chiang Mai. Non-stop 24 or 32 seat coaches and 1st class busses such as Green Bus or Nakhon Chai Air provide bigger seats and snacks; making the long journey much more comfortable.
Avoid booking your bus from anywhere on Khao San Road unless you trust the seller. Although tickets can be found incredibly cheap here, what’s promised isn’t often delivered and you may be faced with a very uncomfortable journey ahead.
Buses to Chiang Mai also run regularly from neighbouring city Chiang Rai. These buses also run very frequently and, similarly to those from Bangkok, a range of options are available from 1st class coaches to small government buses. The journey takes around 2 – 3 hours and the cheapest Green Bus ticket will cost you 180 baht.
Trains depart from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station on a regular daily schedule and take around 14 – 16 hours to reach Chiang Mai. The most popular option is to travel by night train and sleep through most of the journey. If you can book a train that arrives later in the morning so you have chance to see some of the beautiful scenery on route when you wake up.
If you travel in the day, choose from second and third class carriages which can be substantially cheaper than an overnight sleeper carriage. Second class a/c seated carriages are usually around 650 baht while second class a/c sleeper carriages cost around 800 baht and first class around 1500 baht.
Chiang Mai train station is about 3km east of the city centre. When you exit the station you won’t have to walk far to see plenty of songthaews and tuk-tuks waiting to take you into town. If you want to walk then cross the open square in front of the station and turn left on the first major road you come to, Charoen Muang Road, follow this road directly into the city centre.
Taxi’s don’t really drive around Chiang Mai looking for custom – they leave this to the tuk-tuks and songthaews. You will find them at the airport, railway stations, bus station and at some hotels. Aside from tuk-tuks, transportation can be difficult to find at night so it is worth carrying some taxi numbers with you.
At only around a mile squared, the old city is easy to walk around with plenty of pavements available to pedestrians. As you head further out of town it becomes harder to get around on foot as the roads turn into busy highways and pavements disappear.
If you have travelled to other parts of Thailand you will likely be familiar with catching a songthaew, which often exist instead of a local bus service and are usually the cheapest way of getting around. They are essentially covered pick-up trucks with two long seats in the back. The colour of the songthaew generally indicates its route. By far the most common are the red songthaews which don’t follow a specific route but instead roam the main streets and will take you to a specific destination. Prices must be negotiated as drivers will usually offer you an initially high tourist rate. Note that if you ask, many of the red songthaews will offer a taxi service where you can sit up front with AC and go direct to your destination – this will obviously cost extra.
Songthaews with a fixed route gather around Warorot Market. From here, white songthaews travel east to the suburban city of Sankampaeng, yellow songthaews will take you to Mae Rim in the north, blue songthaews travel to Sarapee and Lamphun in the south and green songthaews go to Mae Jo in the northeast. All of these fixed rate songthaews should charge a flat rate of 20 baht. Another fixed route to Hang Dong and San Patong, southwest of Chiang Mai, runs from Pratu Chiang Mai market and also costs 20 baht.
Are a quick way to get around town and short journeys should only cost around 50 baht. Tuks Tuks parked in areas with a high concentration of tourists, like the bus and train stations, will likely try and charge more but just haggle or walk another five minutes and flag down a tuk tuk for a cheaper fare.
Longer journeys, for example from centre of town to the train station will cost around 100 – 150 baht.
There are no shortage of places to rent a motorbike from in Chiang Mai and prices are pretty low. Automatic 110cc and 125cc are the easiest to drive especially if you don’t have a lot of riding experience (if you don’t have any, you probably shouldn’t be trying to rent anyway) and are well suited to getting around town.
If you plan to go further afield and into the countryside you should consider a semi-automatic 125cc and above to get you up the hilly surroundings without any problems.
Generally automatics are more expensive than semi’s depending on the type of motorbike. Expect to pay around 150 baht / day for the cheapest option.
Traffic within the old city walls is pretty subdued so you should feel fairly safe cycling around this part of Chiang Mai. There are plenty of bike rentals to choose from but we recommend Mon Cycles on Chang Moi Road who rent well maintained bikes plus their staff speak a range of languages including English and German. Very few places will supply helmets with bicycles so if you plan on cycling a lot it’s a good idea to pack one. Also beware of potholes!
Not to miss
Elephant Nature Park
If you want to interact with Elephants whilst you’re in Chiang Mai then Elephant Nature Park is the place to do it responsibly.
“Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand. Established in the 1990’s our aim has always been to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants. The park is located some 60km from the city, and has provided a sanctuary for dozens of distressed elephants from all over Thailand.”
There are a range of options for visiting the park dependent on the time you have available and your budget. You can visit for just half a day or volunteer for a few weeks.
It’s not just Elephants that are cared for here, ENP also looks after cats, dogs, buffaloes and many other rescued species.
Wat Chedi Luang
Dating back to the 14th Century, Wat Chedi Luang is a Buddhist temple located inside the old walled city. The construction of the site wasn’t completed until the mid-15th Century and was then possibly the largest structure in ancient Chiang Mai. The top of the chedi was unfortunately damaged either by a 16th century earthquake or by cannon fire during the recapture of the city from the Burmese in 1775.
The famed Emerald Budda (Phra Kaew), that is now housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, was located in the eastern nice until 1475. Today a jade replica sits in its place.
Another Buddha statue, named Phra Chao Attarot, which was cast in the late 14th century, resides in a wihan near the entrance to the temple.
The ‘city pillar’ (Lak Mueang) of Chiang Mai is also located on the temple grounds, moved here in 1800 by King Chao Kawila. A festival in honour of the city pillar is held here every year in May and last for 6 – 8 days.
There is also a daily Monk Chat that happens here which attracts quite a few interested travellers.
On the other side of the chedi is another teak pavilion housing a huge reclining Buddha statue and another seated Buddha.
Sunday Night Market
Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Market (or sometimes called Walking Street) starts at Tha Pae Gate and stretches for roughly 1km down the entire stretch of Ratchadamnoen Road and on to Pra Sing Roads, the old city’s principle east/west axis. The market is open every Sunday from 4pm till midnight.
Unlike Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar, and indeed many markets in Thailand, which are filled with fake goods and imitation designer labels, the Sunday Night Market is a showcase of the art and craftsmanship of the Northern Thai people. You will find lots of handmade products of very good quality and in a variety of materials from works on silk and paper to glass and ceramic pieces.
As the market is so large it’s a good idea to start at one end and walk your way through in an attempt to see it all. If you want to avoid the crowds try and get here before 17.00.
The market really comes to life after dark when a variety of street entertainers begin to perform. There is also some great food available from numerous stalls around Tha Pae Gate.
Doi Suthep National Park
Around 17 kilometres northwest of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep National Park, home to the Doi Suthep mountain and temple of the same name. Although most people come here to see the famous Wat, the national park also has lots more on offer.
A further 4 kilometres beyond Wat Prah That Doi Suthep is Phra Tamnak Phu Phing, the royal family’s winter palace and palace gardens. Open from 8.30am to 11.30am and from 1 to 1.30pm, admission is 50B. The palace occasionally closes when the royal family are visiting.
If you continue past the palace take the road left towards the peak of Doi Pui. From here the road continues for another couple of kilometres to reach the Hmong hill tribe village of Ban Doi Pui. There’s no longer much evidence of village life here though, instead you’ll find a paved market selling souvenirs and Hmong crafts. There is also a tiny museum with a 10 baht entrance free, that provides some information about hill tribes and the production of opium.
If you want to visit a less commercialised Hmong village than Doi Pui, take a right turn after the palace instead of a left and look out for a sign saying ‘Kun Chang Kain Mong Village – 7km’. The road is paved until you reach the Doi Pui camp ground where it turns into a dirt track for the remaining 4km – this can be difficult to traverse in rainy season.
Doi Suthep park itself is home to over 300 species of bird and nearly 2000 species of flowering plants and ferns. It boasts extensive hiking trails, including one that climbs 1685m to the summit of Doi Pui that is highly popular with trekkers. You can also drive or cycle to the summit and stop off along the way at the Nam Tok Monthathon falls.
You can stay in bungalows in the park located about a kilometre north of the Wat, by the park headquarters. You can follow another trail from here for 4km to reach the scenic and less visited Sai Yai waterfalls. Camping is also available at the Doi Pui camp ground where sleeping bags, gas fires, pots and pans are also available to hire.
There are numerous companies that offer ‘hike and bike’ adventure packages around Doi Suthep national park. For decent bikes and safety gear check out Mountain Biking Chiang Mai who offer a full day adventure package for 1750 baht.
Other attractions, wats & sights
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Is located on Doi Suthep Mountain, around 15 kilometres from Chiang Mai city. Most people get here by motorbike or via red songthaew (which can be found for a bargain if sharing with others) as the Wat can easily be reached by road. From the car park at the temple’s base, you can climb 309 steps to reach the pagodas or take a tram.
The temple was said to be founded in 1383 when the first stupa was allegedly built but it remains somewhat a legend with varied versions being told. The temple has expanded over time with the addition of more pagodas, statues, bells and shrines. On the far side of the temple you will find impressive views over Chiang Mai.
Please note that you must be appropriately dressed to visit Doi Suthep and once inside temple grounds remove your footwear.
Flight of the Gibbon
Chiang Mai is home to Thailand’s original zipline canopy tour; Flight of the Gibbon. With 5km of zipline’s, the Chiang Mai edition also features Asia’s longest ‘single flight’ zipline stretching 800m. Each group is assigned 2 ‘sky rangers’ trained to spot wildlife and everything unique to the forest reserve. As well as the zipline course you will also visit nearby waterfalls and an eco-village.
The best thing about visiting Flight of the Gibbon? Not only will you have an amazing time but you are also contributing to gibbon conservation! At the time of writing, a full day at Flight of the Gibbon will set you back 3999 baht.
There are many places in Chiang Mai that run yoga classes. Northern Thailand brings a Yogi kind of crowd so whether you’re a beginner, or an expert, you can find a class that suits you. NAMO Yoga offers 90-minute drop in classes in the mornings and evenings of Monday through to Saturday, and a class will cost you 220 baht. The Yoga Tree offers 75-90 minute classes daily from Monday through to Sunday, and cost 250 baht per class. Both studios offer 5-class passes for a discount. Freedom Yoga is a new yoga studio recently opened in Chiang Mai offering daily yoga classes and regular yoga workshops, they also run a vegetarian restaurant below the studio serving fresh healthy food and juice all day long.
Many of the studios in Chiang Mai also offer Yoga training and retreats so visit their websites to see if they are offering any during your stay.
Yoga retreats can be quite pricey so if you’re on a budget and still want good quality visit the Yoga House, just outside of Chiang Mai, who offer a 3 night yoga retreat for only 2,999 baht.
Wat Prah Singh
Located in the western part of the old walled city, the main entrance to Wat Prah Singh is situated at the end of Rachadamnoen road and guarded by two Singhs (lions).
The temple gains its name from the important Buddha statue which it houses, the origins of which are unknown. However there are two more Buddha statues in Thailand which are also claimed to be the Phra Buddha Singh.
Construction on the Wat began in 1345 when King Phayu had a chedi built to hold the ashes of his father. An elaborate, mosaic-inlaid wihan and several other building were added later.
Please respect Thai culture and dress appropriately when visiting any Wat or holy place.
Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre
Enjoy a taste of traditional Lanna Thai culture at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre. The centre includes a range of exhibitions, shows, markets and Muay Thai boxing.
The Cultural Centre claims to be the first place in Thailand to offer a Khantoke dinner show which showcases traditional Lanna culture and dance. The Khantoke dinner starts at 6.45 and is available every evening.
You can find out more about the centre and make bookings on their website.
Take a tour with a local
Localalike connects local people with their visitors and provides an authentic experience, unveiling the secret destinations that only the locals know best. Spend a day as an artisan, visit an Araksa tea plantation or be guided on a cultural walking tour of the old city, while tasting local delicacies and supporting local communities in a unique and entertaining way. The site offers a range of experiences in Chiang Mai, and other cities throughout Thailand.
Escape the city for the day and learn to cook some delicious food at the organic Thai Farm, located around 17 kilometres outside of Chiang Mai. You need to book in advance in order to visit the farm. Transport will be provided from the city before visiting the local Ruamchook market on the way to the farm. After a 20 minute drive you will arrive at the farm to enjoy the beautiful and tranquil surroundings. As well as teaching you how to prepare and cook some Northern Thai dishes, you will also learn about the farm, pick your own ingredients and find out about how they grow. For a full day course at the Thai Farm including transport, free drinking water and lunch, it will costs you 1300 baht. It’s a little more expensive than most cookery courses around but you get the added bonus of escaping the city and cooking in gorgeous countryside surroundings.
There are a plethora of other cooking classes located in the city centre for around 1000 baht. You’ll find numerous leaflets in most hostel and hotel receptions.
Pooh Eco Trekking
Chiang Mai province boasts some stunning countryside and one of the best ways to enjoy it is to go trekking. However the majority of treks offered in Chiang Mai are operated only a short distance from the city borders, visiting busy tourist locations in large groups and hill tribe villages that exist more for tourists to ‘visit’ than as genuine local communities. It’s definitely worth doing your research before booking any trekking experience but to save you some time we recommend Pooh Eco Trekking.
Pooh Eco Trekking are environmentally responsible, they travel in small groups of up to six tourists per trip and aim to have only a minimal impact on the natural surroundings ad local hill tribe communities they visit. They have a great range of treks available suitable for all kinds of abilities.
Eat for a cause
The Free Bird Café is a café that supports language and arts programs for Burmese refugees. They serve an organic vegetarian and vegan menu along with a range of homemade food, coffee and smoothies, with 100% of the profits from the cafe going to NGO, Thai Freedom House. You can also visit their pre-loved charity shop that has a great range of funky clothes, jeans, purses, jewellery, books, herbal spa products (Arun Thai) and much more.
Loi Krathong – Festival of Light
Loi Krathong is celebrated throughout Thailand but the festivities in Chiang Mai are particularly notable as they coincide with the Lanna festival of Yi Peng or Yee Peng.
The dates of Loi Krathong always cause confusion as they change every year depending on the full moon but it usually takes place in November. As Loy Krathong is integrated with Yee Ping in Chiang Mai the entire festival takes place over three days.
There are two of these you can attend. The first is one day before Loi Krathong and is free and another happens a week later but you have to pay to enter.
This is the official start of Loi Krathong throughout Thailand. In Chiang Mai is becomes part of Yee Ping and there are numerous places you can see or participate in releasing a floating lantern into the river Ping.
There will be activities available to take part in throughout the date at the Chiang Mai Municipality and around Nawarat Bridge. Learn to build your own floating Krathong or watch Krathong competitions.
The main celebrations usually kick off around sunset until 10pm however fireworks and firecrackers will continue to be released into the early hours. A great place to experience Loi Krathong is by the riverside area where many people will be launching Krathong’s.
The third day is much more subdued with many Thais who travelled to Chiang Mai using this day to return home. The highlight of the day is around 6pm when a parade begins from Tha Pae Gate to the Office of Chiang Mai Municipality, You can view the parade from anywhere on the main road and watch the highly decorative floats go by.
Food & drink
Although regional dishes can now be found in restaurants throughout Thailand, it’s arguably only in the north where you can find genuine North Thai cuisine.
The most famous northern dishes you’ll encounter in Chiang Mai include Khao Soi and Gaeng Hanglae. Khao Soi can be found in almost every Chiang Mai restaurant and consists of a delicious curried coconut-based broth with soft and crispy yellow noodles.
Gaeng Hanglae is a mild but rich curry often made thicker with the use of potatoes and peanuts and usually containing pork belly as the default meat.
Chiang Mai is also famous for its chilli dips; nam phrik num and nam phrik ong. Sticky rice balls are the ideal candidate for dipping but the dips are also generally served with vegetables or fried pork skin (keap moo or pork scratching’s to our British readers).
If you’re after some great street food then head down to the short section of Intawarorot road, near the Three Kings Monument between Chaban and Phrapokklao Roads and opposite the City Arts and Cultural Centre. This area is little frequented by tourists but is very well known amongst locals for its delicious and cheap food. If you want to try some authentic North Thai street food this is the place to go.
You will also find some great food available at the Sunday Night Market, particularly around Tha Pae Gate.
Chiang Mai has a fairly lively night life so if you love to party you shouldn’t be too disappointed. If you like live music and chilled out vibes head over to ‘reggae plaza’ just of Ratvithi road where you’ll find a great selection of reggae bars and live music venues.
A wide variety of accommodation across all budgets can be found throughout Chiang Mai but the majority of visitors opt to stay within the old walled city. However if you are prepared to go a little further out then you’ll likely find some cheaper options.
There is so much accommodation available in Chiang Mai the best way to find the best deals and narrow down your choices is to use an online booking site like booking.com
If you want to get out of the city and stay in the countryside, there are bungalows and camping facilities within Doi Suthep National Park.
Medical care in Chiang Mai, like elsewhere in Thailand is of an excellent, international standard. The three largest hospitals are Bangkok Hospital Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai Ram Hospital and Maharaj Nakorn Hospital.
Chiang Mai is a safe place to visit but, like most destinations popular with tourists, pick pocketing and other crime does happen.
The Chiang Mai Tourist Police are well equipped to deal with problems involving foreigners. Many offices speak other languages and they are supported by about 60 overseas volunteers from a number of different countries.
To contact the tourist police call 1155
Chiang Mai Tourist Police Main Office
No. 608 Rimping Plaza Building.
Charoen Rat Road, Tambon Faham, Muang District, Chiang Mai 50000
Tel – 053 247 318 Fax – 053 247 317
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