Thailand’s second largest city, is home to just 250,000 people. The main walls of the old city are still visible, and inside these walls houses a deep concentration of ancient temples, massage parlours and hostels, all within walking distance of one and other. Chiang Mai, which means new city, was originally the capital of the kingdom back in 1296. It’s now a popular holiday destination for Thais as well as tourists, offering adventure, from elephant rides to zip lining.
Chiang Mai Quick Links
Chiang Mai To Do List
- Climb Doi Suthep.
- Go on a trek into the jungles.
- Homestay with a hill tribe.
- Visit an elephant conservation.
- Shop at the infamous Sunday walking market.
- Experience a Thai cooking class.
- Get a Thai Massage for an ex-offender.
- Head off to Pai for a few days relaxing and yoga.
- Try an extreme jungle sport – white water rafting / bungee jumping / gibbon experience.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
Within the city walls, most things can easily be walked to. There are songthaws (red trucks with wooden seating in the back that drive around routes and should cost no more than 20฿ (0.44 GBP / 0.58 USD) depending on how far you are going, but you will often be over charged as a tourist. It’s not unheard of for drivers to charge non-locals 100฿ (2.22 GBP / 2.88 USD) each for a 1-2km trip to the clubs, so check before you hop on.
Likewise, there are tuk tuks available, but will often overcharge you. Instead, most people looking to go further than the city walls, or who aren’t prepared to walk long distances each day, should look at hiring a scooter. Prices start from 79฿ (1.76 GBP / 2.28 USD). You’ll be told if you want to go to Doi Suthep it is uphill and you’ll need a more powerful bike. This Is simply not true, a basic 100cc scooter will do.
If you are heading from the airport, there is a cost effective shared minibus at just 40฿ (0.89 GBP / 1.15 USD) per person. It will take you direct to your hotel, and depending on the number of people in your group, could workout cheaper than a taxi. Details on where to find the minibus can be found on ExitTheAirport.
What to do In Chiang Mai
Make sure to wear sleeved tops that cover your shoulders, and bottoms that cover your knees when visiting temples.
Unlike Bangkok, most temples in Chiang Mai have no entrance fee, and are all relatively close to each other. It’s therefore possible to do a self guided temple tour in half a day either by walking or hiring a bicycle (49฿ / 1.09 GBP / 1.41 USD). The main temples to visit are:-
Wat Lok Moli is just on the edge of the walled centre, and contains a huge prominent chedi. It dates from around the 1300s.
Wat Khuan Khama, opposite Wat Lok Molee, is guarded by a large, impressive, Buddha and decorated around its’ wall with golden horses.
Wat Lam Chang, as its name suggests, is guarded by a number of elephant statues, with some detailed wooden sculptures.
Wat Chiang Man – the first temple of Chiangmai, built by the founder of Chiang Mai between 1296-1297.
Wat Phan Tao is a large teak building that is one of my favourite treasures within Chiang Mai, featuring beautiful mosaics.
Wat Chedi Luang literally means ‘huge chedi’, the original chedi was ruined at least 200 years ago, but a partial restoration has been created to help preserve the temple.
Wat Phra Singh featuring a ‘Lion Buddha’ in a small chapel at the back of the complex.
Three King’s Monument in the centre of town, celebrates the founding fathers of Chiang Mai – with sculptures of King Mengrai, King Ramkamhaeng and King Ngam Muang.
Chiang Mai Art and Cultural Centre, opposite the Three King’s Monument, features historic and cultural exhibits, built in order to preserve the heritage of the city. Entrance is 90฿ (2.00 GBP / 2.59 USD).
Thea Pae As Gate is the original entrance to the city, still partially visible in most parts of the original walled city, it now makes a great photo opportunity.
Further outside the city walls, you will find Wat Ched Yot, which is a place of pilgrimage for those born in the year of the snake.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (often simply referred to as Doi Suthep), is a little further out from the city, but is a very sacred place, and well worth the trip. The beautiful gold decorated mount provides excellent views of the city. Entrance is 30฿ (0.67 GBP / 0.86 USD) for tourists, but you’ll find many just walk straight past the ticket counter. This can be visited by renting a motorbike or catching one of the songthaw from outside Chiang Mai Zoo.
Another far out sight worth a visit, is Chiang Mai canyon at an entrance of 50฿ (1.11 GBP / 1.44 USD). It is a privately owned canyon, which, unlike the Grand Canyon in USA, has a body of water at the edge of its cliffs. This is the biggest draw to the canyon, where tourists will cliff dive off the edge of the huge cliffs into the cold water below!
Bua Thong waterfall is very far north of the main city – some 90 minute drive – but has a very interesting natural phenomenon – it is a waterfall known locally as ‘The Sticky Waterfall of Chiang Mai’, in which you can quite literally climb up the waterfall. Deposits of minerals over the years have stuck to the rocks of the waterfall and hardened to create a sponge-like, grippy, surface that allows visitors to walk up the cliff edge with ease. Entry is currently free, and while the waterfalls themselves are relatively unimpressive, this phenomenon is one of the only places in the world I have seen this.
Massages are ever prevailing in Chiang Mai, and a popular place to get one is Lila Thai Massage, at 200฿ (4.45 GBP / 5.76 USD) for a 1 hour massage. The interesting twist, is these massages are done by ex-criminals. There are a number of other massage parlours that offer nuat Thai (traditional Thai massage), all of which vary in quality – Nimman House is considered one of the best value for money. Many of the massage parlours in Loi Kroh have cheap rates (from 100-200฿), but most of these are done by masseuses with little knowledge of the Thai massage, and are generally just outfits for establishments offering ‘happy endings’ and won’t necessarily be a good massage.
Cooking classes are very big within Chiang Mai, with Thai Farm, and A Lot of Thai being among the most popular ones. Classes generally cost around 1,200฿ (26.70 GBP / 34.56 USD), and almost all contain a visit to a local market to purchase food, followed by cooking (and of course eating) about 3-5 different courses.
Elephants are a huge part of the tourism in Chiang Mai, and there are many different elephant sanctuaries. It is certainly not cheap to go to these places, with many charging around 2,500฿ (55.61 GBP / 72.00 USD) for a single day visit to bathe and feed the elephants. Among the most reputable ones, are the Elephant Nature Park and Patara Elephant Farm, which are considered by most to be cruelty-free.
Most parks won’t let you ride an elephant, others will. If your conscious will allow you to ride an elephant, I would recommend a combined tour from Chiang Mai Adventure or All Chiang Mai Tours. It typically costs 800-1,000฿ (22.25 GBP / 28.80 USD) and includes riding an elephant, a short trek and white water rafting. Please make sure you are aware of the process an elephant must go through in order to be ‘broken in’ before it can be ridden before doing this, as it is considered cruel by many.
Another controversial animal attraction, is the nearby Tiger Kingdom. For as little as 600฿ (13.35 GBP / 17.28 USD), you will be able to take a photo with a tiger of varying sides (that are considered by most to be sedated or drugged in order to tame them and make them ‘safer’ for tourists to pose with).
Chiang Mai Zoo has a night safari. This huge 300 acre safari is twice the size of the Singapore Night Safari – and considered by many to be one of the most beautiful ones in the world. Expensive, at 600-800฿ (17.80 GBP / 23.04 USD), but interesting way to spend a night if you aren’t into partying or shopping. This ticket allows you to use the 1 hour round trip tram to enter 2 zones – The Savanna Zone and the Predator Prowl Zone. The ticket also allows you to walk through the Jaguar Trail Zone (alternative those on a budget can buy a walking trail ticket only which is a modest 100฿ (2.22 GBP / 2.88 USD), but in my opinion it isn’t as exciting as most of the animals in the tram zone).
One of the most expensive adventure trips in Chiang Mai, is Flight of the Gibbon, which gives adventures the chance to leap among the treetops of Northern Thailand – allowing guests to scale, abseil and zipline upto 800m (about 2,600ft) between the trees for around 3 hours, while being guided by the on-site rangers who will point out the wealth of wildlife below. Tickets can be combined with their 2 hour segway tours of Chiang Mai. Prices start at around 4,000฿ (88.98 GBP / 115.20 USD).
Chiang Mai X-Centre offers a lot of adventure sports; xorbing, paintballing, drift carting and ATV off-roading – but one of the most popular thrills they offer, is bungy jumping – at 2,000฿ (44.49 GBP / 57.60 USD) per jump, participants leap 50 meters (164ft) down onto a huge lagoon.
Chiang Mai does have its’ fair share of daytime shopping – from the upmarket Maya mall in the west near the University, the Central Plaza next to the airport, right the way up to the Central Festival Mall to the east on the San Dek Intersection. But what Chiang Mai lacks in terms of Bangkok’s plethora of megamalls, it certainly makes up for at night time, when things really come alive. Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on the east of the city walls, is a 1km long strip of road that is open daily, from sunset till midnight. You’ll find metal stalls lining the street, selling a mix of local Thai goods, foods as well as the usual tourist tat. Branching off from this main road is also the Asunarm Market and Kalare Night Bazaar.
Sunday Walking Street Night Market is a huge market located in the centre of the city walls that opens from 4pm till midnight on Sundays only. Slightly different from the above night bazaar, the walking street market almost exclusively offers local Thai handicrafts created by the Northern Thai people, as well as streets full of delicious street foods.
Still with a strong military presence, you will find that most of Chiang Mai’s nightlife tends to close quite promptly at around midnight (which is when an official curfew is in place for Thailand), however, bars that can afford to, will often bribe authorities to stay open, or you might find yourself having to find ‘alternative’ entrances through back doors, via toilets, in order to get into a club after midnight. By around 2am, almost everything has closed in most circumstances.
Roughly speaking, the city is divided into 3 areas, Loi Kroh to the east – often considered a little seedy, the strip of bars around Loi Kroh are full of go-go bars and massage parlours – but they are all in a single heavily populated strip, so easy to find and stagger on to the next. Just off Loh Kroh is the C.M Entertainment Complex, which features a cabaret show, a muay Thai stadium (that can typically be cheaper than the tourist stadiums of Bangkok & Phuket), as well as a further 25-30 gogo bars.
The second part is around the northern part of the walled city – called Boon Yoo market. This area is popular with tourists and backpackers. One of the most popular night spots in Chiang Mai, is Zoe in Yellow, particularly popular with backpackers. This open air bar leads into a courtyard, and music often continues until about midnight. Nearby is Roots Reggae Bar where people will often spill into when Zoe is overflowing.
There is a great jazz bar – The North Gate Jazz Co-Op – a small shop front, that spills out onto the street, with live music that is always packed, just north of the city wall. Timings vary, but generally an hour or two between 8pm and midnight.
Those who prefer something in the middle may like to head to THC – a rooftop bar, just opposite Tapae Gate. With cheap beers, a stunning view of the city and treehouse vibes, it is easy to see why this place has become so popular with backpackers.
Spicy is the main party nightclub, just north of the East Gate (Tha Phae Gate). Spicy is an old school disco style club, and is often one of the last to close at around 1-2am.
After hours, you will struggle to find most venues open, but in the Old City the main ones are the Living Room which is a lounge hidden behind Miami Hotel, and Jack Wan which is about 100m from Spicy (near to Mad Cow Burger). Both of these close between 5-6am.
The third area, is Nimmanhemin Road. This is to the west of the walled city, and is located around the University. As a result, it tends to have very few tourists, and mainly attracts students and Thai locals. Generally speaking the bars in this area play Thai music and are inexpensive, with local beer between 60-80฿ (1.56 GBP / 2.02 USD). The most popular clubs are on Soi 7 & Soi 9 – with Mirror Cafe, LISM and Rush Bar being among my favourites.
For those that prefer a more upmarket nightclub in the University area, there is Infinity, Loft and Warm Up, but these typically impose entrance fees of around 200฿ (4.45 GBP / 5.76 USD).
Two festivals that shouldn’t be missed if you are in the area at the time are Songkran and Yee Peng celebrations
If you’re in Chiang Mai in November, the Yee Peng festival (also known as the Floating Lantern Festival), is quite a sight as thousands of lanterns are simultaneously set off into the sky; thought to help send away all the unpleasantness and worries in a person’s life, this annual festival changes the date it falls on based on the lunar calendar, so is worth checking locally what date it falls on this year.
Songkran is celebrated throughout Thailand, and is a huge water festival, held between 13-15th April. It is the Thai New Year, and it means ‘to move forward’. Celebrations include dumping buckets of water over passersby, and squirting people with water guns – the idea being that this water helps get rid of the bad luck from the past year and cleanses people ready for the New Year. Chiang Mai is considered one of the most exciting places in Thailand to experience Songkran because the compact city size quickly fills up as people from all around the surrounding areas congregate in the centre for a 2-4 day public holiday!
Eating In Chiang Mai
Budget travellers will love the street food in Chiang Mai, especially as it is on the doorstep of many cheap accomodation in Chiang Mai. 3 of the best eateries in Chiang Mai are budget restaurants that are on the northern strip, and all of them cost between 50-100฿. Pork from cowboy hat girl (as recommended by Anthony Bourdain), Suki just two doors down and chicken across the road and a little bit further down. There is also a night market aimed at university students on the west side of the city which is worth a look if you have a bike.
For casual diners, Jagajee, La terrace, and have meals ranging from 100-250฿.
Those looking to treat themselves will find a number of high end boutique restaurants in La fiurchette . Prices here start from around 300฿ and rise up to 1,000฿ for imported steaks.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
Given the small size of the main city centre of Chiang Mai, most places are within easy access to the city’s main sights. You are probably better off staying somewhere in the main square, most backpackers tend to stay either on the north road or Loh Krohnroad (though the latter is increasingly noisy and seedy), however, you may find yourself attracted to the east of the city if you’re looking for a nice private room – be mindful it can be surprisingly expensive to charter a taxi back to this area late at night, and the city’s one way system can make it long drive back .
Hostels in Chiang Mai (130-370฿)
Budget dormitory – the vast majority of hostels are located on a strip just north of old city wall on Manee Nopparat Road. Having personally stayed in at about a dozen around here, I can confirm they are all very similar in their offer and price.
- A Good Place Hostel – Value Choice
A slightly eccentric owner who will always try and up-sell his tours, but if you can look past that, the rooms are clean, relatively comfortable, and well positioned just north of the city walls. Rooms start at a crazy low 130฿ per night (2.89 GBP / 3.74 USD).
- Green Tiger Vegetarian House / Hug Hostel – Social Choice
Super comfortable beds, two of the most highly rated in the town. 370฿ per night (8.23 GBP / 10.66 USD).
- D-Well Hostel – Travel Bloggers Choice
Recommended by multiple travel bloggers, and for a good reason, this good value hostel is in an excellent location, and has very comfortable beds. 350฿ per night (7.79 GBP / 10.08 USD).
- @25 Hostel – Digital Nomad Choice
Built with nomads in mind, super-fast internet, Netflix and laptop tables in every bed. 150฿ per night (3.34 GBP / 4.32 USD).
- Muan Hostel – Location Choice
On the more pricey side of hostels in Chiang Mai, but the beds are super comfy, location spot on for exploring both the old city, and for tiptoeing into the nightlife scene down Loi Khro . Ask for a bed with a window view, and have an afternoon snooze on the hammocks in the common room. 370฿ per night (8.23 GBP / 10.66 USD).
- Oxotel – Comfort Choice
Beautifully designed art hostel with comfortable beds to go with it. 320฿ per night (7.12 GBP / 9.22 USD).
- @Box Hostel – Quirky Choice
Ever fancied sleeping in an upcycled shipping container? @Box gives you exactly that chance. 255฿ per night (5.67 GBP / 7.34 USD).
- – Out of Town Choice
A super comfortable hostel, just on the edge of the old city. 350฿ per night (7.79 GBP / 10.08 USD).
Basic Hotels in Chiang Mai (380-1,400฿)
Its not all that expensive to stay in a hotel in Chiang Mai, and there are some surprisingly good value options out there.
- Bunk Boutique / S*TRips – Value Choice
Two of the best value hotels in Chiang Mai. The first time I stayed at Bunk Boutique, I thought it had been a price error, or promotional price, but they offer generally good rates all year round. Location not ideal, a little further North than the main square. 380฿ per night (8.45 GBP / 10.94 USD).
- Shanghai Mansion – Travel Bloggers Choice
Located in Bangkok’s Chinatown, Shanghai Mansion recreates 1930s Shanghai, in this refurbished building that dates back to 1892. 1,990฿ per night (44.27 GBP / 57.31 USD).
- Oneday Sukhumvit – Digital Nomad Choice (For Those Starting Out)
Also a hostel, but it is the private rooms that really shine here. Just outside of Phrom Phong station. Huge coworking areas. Doubles start at 1,350฿ per night (30.03 GBP / 38.88 USD).
- Lanna Tree Boutique Hotel – Location Choice
Nested right in the heart of the old town, you’ll be hard pushed to find this kind of luxury any closer to the sights of Chiang Mai. From 1,900฿ per night (42.27 GBP / 54.72 USD)
- Tenface Bangkok – Comfort Choice
The beds here are made of unicorn feathers – or something like that – all I know is I didn’t want to leave! 2,050฿ per night (45.60 GBP / 59.04 USD).
- Tanita House – Quirky Choice
This unique property is set along Chiang Mai’s River Ping, and is crafted entirely out of old teak wood. It provides the rare opportunity to experience a traditional Northern Thai style of living. 1,450฿ per night (32.26 GBP / 41.76 USD).
- MeStyle Place – Out of Town Choice
With an entrance that is Instagram-worthy, this recently opened hotel, is located a little outside the main tourist parts of Bangkok, nestled in amongst the large townhouses in Ratchada. The location means you’re able to feel close to the locals, but are also just a 20 minutes MRT ride from the busy Westernised business centre of Sukhumvit. 1,100฿ per night (24.47 GBP / 31.68 USD).
Luxury Hotels in Chiang Mai (1,400-17,000฿)
You’re certainly spoilt for choice when looking for luxury in the peaceful haven of Chiang Mai.
- 99 The Gallery Hotel – Value Choice
Although this is technically a 3*, the luxuries within had me feeling as though I was staying in a 5*. From 1,400฿ per night (31.14 GBP / 40.32 USD).
- The Dhara Dhevi – Travel Bloggers Choice
It is a tough choice between Four Seasons and The Dhara Dhevi, and bloggers give it a split down the middle. I felt that The Dhara just about took the prize, as I really felt the unique private paradise villa really offered a USP, compared to ‘just’ a fantastic luxury hotel offer of the Four Seasons. Private villas from 17,000฿ per night (378.18 GBP / 489.59 USD).
- BaanBooLoo – Location Choice
This traditional Thai guest house is set right in the heart of the old city. From 2,900฿ per night (65.63 GBP / 84.96 USD).
- The Rim, Chiang Mai – Comfort Choice
The Wifi is a little shaky – and I suppose this to many could class it as ‘uncomortable’ – but most people come to Chiang Mai to disconnect and fall in love with nature, and this hotel offers exactly that. From 3,600฿ per night (80.09 GBP / 103.68 USD)
- Puripunn Baby Grand Hotel – Quirky Choice
Created with nostalgia in mind, this hotel has been formed to create one of the most stunning wood carved 5* hotels in Chiang Mai. From 3,600฿ per night (80.09 GBP / 103.68 USD)
- 137 Pillars House – Out of Town Choice
If you’ve come to Chaing Mai for a money-no-object getaway, 137 Pillars is your place. Set just over the other side of the town’s moat, 137 Pillars is a Narnia to Thailand. Prices start from around 14,600฿ per night (324.79 GBP / 420.47 USD).