Of all of Thailand’s excellent destinations, Chiang Mai offers the perfect balance of culture, tourism, nature and relaxation while still being modern.
Thai culture has become famous for its easy going attitude, its hospitality, its religion, and its food among other things. Unfortunately, in some of some of Thailand’s more touristic locations, mainly in the south, tourist culture has overtaken local culture. In Chiang Mai, however, local culture is fully on display. You will easily be able to see how people live, how they eat and how they act.
Even more interesting is that below the surface you will find many diverse cultures in Chiang Mai and northern Thailand. Up until two centuries ago, northern Thailand was part of the Lanna Kingdom. The people of the north are ethnically and culturally different from the other regions of Thailand. Additionally, the north is home to handfuls of various hilltribe peoples: the Karen people, the Hmong, the Akha, Lasu and more. Each of these ethnic groups have their own distinct language, culture and history.
While there are no beaches here in the north, you will not find yourself short of options when it comes to enjoying nature. Chiang Mai and the surrounding provinces are littered with rolling mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, natural springs, lakes, farms and, of course, elephant sanctuaries.
The beauty of visiting Chiang Mai is that it takes such a short time to escape the city and to find yourself surrounded by nature. In less than an hour you could leave Chiang Mai’s Old City and find yourself trekking, bamboo rafting, bathing an elephant, observing water buffalo, camping under the stars or enjoying one of the other outdoor activities listed above.
For the beauty of northern Thailand’s nature and for the ease of access in partaking in it, I definitely recommend you visit Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s Goldilocks of tourism where there is a lot to do while still not being too touristy. Unlike places such as Khao San Road in Bangkok or Patong in Phuket, the amount of tourism here is just right.
Here in Chiang Mai you will not be overloaded with the same old tourist traps block after block. You sure as hell will not be bothered by vendors trying to push their products or services onto you. And you won’t be surrounded by so many other foreigners that you forget you are actually in Thailand.
You will, however, find lot of interesting things to do. There are elephant sanctuaries, night markets, cooking classes, a variety of delicious restaurants, awesome cafés, zip lining, massages, homestays, muay thai classes, temples, malls, movies and a boatload of other things to do in Chiang Mai.
As previously mentioned, Chiang Mai offers you both the finer things of a city while still being relaxing and close to nature. That’s pretty rare in Thailand, as in most places you’ll either get one or the other. Bangkok is great, but it’s not the best place to unwind. Whereas an island such as Ko Lanta is like a paradise, but doesn’t have some many things to do.
That’s why Chiang Mai is great: you get to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, while still have lots of good restaurants, great hospitals, malls and a lot of English speakers. You also have the option to easily get away from it all at a homestay, a farm or in the jungle.
Getting Into Chiang Mai
Travel within Thailand is really easy to do.
Tickets can typically be booked last minute, they are easy to buy and there are various travel options. Plus budget travel is readily available.
Flights are obviously the fastest way to travel within Thailand. And depending on the time of the year and your departure city, prices can be very cheap too.
Bangkok is the most common place to fly from. One-way flights from the city’s two airports: Suvarnabhumi (BKK) and Don Muang (DMK) only take about 1hr 15m and cost from about 600 baht in low season to 1800 baht in high season.
From Phuket, one-way flights typically cost from 1500 to 2200 baht. And the flight itself takes just 2 hours.
Direct flights to Chiang Mai can also be made from Phuket, Koh Samui, Krabi, Pattaya, Surat Thani, Mae Hong Son, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani and Khon Kaen.
One-stop flights, connecting through Bangkok, can also be made from all the locations listed above as well as other Thai cities.
Internationally you can fly direct to Chiang Mai from
- China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Xi’an)
- Hong Kong
- Taiwan (Taipei)
- Korea (Seoul)
- Vietnam (Hanoi, Da Nang)
- Laos (Luang Prabang)
- Myanmar (Mandalay)
- Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)
- Qatar (Doha).
Buses are one of the cheapest ways to travel within Thailand. They are easy to book and they offer the most connectivity in Thailand (in terms of reaching various destinations). For these reasons they are a popular choice for backpackers and locals alike.
The cheapest way to book a bus will be to purchase your ticket in person at the bus station. Tickets can be purchased up to the last second if there are still seats available. To get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai can cost as little as 400 baht when bought in person. For the ease of booking online, you’ll have to spend around 6-700 baht. 12Go.Asia is the easiest method of booking online.
When discussing price, you’ll also have to consider the quality of the bus. For long-haul trips Thailand employs standard buses and VIP buses. The differences come down to having air conditioners, reclining seats, space for your legs, a bathroom, movies being shown and snacks/drinks being served. I recommend always getting a VIP bus. Standard buses should be avoided for any lengthy trip as they won’t have very comfortable seats, A/C or a bathroom.
Comfort and safety are also factors you should consider. For just a few hundred more baht, Nakhonchai Air’s First Class bus is the best bus in all of Thailand (823 baht from Bangkok to Chiang Mai). They offer luxury reclining seats, with each having its own personal TV with a library of movies to watch and music to listen to. They also have the safest buses by far and cleaner bathrooms. Use their website to book your ticket.
The last thing to consider when booking a bus ticket is when to go, day or night? Going by night allows you to sleep through most of the trip. But by going in the day time you might get to enjoy scenic views of the countryside.
It takes about 9.5 hours to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai by bus.
Trains offer a wide array of options, from the absolute cheapest way to travel (261 baht from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for a 3rd class fan seat) to the most comfortably scenic (~1800 baht for a 1st class A/C sleeper).
Bangkok is the central hub of all trains in Thailand. And to reach Chiang Mai you will have to take a train from or through Bangkok.
[Thailand train map IMAGE]
Ticket prices from Bangkok to Chiang Mai cost just under 600 baht to just under 2000 baht depending on the coach type you choose and whether you book online or in person. 12Go.Asia is a very easy choice for booking tickets, but I believe BusOnlineTicket.co.th is the cheapest option online.
Getting Around Chiang Mai
Within the Old City nothing is too far away. If it’s not too hot or rainy, walking will give you a more upclose look at the local culture.
Grab (The Uber of Thailand)
I’d say Grab is the best way to get around by car/truck in Chiang Mai. You’ll get air conditioning, comfort and convenience for a pretty good price. For me, I’d definitely recommend Grab over a red truck or tuk-tuk in most scenarios.
Driving yourself around on a scooter or motorcycle is the best way to get around Chiang Mai. They are fun, they let you bypass traffic, and for road trips they bring you closer to your surroundings.
So if scooters are the best way to get around, why are they listed third from the top?
Because a lot of people suck at driving them. And in such cases, a scooter is a very dangerous thing. If you happen to visit Pai, count how many people you see bandaged up from taking a fall on their scooter.
Plus without an international or a Thai motorcycle license driving a scooter is illegal in Thailand. If stopped you’ll have to pay a 500 baht fine (keep the ticket the police give you, as that will make you exempt from more tickets for 2 or 3 days).
If you’re sticking around the Old City, a bicycle is a cheap, healthy and safe way to get around. They can be rented for about 50 baht per day.
If you ask me, the tuk-tuks in Chiang Mai are smelly (from the exhaust fumes) and over-priced. But if it’s your first time coming here I think it’s worth getting on a tuk-tuk for the experience itself. Plus they can be the best option when your destination is just a couple of minutes away but you don’t want to walk or wait for a Grab car.
Red Truck / Songtaew
Songtaews are red trucks with two rows of seating in the back. Typically each songtaew rides along a pre-determined loop, where it only costs you 30 baht to get on.
I don’t like songtaews.
- You have to sit sideways in them and that gets me carsick.
- Plus there’s no A/C.
I’d only recommend a songtaew
- If you want to save money.
- If you want the experience of riding on a songtaew.
- If you want to support the nice drivers who make their living this way.
Songtaews also are a good option when you “rent” them for a day. *Some songtaew drivers act as private taxis and will agree to drive you and your friends to the destination of your choice, such as to the Sticky Waterfalls.
What NOT to Do
Clothes – Dressing Appropriately
Chiang Mai is a lot more conservative when it comes to dress code than in Bangkok, Pattaya or the beaches of the south.
Men should not be out in public with their shirt off (unless if it is for swimming). In fact, doing so is against the law and leaves you liable to pay a 500 baht fine (though this is rarely enforced).
Women should not wear clothes that reveal their butts or too much cleavage. Bathing suits are not appropriate in public. Yoga pants, short shorts, skirts and cleavage are fine, though.
Temples – Acting Appropriately
Before entering a temple everyone is required to take off their shoes. Additionally, women must cover their shoulders, cleavage and most of their legs above the knee. If you find yourself dressed inappropriately when arriving at a temple, don’t worry. Most temples rent scarves/sarongs for you to do just this.
When at the temple, you don’t have to act overly conservatively, but you should be respectful and show manners. While for you the temple may just be a cool place to visit, for others it is a holy site.
Over the last 12,000 years humans have been domesticating cats, and even after all that time our feline friends can sometimes act like assholes.
With that said, I do not believe wild tigers can be trained to never attack humans. Instead I go with the popular explanation that the tigers at Tiger Kingdom and other such tiger attractions are being drugged.
So as cool as that selfie next to a beautiful, ferocious tiger would look, I rather not support this kind of behavior.
Generally speaking, avoid all animal shows. More likely than not the animals are not being treated well. Thailand is filled with amazing wildlife that can be enjoyed in a much more humane sort of way.
Elephant tourism is a tricky subject that can be long debated. I encourage you to learn more about the subject. But riding elephants, generally speaking, is very bad for their health.
I can’t blame anyone for wanting to ride an elephant, as it’s got to be a fun experience. But when you know you’re actively hurting this lovely animal, you’ll be wiser to choose another way to interact with elephants.
Chiang Mai is full of elephant sanctuaries that provide more animal-friendly options than riding.
Things to Do
Chiang Mai has lots to offer. For a full list of things to do, click here. But here are some of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai:
Where to Stay
a map like this would be cool
Chiang Mai is both a province and a city, but the vast majority of visitors stay in and around the city. And for simplicity’s sake I’ll be talking about the city from here on out.
Deciding where to stay in your trip is important because each area has its own pluses and minuses.
In my opinion there are 3 clear choices for the best places to stay in Chiang Mai: the Old City, Nimman and Mae Rim.
The Old City and Nimman are neighborhoods within Chiang Mai, while Mae Rim is technically a different city unto itself.
The Old City
The Old City is the center of Chiang Mai. It has lots of history, lots to do, and lots of local culture.
This squared area is surrounded on all four sides by a moat that once guarded the capital city of the Lanna Kingdom. Remnants of a protective wall are still found in various corners of the city, even.
If you want to get around easily then there is no better place to stay than the Old City.
To sleep there are many nice and affordable hostels, 3 star hotels and 4 star hotels as well.
Nimman is the most modern and stylish area of Chiang Mai. It’s centrally-located and also has lots to do. But it is without history and has less of a local feel.
In Nimman the architecture is nicer, the storefronts are cuter and the prices are higher.
Hostels are available, but Nimman is the place to be for modern, upscale hotels. It’s no surprise then that Chiang Mai’s luxury mall, Maya, is a landmark of the Nimman area.
Nimman is just minutes away from the Old City, so you’ll have no issues getting around.
Mae Rim is the easy choice for nature lovers and those wanting to get away from it all. This city is located twenty minutes north of Chiang Mai. Here you’ll find yourself in and around the jungle with lots of tourist activities available in the area.
Here you can stay at a rice farm homestay or in a 5 star natural resort.
In Mae Rim you’ll find waterfalls, treks, adventure activities and lots more to do.
When to Come
High Season – October to mid-February
The best time of the year to visit Chiang Mai is from October to late February. During these times you will find yourself free from rain storms, free from the most intense heat and free from smokey air. November, December and January in particular have the most temperate weather and the least amount of rain.
Burning Season – mid-February to mid-May
In northern Thailand it is a common, yet unfortunate, practice to burn farms and forest leaf litter. This practice leads to very smokey skies. During late February and early May smoke is surely noticeable, but probably not bad enough to damper your trip (unless you have respiratory health issues). In March and April, however, the air is terrible. For that reason I’d recommend visiting Chiang Mai in another month if you have the option.
There is one really good reason to visit Chiang Mai in April, though: Songkran. Songkran is the Thai new year festival. This holiday, which starts on April 13th, is one of the most fun experiences that can be had anywhere in the world. Essentially, you find yourself in a 3-day long water fight where everybody is well-natured and in good spirits. Of all the places in Thailand to celebrate Songkran, Chiang Mai is arguably the most enjoyable.
Rainy Season – mid-May to September
During rainy season you’ll typically experience extended bouts of rain sprinkled into an otherwise sunny day. That is to say that you can still have a very enjoyable time here in Chiang Mai, but you do have to prepare for the weather.
August and September are the wettest months of the year.