Spending this past week in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has been an absolute dream! It is everything I was hoping for and more, so I wanted to share a few of my experiences for anyone looking to visit this wonderful city in the future. Disclaimer: I have only spent 5 full days here, so I’m sure there is a TON I am missing. To find more activities and sites to see, I’d definitely check out TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, local tourist offices, other blogs, and by asking locals what to see. I can only hope these recommendations do Chiang Mai justice!
Background on the city: Chiang Mai sits in the mountains of northern Thailand and is famous for being a religious and cultural center. Home to hundreds of temples, CM is a Buddhist-centered city with tons to offer and a rich history dating back to the 13th century. The old city or “square” of Chiang Mai is surrounded by four “walls” with moats, making it extremely easy to navigate. Most of the temples and things to do are within the square, but there is a ton to see outside of the square as well.
Weather: The weather is almost always warm to hot, but it can get colder than the rest of Thailand during the cool season (Dec-Feb). Hot season is April-June and is considered a low tourist season because of the tropical heat and humidity (also means less crowds). Rainy season in Chiang Mai is June-November and is actually not a bad time to visit because rain usually lasts for only an hour or so and helps cool you down. This week (end of May), the weather report said to expect thunderstorms every day, but it only rained twice for about an hour each while we were there, which was a wonderful relief from the heat :). Even if there is a short, torrential downpour, you can always buy a plastic poncho from 7/11 for 30 baht (less than US $1). In my opinion, rain jackets and umbrellas are not necessary, so I’m very glad I left mine at home!
How long to stay: At minimum, I would definitely stay 6 days, but I think you can hit the major sites and activities in 7-8 days. Obviously, the longer you can stay, the better! We went at a very fast pace and squeezed in a ton in our 5 days, but it would’ve been nice to take our time. Trust me, there is no way you can do everything you’ll want to do in only a few days!
Where to stay: We booked a nicer hotel in advance a bit south of the square, which was nice to be able to head straight to after 28 hours of traveling. I am super glad we only booked the first night because we were able to find a cheaper place to stay in a better location. We stayed at the Singha Montra Lanna for the first night, which had an amazing pool, Jacuzzi tub, and huge suite, but it was definitely unnecessary and we got a way better deal elsewhere. Luckily, our friend Lexxi lives in Chiang Mai, so she and her friend took us around on their scooters to find accommodation for the rest of the week. Shout out to Lexxi for being a wonderful tour guide!
There are three basic types of accommodation in Chiang Mai: hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. I didn’t do much research, but it really wasn’t necessary because there are hundreds of awesome places to stay, many of which do not have websites and are not on Hostel World. We stayed at an amazing hostel called Give Me 5 Hostel on the north side of the old city, on one of the two main roads which stretch across the entire square. A private room with ensuite bathroom was only 800 baht/night (about $22) for the both of us, which is still a lot for Chiang Mai! The location was great (we could walk basically anywhere we wanted to go in the old city and even to the night bazaar), it was clean, and very reasonably priced. We decided on Give me 5 after looking at a few other places, so don’t settle for the first place you find! Extra tip: You can always ask to see the room before you decide to stay at a place, so make sure to take a look to see if it’s clean and has air-con (we would’ve died without it). Another tip: It is very easy to get around, so you can always switch your accommodation throughout your stay to experience different parts of the city!
What to wear: I won’t write an entire packing list here (you can read my other blog post for that if you’d like), but I wanted to make sure to emphasize a few things about packing:
- Do not worry if you forget anything. Literally anything you could need can be bought in Chiang Mai for much cheaper (everything from clothes, to toiletries, to sandals, to backpacks- it’s all there).
- Unless you are coming during the cool season, do not bring jeans or pants other than maybe one pair of leggings for travel days, which are really not even necessary because you can buy elephant pants here for USD $2-3. I cannot even fathom putting on pants other than elephant pants, even though somehow locals do (who are used to this weather). As far as makeup and good hair goes, forget it. Just accept that you don’t need to do your hair or put much makeup on- it’s not worth it with the heat and humidity. I’d bring tinted moisturizer, waterproof mascara, and maybe some hair texturizer, but generally, it doesn’t matter anyways. Au natural is the best!
- Bring at least one sarong/sweater/shawl/scarf for temples (or you can just buy one there), as you must cover your knees and shoulders to go inside. Elephant pants are the easiest, but I did wrap a big scarf around my legs as a skirt one day to cover my knees- up to you. Please be respectful of the culture and values of Buddhism and do not show up in a tank top and shorts at a temple. Even though there are signs everywhere, you’d be surprised by what some people show up looking like.
- Pack what you think you need, then cut it in half. You do not need more than a few outfits and even though I used this tactic and brought minimal clothes, I still could’ve done with less. I literally could have shown up with one outfit and bought the rest there. Trust me- you will want the extra space in your backpack for souvenirs!
Getting around the city:
Songthaew (song-tao) or red truck: The name songthaew literally means “two benches” after the seating in the back of the truck with room for 8. This is basically the “Uber pool” of Chiang Mai, but just a lot less safe (sorry mom) and no need for a smart phone :). Generally, a trip inside the city is about 20 baht per person, but drivers may ask for more, so make sure to negotiate a price ahead of time. Also note, drivers can pick up other passengers on the way, so it may take longer to get to your destination. I would give more information about this, but another blogger wrote a detailed article all about getting around Chiang Mai you can check out here.
Tuk-tuk: These three-wheeled scooter carts with room for 3 people (2 comfortably), are also very popular in Chiang Mai, but are a bit more expensive at around 50-100 baht per ride. However, they are faster, can weave through traffic easier, and you won’t be picking up anyone else on the way. Tuk-tuks are the equivalent to UberX :).
Scooter: Though traffic can get pretty crazy and aggressive in Chiang Mai, I’ve heard it is one of the best places to rent a scooter in Thailand. We did not rent one this week, but we rode on the back of our friends’ scooters, which worked perfectly fine for us. There are tons of places to rent bikes, most of which I saw charge about 100-130 baht/day, but I’m sure you can negotiate a good price :). If I were to rent a scooter, I would get one for the day and drive up the mountain to Doi Suthep temple or for a few days to take a trip to Pai a few hours away. If you choose to rent a scooter, make sure to always wear a helmet, be very careful, and make sure you are confident riding one before getting out on the road. Side note: In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road, so just keep that in mind!
What to do:
See the elephants: All I will say is this is a MUST do. Seeing elephants was my absolute favorite thing we did in Chiang Mai and I highly recommend it. There are plenty of companies who take groups outside of the city to see elephants, and even some who offer longer volunteer programs. If you have your heart set on going with a particular company, you may want to reserve a spot a few weeks in advance to make sure you get in, depending on the season. We booked Dumbo Elephant Spa a few days in advance and had an amazing experience! This was mostly because we got to interact with the elephants in a close setting (feeding, mud baths, etc.) without riding them, it was cheaper than other options such as Elephant Nature Park, and we learned a ton about the elephants from the locals. To reiterate, there are a lot of companies you can book with, but please make sure to do your research and make sure the elephants are well cared for and they do not allow riding, as it is unhealthy for the elephants, especially when working long hours. I won’t preach about not riding elephants here, but a quick Google search will give you plenty of information :). Here are some photos from our experience with Dumbo Elephant Spa:
This “mud” bath was mostly elephant poop, but it’s definitely great for some exfoliation!
Cooking school: This is another must do in Chiang Mai! We had a wonderful experience with Asia Scenic Cooking School, which was a small class (9 of us) at a local farm, which included a tour of their garden and a trip to the market on the way to learn more about the ingredients. I definitely recommend doing a full day class at the farm (as opposed to in the city) with Asia Scenic, but again, there are several companies who run similar classes that have pamphlets at tourist offices, hotels, and hostels. Here are some photos from the 6 amazing courses we cooked:
Temples: Chiang Mai is home to over 270 temples, all of which have something unique to see. Rather than wandering the city checking as many out as possible, I would recommend hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the most significant temples and other popular sites around the city, such as the umbrella village, silk factory, other markets, etc. We paid our driver 600 baht (USD ~$17) to take us around all day, and it was well worth it! When you do visit the temples, make sure to be respectful of Buddhist customs and dress appropriately, even though it will be hot. This website has some great information about the do’s and don’ts.
This is actually a wax statue of a monk that I was fully convinced was real:
This was a temple made of entirely silver!
Doi Suthep is a must-see temple at the top of the mountain. It’s a huge complex and has incredible views as well:
Lady boy show: I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I won’t say much about this other than you should DEFINITELY go to one :). We went to the show at the night bazaar, which started at 9:30 p.m.
Night bazaar: This is where you’ll find the best markets and live music! Make sure to go Ploen Ruedee International Food Market across the street as well :).
Markets: There are tons of markets all around the city, where you can buy almost anything for very cheap- everything from shoes to electronics to trinkets and clothes. Many shops sell similar products, so definitely barter to get a better price. A good rule of thumb is to offer half of what the vendor is asking for, then meet somewhere in the middle. Have fun!
River cruise: One way to see another side of the city is to go on a river cruise on the Ping River. We did a dinner cruise through Riverside Bar & Restaurant for 150 baht (USD ~$4) and ate as we watched the sunset. There are several companies who run these boat rides, so I’d compare them online or at a tourist office if you’d like to go.
Massages: You will never find a massage this cheap in your home country! USD $5 will get you an hour long Thai massage at any of the hundreds of massage parlors which seem to be on every corner in Chiang Mai. Be prepared for a little pain and lots of stretching, but it feels amazing!
Night life: Chiang Mai has plenty of cool bars and restaurant, but does not have a big clubbing scene like some other big cities. Going out typically involves beer with ice (avoid Chang and go for a Leo or Singha instead) and live music, so definitely be sure to check them out.
Fish “massage”: This is one of the most disturbing and hilarious experiences ever. You can pay a small fee to dip your feet in a fish tank full of sucker fish to clean the dead skin
bacteria/dirt/gross stuff off of your feet and legs. I was laughing so hard and squirming the entire time that I could hardly enjoy it, but it was definitely an experience. The night bazaar is a great place to do this, especially after a long day of walking around.
Day trips: Doi Inthanon and Pai (try to stay overnight if you can) are great trips to take out of Chiang Mai. Unfortunately, we did not have time, but if and when I come back, I will definitely go to both of these places!
- When many people think of Thailand or Chiang Mai, they imagine getting close to a tiger like they see in many tourists’ pictures. I strongly urge you to think critically about whether you’d like to visit Tiger Kingdom, a popular activity in Chiang Mai. Just know that these tigers are drugged/sedated and it is not natural for humans to interact with these wild animals in such close quarters. Even if employees tell you the tigers are not drugged, just know that they are, and in my opinion, this industry should not be supported. If you do choose to go to Tiger Kingdom, make sure to educate yourself on the facts beforehand.
- Another popular “site” to see is the Karen long neck village near Chiang Mai, which you may have seen pictures of online or in magazines like National Geographic. Karen women wear traditional brass rings around their necks, smashing their shoulders and rib cages down to make their necks seem longer for both beauty and tradition. Although the long neck women are famous and fascinating, I also urge you to consider whether you’d like to visit what can be considered a “human zoo”. I did not personally visit the Karen long neck village because I didn’t want to gawk and take photos of people who could be exploited for their traditions and culture for tourists. If you do choose to go, I’d encourage you to buy the goods they are selling, interact with the locals, and learn more about their culture, rather than just walk through and take photos. Whatever activities you choose to do in Chiang Mai, just make sure to do your research!
Other helpful tips:
- 7/11: Normally an overlooked convenience store in the states, 7/11 is a godsend in Chiang Mai. After about a day, I realized how amazing the A/C is inside and how you can get pretty much anything you need there. If you go to CM, you will definitely find yourself going inside more 7/11s than you’d ever imagine, especially since there is basically one on every corner!
- Screen shots: Make sure to screen shot a pin of your hotel/hostel/guesthouse to your phone to show to a tuk-tuk or songthaew driver, as many of them speak very little English and it is easy to point out on a map. Also, find a common landmark nearby because they will most likely be more familiar with the landmark, such as a temple, rather than a location on a map.
- Maps.me: I highly recommend downloading maps.me offline map and downloading each city you are in when you get Wifi. There is literally no need for a physical map anymore with this awesome app! It’s basically Google Maps without using data, so it is very helpful for navigating around anywhere you don’t have cell service/Wifi/data.
- Currency app: This is extremely helpful for when you want to check how much something costs in your own currency. It automatically converts any amount in any currency you choose!
- Rome2Rio: This free app lets you type in any destination and it tells you your different options to get from A to B. For example, if I type in the CNX airport and our hostel, it tells me four different ways I can get there with all of the pricing. It also works for longer distances, too! I typed in Krabi to Koh Samui, and it showed me that I can either fly, take a combination of bus/ferry/taxi, or take a train/ferry, etc.
Wow, that was a TON of information! I would love to talk more about Chiang Mai if you’ve been, have anything to add, or if you’re looking to visit in the future. Again, I know I missed a ton of stuff, so make sure to do some additional research if you go :). Thanks for reading! We are off to Bangkok, Phuket and the islands!