Welcome to Chiang Mai, the Rose of the North. Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand and, after Bangkok, the largest city in the country. However, you wouldn't say that walking around. Within the walls of the old city, it feels like a small village, full of authentic streets and charming eateries. Add the stunning natural beauty and mountain towns surrounding the city, and you'll understand why Chiang Mai is such a beloved destination among backpackers, expats, and digital nomads.
We spent a month in Chiang Mai and never once regretted it. In this article, we've gathered our top tips and recommendations for you!
The easiest way to get to Chiang Mai is by plane. Chiang Mai International Airport is located close to the old city and the Nimman district. You can fly directly to Chiang Mai from nearly all of Asia. Search and compare flight tickets through Skyscanner.
From Bangkok, you can also reach Chiang Mai by overnight train or bus. The overnight train is the cheaper option and is also more comfortable than taking a bus. In the 1st and 2nd class, your seat is converted into a bed where you can spend the night. The 3rd class doesn't offer this, and you sleep in your seat. The journey takes approximately 13 hours, and the overnight train can fill up quickly, so it's advisable to book your tickets well in advance online. Be sure to select sleeping accommodations rather than regular seats when making your choice. Search for and reserve train tickets.
We personally don't recommend the bus because it is less comfortable and more expensive compared to the train. When it's not possible to travel by train or plane, the bus is a viable alternative. The bus journey takes between ten and twelve hours, slightly shorter than the train. Search for and reserve bus tickets.
In Chiang Mai, you'll find many remarkable sights and fun activities waiting to be explored.
Whether you are looking for cultural and typical Thai experiences, want to explore nature, or visit the hippest trendy places, there is something for everyone in Chiang Mai.
Wander through the narrow streets of the old city, passing by numerous temples and cozy cafes. Despite being in the heart of Thailand's second-largest city, you never really get that feeling while strolling here. It's often surprisingly peaceful in the small lanes and alleys you encounter. Surrounding the old city is a moat, and in many places, you can still see the ancient clay city walls that protected the city for hundreds of years. The Tha Phae Gate to the east is the main entrance to the old city. In the north, you'll find the Chang Phuak Gate, with a bustling local evening market where you can enjoy delicious food.
Right in the heart of the old city, you'll find the temple complex of Wat Chedi Luang. There are several buildings, but the most impressive is the stupa in the center of the complex. In Buddhism, a stupa is a structure that houses the relics of a Buddhist saint. Originally, it stood at 82 meters tall, making it the tallest building in the Lanna kingdom during the 15th century. However, an earthquake in 1545 caused the temple to collapse, reducing its height by about 30 meters. The temple was reconstructed towards the end of the last century, though not entirely in the traditional style. Nevertheless, in our opinion, it remains the most remarkable building in the old city of Chiang Mai.
This temple is not in the old city of Chiang Mai but hidden in the jungle. 'Wat Pha Lat' means 'monastery on the sloping rock' and was originally used as a rest stop for the long hike to Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's most famous temple, higher up the mountain.
The most enjoyable way to reach it is through the Monk's Trail, a beautiful path that monks have been walking for centuries to reach the temple. The hike takes about 30 minutes, depending on your pace and how often you stop at viewpoints. It's best to go early in the morning when it's not too hot, and you can have the temple to yourself for a bit. The temple can also be reached via a road, which can get quite crowded later in the day.
After exploring Wat Phra Lat, you may choose to continue on to Wat Phra Thai Doi Suthep temple.
How to get there?
From the old city, it's about a 20-minute drive to the starting point of the Monk's Trail. If you prefer not to do the Monk's Trail and want to go directly to the temple, it will also take you approximately 20 minutes.
This is by far the most important and touristy temple in Chiang Mai. It's no surprise, as from the temple, you get a fantastic view of Chiang Mai. To reach the temple, you climb a beautiful staircase adorned with serpent heads and glistening stones. In the center of the complex stands the famous golden pagoda that you often see in pictures of Chiang Mai.
How to get there?
From the old city, it's about a half-hour drive to the temple, depending on traffic. On the parking lot, you'll find the typical red pick-up trucks you see all over the city. You can read more about these songthaews at the bottom of this article. Due to the winding road, it's a fun route to ride on a scooter. Another option is to travel from Wat Pha Lat temple and visit the two temples one after the other. If you still have energy after the Monk's Trail, you can take another trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. To do this, walk a short distance along the road from Wat Pha Lat, then dive into the jungle to access the Doi Suthep Hiking Trail (Wat Pha Lat). This hike takes about 30 minutes and is slightly steeper than the Monk's Trail. We walked them both and found it doable and definitely worth it.
If you happen to be in Chiang Mai on a Sunday, you absolutely must not miss this. The Sunday Walking Street, or Sunday Night Market, is a huge market that cuts through the old city. Although the name Sunday Walking Street suggests it's just one street, the market covers a significant part of the old city, and you might want to set aside a few hours to see it all.
There are loads of charming stalls with clothing, souvenirs, and even some more unique items. The stalls are mixed together, and many of them sell similar products. After strolling for a while, you'll probably have seen most of it. When you want to make a purchase, it's customary in Thailand to haggle. The seller starts with a high price and will be willing to negotiate. People in Thailand are very friendly, and with a bit of skill, you can easily get at least a third off the price.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Thai market without plenty of food options. You'll come across many food stalls selling typical Thai dishes as well as more Western options. Often, there are low tables with small plastic chairs (resembling children's chairs) where you can sit. It's a fun place to eat, where locals and tourists come together.
The Sunday Night Market starts around 4:00 PM and goes on until midnight. If you're not in Chiang Mai on a Sunday, there's the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Chang Klang Road every evening.
How to get there?
You can't really miss it, and you'll come across the market as soon as you enter Chiang Mai's old city. The 'main street' of the market is Ratchadamnoen Road, which starts at Tha Phae Gate in the east and ends at Wat Phra Singh Temple in the west of the old city. Tha Phae Gate is a good starting point for exploring the market. Our advice is to wander around freely without relying on Google Maps. This way, you can take in all the impressions.
Just outside the old city walls, you'll find the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, open every day from 5:00 PM to midnight. There are plenty of charming stalls here selling souvenirs and other cool items. The area around the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is also lively, making it a great place to grab a bite to eat or visit a bar after wandering through the bazaar. If you're in Chiang Mai for only a few days inculding Sunday, we recommend skipping this one and visiting the Sunday Night Market instead.
How to get there?
If you exit the old city through the Tha Phae Gate in the east, you'll come across Chang Klang Road, where the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is located.
The Sticky Waterfall, officially known as Bua Thong Waterfall, is one of the most famous tourist attractions around Chiang Mai, and for a good reason. You can actually climb this waterfall. The limestone rocks have a mineral layer that prevents the growth of algae, making the rocks not slippery and providing better grip, hence the name Sticky Waterfall. You can climb up the waterfall with the help of ropes.
How to get there?
The Sticky Waterfall is about an hour away by car or scooter from Chiang Mai. You can easily get there using shared transportation. Since the Sticky Waterfall is quite popular, your hotel or hostel can certainly guide you on where to catch a songthaew.
We found Doi Inthanon National Park to be the most beautiful natural spot around Chiang Mai. It's quite expansive, and once you enter the national park, you can relish the stunning green landscapes and charming mountain villages. If you're not of Thai nationality, you'll need to pay an entrance fee of 300 THB, along with a small additional fee (20/30 THB) for a scooter or car, which is well worth it considering the numerous activities and sights within the national park.
What we strongly recommend are the trails that you can hike with a local guide. The tribes residing in the national park maintain these trails, and by hiring a guide, you contribute to the local community. It's not permitted to hike the trails on your own. Renting a guide costs 200 baht. We hiked the Pha Dok Sieo Nature Trail, which takes you through rice fields, waterfalls, and ends in the village where the local tribe resides. The tour concludes with a free coffee produced locally in the village before a pickup takes you back to the starting point.
The most well-known attraction in the national park is the pagodas on Doi Inthanon mountain. On clear days, you get a magnificent view from here. A bit further up the mountain, you'll find the highest point in Thailand, a must-visit if you're in Doi Inthanon National Park. On clear days, you'll have a breathtaking view of the surroundings, but during the rainy season, you may find yourself surrounded by clouds.
We are currently working on an article about Doi Inthanon National Park.
How to get there?
It's about a 1.5-hour drive from Chiang Mai to Doi Inthanon National Park. We went there by scooter, which we can definitely recommend. The national park is incredibly vast, and if you want to do a day trip with hikes, waterfalls, pagodas, and the highest point in Thailand, it can be quite tight if you have to arrange transportation each time. If you don't want to ride a scooter, renting a car is a good alternative. Or consider booking a tour, where you won't have to handle anything, and you'll be taken to all the highlights.
Nimman is a trendy and modern district located right next to Chiang Mai's old city. Many expats reside in this area, and it's a popular hub for the extensive digital nomad community that Chiang Mai hosts. You'll find plenty of nice coffee shops, trendy restaurants, and co-working spaces here. It's a great place to explore charming boutiques and indulge in some more upscale dining. Two highlights in Nimman are the MAYA Shopping Center, a large modern indoor mall, and One Nimman, a European-style center with a market, dining options, and trendy boutiques.
How to get there?
From the old city, it takes about 10-15 minutes to drive to Nimman.
Between the old city and the modern Nimman district, you'll find another charming neighborhood, Ban Sathaphon. This area is less known but definitely worth a visit. Ban Sathaphon is the oldest part of Chiang Mai, boasting some temples from the 14th century. You'll encounter few tourists here, giving it a very local feel. In the center of the neighborhood, there's a roundabout, and in the surround streets, you can enjoy affordable local cuisine. For a genuine local experience, we recommend dining at street food stalls on Hussadhisawee Road. Most of these stalls don't have English menus, so ordering might be a bit challenging. Fortunately, there are always friendly locals around who are more than willing to assist.
How to get there?
From the Chang Phueak gate in the northern part of the old city, head north and, after about 10 minutes, you can turn left to enter the neighborhood. If you're coming from Nimman, walk along Huay Kaew Road toward the old city, and take a left into the alley just after the B-Quik, the large yellow building.
We found this to be a truly unique experience. Khun Khantoke is a traditional Northern Thai restaurant in the Lanna style. While dining at traditional tables, various shows are presented, ranging from graceful dances to truly remarkable performances. We won't reveal too much here; let yourself be surprised. You pay a fixed price and enjoy a platter filled with Northern Thai specialties.
How to get there?
From the old city, it's approximately a 15 to 20-minute ride by scooter or car to Khum Khantoke.
A trip to Pai is a must when traveling in Northern Thailand. This town is incredibly popular for its laid-back vibes and stunning mountain views. There's plenty to do in the Pai area, making it easy to spend several days here.
How to get there?
The route to Pai is beautiful. You'll drive through the mountains, passing by authentic hillside villages with breathtaking views. The road is well-maintained, making it perfect to travel to Pai by scooter. Take your time, as it's a 80 mile ride, and you'll easily spend about 4 hours on the road if you make occasional stops to enjoy the beautiful vistas.
Tip: If you're heading to Pai during the rainy season, don't forget to bring a poncho for the scooter ride, as it often rains up in the mountains.
Prefer not to ride a scooter? You can also travel to Pai easily by minivan from Chiang Mai Arcade 2. A one-way trip costs 240 baht per person, just under $7. You can buy your tickets online in advance.
Chiang Rai is a popular city to visit from Chiang Mai, mainly because of Wat Rong Khun, better known as 'The White Temple.' This temple is quite new, built in 1997, and is part of a larger temple complex that is expected to be completed around 2070. In Chiang Rai, you'll also find a lively walking street, 'The Blue Temple,' 'The Black House,' and of course, a Night Market. The area around Chiang Rai is particularly known for its numerous waterfalls and hot springs. You can easily spend a few days here, but we recommend at least one overnight stay, as a day trip is a bit tight due to the travel time.
Lampang is far less touristy than Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai, making it a perfect destination for a day trip from Chiang Mai. In Lampang, you'll find the Wat Chiang Rai temple, which is a smaller version of 'The White Temple' in Chiang Mai but with hundreds of years of history. The temple is free to visit. Lampang also has a small city center with a charming walking street. A half-hour from the city, you'll discover Wat Doi Prachan, an exceptional temple with beautiful views of the surroundings. Additionally, Lampang is the ideal base to visit Wat Chaloem Phrakiat: Temple of the Floating Pagodas, a collection of remarkable pagodas atop several mountaintops.
Very popular in Chiang Mai is the visit to an elephant sanctuary. You can book tours all over the city, often for half or full days, where, in addition to visiting the sanctuary, you also get to see a waterfall and enjoy a meal. During these tours, you can wash, feed, and take photos with the elephants.
We had long debated whether to visit an Elephant Sanctuary but ultimately decided not to. Conditions have greatly improved nowadays, and most organizations now present themselves as 'ethical.' This means that activities like riding elephants are no longer done. However, we did notice that you get a lot of time to take photos with the elephants, with the elephants in various poses, and people often holding their trunks around them. We wonder whether these extended photo sessions each day might cause significant stress for the elephants.
One organization that has a good reputation is Elephant Nature Park. Additionally, we found a smaller organization on the internet where even feeding and bathing the elephants is not allowed, and you can't touch them. It's called BEES – Burm & Emily's Elephant Sanctuary. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time anymore to visit this place, since it's about a 2.5-hour drive from Chiang Mai.
The most popular place to stay in Chiang Mai is the old city. This area hosts most of the hotels and hostels, and it's also where you'll find many of the main attractions. It's the perfect location if you're staying for just a few nights in Chiang Mai and want to visit the beautiful temples within walking distance.
If you plan to stay in the city for a longer period of time, for remote work, for instance, Nimman might be a good option. This neighborhood is more modern, with plenty of coffee shops, co-working spaces, and trendy bars and restaurants.
A third, much less known district worth mentioning, in our opinion, is Ban Sathaphon. This neighborhood is situated between the old city and Nimman and is less touristy and more budget-friendly. Here, you'll find many local eateries and street food.
We rented an apartment in Nimman for a month and found it to be the perfect base for exploring both the hotspots and the more local spots in Chiang Mai.
The old center of Chiang Mai is easily walkable, but when you want to explore other interesting places in and around the city, walking quickly becomes less convenient. Moreover, sidewalks outside the old city are not always well-maintained, which often forces you to walk alongside the road. Public transportation in Chiang Mai is minimal, but there are tuk-tuks and songthaews everywhere.
Songthaews are old (mainly red in Chiang Mai) pick-up trucks where you can sit in the back. You pay a standard fare of 30 baht for a ride in and around the old city. Make sure to agree on the price in advance, as some drivers may try to charge tourists a higher fare. If you take a songthaew to places like the starting point of the Monk's Trail or the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, the prices may be slightly higher.
A ride in a tuk-tuk is usually a bit more expensive than a songthaew, and we mostly used it when we couldn't find a songthaew. Another good option is Grab, the Uber for Southeast Asia. A Grab ride is often only slightly more expensive than a songthaew and is the best choice if you need to travel outside the city center.
Renting a scooter
Renting a scooter is another popular option. Renting a scooter in Chiang Mai is especially a good idea for beautiful trips in the surrounding areas. The costs are low, especially if you rent the scooter for several days or a week.
We had a good experience with Zippy Motorbike Rentals Chiang Mai. They offer reasonable prices, and you'll receive a confirmation by email. You also don't have to leave your passport with them, which is officially prohibited in Thailand, but many companies still ask for it. The deposit is 2,000 baht, around 55 dollars. This company is located in the Ban Sathaphon district, between the old city and Nimman.
It's important to know that riding a scooter with a scooter license is not allowed in Thailand, even with an international driver's license. The reason is that scooters in Thailand have a minimum engine size of 100cc, compared to 50cc in some other places. You can receive a fine if you can't present a valid license. Furthermore, without a motorcycle license, you are often not covered by your travel insurance in the event of an accident. Many tourists rent scooters in Thailand without a license, but it's a choice you have to make for yourself.
Police sometimes conduct random checks, primarily targeting tourists. One common spot for police to pull over scooters is between MAYA Shopping Center near Nimman and Chiang Mai Zoo, roughly near Chiang Mai University, but only in the direction of the zoo. This is a popular route for tourists heading to the mountains (Monk's Trail, Wat Pha Lat, and Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep).
Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. However, this isn't reflected in the prices in this city. In general, Chiang Mai is significantly cheaper than Bangkok and most other popular places in Thailand. There are many budget-friendly places to eat, both in the old city and in various neighborhoods around it. In the more modern Nimman district, prices are slightly higher, primarily due to hipper and trendier restaurants and cafes.
If you're curious about the cost of a trip to Thailand, be sure to read our article What Does Traveling in Thailand Cost? in which we discuss the costs for various types of budgets and describe an average daily budget.
The best months to visit Chiang Mai are from November to January. The rainy season has just passed during this period, which means that the natural surroundings are beautifully green, the rice fields look stunning, and there are plenty of blooming flowers. Starting from January, the "burning season" or "smoky season" begins, and the air quality becomes extremely poor. This is caused by both natural fires that easily occur during this prolonged dry period and human-made fires on agricultural land.