Chiang Mai Guide – What’s Best to Do in the Capital of North Thailand
Chiang Mai, often called ‘Rose of the North’, is Thailand’s second most important city. The town boasts an exquisite location as it’s circled by mountains, many historic sites and numerous stunning wats (temples). Chiang Mai’s old town, together with its bustling markets, is the most atmospheric and popular area in town for tourists. This lively town continues to expand and today surprises visitors with not only beautiful temples, but excellent shopping, trekking facilities, beautiful restaurants and cafes as well as upscale hotels. Find out in this guide what’s best to do while visiting Chiang Mai.
Wander around The Walled City
It’s definitely the most atmospheric area to visit. The Old Town is fortified and surrounded by water on all 4 sides and accessed only via bridges. Countless charming cafes, shops and restaurants are lining the small streets. This area is also home to a surprising amount of stunning wats (temples), some dating back to 1292, when Chiang Mai was founded by King Mengrai.
Visit the Temples
Although much smaller in size than Bangkok, Chiang Mai has almost the same number of wats as the capital. Most are located within the walls of the Old Town. Truth is that visiting all of them is nearly impossible and would take weeks. That’s why we prepared in this guide a list of most beautiful wats in Chiang Mai.
Wat Chedi Luang
The spacious temple of the Big Stupa is located right in the centre of the Old City. It used to be the home of the Emerald Buddha until an earthquake in 1545 damaged large parts of the temple. Nowadays, its ruins still serve as an active worship place.
Wat Phra Sing
It’s one of the oldest temples in Chiang Mai, built in 1345. Known as the Temple of the Lion Buddha it houses two Buddha statues. There are 700 monks living in this temple, who often lead friendly conversations with tourists.
Wat Phan Tao
The first structures of this temple were built in the 14th century. The viharn of Wat Phan Tao (an all wooden building constructed from teak panels set on a stone base) is one of the few remaining all wooden structures of its sort in Chiang Mai.
Wat Loki Moli
This temple is small and not a popular temple to visit, yet it’s incredibly beautiful. The complex has a prayer hall, a range of small stupas and an old chedi in the back. The entrance to Wat Lok Molee is guarded by two impressive stone elephants.
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Chiang Man is Chiang Mai’s oldest temple. It’s construction started as early as 1308. The wat complex has lots of different styles of architecture. It also holds important Buddhist images including a famous crystal Buddha.
Get a massage
Getting a massage in Chiang Mai is a fantastic idea. There are many great massage centres around the city and on average 1h Thai Massage costs only 300 Baht, which is only 8 EUR! We tried 3 different places and learned that the quality of massage really changes from one place to another. So let us guide you to the best massage of Chiang Mai.
↬ Note : It’s best to call in advance to reserve a massage in any of the places in Chiang Mai
The Green Bamboo hands down, one of the best massages we ever had (right next to our favourite massage place in Bangkok). The place is small, decorated in rustic style. The masseuses were attentive and did their best to heal the places that hurt on our bodies. Plus 1h of Thai Massage costs only 250 Baht!
Giving Tree Massage we had great experience here too. Located right in the centre of the Old Town, it’s a great place to relax for 1 hour.
Fah Lanna Spa for those looking for idyllic and more luxurious ambience. Fah Lanna SPA has a great variety of services and is highly recommended for beauty treatments.
Eat some of the best Thai food
Chiang Mai is a paradise for foodies. There are many great places serving authentic and inexpensive food. It doesn’t matter if it is for lunch, dinner or just a snack during the day, the dishes are always fresh and delicious.
Enjoy Chiang Mai Nightlife
There are many cool clubs and bars in Chiang Mai for the enthusiasts of the nightlife. Head to Nimmanahaeminda Road to find the most of them. However, the biggest party happens at Zoe in Yellow. As we are not so keen on night clubs and prefer a chill vibe-way of spending summer holidays, we wandered to The North Gate Jazz Co-Op and had great time sipping drinks and listening to super good jazz music!
Shop and Eat at the Weekend Market
If you happen to be in Chiang Mai on Sunday, it’s one thing you cannot miss. The Sunday Night Market or the Walking Market opens every Sunday. The stalls begin at Thapae Gate and run along the entire length of the Ratchadamnoen Road. You can get handcrafted goods, great street food and watch artists sing and dance on the streets. It’s an evening you will never forget.
Leave the Bustling City For Amazing Day Trips
Climb to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep is a mountain in the twin-peaked Doi Suthep- Doi Pui National Park. At the summit, rests one of the most important Buddhist shrines in Thailand: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s also one of the most popular places to visit in Northern Thailand, located only 30 min from the centre of Chiang Mai.
The Naga staircase consists of 304 steps is guarded by 2 dragons and leads up to the temple complex. From here, the stunning views over the city below spread for kilometres on a sunny day.
The temple is home to a large white elephant shrine as well as a replica of the Emerald Buddha and Central Chedi, a striking gold-plated structure.
↬ Note : To enter the temple you must remove your shoes and cover your shoulders
The opening hours:
5.30AM – 7.30PM
30 THB (0,8 EUR)
The easiest way to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is by renting a scooter. The road is in perfect condition and fun to drive. However, take care during the rain as it might get a bit slippery.
Make sure to have International Driving Permit while driving in Chiang Mai. There was a place on the road on the way to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep where the police put a blockage and stopped all tourists on the motorbikes. They fined everybody who didn’t have the International Driving Permit.
I (Martyna) have one, but at that moment Hamilton was driving. We managed to convince the policeman that Hamilton’s Monegasque driving licence is the same as the International Driving Permit as its the old type (in paper and with few pages). The policeman was obviously confused as he probably have never seen similar licence before, and let us go ?
Alternatively, you can take a Songthaew- local bus, usually a red pick up (jeep with extension for passengers at the back) from anywhere in the city. Just wait on the street and held a hand at one passing by. It costs as little as 30 baht /pp to the top of the summit.
Visit The Golden Temple
Wat Phra That Doi Kham is located at the top of a hill to the south west of the city. The temple is not popular with tourists yet. Mostly Thai come here to visit 17 m tall Buddha statue. The views from top are stunning and the whole temple complex is incredible.
The opening hours:
6AM – 6PM
30 THB (0,8 EUR)
You can arrive to the Golden Temple by car, scooter or local bus. There are 2 entrances: you can arrive to the summit by car or scooter. Otherwise park on the street and take a long beautiful dragon staircase.
Spend a day with elephants
If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing elephants up close, Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is probably the best place to do so. There are numerous places where you get to touch, walk and spend time with those beautiful creatures. However, there is only one place which has the animals true interest at heart and the only one we will recommend: Elephant Nature Park and the camps it collaborate with through the ‘Saddle Off’ program.
We wrote 2 travel blogs & guides about the Nature Park and our experience, and if you are thinking about spending a day with elephants in Thailand, please read them to experience this amazing opportunity ethically and serenely!
↬ Read : How we spent an Amazing and Ethical Day with Elephants & Visit the Wonderful & Ethical Elephant Nature Park
Drive the motorbike through the Samoeng Loop
The Samoeng Loop starts and ends in Chiang Mai. It’s about 100 km long and goes through the town of Mae Rim, Mae Sa Valley and Samoeng town. It takes approximately 4-5 hours if you don’t stop too often. It is worth remembering that there are a lot of things to see and do on the way, so your trip will most definitely take longer.
↬ TIP : We recommend visiting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and starting the drive around the Samoeng Loop from there.
↬ Read : Take a Motorbike Day Trip around the Samoeng Loop – Chiang Mai
Visit Doi Inthanon National Park
Just an hour and a half away from the heart of Old Town of Chiang Mai lies a place full of natural wonders. Doi Inthanon is home to the highest mountain in Thailand, great natural trails and hikes, stunning gardens and incredible waterfalls. There are also incredible Royal Pagodas built on top of the hill.
↬ Read : Visit Doi Inthanon National Park – Perfect Day Trip from Chiang Mai
More adventurous travellers (and those having more time) can also enjoy a day trip to Bua Tong Waterfalls located just an hour drive from Chiang Mai. Another great activity is the adventure park Flight of the Gibbon. You can combine those two in just one day!
Celebrate Loi Krathong festival
If you happen to be in Chiang Mai during this special time of the year, it’s a great thrill to participate to the festival. A Krathong is a basket that is shaped like a lotus with a candle sitting in the centre. To show respect to Buddha, thousands of these are placed in the water of the moat that surrounds part of Chiang Mai and left to float of into the distance. At the same time as the Krathongs are being released you will see thousands of lanterns filling up the sky above. This year (2019) the festival will take place on the 13th of November.
↬ Read : 15 Days in Thailand – the Complete Guide Covering the Country’s Highlights
Visiting Long Neck Karen Tribe
The Karen are a tribal group who are originally from Myanmar. They fled to Thailand during the political disturbance of the past. They now live in small villages in the area of Chiang Mai. Visiting their villages is one of the most popular tourists attractions. Prior to our trip, we did some researches and found out a hard truth behind this activity. We decided not to visit a Karen tribe village.
↬ Read : Why we decided NOT to visit the Long Neck Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai
Getting to Chiang Mai
Getting to Chiang Mai is easy. The international airport operates direct flights from Bangkok and many other national & international locations.
Arriving from Chiang Rai is also very easy. The buses depart every hour and it takes 4H to reach Chiang Mai. Bus is comfortable and the views from the windows along the way are beautiful.
Alternatively, you can arrive to Chiang Mai by bus from Bangkok. The journey takes about 12h and passengers can choose between regular and VIP buses. 2nd class bus ticket costs around 450 THB (13,5 EUR), while 1st class bus prices start at 550 THB (15 EUR).
The bus is definitely a more sustainable way of traveling. However, on a travel like this: 1h of flight vs 12h of bus, we would choose the plane. You can get a flight ticket with Asia Air from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for as little as 20 EUR. Just don’t forget to pay your carbon footprint!
Getting around Chiang Mai
The easiest way to get around is by renting a scooter. There are many scooter rentals in the city. The regular price is 200 baht (6 EUR) for 1 day of rent. Usually you will be asked to either leave a caution or your passport to assure the rental.
You can also easily rent a car, if you plan to visit further locations (like Doi Inthanon National Park). You can rent a car at the airport or at few private rental shops in the city. One day of car rent costs around 900 baht (26 EUR) including insurance. You will be asked to leave a deposit (we left 2000 baht in cash that was returned immediately after we came back) and one passport.
↬ Note : Make sure to wear a helmet and have your International Driving Permit with you.
We rented both a scooter and a car with Annas Car Rental and were very satisfied. The shop is centrally located, the scooter and the car were new and worked well. The rental process was easy and fast.
If you do not want to ride a scooter you can go around by Songthaew- local bus (usually a red jeep with extension for passengers at the back) from anywhere in the city. Just wait on the street and hold a hand at one passing by. Otherwise, just get a tuk-tuk, but don’t forget to agree on a price BEFORE the trip.
When to visit
The dry season in Thailand lasts from November till March and rain season from April until October. In Chiang Mai however, the seasons run a bit late and the rain typically start around June. Because of this you will be able to get better flight and hotel deals traveling in the low, rainy season, but be prepared for high humidity and rainstorms.
The North of Thailand is also relatively cooler than Bangkok. Make sure to pack a warmer jacket. Especially if you plan to visit Doi Inthanon National Park by motorbike: take a warm jacket and gloves.
Where to eat
Kat’s Kitchen is a must! It’s a simple restaurant with absolutely the best food we had!! The prices are also very good, Pad Thai costs as little as 70 THB (2 EUR). We tried several dishes and all of them were delicious. ?
The Old City Inn a small restaurant right in the centre of the old town. The dishes were delicious. Tom Yum and Pad Thai were spectacular. It’s good for budget as well. Try Mango Sticky Rice, Thai signature desert ?
See You Soon Cafe is a modern style cafe that serves good juices and coffee. The food was good enough, although more pricy.
Where to stay
There are many accommodation options in Chiang Mai. The city is growing fast, which means there are many new locations suitable for all travellers. When choosing the right place for your trip, look in the Old Town and nearby areas. Alternatively, choose a hotel with a stunning view on the river. Those however are for travellers with bigger budgets ?
↬ Note : We don’t really write about places that we didn’t like on our trips, like restaurants that served moderate food or hotels we would not come back to. As we don’t mention them, we do not recommend them either. This time however, we had such a terrible experience with one hotel in Chiang Mai that we wish to save you from the same… DO NOT stay at Viangdara Hotel in Chiang Mai ?
↬ Find all the hotels in Chiang Mai on booking.com
We recommend: Thai Akara – Lanna Boutique Hotel – Buri Gallery House
Where to go next?
Head on a 4h bus ride to Chiang Rai or board a plane to the islands on the South! How about diving in Koh Tao next?