Chiang Mai is a magical place that stole my heart. I consider Chiang Mai my second home – it’s full of sweet, caring Thai people. It’s easy to fall in love with this city, as it is full of history and culture, but is also very easy to travel through as a Westerner. Most Thai people in the city speak decent enough English. You can find Western food among the hundreds of Thai restaurants if you are feeling homesick; you can find a restaurant that caters to any culinary desire. I fell in love with Chiang Mai for the people, the markets, the food, the restaurants, and the architecture. The moat that encircles the city is surrounded by greenery, the famous Doi Suthep mountain is close by, and there are dozens of natural wonders that you can see just outside of the city. [PLEASE NOTE: this is still a third world country, and some Thais will do whatever they need to do to make money. Sadly, this can include animal cruelty. Please practice responsible tourism and do your research before visiting any place that uses animals as attractions.]
Chiang Mai has the feel of a large city because there is so much to do, but the city itself is not as big as most typical American cities. There is lots of hustle and bustle in this city. You can get around via tuk tuk or songthaew (aka “red truck”). The tuk tuks are always fun, but a songthaew will usually be your best budget option. If you are staying in the old city, you’ll be able to walk most places. The old city is big enough that if you want to get from one end to the other, you’ll need to take transport (unless you love long walks in hot, humid environments). Taking a tuk tuk anywhere within the old city should cost you about 150 baht (roughly $5 USD), a red truck will set you back about 20 baht (about 60 cents USD). If this is your first time visiting this amazing city, I would recommend staying within the Old City, as that is where most everything is happening. If you’ve been to Chiang Mai before, I’d recommend trying out a new area (I stayed near Nimmanhaemin the second time I visited, and I loved it).
Accommodation in Chiang Mai is vast. There are so many choices, from super budget-friendly, to super luxurious. Personally, I like to snag a private place that still contributes to the local economy, but I don’t want to sleep in a 10 bed dorm room. My top recommendations (I’ve personally stayed at both of these places for more than a week) are as follows:
- Sleep Guesthouse: This is the first place I ever stayed in Chiang Mai and it is still one of my favorite places I’ve stayed to date (after traveling to over 20 countries). Sleep is an adorable little place, owned by a Thai woman and her European husband. They are so sweet, personable, and super accommodating. The guesthouse is in a great location, just inside the Old City. This guesthouse is absolutely incredible – the only bad thing about it is how well-known it’s getting. It can be booked out months in advance, so I would recommend booking ASAP. Rooms in this guesthouse will set you back about $30 USD per night – this includes a private room, your own bathroom, AC (necessary in Thailand at any time of year), and breakfast every morning.
- The Bliss Hotel: This is where I lived for three months. They do long term and short term leases, plus rooms by the night. You can see a video tour of my room here – this is one of the long term lease rooms. If you are getting a room by the night, you will get a different style – more like a one bedroom apartment instead of a studio. This hotel is a bit more hotel-like, though it is run by Thais and has a great atmosphere. I had a kitchen and living room area, with a couch and a kitchen sink and counter and everything. This place is more apartment-like and less short-term feeling. If you are looking for a place to feel at home and you are staying a bit longer, I would recommend The Bliss. I paid $280 USD for a month here, or you can stay by the day for roughly $35 USD per night. This hotel is near Nimmanhaemin Road, which is another touristy area, full of shopping and incredible restaurants.
Stuff to Do: In the City
- Wat Suan Dok: There are so many temples in the Old City – a simple search on Trip Advisor will show you at least 20. My favorite one was Wat Suan Dok. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s absolutely stunning. The whole temple is white and it is just incredible. I’d highly recommend a trip here, and after you take your photos and ring the bells (it’s good luck!), you can have lunch at the authentic Thai restaurant next door, Pun Pun.
- Wat Phra Singh: I love this temple because it’s beautiful, but another wonderful thing about it is that it is located right near Sleep Guesthouse AND it’s right in front of the best pizza place in Chiang Mai – By Hand Pizza. If you get a craving for a good pizza and beer night, look no further than By Hand. They have a pizza oven and you can watch the whole process, plus they make vegan pizzas (for veg heads like me). I would recommend looking on Tripadvisor to find some temples, and spend a whole day checking them out. Make sure to dress appropriately – women must cover their shoulders and legs. A long dress with a shawl would be appropriate, and will be much more comfortable than jeans in high humidity.
- Sunday Night Market: If you are only going to be in Chiang Mai for a few days, PLEASE make sure that one of those days is a Sunday. The Sunday night market is not to be missed – a large portion of the old city gets filled with street vendors selling souvenirs, food, little trinkets, soaps, candles, oils, you name it, it’s there. My favorite way to tackle the market is to go early (seriously like 4 or 5, as soon as they start setting up, because this place gets packed), look around at the goods, stop at the foot massage booth for a foot massage, and then head over to the food area. There are a few food courts, where you can try all kinds of exotic foods. I ate so many things there that I didn’t even know what they were, but they were all fun and delicious. It’s especially fun to go with a few people, so you can all get different foods and share. This is also an ideal spot to pick up souvenirs for your friends or family (if you’re into that kind of thing). You can buy shirts, pants, dresses, scarves, hats, seriously pretty much anything here.
- Massages: It’s well known that Thailand is the land of cheap massages. You can find massage parlors anywhere and everywhere, and a typical Thai massage will cost you roughly 200 baht, or $6 USD. I’ve never had a bad massage, and I’ve been to quite a few massage places in Chiang Mai. I recommend whichever you would like to try!
- Doi Suthep: Hike up the Pilgrims trail to the top of Doi Suthep if you’re brave; it’s a difficult and grueling hike. It takes about an hour and a half, but it’s steep uphill. If you’re feeling lazy, get a red truck to take you up (250 baht round trip is a good price). At the top of the mountain, you’ll see the incredible temple. You’ll also get a great view of the city. Be prepared to walk up the stairs to get to the temple, and as always, dress appropriately when visiting a temple. Or you can pull an Amanda and wear shorts and borrow some fisherman pants. Note that you will need to take your shoes off to walk inside the temple.
Stuff to Do: Day Trips/Tours
- Elephant Jungle Sanctuary: I’ve been here twice and can easily say it has been two of the best days of my life. There is nothing that can compare to spending your day playing with elephants. When you book a tour with this sanctuary (which rescues elephants – you do not ride them), they will pick you up from your accommodation, take you on a scenic hour and a half drive to the sanctuary (don’t worry, you’ll stop at a coffee shop on the way), and you get to spend a half or full day (depending which one you book), playing with elephants. I bathed them, walked with them, and fed them. Seriously, do this. [Note: I did loads of research and found that this is one of the only sanctuaries in Northern Thailand that truly does not harm the animals. It is common for elephant farms to call themselves “sanctuaries” to get more tourism. The elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are treated with love and respect and it’s easy to see that they are not mistreated in any way.] See my full post on the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
- Doi Inthanon: “Doi” means mountain in Thai. Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand. Take a ride via airport taxi (with AC, a private tour will cost you about $40-$50 per person), or book a red truck the day before (will cost you about 500 baht per person, about $14 USD). The mountain is also about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai, but well worth the drive. You’ll get to go on a little hike, you’ll see the King and Queens temples at the mountain, and you’ll get to have lunch at a super cute authentic Thai restaurant at the base of the mountain. I took the luxury route and splurged on an airport taxi, and our driver took us on an extra stop to the rice paddies and a really amazing waterfall. It was an incredible experience and I highly recommend it.
- Grand Canyon: I visited the Grand Canyon on my first trip to Chiang Mai. It was surreal. You can swim in the water at the base of the canyon. When I went there, we were allowed to jump from the cliff, but I believe that has been banned. There is still an area that you can jump from, it’s just a bit lower. You can get here via red truck (the more people you can fit in, the cheaper it will be per person). I highly recommend spending a half day swimming at the canyon. There is also a restaurant here if you get hungry. Bring cash, because there is a 50 baht entrance fee.
Overnight Trips from Chiang Mai
- Chiang Rai: To be honest, I never made it to Chiang Rai, but it’s still on my list of places to go. Catch a bus up here, stay for a night, and see the absolutely incredible White Temple.
- Pai: Pai is an adorable little mountain town, about three hours by bus from Chiang Mai. It’s a great place to be surrounded by greenery. I’d suggest renting a scooter and driving to the big buddha, where you can walk up a LOT of stairs to get to the buddha and get a wonderful view of the city. The nightlife in Pai is pretty full on, with markets and bars opening after dark. Lots of tourists and locals go out for drinks. There is a great little beer bar that serves beers from around the world – you can buy a beer from America if you are getting homesick (it will cost you though – I paid $8 USD for a Stone IPA). I stayed in an ADORABLE bungalow in Pai, called Pai Chan Cottages (see below). A two-bed bungalow set us back $15 USD per night.
If you’re a health nut like me, check out these restaurants for the best food in Chiang Mai.
- Food 4 Thought: Easily, hands down, my favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai. It’s also called Bay’s Cafe. They serve amazing coffee and breakfast, but also do not miss a chance to try their lunches. They have happy hour if you’re into wine/beer/drinks, they serve kombucha, smoothies, and juices, and they have good portion sizes (Thailand is known for small portions). The owner, Bay, and his staff are incredibly friendly. If you want a place to chill out for a bit, this is your best bet. Bay sometimes has rescue kittens that can be super sociable, and you are always welcome to stay for hours (a lot of people do just that). The only downside to this restaurant is that it is a bit outside of the city. Catch a red truck if you’re staying in the Old City, or you can walk from Nimmanhaemin Road.
- By Hand Pizza: As mentioned above, this is a fab pizza place if you’re craving a good pizza and beer night. This place is super cute and in a great area. The pizzas are fantastic, and it’s a really great place to catch up with a friend and chill out after a day full of touristing. Bonus: It’s right down the road from Sleep Guesthouse.
- May Kaidee’s: This place has authentic vegetarian Thai food. It’s located close to Sleep Guesthouse (within walking distance). It’s amazing, the food is outstanding, and they even offer cooking classes if you’re into it. Just make sure you book in advance. 🙂
- Aum Vegetarian: Aum is well known for their veggie burgers, but they also make an incredible curry and some great pad thai. It’s located right by the Tha Pae gate, which is something you will definitely want to see on your trip.
- Taste From Heaven: Go here, get the pumpkin curry, and thank me later. They also have killer brownies that go great with their coconut ice cream.
- Rustic and Blue: When you’re craving something healthy and fresh, head to Nimmanhaemin and hit up Rustic and Blue. They offer salads, acai bowls, and some heartier healthy options if you’d like.
- Imm Aim: Amazing pad thai and super cute place. Definitely sneak up the stairs for a great table with a view down the street and a nice, casual ambiance.
- Tidmor: Down Soi 7 off Nimmanhaemin, it’s a great spot to stop off for some potstickers, if you’re in the mood.
- Any of the markets will offer traditional Thai food. If you are a pad thai lover, try the market outside of Maya mall (it only happens Thurs-Sat) for some incredible pad thai.
- Ristr8to: If you are a coffee drinker, YOU MUST GO HERE. This is my favorite coffee shop in Chiang Mai, and perhaps in the entire world. They offer traditional coffees, complete with latte art, but they also have some alcoholic coffees if you are feeling wild.