Thailand’s beautiful city of Chiang Mai, sometimes called the Rose of the North, is a must-see destination in Southeast Asia. It provides a perfect mix of things for travelers to experience. From the divine food to lively street markets, the charming moat that surrounds the city to its overall affordability, Chiang Mai won’t disappoint. Read on for some travel tips to make your Chiang Mai Thai adventure a smooth and enjoyable one.
1. Know That Chiang Mai Works For All Budgets
One of the most attractive things about this northern Thai paradise is that it’s attainable for multiple types of travelers. Those who want to backpack and stay in hostels can expect to pay just $25 a night for a private room and around $5 USD for traditional dorm-style accommodations. Luxe travelers can enjoy the upscale hotel offerings, like the $400-a-night 137 Pillars House or the boutique Ping Nakara Hotel and Spa for around $200 per night. There’s even a Four Seasons in the pretty rice fields outside the city. Visitors looking to spend something closer to $100 a night can also find plenty of mid-range options as well as home rentals from Airbnb and Vrbo.
On my visit to Chiang Mai in 2018, I was also struck by how cheap the activities, attractions, and restaurants were. Plus, many of the famous temples are free to access and the city is walkable, which saved on transportation costs. Some other noteworthy affordable experiences were the well-known Thai massages as well as custom-made suits. It made for a lovely trip since we weren’t stressed about spending too much in this very approachable spot. This could make Chiang Mai an attractive option for a multigenerational trip as well, since it rests at an attainable price point for travelers in many stages of life.
2. Be Sure To Eat Khao Soi
This famous noodle dish is synonymous with Chiang Mai. Sometimes spelled kow soy, visitors should sample multiple versions of the egg-noodle-and-curry concoction. There are a ton of spots that offer khao soi, but I’ll share some favorites. Anthony Bourdain’s pick was Laap Kao Cham Chaa, while I enjoyed Khao Soi Khun Yai. There are also numerous food stalls around the city, including near the Night Market, that offer the dish as well as countless other restaurants. Since culinary exploits are such a huge part of embracing local culture while traveling, it makes sense to try Chiang Mai’s most famous dish.
3. Take A Cooking Class
Another stellar way to get to know the cuisine of any new place is by taking a cooking class. Chiang Mai is a popular spot to do so since it’s the heart of northern Thailand. A friend recommended Siam Rice cooking school to me since she had enjoyed it so much, and I have to say, I had a wonderful experience there. Cooking class night was one of my favorites of my whole two-week Thai itinerary. We made pad thai, coconut chicken soup, massaman curry, mango sticky rice, spring rolls, and, of course, khao soi.
The chef guide conveniently spoke English, too. And, for an added dose of fun, the class began with a tour of the local fresh food market to see all the options and to pick up ingredients (and Chang beer) for our dinner. Additionally, for solo travelers, a cooking class can be an excellent way to meet other tourists and make friends.
4. Don’t Miss The Temples
One of Chiang Mai’s claims to fame is that it is home to hundreds of beautiful temples. On any trip to the city, travelers should plan to explore at least a handful of them. There are tons of options to choose from, so I’ll just share my favorites. The striking golden Wat Phra Singh is the most visited temple in the city and is home to the famed Lion Buddha image. Another winner is the so-called Elephant Temple, or Wat Chiang Man, which is the oldest in the city. Wat Chiang Yuen has a large Buddha statue and is outside the Old City walls, while Wat Sri Suphan is the well known Silver Temple. Another favorite was the sprawling forest complex at Wat Umong, which provides a verdant break from the city and always has monks walking around its pathways.
Pro Tip: To be respectful of these religious and cultural sites, make sure your shoulders and legs are covered before visiting. I simply carried a large pashmina/scarf in my bag and threw it on when necessary. Some temples will have scarves or clothes the public can rent or use as well, but I was happier to have my own. Also be aware that the so-called Silver Temple does not allow women inside its main structure, which attendants and signage will repeatedly announce.
5. Avoid These Two Things: Wine And Durians
One major bummer of my Thai trip was the fact that wine was so expensive. Since there’s a huge import tax on wine throughout the country, it was the only thing that didn’t make sense to drink. One exception I made was on a date night at David’s in Chiang Mai. This fine dining establishment is a bit of a splurge, but their wine prices were the most reasonable I found in the area.
Another common thing to shy away from is the durian fruit. Commonly found at local markets and shops, this round-ish, yellow, semi-spiky fruit is popular in the area. However, it smells so terrible that many hotels will fine you for having one on their premises.
6. Markets Are A Must
On any trip to Chiang Mai, visitors should allow time to wander and explore its various area markets. The most well-known and celebrated is the huge Night Bazaar, which occurs in the center of town every evening from about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. There will be live music, tons of handicraft vendors, and food stalls where you can sample some of Northern Thailand’s famous street food.
Another option is the Sunday Walking Street market, which only happens on Sunday. Centered in the Old City on Ratchadamneon Road, this lively market is open from about 4 p.m. to midnight each Sunday. There are also a few flower markets full of gorgeous blooms and friendly locals. One option to escape tourists is at the Kham Thiang Market, which is near the Lotus Grocery Store. Another very local-feeling option is the Warorot Market -- the oldest public market in the region -- in Chiang Mai’s Chinatown. It’s adjacent to the Ping River and is also near another lovely flower market called Talat Ton Lam Yai. Of all the markets I visited, the Warorot iteration was my favorite since it had fewer touristy souvenirs and more authentic Thai vibes.
7. It’s A Great Base For Day Trips
Finally, perhaps my favorite tip about Chiang Mai is that it’s the ideal spot to use as a base to explore the rest of northern Thailand. I enjoyed a number of day trips without having to pack up and move hotels constantly. One of the most enjoyable was to the famous sticky waterfalls at Bua Tong. Travelers can actually walk up the waterfalls because the rocks are rough enough to provide some stability. Those who aren’t up for a waterfall climb can simply use the nearby staircase. This attraction is located about an hour from Chiang Mai, so it’s perfect as a day trip destination.
Another fun day trip I enjoyed was to Thailand’s Grand Canyon, also known as Hang Dong Canyon. This spot is just 20 minutes from the city, and it’s home to a water park, cliff jumping opportunities, and pretty swimming spots. Lifeguards were around the whole time I was there, so I felt safe even though it was an unfamiliar area. For a less-busy experience, visit in the morning when they first open. Also, it can be hard to get Ubers to go that far out, so I used an Uber to get there and scheduled a Blacklane to get back to my hotel ahead of time. Renting a car or motorbike for the day would be another option.
Thailand is famous for its elephants as well. Responsible tourists should know that any place that lets you ride elephants is not a place to visit. After much research, I decided to check out the Elephant Nature Park about 40 miles from Chiang Mai. This well-known sanctuary has tons of options for tours, lets volunteers live there and help for weeks at a time, and actually rescues and rehabilitates elephants who were formerly mistreated. I knew I wanted to devote a whole day to the elephants, so I chose the Pamper A Pachyderm option, which let me feed, bathe, and walk with the gentle giants. There are also shorter half-day trips for those who have less time available. Elephant Nature Park also arranges for transport to and from your hotel and the park, so travelers don’t have to worry about the logistics of getting there and back.
On my recent Thailand excursion, I also took a long day trip up to Chiang Rai, a city about three hours north of Chiang Mai. I was able to explore sights like Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Rong Kuhn (the White Temple) and relax on the riverside Chaing Rai beach before heading back to my Chiang Mai base.
One final day trip option I recommend is to one of Thailand’s most visited religious shrines at Doi Suthep, which is about 30 minutes from the city. It’s a gorgeous temple and is part of a national park that offers unbelievable views from its mountaintop location. Energetic travelers can walk the 306 steps up to the temple on the intricately carved serpent stairs, while a funicular is available for those who’d rather ride up.
Overall, Chiang Mai was my favorite destination in Thailand, the so-called Land of Smiles. This dynamic northern hub was the perfect place to explore local markets and cuisines, visit countless temples, take a cooking class, and more. It also provided the perfect gateway to the north as a base for numerous day trips outside the city walls. Be sure to add Chiang Mai to your travel bucket list!