Chiang Mai is a very popular tourist destination in Northern Thailand with about 10 million visitors every year. The city has been awarded for its creativity and beauty within its borders. It was even named 3rd best destination in the world by Travel + Leisure in 2017!
What's in Chiang Mai?
The city square of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a moat and ruins of old city walls once build to defend the city from Burmese attacks. The Moat surrounds the city in a perfect square, stretching 1.6 km from one side of the city to the other. Perfect walking distance to explore! The majority of the roads within the moat are more like alleyways, wide enough for only one car.
Where is Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is located almost 700 km north of Bangkok, nestled amongst Thailand's northern mountains. It is home to some of Thailand's best cultural treasures and is much more laid back than the bustling capital of Bangkok.
How to get to Chiang Mai?
Chiang Mai is one of Thailand's biggest cities and is very easily accessible from anywhere in Thailand, and even accessible internationally. You can book transportation at tourist information shops throughout Thailand.
Flying to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai currently has the 4th biggest international airport in Thailand with plans to expand it and allow for more annual visitors. The airport is located a short 2km to the south west of the main city square.
Flying to Chiang Mai from Bangkok or the southern islands will save you a very long transit ride, but costs anywhere from 1500 - 2000 Baht from Bangkok, and around 3000 Baht from Phuket.
Bussing to Chiang Mai
Minivans and sleeper buses to Chiang Mai can be booked from any big touristy areas within Thailand. If you have a (very) strange fetish for extremely long bus rides, then 25-hour drive across the country is right up your alley. You can bypass Bangkok and catch a bus directly from the southern Thai islands to northern Chiang Mai.
Booking a bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai will cost you around 700 Baht and takes up to 11 hours. I would recommend booking a sleeper bus and traveling overnight to save yourself a night of accommodation costs.
Catching a train to Chiang Mai
The rail system that stretches across Thailand allows you to catch a train all the way north to Chiang Mai. The trains can be a great way to see the country as they do make many stops at stations throughout the country. The cost is usually about 1000 Baht from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for a 13-hour journey.
Trains do also take about 2 hours longer than Busses from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and also happen to have a negative record of belongings going missing.
What are the 10 best things to do in Chiang Mai?
There are day tours running to all the top attractions every day, but there are also so many less known activities that make can Chiang Mai one of your best experiences.
Chiang Mai is a very cultured city. It extends much further than just the city square that most tourists don't venture out of. You could spend the entire week in Chiang Mai and still have missed some of its beautiful hidden secrets.
1. Huay Tung Tao Lake
This is Chiang Mais's best-kept secret. A very untouristy destination only a short 30-minute drive north of the city square. The entire lake is surrounded by bamboo huts with straw thatching for rooves. You can spend the day lazing by the lake, walking around it, or swimming in it!
The entrance fee for the park surrounding the lake is a flat rate of 50 Baht per person. The park also has several rice fields and bamboo bridges to walk through, as well as giant wooden animal statues to snap some pictures with.
Each little bamboo hut along the lake is catered by the local restaurants. You can plan to order some yummy Pad Thai or other authentic meals during your visit. There is also no problem with bringing your own food and drinks for the day.
2. Take a Thai Cooking class
This is the best activity that I paid to do in all of Thailand. I highly recommend taking a cooking class at a Thai cooking school during your visit. Chiang Mai has several cooking schools, all with very good reputations. You can choose your school based on cost, or if you'd prefer a class that cooks with organic food.
The cooking classes cost around 1000 Baht. I paid 800 Baht for a 4-hour afternoon class at Zabb E Lee Thai Cooking School. During the class, we learned to make authentic Thai food, including a curry paste, a curry, an appetizer, a stir fry, a soup, and of course, the famous mango sticky rice.
Under each of the 5 main dishes, there are three or four options you can choose from to cook for yourself. So essentially, you design your own 5-course meal and are walked through every step of the process of making your feast.
3. Go to an Elephant Sanctuary
Every basic tourist who is visiting Thailand has seen pictures of elephant sanctuaries and has added it to their to-do-list. Tourists always flock to these sanctuaries to snap some photos with these amazing giant mammals and make their friends jealous.
Chiang Mai is close by the national park of Doi Suthep-Pui, home to several elephant camps and sanctuaries. You can walk around Chiang Mai to decide which sanctuary you want to visit.
Most sanctuaries in Chiang Mai are ethical sanctuaries that do not allow riding. I visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. This ethical organization has three main sanctuaries throughout Thailand in which they home many elephants who have been rescued from cruel lifestyles.
The Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has 9 camps within the national park where tourists can visit the elephants on half or full day tours to feed them, bath them, swim with them, and learn about their daily routine. The elephants roam freely in the park and come back to the camps only to get the copious amounts of free food and mud spas every day.
4. Wander the Street Markets
Chiang Mai has a huge night market occurring within the city square every night. But, once a week on Sundays, the giant Sunday market stretches for several kilometers through various streets within the city. This is literally the biggest night market I have ever seen.
We wandered the market for 2 hours before having to go home from painful feet without even seeing all of the stalls! Chiang Mai is home to dozens of incredibly talented artists, all of who you can see doing painting and drawing in their stalls throughout the market.
5. Explore the Hmong Village
The Hmong Village Tribe has now become a popular tourist stop and less of a cultural visit, yet it is still an amazing experience. The village has one main street with street vendors selling their crafts and food. There is a primary school that you can also see kids running around and playing soccer during lunch time.
The village is located in Doi Suthep Poi National Park. Most tourists will visit Doi Suthep Temple, or Temple on the Mountain, while they are in Chiang Mai. The Hmong Village is just a few kilometers up the hill from the temple and is much quieter than the temple.
6. Rent a scooter
Tuk Tuk drivers in Chiang Mai enjoy ripping you off considering how cheap it actually is to get around Thailand. You can rent a scooter for as little as 100 Baht for 24 hours and cruize to any destination you please.
If you have never ridden a scooter before, here are a few key tips:
Firstly, trying to ride with someone on the back of the scooter is much harder than it looks, the Thai grew up driving from much younger than you ever started driving. They are much more experienced at balancing their entire friend group on the back of their scooter than you think you might be.
Secondly, the hardest part about driving a scooter is getting used to turning. It's like riding a very heavy and very powerful bicycle, you don't want to twist the handlebar to turn the bike, you need to try to shift your weight and learn to control your turns.
Thirdly, driving in Chiang Mai any time after midday is like a giant scramble of cars and bikes with no regard for road rules. The best time to get your bike is in the morning when you can learn to drive smoothly without an excessive amount of aggressive drivers around you. Scooters and motorbikes always stay to the side of the road to let faster vehicles past.
Fourthly, sorry if I scared you, you can totally do this. It is so worth it.
7. Visit Bhubing Palace and Doi Suthep
Doi Suthep, also known as the temple on the Mountain, is debatably the most popular tourist attraction in Chiang Mai. For this reason, it is always busy, no matter if you are traveling in high or low season. When planning a visit to the temple, choose an early time to avoid the midday crowds.
Bhubing Palace is a few km up the road from Doi Suthep and is home to the royal family during the winter months. When the family is living in the palace, you may enter to see the royal gardens and walk the property, but you will not be able to go anywhere near, nor see the palace its self.
The entrance fee for Doi Suthep Temple is 30 Baht, and the fee for the palace is 50 Baht. Both have very beautiful views of the surrounding valley.
8. Explore the city temples
Within the Chiang Mai city square, there are more than 15 temples that you can visit. All of them have unique statues and structures, and you often will find Monks hanging out inside them during the day. You can also get meals and proper Thai Massages in some of the temple gardens.
Outside of the city square, you can find many temples and Buddha statues. There are some older temples with exotic gardens beyond the moat of the city, all within walking distance of each other.
Why is Chiang Mai better than Bangkok?
It is sad to say that you rarely meet a tourist who says they enjoyed their stay in Bangkok. Most people will visit the city and be ready to move on after a day or two. Although it is still amazing to see what goes on in Bangkok, it is much less of a Thai experience, and rather just a huge tourist destination with nothing but busy vibes and endless expenses.
There is so much to do in the city of Chiang Mai for all kinds of travelers, including the adventurous spirits. The locals there are much friendlier towards tourists, seeing them less as money trees and more as real people.
Chiang Mai is a very cultured destination filled with beautifully decorated streets and funky stores. One day in this city will have you wanting to stay longer and immerse yourself in the creative lifestyle.