Chiang Mai could quite possibly be the ideal destination for travelers. A welcoming and comfortable city in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai strikes a balance between a vibrant culture steeped in tradition and an international sensibility that embraces the modern. This juxtaposition between familiar and unfamiliar makes it a particularly popular spot with tourists and expats alike.

The city is bursting at the seams with with vibrancy, where aggressive tuk tuks weave precariously through traffic, ornate temples greet you everywhere you look, scents of delicious foods waft from curbside stalls, and night markets with hundreds of vendors are crammed with locals, who might just be the friendliest you’re ever to encounter.

Our Chiang Mai Travel Guide is a collaboration amongst Departful’s contributors, who have provided their first-hand insights, recommendations, and photos from this compelling city.


The Definitive Chiang Mai Travel Guide

See

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Wat

Tour the wats in the Old City. Buddhist temples, or wats, are abundant in Chiang Mai. With over 700 wats and 10,000 monks, Chiang Mai holds plenty of cultural significance in Thailand. Wandering around the historic Old City, bordered by the original city gates and moat, you’ll encounter a new temple at every turn, some major and others minimal, but all offering an opportunity to increase your understanding about the Buddhist tradition in northern Thailand. Wat Chedi Luang is an impressive brick temple built over 600 years ago and one of the most important religious sites in ancient Thailand. The oldest wat in Chiang Mai, Wat Chiang Man was erected around 1296 before the city was established. Wat Phra Singh comprises a beautiful temple intricately adorned with gold and renowned for its namesake Lion Buddha (Phra Singh) image in traditional Lanna style.

Chiang Mai Guide - Monk

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. One of the most venerable temples in northern Thailand, Wat Phrathat is located in the mountainous Doi Suthep National Park, about 40 minutes northwest of Chiang Mai. A bike or scooter is a good way to get to the temple, or hire a tuk tuk. Once there, visitors can choose to walk the 306 steps to the entrance of the temple or opt for the tram. The high location affords excellent views of Chiang Mai, particularly spectacular during sunrise and sunset.

Wat Umong. Often referred to as the forest temple, Wat Umong is set amongst a jungle in the western suburbs of Chiang Mai, lying at the foothills of Doi Suthep. Completely unlike the opulently adorned temples in the Old City, Wat Umong is relatively minimalist, with a brick structure that’s surprisingly intact after almost 700 years. Miles of tunnels were built below the temple, some of which can still be explored. The area surrounding the temple is inhabited by monks, who can be seen attending to their daily routines and interacting with visitors.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Wat Umong

Doi Inthanon. The tallest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon is a worthy excursion from Chiang Mai. As it’s set within a national park, heading to the peak provides an opportunity to experience unique landscapes and unparalleled nature. Near the top are two impressive chedis dedicated to the King and Queen, surrounded by an English style garden. If you don’t have your own vehicle to make the two hour drive, hire a songthaew or join an organized tour.

Night Markets. Chiang Mai truly comes alive in the evenings with a nightly bazaar along Chang Khlan Road from 7pm to midnight. Hordes of people, mainly tourists, crowd into the labyrinth of streets to peruse the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stalls hawking everything imaginable from electronics to fabrics, designer knockoffs, wooden figurines, graphic t-shirts, and tasty snacks. Locals and expats prefer the night markets on Saturday along Wua Lai Road and on Sunday on Tha Pae Gate for a more diverse offering. Here you’ll find more of an emphasis on handcrafted goods, unique art pieces, and plenty of street food in addition to the typical tourist stuff.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Night Market


Do

Cooking Class. Cooking classes are such a popular pastime for visitors that you practically can’t turn a corner in Chiang Mai without coming across a poster advertising one. While they may be a typical tourist excursion, if you like to cook and love to eat, taking a cooking class is a fantastic way to experience the flavours of Northern Thailand. There are dozens listed on Trip Advisor, many with 5 stars, but most are quite similar and even stop at the same market to introduce the ingredients to the participants before the cooking begins. That being said, I enjoyed immensely my experience at Tom Yum Thai Cooking Class where our master chef Oun had us laughing as we prepared a range of authentic Thai dishes that I’ve even managed to recreate at home.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Cooking Class

Thai Massage. Massages are pretty much a non negotiable in Chiang Mai and visitors should engage in them as frequently as possible while in town. These establishments are a dime a dozen in Chiang Mai and can be found in abundance in every corner of the city. Most specialize in traditional Thai Massage, which involves a masseuse working over 100 areas of the body using pressure points and orchestrating your body into specific yoga-like moves. Starting at $4 per hour, massages are a relaxing and economical activity that will be difficult to extract from your routine once you leave Chiang Mai.

Monk Chat. With so many Buddhist monks in Chiang Mai and a virtually nonstop procession of tourists, a program called Monk Chat was developed some years ago to provide visitors an opportunity to learn about Buddhism while giving monks a chance to practice speaking English. Nowadays, Monk Chat is offered at a few temples including  Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Suan Dok, and Wat Umong. Those interested can drop in during the designated times and freely ask the monks questions to their heart’s desire.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Monks

Meditation Course. Thailand is often touted as a destination for those looking to achieve mindfulness and Chiang Mai is no exception. Various Vipassana (“insight”) mediation courses are on offer to orient visitors to the Buddhist way of life, ranging from one day to month long retreats. Most offer a balance between solitude for personal reflection and interaction with a teacher, kind of like a monk mentor, to gain a deeper understanding of the path to enlightenment. Wat Ram Poeng offers a 26 day intense course for the disciplined meditator, Wat Phradhat Doi Suthep 40 minutes from Chiang Mai offers one to 21 day courses in an idyllic setting, and Wat Umong has an established meditation centre with a variety of courses for interested visitors.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - River

Kayak the Ping River. An excellent way to see Chiang Mai from a completely different vantage point is to kayak the Ping River, the waterway that transects the city. Kayaks are for rent at Wat Fa Ham located just North of Thape Gate Rd. and from there you can paddle up the river. You’ll float by wats, pass under bridges, and bamboo stalls selling food and drinks at the side of the river. If you paddle far enough you’ll get clear out of the city and into the rice paddies, farmers fields, and even some of the elephant camps if you keep on going. Tipping your kayak is not advised so avoid showing off with a barrel roll.


Eat

Lemongrass. This beloved restaurant close to the Night Bazaar serves up excellent Thai dishes in a laid back, West Coast vibe setting. The menu is huge and the prices are so good you may have an inkling to order a lot, but be forewarned, the portions are large and the food is so tasty you won’t be able to stop until the plates are clean. Lemongrass attracts a lot of hungry travelers so the restaurant fills up early, but if you have to wait you can distract yourself by reading the hand written notes scribbled all over the white walls from satisfied patrons.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Food

Kalapela. This unassuming eatery in the centre of Chiang Mai has a lovely outdoor oasis hidden out back, with leafy trees, wood stools, and small, intimate tables. Kalapela offers a range of wines, teas, and French inspired foods making it a nice change from the tonnes of Thai food you’re likely to consume. And while this isn’t the most ideal spot for locavores as almost everything served here is imported, sometimes it’s nice to have food that reminds you of home when you’ve been traveling for awhile. It’s difficult to fault Kalapela as it’s run by two of the nicest expats in Chiang Mai who like to stop by for a chat to ensure you’re experience is excellent.

Bamboo Bee. Bee is a one woman show as the owner, host, server, and cook of this restaurant that specializes in vegan and vegetarian Thai dishes. Bee’s top notch dishes reflect only the freshest ingredients cooked from scratch and served up in a cozy restaurant on a narrow street inside the Old City with room for a dozen or so guests. Don’t come here if you’re in a rush as Bee lovingly prepares each dish one at a time, but it’s definitely worth the wait.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Khao Soi

Midnight Chicken. As local a place as could be imagined, Midnight Chicken lives up to its name opening after midnight every night and serving some delicious fried chicken. This is late night go to spot for locals and expats who are heading home from the bar or just want some amazing midnight eats. It is all classic Northern Thai food and is just mind-blowingly good. It’s not easy to find and you’ll likely need a local to point you in the right direction, but it’s well worth the search.

Woo Cafe & Art Gallery. For those who appreciate atmosphere as well as great food, Woo Cafe is the perfect dining spot in Chiang Mai. A lovely serene cafe creates an inviting space with comfy chairs and couches while an abundance of flowers and plants transform Woo Cafe into a green oasis. The food is excellent too, with a range of offerings from freshly baked goods to savoury Thai and Western dishes, as well as a great offering of coffees and espresso based beverages.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Market

Chiang Mai Gate Market. The market at the old city gates is a foodie’s paradise, and it also happens to be where most of the city’s culinary tours make a pre-cooking stop for fresh ingredients. This warehouse of stalls spilling out into the streets selling fruits and vegetables, delectably cold coffees and smoothies, curry mixes, live fish, kitchen tools, and tons of foods cooked on the spot. Hit up the market anytime of the day, it’s open 24/7, for a veritable smorgasbord that you can enjoy anywhere in the city.


Drink

Mixology. If you’re in the mood for cocktails served up in a hip setting, head over to Mixology Chiangmai Burger on Arak Road in the west end of the Old City, just inside of the moat. Here you will find the most creative and well crafted cocktails in town, served up in a small, laid back venue with great tunes where tourists, expats, and locals intermingle. Mixology has a food menu with excellent options that emphasize fresh and local ingredients including the signature Chiangmai burger; a minced pork patty in between a sticky rice bun.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Lanterns

Lumphun Road. Across the Ping River from the Old City lies the Mueng District, a great nightlife spot with several restaurants and bars overlooking the riverfront. The main strip has a half a dozen or so restaurants, most of which have multiple sections such as a dance floor, large outdoor patio, and pub style area. A fantastic draw is the live music performed nightly at many of the bars with different styles by venue. Favourites include The Good View Bar & Restaurant and Riverside Craft Beer Factory across the street. As it’s outside of the centre of Chiang Mai, Lumphun Road attracts mostly locals and relatively few tourists.

Nimmanhaemin Road. This street near Chiang Mai University is where all things hip intersect. The strip and adjacent sois (streets), are both parts trendy and quirky, choke-full of cafes, galleries, restaurants, and boutique shops making it a worthwhile destination any time of the day. When the sun goes down, the party really gets started as the streets and bars crowd with local students, expats, and travelers in the know. Bars are prevalent here but be sure to hit up Basic Bar, The Warm Up, and the district’s longstanding party place, The Monkey Club.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Ping River


Sleep

Tanita House. This lovely guesthouse is run by Aun, an incredibly sweet Thai woman, who welcomes visitors into her home. There are four large bungalows, all representing traditional Lanna design and architecture with an abundance of teak furniture. Located across the bridge from the Old City, Tanita House is located in a more local, but increasingly hip, district with design shops, restaurants, and local bars scattered nearby. On the compound is Tanita Coffee House run by Aun’s nephew, which serves up deliciously refreshing iced coffees and Thai iced tea that are a blessing in the Chiang Mai midday heat.

Bodhi Serene Hotel. Located in Chiang Mai’s Old City, Bodhi Serene is a boutique hotel evoking the historical Lanna style typical of northern Thailand. With just 38 rooms, the hotel focuses on providing excellent guest experiences in a beautiful setting with a central courtyard and exotic gardens covering the area. A welcome bonus in the summer heat is the spectacular plunge pool to cool off in when temperatures peak. Service is a priority at Bodhi Serene and the staff are eager to ensure a perfect stay, including arranging tours and offering a free shuttle to the city’s night markets.

Sleep Guesthouse. This nine room guesthouse effortlessly blends comfort with modern industrial design in the centre of Chiang Mai. With a mix of dorm and private rooms available, Sleep Guesthouse appeals to both backpackers as well as higher end travelers on a budget. But what makes the guesthouse truly special are the hosts, who cultivate an excellent experience for guests and help them to make the most of their time in Chiang Mai.

Hug Hostel. This hostel consists of 12 rooms, including both mixed dorms and privates, in close proximity to the sights of the Old City. Hug Hostel is a fantastic spot for backpackers given its friendly staff, spotless facilities, reliable wi-fi, and relaxed vibe that makes it a perfect place to meet fellow, likeminded travelers. Bike rentals are available on site and tour arrangements can be coordinated to help visitors maximize their time in Chiang Mai. With such excellent service, guests will forget they’re even in a hostel.

Airbnb. Always an excellent way to experience a new place like a local, renting an apartment via Airbnb is a viable option for visitors to Chiang Mai. Accommodation types run the gamut from simple shared living spaces to luxury mansions with room for a dozen, but are still relatively economical. The beauty of renting is that you will typically have the opportunity to live in a more residential neighbourhood providing the chance to see a side of Chiang Mai that most tourists never get to experience.


Get Out

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Getaway

Elephant Nature Park. While you can encounter elephants through various tours and parks in and around Chiang Mai, Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is renowned as the most ethical and humane. ENP seeks to educate visitors and enhance the awareness of inhumane and exploitive practices involving elephants in Thailand. Not on offer at ENP is the standard elephant ride experience, which involves riding on a bamboo seat on an elephant’s neck, while it’s corralled by aggressive, and potentially violent, mahouts. Instead, you can interact with elephants at ENP in their natural habitats and daily rituals, including feeding and bathing.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Elephant

Huay Tung Tao Lake. While you won’t find a beach in landlocked Chiang Mai, Huay Tung Tao Lake offers a pleasant and picturesque alternative just 15 kilometres from the Old City. This man made lake at the foothills of the Doi Suthep mountain is an excellent spot to seek reprieve from the hordes and heat of Chiang Mai. Several bamboo huts lining the waterfront are perfect for lounging while the lake is best enjoyed by paddle boat or inflatable tube. Outdoor restaurants serve up delicious and fresh food ideal for a private picnic in the lakeside huts.

Suan Lahu Farm. Tucked into the remote mountains of northern Thailand just North-East of Chiang Mai is Suan Lahu, a certified organic farm and traditional coffee grower and roaster run and maintained by the traditional Lahu hill tribe community. You can stay on the farm located in the mountain valley overlooking the Lahu hilltribe village and interact with the local farmers who are happy to show visitors more of the surroundings. Traveling out into the mountain villages and the hill tribe communities can provide for a great opportunity to explore Thailand’s wilderness and learn about the traditional practices of the diverse peoples who live there. Reach more about Suan Lahu Farm here.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Coffee

Mae Wang. This river about an hour south of Chiang Mai is an ideal retreat from the hectic atmosphere of the city and offers a ‘get back to nature’ experience for those interested in seeing Northern Thailand outside of the dominant towns in the area. Chai Lai Orchid, a social enterprise empowering at risk women, offers a unique and comfortable accommodation in a natural setting. There is a lot to experience nearby such as trekking to hill tribes, swimming in waterfalls, rafting down the river, and some pretty spectacular hikes.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - River

Luang Nuea. Another breather nearby Chiang Mai is the area of Luang Nuea, about an hour north of the city and offering an opportunity to experience more of the rural areas of Northern Thailand. An excellent spot to unwind and enjoy the great outdoors is Rabeang Pasak Treehouse Resort, one of the most unique accommodations you’re likely to ever stay in. Guests sleep in one of the eight treehouses personally built by Mr. Lee, a jovial retired architect from Chiang Mai. While some of the treehouses are quite tall and some closer to ground level, all are exquisitely quirky and surprisingly comfortable. Borrow a bike and explore the surrounding jungle.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Treehouse Village

Festivities

Songkran. If you happen to be in Chiang Mai over the Thai New Years you are in for a treat. Songkran is the Buddhist New Year and is infamous as the worlds largest waterfight. Chiang Mai is know for their traditional take on it, as well as their insane modern approach and week long waterfight. Such a wild and amazing time to visit.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Songkran

Loi Kranthong. This festival of lights happens in the Fall, right around the end of October or early November. Thousands of Lanna style sky lanterns are released during the event, illuminating the skies in a surreal way. The festivities fill the weekend with lanterns, fireworks and parties. For a more detailed overview of Loi Kranthong and many awe-inspiring photos, check out this previous article.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Loi Kranthong Lanterns


Need To Know

Getting around. There are many viable modes of transportation in Chiang Mai. Tuk tuks, essentially a rickshaw on wheels offering a quick and adventurous ride and can generally be easily flagged. Tuk tuk operators are notorious for overcharging tourists so it’s always best to get a local’s advice on how much a trip should cost and don’t be afraid to barter for a fairer price. Songtaews are buses with two benches and an open back that take multiple traveling to the same area. Flag a songtaew as you would a tuk tuk or taxi but you might have to try a few times to find one going in your direction. Bike and scooter rentals are also an option, particularly if you want to explore more of the area outside of Chiang Mai. Experience is highly recommended if renting a scooter as Chiang Mai can be harrowing for those unaccustomed to the local driving habits.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Motorbike Streets

Visiting Wats. The temples are sacred in Buddhist cultures so ensure you act and dress respectfully to avoid causing offence. Covered shoulders and bottoms past the knees are appropriate for all visitors and shoes must always be removed and left outside before entering a temple. Don’t be loud, lewd, or inappropriate. Bow your head upon entering a temple and to the religious images and statues. Essentially, take a cue from the locals and act accordingly.

Chiang Mai Travel Guide - Wat Umong

We hope that you found our Definitive Chiang Mai Travel Guide helpful. Let us know in the comments if you have any tips of your own.


Chiang Mai Travel Guide Photos by James MacDonald and JP Bervoets


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Lauren Barth

Lauren Barth

Lauren Barth co-founded Departful in 2012 and is the Managing Director of Departful Media. Since then she has worked between North America and Europe and has published content in partnership with a variety of tourism boards and businesses based around the world. Lauren is currently based in Toronto, Canada.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.

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