The city of Chiang Mai, 700 Km north of Bangkok (Thailand), is one of the most popular travel destinations in Thailand. The fast growing city, where you can find the perfect balance between an dynamic way of thinking and tradition, maintain its historic and religious charm.
A visit to Chiang Mai can be reduced to a couple of days but you have plenty of things to do to stay for much longer. With its cooler weather during the winter months and its slower paced, it attracts all sorts of tourists: from the one touring Southeast Asia to people from Bangkok. I personally ended up spending about 2 months in Chiang Mai and I know many other travellers that extended the short 2 days stay to at least a week.
Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (translated in ‘kingdom of the million rice fields’), which saw its highest point during the 15th century. The history of the city started in 1296, when Chiang Mai was founded as a fortified city of approximately 1.5 Km. The Old Town, with its small noisy streets that wind within temples, small shops and street vendors; it’s the oldest part of Chiang Mai, still surrounded by the original wall.
Modernity is taking over outside the walls. The city is expanding and the area is quickly growing with modern cafes and apartments. Chiang Mai, in fact, is also the Digital Nomad paradise: everybody who work in the digital world or does any kind of freelance job, have heard about Chiang Mai and have spend or is planning to spend sometime in the city. The reasons are many: from the bustling cafe scene, the good Internet connection, the inexpensive life and friendly dynamic people that live in the area. The expat/digital nomad area, which is also where you can find very many cafes and boutique style shops, is called Nimman area and it extends from Nimmanhaemin Road to its surrounding toward the University.
The activities that will keep you busy in Chiang Mai are many: delicious food, massages, festivals, big and colorful markets, strong and tasty coffee, incredible temples and more or less challenging trekking at your doorstep.
Let’s start with some practical informations.
How to get there
Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok through many airlines, day or night trains and busses. The busses are always my least favorite transport method due to the crazy driving style but they are also the cheapest. If you are short on time and decide to fly you should check out budget airlines like Airasia, Tiger Air or Leo Air which offers several flight a day starting from USD 25 for one way with no bags. When booking your flight consider that often, when the planes are not full, they will postpone it to the next one to fill them up. This means that if you book it in the morning you might end up flying in the afternoon.
There are also many busses or minivans to other cities around, like Pai, Chiang Rai, Sukhothai or Ayutthaya. The minivans are a truly terrifying experience: imagine a rally race on an overloaded van; not for weak stomachs, especially on the windy road to Pai.
The Old Town is relatively small, which make it easy to get anywhere by foot. Many guesthouses or small restaurants rent bicycles as well, which is always a nice way to swing around town. The busiest roads are the big one along the walls and the other main roads that get into the Old Town, but they are still doable by bicycle. If you are staying for a month you might consider buying one and selling it when you leave.
Motorbikes rental are everywhere as well, but remember to wear a helmet and be careful. The traffic is unpredictable and the rules are optional most of the time, but if you think that I have never drove a motorbike before and I went around for 2 months in Chiang Mai without any problem, you will understand that is doable with some common sense. When renting a bike, take some pictures of it before driving, just to be sure to don’t have any problem with your deposit. I rented mine from Bikky, in Huay Kaew, where the service was good and the bike in perfect condition.
A sort of public transport is available as well. The songthaew is a red pick up truck that you can wave down anywhere you are at, you just need to be on the right direction. The drivers normally don’t really speak English so it’s better to have a reference point and he can head to that direction. People will be dropped and pick up on the way and if you see your destination before the reference point, you just need to ring the bell to stop the truck. The price is 20 THB within the Old Town and a few Kilometers out, but if you need to go farther the price will increase.
Your last, and more expensive option is the tuk-tuk. The price vary from your destination and ability to bargain and it can be anything within the 50 and 100 THB.
There are few taxis as well, but they have fixed rate, they don’t use the meter, and normally they are not very convenient.
Chiang Mai is located at an altitude of about 300 m and the urban area is surrounded by mountains and a very green country side. The weather is getting more and more unpredictable, like everywhere else in the world really, but we can normally distinguish 3 seasons:
The Dry Season goes roughly from October to February, with November, December and January being the coldest months with temperature going as low as 10 °C overnight. During the day the temperature rise considerably and it’s normally around 25 °C. Due to the low humidity, the heat is never overwhelming during this time of the year, which is considered the best to visit the country.
The Wet Season goes from June to September, with August being the wettest month. Don’t be scared by the wet season: the sky can be often overcast, but the rain comes for a couple of hours a day and you can still enjoy some sunny days. Temperatures are between 25 °C and 33 °C, so it’s still hot and can be very sticky BUT, this is the time in which the countryside is more leafy, green and beautiful. Going for long hikes on the surrounding mountain can be more complicated because of the wet, slippery soil, but you will be rewarded by the amazing landscape. I spent a month there in September and it never rained for more than 2 hours and mostly at night or in the early morning. I honestly didn’t mind the rain. This time of the year has its ups and downs.
The Hot Season, from March to May it’s probably the worst time to go to Chiang Mai. The hottest and driest months are, in fact, the time for the so called burning season. On the hills around Chiang Mai, farmers burn the fields to get ready to the new season of crops. This is a common practice in many other countries in Southeast Asia, but in the case of Chiang Mai can get particularly bad. The haze from the surrounding mountains, tend to settle down in the valley where Chiang Mai is located. If you add the absence of rain and the pollution, you will understand that the air quality is far from ideal. The burning season get at its worst around March and April.
Chiang Mai have plenty of accommodations options for any budget. Because it attracts a large amount of people which tend to settle in the area for a month or more, it’s very easy to find short term apartments in addition to countless inexpensive and excellent quality hotel. The longer is your rental, the list expensive it gets, but even if you are planning just a couple of days visit, you will have no problem in finding hotel or hostels on your budget.
I spent nearly 2 months at The Opium Serviced Apartment and I loved everything about it. The rooms are clean, big and with a beautiful decor with colorful pillows inspired to the northern tribes. There is good enough Wi-Fi, a swimming pool, some gym equipment and a big terrace from where you can admire the sunset or sunbathe during the day. It’s located in a quiet street which feels very local with small restaurants, cafes and shops around. You can easily find food stand or local, cheap and very good restaurants around, as well as a 7 Eleven and a wet market or supermarket a couple of streets down. There are many inexpensive shops as well and a few modern cafes on the streets around, but you will need a motorbike or bicycle to get to the Old Town or the expat area. There are also a couple of laundry machines that works with coins in front of the hotel and there is space on the terrace to hang your clothes to dry. To make the Opium even more perfect is the amazing stuff. They are young, friendly, energetic, helpful and incredibly nice. I’m not the sentimental type but I can say that after two months they felt like family and I was truly sad to leave them!
I also spent a few days at the Cozytel, which is more centrally located, inside the Old Town. If you don’t have much time and you don’t want to rent a motorbike, staying somewhere inside the Old Town is the ideal solution, as you will have most of the attractions at a walking distance. The room at the Cozytel was very small but the location was good, the place clean and the stuff very nice and helpful. When I visited, in September 2014, the place was brand new and the fares as low as USD 20 per night, but you can check the rates here.
I spent a week at the Sakulchai Place but I wouldn’t recommend it. The room was dark and full of insects, with an old and moldy bathroom. It is exactly halfway between the expat area and the Old Town and few step away from the Kad Suan Kaew Mall. Apart from the food court in the mall, there are not local food options close by and I wasn’t really impressed with the service either. For the same price you have plenty of better options in Chiang Mai.
Lastly, I treated myself with a couple of days at the Zensala Riverpark Resort, which is not a budget one but has a nice setting along the river. The rooms have beautiful big windows that give to the garden overlooking the river. There is a nice pool as well, where you can cool down during an hot day. The location is not ideal, you need to have your own transport because there is nothing at walking distance, but you can rent bicycles with them. The stuff was excellent and professional, the rooms big, brights and clean. They also have a couple of individual bungalows, but the proximity to the river and the open bathroom, make them the perfect habitat for snails and other horrible animals. If you are not the adventures type, make sure to book a room and not a bungalow!
The whole country is famous for its food rich of flavor and spices, but there is no other place like Chiang Mai for food lovers. You can find perfectly executed Thai dishes in inexpensive restaurants, perfectly grilled meat on food stands on the side of the road and new mouth watering plates born from some extravagant mix of Asian and Western cousin. Again the big affluence of expat and Digital Nomads is giving a new face to Chiang Mai, where styling cafes with excellent internet are growing like mushroom. If you are interested in finding the best cafes to work from, you can check Cafes4Nomads. Organic and healthy food is becoming a real business as well and you will not have to look hard to find your new favorite cafe. Chiang Mai is every foodie’s dream!
I’m a big fan of Thai food, with a true addiction for green curry and the more boring but somehow delicious stir fried kale, but I’m far from be a foodie. I will still tray to put together some of my favorite places and hopefully you will find something good.
You can find good and cheap Thai food at the Pun Pun, Cooking Love, Heun Phen. You can find tasty chicken rice on Inthawarorot Road, just behind the Historical Museum and before the Three Kings Monument but they are open only during day time. If you stay at the Opium you have to try the small restaurant close by (out of the gate, turn right and it’s the first on the opposite side of the street). The menu is in Thai and no one speak English, but you can point at the pictures. If you want another Thai experience, you should try the food stalls at the North Gate (Chang Puak), which is specialized in northern food. There you will find a girl in a cowboy hat serving chopped pork and eggs, give it a go! Around the other gates as well there are stands serving food in the evening where you can find grilled meat, noodles, papaya salads and other Thai must try. Other places where you can try a bit of everything are the markets, with the weekend markets being the one with more options.
As an Italian, once in a while I need my dose of pizza and I found the best one to be Street Pizza in Chang Moi. They have a wood oven and the setting is very nice as well: a kind of industrial open space with fairy lights. Don’t forget to try the fried zucchini!
If you are up for some healthy food, you should check out the Dada Cafe, which serves big and tasty salads, Bird’s Nest Cafe and Blue Diamond.
For something a bit different from the usual, my absolute favorite is the Rustic and Blue which sells many different kinds of artesian teas but also have some interesting food combinations like the salad with chorizo and strawberries or the scones with cheddar and jalapeno jam. It is a bit pricey for Thai standards but absolutely delicious food and beautiful setting as well.
More very good western food can be found at the Larder Cafe House, The Hideout and the Overstand. All of them are perfect for a brunch.
Another trend that is taking over in Asia are the Cat Cafes. I’m allergic to cats, but this didn’t stop me from visiting the Catmosphere, one of the most popular cat cafes in Chiang Mai. The concept is simple: there is a cafe with some beautiful cats, very well taken care of, and within a coffee and a piece of cake you can play or cuddle them when they feel like. I was sneezing like crazy and I was covered in itchy bubble when I left, but was totally worth it!
Chiang Mai is generally safe and, in my months there, I have never felt threatened or in any kind of danger. I never had any kind of bad experience or met someone else that had, rather the complete opposite. People are friendly, welcoming and dynamic and overall really nice. That said, don’t forget that you are a tourist in a foreign country so, use your common sense. Walking alone completely hammered in the middle of the night is not safe anywhere in the world and so is not in Chiang Mai. The same count for pick pocketing, which happens in every major tourist city. Be aware of your belonging and surrounding and you will be fine.
Motorbike accidents are common in the whole Southeast Asia as the street rules are often optional. The traffic in Chiang Mai is not that bad, especially if compared to bigger city like Bangkok or Phuket. I saw very many people speeding around with big motorbikes and with no helmet on, like if they are the king of the street. Wear a helmet, be aware that the traffic can be unpredictable, drive with your brain and you probably will be fine.
Stray dogs are everywhere on the streets of Chiang Mai. Sometimes they are friendly and sometimes no, either way, most of the time they look horribly sick and they probably carry plenty of diseases. Ignore them and they will ignore you.
The mosquito situation is not too bad either. There are few cases of dengue fever during and after the rainy season, when there is a bigger concentration of those useless animals. Malaria is not common either and it’s present just in the more remotes villages up north. Either way, always consult a doctor before heading to a tropical country and get a travel insurance.
The Hospitals in Chiang Mai are excellent, to the point that medical tourism is becoming popular in the city. Having a full check up is cheap, quick and reliable; doctors and nurses are efficient and with good English. After spending some time at the Chiang Mai Ram Hospital due to my awesome dengue experience, I decided to have a complete check up and I was very impressed.
That’s it with the practical information, soon I will tell you what to do in Chiang Mai.