Updated April 28th, 2018.
Chang Mai, one time capital of the Lanna Kingdom and currently the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand is a very popular destination for backpackers. An overnight bus ride from Bangkok, it’s a bustling city with plenty on offer for the traveller; cool bars, live music, atmospheric cafes, great restaurants and jam-packed bookstalls!
Wonderful market stalls abound in this city along the mighty Ping River which flows on the East side, with the popular night market bizarre and the famous, not-to-be-missed Sunday Market at Thapae Gate.
After living beach life down South Thailand; it’s a place where many travellers try the varied cultural experiences on offer, take a Thai cooking course, learn the art of Thai massage, practice yoga, visit temples (of which there are over 300!) and lap up a bit of Thai heritage that can be harder to find in the south. And, not too far outside of the city walls, in the countryside beyond… an adventure playground awaits discovery!
Check out this article for an updated opinion on the city: How Chiang Mai has changed over the past 5 years.
Places to Stay in Chiang Mai?
The area around Thanon Moon Muang in Chiang Mai’s Old Quarter is the backpacker hot spot with tonnes of budget hostels and guesthouses. It’s easily located across the road from Tha Pae Gate and there are also some popular digs in the side streets beyond. Chiang Mai is one of the cheapest places to find good quality accommodation in Thailand. Many hostels double up as travel agents, restaurants, bars, the lot.
For the backpacker, Deejai Backpackers is a great social place to stay, also check out D-Well Hostel and Brick House Hostel, complete with an indoor an outdoor swimming pool and a gymnasium for backpackers!
Also, check out our Best Hostels List for some great value for money flashpacker hotels, located a little out of town, near to Chiang Mai University and Doi Suthep Mountain. Our favourites are Get Zleep Hotel ($24 USD / Room) and Pause and Play Hotel ($40 USD / Room).
Things to do in Chiang Mai
Temple going: There are nearly enough temples in Chiang Mai to visit a different one every day of the year! Inside of the city walls, you’ll find beautiful examples of 14th and 15th century Lanna style temples with intricate wood carvings and murals. Amongst the oldest and impressive ones are Wat Phra Singh (1345) and Wat Chiang Man (1296, However all of the temples are interesting places to witness everyday Buddhist Thai life which often revolves around the temple.
Short on time in Chiang Mai and only have time to visit a few temples? Check out our guide to the 5 not-to-be-missed temples here.
Wat Doi Suthep: The beautiful Wat Doi Suthep, one of Thailand’s most famous temples, dominates the Northerly aspect of Chiang Mai with fine views which are definitely worth the climb up the hundreds of steps. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and alive with agriculture that provides most of Thailand’s groceries.
Thai Massage: Many people are interested in learning the exceptional art of Thai Massage do so in Chiang Mai. 1 day or 10 day courses are available at traditional massage schools where you will discover ancient techniques and practices. Read more about Thai massage here.
Thai cooking classes: From Tom Yum Gung (Thai Prawn Soup) to Penang Curry; Thailand is home to some of the most delicious and diverse cuisine in the world. There are abundance of cooking schools in Chiang Mai that will teach you the secret recipes to some of your favourite Thai dishes! Most classes include a trip to the local market to buy fresh produce which you will later cook. And the best thing is, you get to eat all the tasty (hopefully!) meals you’ve cooked! Read more about Thai cooking classes here.
Elephant Sanctuaries: These gentle giants are a national symbol of Thailand and yet in some parts of the country they are treated badly. Elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai such as the famous Elephant Nature Park, Patara Elephant Farm and Thai Elephant Home, rescue badly treated elephants and nurture them back to full health. Time spent in an elephant park allows you to see these amazing creatures in a way which many don’t, for lots of backpackers, this can be the highlight of their trip.
Muay Thai Boxing: Foreigners can train with Muay Thai Experts for a number of weeks in Chiang Mai. By no means easy, for those with stamina, Muay Thai training is great for fitness and there’s a lot of mental strength involved too. If you’re just interested in watching, there are a few stadiums in Chiang Mai. Check out Chiang Mai Lanna Muay Thai Gym.
Yoga & Meditation: There are a few well-known yoga studios in Chiang Mai’s Old City; Yoga Tree, Wild Rose Yoga, Mahasiddha, plus a number of other smaller places around town. If you’re looking for something more than a class, you will find many yoga retreats in the area… We recently spent a week at Suan Sati Yoga & Meditation Retreat in San Sai, which we loved! Read more about Yoga here.
Yoga Teacher Training: If you’re looking to take your practice further, Chiang Mai is an excellent place to take a Yoga Teacher Training Course and gain your certificate to teach yoga all over the world. Wise Living Yoga Academy offer 200-hour Yoga TTC courses at the Doi Saket Yoga Centre.
Buddhism and Meditation: Whether you’re simply interested in gaining an insight into meditation or you feel ready to embark upon a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat; Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in Thailand. There are also regular ‘Monk Chats’ at Wat Suan Dok, where foreigners are invited to learn more about Thai Buddhism and monks can practise their English.
Trekking: Trekking in Chiang Mai is big business. You can do anything from a 2-day to a 5-day trek, taking you through jungle, mountains and home-stays in hill tribe villages. Many treks also include bamboo rafting and elephant trekking. The scene is pretty touristy and many of the villages are very used to greeting tourists. However, if you hunt around for the right trekking agency – who will take you off the beaten track, teach you some jungle tricks – it can be a great way to experience Northern Thailand.
Outdoor Adventure: From trekking, mountain biking, rafting experiences and ATV adventures, Chiang Mai is a great base for adventure. Days, weeks and months could be spent taking in all the activities on offer here – there’s even paint balling and bunjy jumping!
The Weekend Market: The market that literally takes over the city is an unmissable event if you are lucky enough to be in town on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday takes place at Chiang Puak Gate and Sunday (the larger of the markets) takes place all down Rachadamnoen Road surrounding Thapae Gate. The streets line with clothes, jewellery, instruments, souvenirs and many handmade goods from the hill tribes in Northern Thailand and the atmosphere can be carnivalesque, with occasional live music and crowds of travellers, locals and Thai tourists enjoying the market. And, as usual in Thailand, expect a wonderful variety of awesome street food and there’s even a chance to try some cheap fruit wine.
TEFL Courses: Chiang Mai is a great place to live for a month while becoming qualified as an English Teacher. Take a TEFL course so that you can earn money while you travel. Check out UniTEFL.
Motorbike Trips: You can hire a motorbike in Chiang Mai from 200 THB / day. The city is a great base from which to explore Northern Thailand with many epic motorbike adventures starting from here. Take your bike and visit the amazing Sticky Waterfall or Chiang Mai Canyon. If you’re looking to take a day trip, try the Samoeng Loop – A motorbike loop taking in temples, countryside and plenty of coffee shops!
Further afield: If you fancy taking a longer motorbike trip and spending the night outside of Chiang Mai, you will love the three-five day “Mae Hong Son Loop”, a famous motorbike adventure taking in the towns of Pai, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. There are also many national parks around Chiang Mai where you can go camping! Check out these amazing countryside spots around Chiang Mai.
URBEX: For a different kind of travelling experience, visit the Abandoned Women’s Prison in the Old Town (for a limited time only!).
Tours, Courses & Classes in Chiang Mai…
- By Train: An overnight train journey from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station will take you direct to Chiang Mai, taking around 12 hours. The ticket will set you back around 800 baht. You can book a air-con sleeper, fan sleeper or reclining seat. Book in advance.
- By Bus: There are many overnight buses leaving every evening from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Tickets can either be booked directly from the Khao San Road area – in a travel agent or you can head direct to MoChit Bus Station (North Bangkok.)
- Fly: Chiang Mai airport is located about a half an hour drive outside the city. It’s a very busy airport that caters for many domestic and international flights.
|Bangkok - Chiang Mai 11h 20m|
|Bangkok - Chiang Mai $24 – $413 8h 59m|
|Bangkok - Chiang Mai 14h 20m|
|Don Mueang Airport - Chiang Mai $32 – $94 1h 15m|
|Don Mueang Airport - Chiang Mai $326 – $444 9h 25m|
|Suvarnabhumi Airport - Chiang Mai $48 – $159 1h 15m|
|Suvarnabhumi Airport - Chiang Mai $327 – $459 9h 55m|
Where to go next?
- Chiang Rai: (3 hours bus journey North) A smaller, more laid-back Chiang Mai – many regard it as more rewarding place to plan treks into the jungle and to nearby hill tribe villages.
- Pai: (5 hours bus journey West) Laid-back, bohemian town on the river located in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. Live music, cheap bungalows and cool atmosphere.
- Chiang Dao: Just one hour North of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao is a less visited, less touristy spot, beautiful countryside surrounding. Very peaceful and great for trekking.
- Mae Hong Son: A quiet, remote town on the border of Mae Hong Son set amidst massive mountains and vast countryside. A good 8 hour drive from Chiang Mai.
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