Chiang Mai, one time capital of the Lanna Kingdom and currently the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for backpackers in the country for many reasons…
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 cultural heritage that can be harder to find in the South.
For expats and digital nomads, the city has become a very popular base. This is probably due to the cheap accommodation, cheap street food and a wide variety of coffee shops and co-working spaces, where you’ll find digital nomads working at their macs days and night.
However, in our opinion, the real pleasures of Chiang Mai begin when you get on a motorbike and explore the countryside around the city. Green luscious mountains, waterfalls and the best motorbiking roads in Southeast Asia await.
For a personal opinion piece on the city read: How Chiang Mai has changed over the past 5 years.
When is the best time to visit Chiang Mai
Being a city, Chiang mai is a year-round destination. However, if you’re wanting to take advantage of the great outdoors (hiking and cycling) the best time to visit is October – February, when the cool dry season occurs. May to August is the rainy season across Northern Thailand which can still be a great time to visit to experience lush countryside and clean air. The worst time to visit Chiang Mai is March to April when the so-called ‘burning season’ takes place causing horrendous air pollution that spreads across all of Northern Thailand. We would advise you not to visit Chiang Mai during this time.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai?
Think of the city like a square. (This square marks the area that is known as the old city.) The square has a north, south, east and west edge. (These are the city walls.) The Ping River runs along the East side of the city and Doi Suthep mountain and its national park dominates the Western side.
When travellers visit Chiang Mai, most of them want to stay within the Old City walls (the square), the place where you’ll find the cute smaller streets with cafés, massage parlours, restaurants and bars.
However, staying just outside of the Old City walls is perfect too. Despite being a busy city, Chiang Mai is a small place and you’ll discover that pretty much everything is within walking distance! Even if you are further out, it’s easy to catch a 20 baht (or sow baht as the locals say) red taxi (known as a songthaew in Thai) to anywhere else in the city.
How much do hostels in Chiang Mai Thailand cost?
While it is possible to get a bed in a dorm room for just $3 US in Chiang Mai, the average cost of a bed in a decent hostel is around $8 USD.
The posher hostels that have extra facilities, swimming pools, gardens, trendy design or ‘pod-style’ beds charge $11USD and up. (Which is still very reasonable in my book!) Almost all of the hostels in Chiang Mai include free breakfast in the price, and many of them offer free water, tea, coffee and even biscuits all day long! And if you’re looking for more privacy, many of the hostels have private rooms too, that start around $20 USD.
Once you see the standard of hostel in Chiang Mai, you’ll understand why travellers come back again and again to this city in order to recharge their batteries, have a massage, grab some cheap street food and enjoy some of the country’s best hostels!
For the backpacker, there are just too many great hostel options to mention. Here are 10 of the best! For a more in-depth look, read our article: Best Hostels in Chiang Mai.
- Me U2 and i-smile Hostel manages to offer stylish, clean dorm beds with curtain for privacy at only $4 USD!
- ALEXA Hostel is a great choice for digital nomads. This stylish option starts at $10 USD per night.
- Sherloft Home & Hostel is an elegant option with dorm beds starting at $10 USD, doubles around $30 USD.
- Daizy House is super-trendy and modern (spotless of course). Dorm beds start at $9 USD.
- The Common Hostel is a very chilled-out option with super-hip dorm beds between $12 and $18 USD. The beds are extremely comfy and the location is great.
- Slumber Party Hostel is a must-visit for those looking to party! Dorm beds begin at $10 USD and they also run the legendary Chiang Mai pub crawl.
Looking for a budget hotel in Chiang Mai?
There are 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
300+ Temples of Chiang Mai
There are nearly enough temples in Chiang Mai to visit a different one every day of the year! Inside 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.
If you’re 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 in Chiang Mai here.
Don’t Miss! 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. Head further up the hill and visit Doi Pui, where Thailand’s fresh coffee is grown.
Chiang Mai 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!
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 is an abundance of cooking schools in Chiang Mai that will teach you the secret recipes for 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.
Drink great coffee:
You may have been in places during your travels in Southeast Asia where it’s been difficult to find a decent cup of coffee. Well, for the coffee addicts amongst you, Chiang Mai is certainly not one of them! The city is brimming with coffee and cake shops where you can indulge in comfort food. Read more on Chiang Mai’s café culture here.
These gentle giants are a national symbol of Thailand and yet in some parts of the country, they are still treated badly, being forced to give tourists rides through the jungle and in some places perform tricks in fancy dress!
Chiang Mai elephant sanctuaries such as BEES Elephant Sanctuary 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 positive environment. For lots of backpackers, this can be the highlight of their trip. Read how to choose an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand here.
Muay Thai Boxing:
Foreigners can train with Muay Thai Experts for a number of weeks in Chiang Mai. Por Silaphai Gym being one of the most recommended. 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. Read more about Muay Thai training here.
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 and Meditation here.
Yoga Teacher Training:
If you’re looking to take your practice one step 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. The well respected Wise Living Yoga Academy offers 200-hour Yoga TTC courses at the beautiful Doi Saket Yoga Centre just outside of the city.
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. Read more about Vipassana Meditation here.
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 a visit to an elephant sanctuary. 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.
For more information read: The Ultimate Guide to trekking Chiang Mai.
More outdoor Adventure:
As well as trekking, you’ll find mountain biking, rafting, ATV adventures, even paintballing and bunjy jumping!
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 from Chiang Mai:
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! 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.
Abandoned Chiang Mai:
For a different kind of travelling experience, visit the Abandoned Women’s Prison in the Old Town (for a limited time only!).
Read more in our article: 10 Alternative and Free Things To Do in Chiang Mai.
Food and Drink in Chiang Mai
There is loads of variety when it comes to places to eat and drink in Chiang Mai. From traditional Thai cuisine to western dishes, everybody is catered for. Here are some of the best-recommended places to check out:
1. Its Good Kitchen
Style: Asian, Thai, Vegetarian
This small restaurant, set in a charming location, has excellent vegetarian Thai food on the menu. Many travellers talk about returning multiple times during their stay in Chiang Mai and the place gets fantastic reviews.
2. Luckys Vietnamese Restaurant
Style: Asian, Vietnamese, Cafe
A unique cafe selling bun cha, Vietnamese coffee and caramel custards. A simple but delicious menu served fresh (often sold out) daily. Try the coconut iced coffee made with local ong tho gold condensed sweet milk.
3. The House By Ginger
Style: Asia, Thai
If you are searching for authentic Thai food and want the chance to try dishes that have long been forgotten by other chefs in the region, you will be pleased to find this place. Try the crispy shrimp and pork pancakes or the beautiful banana flower salad.
4. A Taste From Heaven
Style: Asian, Thai, Health Food
A must-visit restaurant for vegetarians and everyone who enjoys fresh delicious meals. Plenty of vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options on the menu. They serve both Asian and Western cuisine.
5. Free Bird Cafe
Style: Asian, Thai, Vegan
Another amazing vegetarian and vegan cafe focussed on healthy cooking. Dine-in and support the cafe’s non-profit Thai Freedom House.
6. Baan Huen Phen
Style: Asia, Northern Thai, Vegetarian Friendly
Located on the top floor of the hotel, this vegetarian restaurant serves up amazing northern Thai food with classic favourites like khao soi and khanom chin nam ngiao on the menu.
7. The Swan Burmese Restaurant
Style: Asian, Burmese, Vegetarian Friendly
If you are looking for something different to Thai food, the hill tribe Burmese food at The Swan will not disappoint. Try the kong krom (eggplant salad) or the Burmese tea leaf salad!
8. Khao Soi Khun Yai
Style: Asian, Thai
Search and you will find reviews for the best khao soi ever! A popular dish in northern Thailand, khao soi is rice noodles served in a curry soup and typically topped with minced meat and other condiments.
9. 29 Coffties Vegan Cafe
Style: Vegan, Smoothies, Juice
Simple home-style cooking, fresh healthy salads bowls and sugar-free smoothies. A great place to stop by for a healthy smoothie bowl. Try the avocado peanut butter bowl or the strawberry mango black sesame bowl!
10. Aum Vegetarian Restaurant
Style: Asia, Vegetarian, Vegan
One of the longest-running health food restaurants in the region, serving organic, MSG-free, vegan options including sushi, noodles, and salads. Be sure to try the vegan Thai iced tea!
11. Hummus Chiang Mai
Style: Lebanese, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Vegetarian Friendly
If you are looking for middle eastern food be sure to check out Hummus. In house, homemade dishes like shakshuka, falafel, and of course, hummus are available with a wide selection of vegetarian and gluten-free options.
12. Nun’s Restaurant
Style: Asian, Thai, Health Food
A charming local Thai food spot serving wholesome dishes like Thai fish curry, khao soi kai, khao soi rai, and spicy beef soup.
Getting to Chiang Mai:
- By Train: An overnight train journey from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station will take you directly to Chiang Mai, taking around 12 hours. The ticket will set you back around 800 baht. You can book an 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 directly 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.
Where to go next?
- Chiang Rai: (3 hours bus journey North) A smaller, more laid-back Chiang Mai – many regard it as a 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, with beautiful countryside surrounding it. 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.