Your Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand: A Place to Getaway
Updated: Feb 7
Chiang Mai, Thailand is the kind of place where you intend to spend a few days, and end up staying the year. Time seems to move slower; people are happier, and life somehow feels easier to live. How ever long you intend to stay in the Rose of the North, this article will cover what to do and where to stay in Chiang Mai.
The Rose of the North
Chiang Mai earned the nickname the Rose of the North for its plethora of yearlong activities, from the infamous Songkran (Thai New Year), complete with a city-wide water gun fight, to the more low key (yet exquisitely beautiful) Flower Festival.
Beyond its lively scene of endless things to do, Chiang Mai is also a cultural feast, leaving visitors charmed by its nearby mountainous villages and striking ancient temples. For the lovers of all things local, Chiang Mai is the unofficial artisan haven of Thailand.
Chiang Mai Old City Walls
Those looking on a map might be surprised to find a perfect square shape in the center of the city. This square is not just a formation of main roads, but of brick walls and a moat. King Mengrai (1259-1317) founded the Lan Na kingdom and subsequently, Chiang Mai as its capitol.
To protect the newfound city, the king ordered the construction of this enclosure with the help of approximately 40,000 men. The walls feature six gates that had served specific purposes throughout the hundreds of years in operation. Up until the Second World War, these gates were the only accessible routes into the city.
One can feel the rich, ancient history of Chiang Mai by simply looking around: the city is dotted with the leftover ruins of a time long passed. Serving as the capitol of Lan Na for nearly 500 years, Thailand's northern city is also home to hundreds of ancient temples and relics of that time period.
Things to Do in Chiang Mai
1. Hike Doi Suthep-Pui
Perhaps the most famous hikes in Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep-Pui is a double peak climb into the highland jungle. Stop at the Wat Phra That temple perched at 1,050 meters/3,445 feet, then make your way up the rest of the granite mountain.
I had an awesome experience with Chani, local guide and outdoor expert. She leads an intimate tour starting at the temple, through a mountainous village where you'll eat a local lunch and then scale the twin peaks, which overlook all of Chiang Mai.
Find Chani's experience on AirBnB.
2. Visit the Temples in Chiang Mai
Visiting a Thai city would be remiss without adding at least a few temples to your itinerary. However, Chiang Mai is home to over 300 temples and while each one is unique, it's easy to get inundated by the options. Pick the options that appeal to you most so you don't miss other lovely elements of this city.
Situated close to the country's northwestern border, you'll typically find smaller temples that may follow the Burmese style stupa, which is a bell-shaped pagoda.
Notable temple to visit:
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chiang Man
Wat Lok Moli
Wat Phra Singh Woramahawihan
3. Explore Chinatown
Plenty of major cities have their own Chinatown, though none give you quite the same authenticity as those in Thailand. Chiang Mai's Chinatown is particularly interesting because of the multitudes of indoor and outdoor markets.
You can find street vendors roasting Peking duck outside of convention-center-sized markets that house aisles lined by sacks of grain. The real treat comes from people watching. Find a nearby cafe with a direct view and watch the transactions take place.
4. Shimmy and Shake at Music Bars
There are some fantastic places to visit if you like live music. Thapae East plays covers of famous musicians, from Prince to George Thorogood, while Chai Restaurant features a jam-band performance and is an absolute feast for the eyes in terms of the vintage decor. You can read about an interaction where - I believe it was the bar owner - played guitar and sang "the girl from Massachusetts," after I told him where I was from.
If you're looking for low-key night out, try Grape Wine Bar on Tha Pae road. As the name dictates, there's a nice selection of wine that you can purchase by the glass or bottle alongside cheese and local fruit. The Dj plays an assortment of lo-fi remixes that make for a chill nightcap.
5. Enjoy Plenty to Eat and Drink
There appears to be unlimited options when it comes to excellent food, cocktails and coffee. All you need to do is search the area around you in Chiang Mai and I guarantee, you'll find something unique and delicious within a short walk.
6. Relax with a Thai Massage
If you love a great massage, Thailand will quickly become your favorite country. As the birthplace of the Thai massage, without a doubt you'll be kneaded into putty by most masseuses, but if you're traveling from a western country, you'll find the service is way cheaper than in your home country. Notable locations in Chiang Mai include:
7. Meet an Elephant (The Conscious way)
All around the surrounding jungles of Chiang Mai are elephant sanctuaries where you can get up close and experience a day in the life of an elephant caregiver. Just know what to look out for: any sanctuary that allows you to climb on top of the elephant is not as ethical as they claim.
The elephant is the unofficial mascot of Thailand, but due to massive tourism, they have turned into performing animals that live under brutal conditions. Elephant Rescue Park purchases elephants from these "ride-friendly" sanctuaries, where they beat elephants into submission. Some of the elephants have scars on their heads and shoulders from the hooks and metal rods they were once beaten with.
However, this story does have a happy ending. The elephants here did appear happy and healthy. They playfully snatched bananas out of my hands and walked alongside me in a nearby field. My favorite part was the bath, where I scrubbed an elephant while it rolled around in a shallow pond like a big puppy.
Chiang Mai Markets
1. Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
The night bizarre is located on the long, main stretch of Changklan Road, making it one of the most popular night markets. Given the sheer magnitude, there are of course a lot of touristy items and potential to be ripped off. Yet, you can find an assortment of goods, from the standard t-shirts and elephant pants, to handmade keychains. There's also live entertainment, including sports games and fashion shows.
2. Wua Lai Walking Street
It seems this is the market is geared toward local artists where makers sell goods from all mediums, including pottery and blown glass. This was my personal favorite, and where I bought bath bombs, a ceramic vase and hand-stamped passport holder.
3. Tha Pae Sunday Walking Street
This one is only open on Sunday's and consists of mostly food vendors, making it a great spot to come with cash and an empty stomach. When traveling, be safe when it comes to street food. Always loop around a few times and seek out the places where the local residents go. If there's a line; that's a good sign.
4. White Market
This market is situated near a few large-scale malls and notable hostels, so there's a more upscale vibe to it. There are a lot of trendier items with neutral color palettes and clean designs. Think: modern art, rather than folk art. The kinds of gifts you find here range from handmade soaps to all sorts of linen clothing.
5. Warorot Market
As the oldest public market in Chiang Mai, you'll get an old style bazaar experience with plenty of vibrant alleyways to explore. Imagine the vendors calling out to you with handfuls of lush fruit while motorbikes cruise through the slivers of open road between crowds of people.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
There are plenty of hostels particularly within the inner city walls, and they'll likely set you back about $10-$20 USD per night. Personally, I opted for an AirBnB, because Thailand is one of the few places where you can find luxurious accommodations at a fraction of Western pricing. The apartment I stayed at had multiple security guards, a gym, a pool, a sauna, and a large soaking tub for after those long days of walking.
The only downside to staying at a hotel or AirBnB is that you likely won't have the same social experience that you'd get at a hostel. It just comes down to your options, price point, and expectations. For someone looking for social connections, staying within the old city walls will surround you with a younger crowd. A slightly higher price point will offer more privacy and amenities, but with less people around to share it with.