Most tourists that want to venture beyond Bangkok and the Southern beaches of Thailand head for Chiang Mai. It’s an extremely tourist-friendly city nestled right against the infamous green mountains and jungles of Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is inexpensive, the food is delicious, and the residents are notorious for going all out during Thai festivals (nothing beats the water-fight festival of Songkran in Chiang Mai!). Here’s some basic info to help you plan your trip.
Recommended time in Chiang Mai: 5 days, 8 days if trekking
How to get there:
By Plane: Flights leave from Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport for Chiang Mai on a regular basis. Mutliple airlines make the journey, and tickets can be found for less than 100$ (closer to 40$ if you catch a deal with a budget airline like AirAsia or Nok Air). The flight is only about 45 minutes long and the airport is 10 minutes outside of the city center.
By Train: A popular option and my preferred method of travel. The overnight trains to Chiang Mai seem to be a rite of passage for young backpackers which unfortunately sometimes means you’re stuck in a car with people drinking way too much Chang and talking at full volume into the wee hours of the morning (I’ve clearly had one too many of these experiences). But don’t let that stop you! It’s a great budget option and allows you to see the countryside with its lime green rice-paddies stretching for miles. It’s also very affordable, with trains leaving multiple times each night, and 2nd class sleeper beds costing between 500-800 baht depending on the train (you can also get a first class private compartment with two beds for about 1200 baht each).
Tip: ALWAYS get the bottom bunk in 2nd class. It’s bigger than the top bunk, and the top bunk is exposed to the lights that are on all night at the top of the curtain. Plus you only get a window on the bottom bunk.
Tip #2: Also, book your train EARLY. I’ve tried to get tickets a week in advanced and been turned away (hello 12 hours of sitting up on a bus). If you are going for a festival, like Loi Krathong or Songkran, buy them as early as possible (two months in advanced, some trains are already sold out). I am convinced there is some sort of travel agent conspiracy because even when the trains are ‘sold out’ some seats are left empty the whole way. So, if you are out of the country, there should be a way to get tickets ahead of time through those very agents (you can’t buy them online at this time).
*There is also talk of a new high-speed train project Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but as far as I know the project hasn’t been started
By Bus: There are many different bus companies driving to Chiang Mai on a daily basis. You can easily catch a bus from the Mo Chit Bus Station (a 5 minute taxi ride from the Mo Chit BTS stop). Tickets can be anywhere from 200-600 baht (if you’re paying 600 baht, it better be VIP with a bathroom and a snack/drink included!).
By Minivan: I have to put this option down to have the information out there, though I don’t recommend it AT ALL. In fact, it is quite possibly the worst way to travel in Thailand. Not only are the drivers notoriously reckless (and often hopped up on redbull), but there are minivan crashes at least once a month. Expats in Thailand fondly refer to them as tin-can death machines since most don’t have seat belts and they can often be seen weaving dangerously on the freeway doing 140 kph. If you want to be able to relax on the journey and have some personal space (
most pretty much every one packs all 14 seats with passengers), don’t take a minivan. I hope I’ve made my point here.
Where to stay:
The City Center: I would personally recommend staying in the city center or just right outside of the ring-road (by city-center, I mean inside of the mote which follows the ring-road). There are many, many cheap guesthouses and hostels to stay at and most major wats are in walking distance. There are also a LOT of great, cheap places to eat within walking distance as well. Find some places to stay on agoda.com (I like to use this website because it’s specifically for Southeast Asia and is easy to search by area).
Nimmanhaemen Road: A very trendy road that is lined with a lot of great places to eat and some fancy hotels. It runs right through Chiang Mai University so it caters mostly to university students. I would only recommend this area if you are comfortable spending a bit more for accommodation (40-80$ a night) or you want to stay somewhere on the trendier side. A lot of people get dressed up and hit the restaurants and bars in this area on the weekend (some of my all-time favorites are off of this road).
Across the river: Some people prefer to stay on the Ping river or across from it (by across I mean not on the side that the city center is on). If you are a budget backpacker, don’t stay here. It’s mostly expensive, luxury hotels and it will cost you a bit of money every time you want to get to the old city (where you will probably spend most of your time anyway). If you are looking for a more expensive and comfortable stay, check out the hotels across the river.
The Night Bazaar area: Chiang Mai is notorious for its night bazaar, a group of streets lined with vendors selling everything from graphic T’s to giant insects in plastic cases to all manner of sex toys. It’s a great market, though they gouge tourists on prices, and a great way to see what kind of tourist goods are available (there’s a great food market in this area as well). The Night Bazaar is between the Ping river and the city center and is a great place to stay if you want to be within walking distance to both.
What to do/see:
For a list of activities and sites to enjoy while in Chiang Mai, check out my blog post here.
What to eat and drink:
Khao Soi: my hands down FAVORITE Thai dish. Khao soi is a specialty of the North. It’s usually made with chicken or beef (though there are a lot of restaurants options available in CM). Khao soi is sweeter and and more subtle than its sister curries, red and penang. It is served with cooked egg noodles, crispy egg noodles on top and a tray of bean sprouts, lime, raw onions, and pickled cabbage on the side. I like to put bean sprouts, onions, and lime in mine. It also usually comes with a spicy dark red sauce, but use this at your own risk! It’s generally plenty spicy without it.
Laab: The Northeast is also well known for a dish called laab, or larb, which is usually served with crumbled pork, mint leaves, onions, and other delicious spices. You can find it at some places in Chiang Mai and it’s very refreshing and delicious. I found a couple of restaurants that served veggie versions of it with mushroom or tofu and was in hog heaven. It’s definitely a flav-splosion so prepare yourself.
Curries in general: Curries are typically a northern dish, though they can be found at a lot of restaurants in Bangkok. If you want the best curries in Thailand though, get them while you’re in Chiang Mai. My favorites are Khao soi, pumpkin curry, penang curry, and green curry. There’s also red curry, jungle curry (clear, quite sour), yellow curry, and massaman curry (though massaman curry is a Southern dish). Try them all and discover your favorite curry!
Fresh fruit smoothies: Another Chiang Mai specialty, fresh fruit smoothies can be found everywhere. They are delicious and come in a multitude of flavors: pineapple, banana, mango, passion fruit, watermelon, guava, cantaloupe, kiwi, strawberry, apple, coconut, etc. Almost all of the fruits are grown locally (maybe not the kiwis though). You can find these babies for as cheap as 20 baht on the street. My go-to is pineapple-mango.
*Tip: Most Thais like to drink their smoothies with a quite a bit of sugar and salt blended in. It’s an acquired taste for sure, so feel free to tell them no when they go to dunk their ladle into the sugar-water-salt mixture. If you’re feeling really bold, throw in a ‘mai sai naam than, ka’ (my-sy-nahm-tawn), which roughly translates to ‘without sugar-water juice please’. Don’t forget the ka or it’s considered rude!
Traditionally, the Songkran festival is a celebration of the New Year which always runs from April 13-15 (though now it extends well beyond that). It is a time to celebrate and visit with elders, and to bless others for the new year to come. This is why you will sometimes see older folks carrying small cups of water mixed with talcom powder. The mixture is often put on the face of others to bless them. Naturally, these small cups of water have turned into super soakers which are aimed at innocent passerby and other easy targets (songtaews or the small red pickups are the worst!). I can say from experience, it’s the funnest festival I’ve ever been to.
Loi Krathong/Yi Peng festivals: The date of these festivals changes yearly, as they traditionally take place on the full moon during November. Yi Peng is the Northern festival, and Loi Krathong is the Central and Couthern festival, but in Chiang Mai the two are combined for a festival extravaganza.
The Loi Krathong aspect includes the creation of ‘krathongs’, which are small boats usually made of bamboo leaves and flowers. These boats are then lit and floated on nearby rivers or canals as the sender makes a wish. I have also heard from locals that it is an offering to the water-spirits to make amends for polluting the river and other water sources throughout the year. Either way, it’s a beautiful and fun tradition.
The Yi Peng aspect is probably the most infamous. It usually consists of the lighting of large lanterns which are released in mass, creating a sky full of softly glowing orange lights. It’s a very beautiful tradition (and probably the inspiration for the ending of the Disney movie Tangled). Typically, upon the release of your lantern, you symbolically send up your wishes for the future, or you let go of the sins and mistakes of the past.
These celebrations go on well beyond the traditional Loi Krathong date and also feature parades and spontaneous collections of lantern lighters throughout the city. It is truly something to behold! But keep in mind that every lantern you light and every plastic krathong you float is ending up somewhere, most likely further polluting waterways or ending up in forests.
Nearby areas to check out:
There are many great destinations to check out beyond Chiang Mai if you have the time. Here are some popular ones:
Pai: This area has quickly become a hippy/backpacker haven in the North. It is a very relaxed town with very inexpensive food and accommodation and has great access to local waterfalls, hot springs, hiking, etc. Though I haven’t been there myself, it’s a favorite of most long-term travelers that I meet. It’s only about 80 km North of Chiang Mai and is located on the famous Mae Hong Song loop.
Chiang Rai: Though I haven’t spent a lot of time here, I did get a chance to see the famous White Temple, which is very trippy and a bit disturbing (the hands of hell reaching out?!). Chiang Rai is supposed to be known for the great trekking nearby that is much less ‘touristy’, and the gorgeous mountain views. It’s just a couple of hours from the Laos border as well.
Laos: The Laos border is an 8 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai. If you are trying to get to Luang Prabang, this is the way to do it! The bus ride is a drag but you usually get to stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai (or you could spend a few days there on the way). At the border, you get your Laos visa and then you take a slow boat up the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. This was one of my favorite trips that we did. The boat ride takes two days but you stop in a lovely small town for the night with super cheap acommodation. You see some amazing sights that you would never see otherwise (floating through amazing, craggy green mountains and karst formations, small monkey crawling along narrow cliffs, children playing in the river, etc.). Also, you have a great opportunity to socialize with fellow passengers since you are stuck with them for 48 hours! We met a few travel buddies this way ourselves.
Do you have any questions about the basics? Any additional information I should add? What was your favorite part about visiting Chiang Mai? Let me know in the comments or email me here!