Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand and the main base of activities for most travelers who come up north. The city is full of culture, friendly locals, incredible food markets, dozens of beautiful temples, a relaxed vibe, beautiful landscapes. It’s become something of the new “it” spot for expats and digital nomads in the last few years. You can now find a lot of delicious Western food, cafes, and bars all around the city but despite that the old Thai-ness of the city hasn’t gone away and a visit here will leave you enamored. Be sure to budget extra time – it’s easy to get stuck here! Lots of people plan to stay for a few days and end up staying for a few weeks or more! I love the city and always find something to do here.
Hostel prices – Hostels start at about 100 THB range for a large 10-person dorm room. Smaller dorm rooms (6 people) start at around 120 THB. The more popular, centrally located hostels (most of which include free breakfast and with air-conditioning) are around 300 THB for a 4-6 bed dorm room. Private rooms at these same type of hostels start at 800 THB, but can be found throughout the city for as low as 350 THB for a double room with an ensuite throughout the city. Guesthouses are also an option and start around 200 THB per night. My favorite guesthouse in the city is Julie’s. The SoHostel, while more expensive, is a nice European-style hostels with large kitchen, laundry services, and nicer beds.
Budget hotel prices – Centrally-located two-star hotels start at 400 THB per night, and go upward from there for a room with free WiFi, hot water, a comfy bed, and air conditioning. On Airbnb, you can find a good number of shared rooms in apartments for 350 THB. There’s also a wide selection of entire apartments or homes ranging from 1,000-1,750 THB per night.
Average cost of food – Chiang Mai has some of the best street food in Thailand, and dishes cost 25-50 THB. Most restaurant meals cost around 80 THB for a main dish and a drink. Western food begins at 170 THB as well and goes up from there. When it comes to drinking, going to bars can become pricey with the cheapest beers costing about 60 THB each and cocktails sometimes cost double or triple that. Whereas actually buying beers from 7-Eleven to drink on the street can be 30 THB per can. Dada Kafe, Sushi Ichiban, Dash, the Chaing Mai Gate Market and Sunday Market are all foodie spots you shouldn’t miss!
Transportation costs – The most common way to get around Chiang Mai is by songthaew (covered pick-up trucks that are shared taxis). The regular fare should be around 20 THB (30 THB at night) for trips around town. Don’t let them overcharge you! Tuk-tuks are also an option and rides should range around 50-100 THB. There is also a local bus service that goes to the main places in town. Trips start at 15 THB.
Suggested daily budget – 900 THB / 25 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Stick the local markets, avoid the fancy organic, health restaurants, and stay in the old city to save money. Chiang Mai can be as a cheap or expensive as you want (like most of Thailand). Two city specific ways to save money in the city are the following:
- Bargain hard – At all of the markets here, you have to bargain hard. Don’t take the first price and don’t be afraid to walk away. They inflate prices greatly here since Chiang Mai is such a popular shopping destination for tourists.
- Eat from the street stalls – Food from street vendors in Thailand is some of the best Thai food I have ever had and so cheap it is ridiculous. You can easily have a bowl of noodle soup, pad thai, or fried rice for 30 THB. The locals eat here, you should eat here. Not only is it the best food around, it’s the cheapest!
- Take the songthaew – At 20 THB for anywhere in the city, this is the cheapest way to get around (other than walking). They go everywhere and run all night. There’s no reason to take a taxi around the city.
- Stay in hostels – Bangkok has so many hostels throughout the city, including lots that have popped up recently to meet the demand of backpackers. You’ll be able to find fun, clean, well-designed, cheap hostels all over.
- Couchsurf – Nothing’s cheaper than sleeping for free. Couchsurfing connects you with locals who will give you not only a free place to stay, but also a local tour guide who can introduce you to all the great places to see.
- Book group excursions – When booking your day tours, multi-day tours, cooking classes, etc try to book it ask a group so the price per person gets reduced. Traveling alone? Make friends to book a tour with at your hostel.
Top Things to See and Do in Chiang Mai
- Visit Wat Doi Suthep and its 304 Steps – Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, perched high on the flank of Suthep Mountain, is Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. The pagoda in its center supposedly contains some of the relics of the Lord Buddha. The temple is visited throughout the year by thousands of tourists and Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world. It offers great views of the surrounding area and city and at 6pm each day, you can watch the monks chant. The temple can be reached by climbing a steep staircase comprising 304 steps (however, you can also ascend by funicular railway). Admission is 30 THB. It’s open from 6am-6pm.
- Tour all the temples – Located within the old area of the city and around the wall are many beautiful Buddhist temples. The city is filled with temples, some dating as far back as the 13th century. The main ones worth seeing are Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Suan Dok, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Jet Yot.
- Bargain at the night bazaar – Chiang Mai is the main handicraft center of Thailand and the night bazaar is the largest center for the selling of all sorts of crafts in Chiang Mai. Everything is sold at non-fixed prices, and you can bargain battle to your death. If you plan to do some shopping in Thailand, this night bazaar will be where you’ll find the best deals. Open from 6pm-12am).
- Take a cooking class – Chiang Mai is the most popular place in Thailand for cooking classes, offering a great variety of classes and amazing deals. You begin your class by going to the market and learning about Thai produce before heading back to the kitchen to cook a few dishes and eat a lot of food. Class prices range from 800-1,000 THB.
- Go jungle trekking – This town is the main starting point for all sorts of jungle trekking tours. I like the three-day ones the best but the longer the tour, the more interesting and secluded places you visit. Be careful with whom you sign up, as many guides simply walk with you and don’t tell you much about the land or wildlife. Moreover, if you visit a tribal village, make sure the money stays with the villagers, and that they aren’t being exploited, which happens a lot up here!
- Visit the Elephant Nature Park – Located an hour from Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park rescues abused and injured elephants from around the country. It’s a sanctuary for them (and a bunch of dogs and cats). You can come visit for a day or spend a week volunteering and taking care of elephants. It’s a phenomenal day trip, gives back to the community, and lets you help these beautiful animals. After coming here, you will know why you should NEVER ride an elephant in Thailand. A one-day visit starts at 2,500 THB.
- Go zip lining – If you are looking for an adrenaline rush, go zip lining. Chiang Mai has many operators offering beginner and advanced zip lining courses. The two biggest operators are Flight of the Gibbon and Eagle Trekkers.
- Eat a kantoke dinner – Experience both the Northern Thai food and culture at the same time. At this event, visitors are seated on the floor around a circular tray laden with Northern dishes, and eat while watching traditional Thai and Northern dances and hill tribe culture shows.
- Cruise down the river – Cruise down rural Mae Ping on a two-hour journey that will take you past beautiful scenery in the heart of Chiang Mai. Enjoy the pleasant pace of the boat. Stop to visit a local farm and its herb and fruit gardens – or relax and have a Thai dinner on board. It costs 240 THB for one way, 450 THB for a round-trip.
- Chat with monks – Monk chats are a chance for visitors to learn about the country’s religion and culture and for monks a chance to practice English. It’s a popular cultural activity that occurs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1pm-3pm at Wat Dok Suthep in the city.
- Celebrate the Yi Peng Festival – This annual festival takes place in November. Citizens release thousands of paper lanterns into the air, which symbolically carry dreams and wishes towards the heavens. The festival lights is a beautiful, memorable experience.
- Go whitewater rafting – It’s possible to go whitewater rafting on the Maeteng River. Rapids range from levels two to four and are at their most intense during the rainy season, August-October. Tours start at 1,800 THB.
- Shop at Warorot Market – If your nights are already fully-booked, consider visiting this popular market during the day. Located near the river, it’s open daily until 6pm. This is a great place to shop for clothes and get some really cheap food.
- Head to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium – In the 1950 Harold Mason Young, son of American missionaries, started rescuing and caring for injured animals, and his collection started getting visitors. Hence the birth of the zoo, when the Chiang Mai government donated 24 acres to aid in his efforts. The zoo has grown to over 200 acres now, and houses a large variety of animals, and boasts two aquariums. The marine aquarium is the largest in Asia, and they also have one of the very rare giant pandas every born in captivity. Admission is 500 THB.
- Visit the Tribal Museum – Highlighting Thailand’s minority hill tribes, this ethnographic museum offers exhibits ranging from tribal clothing and jewelry items, videos on tribal life, and outdoor gardens modeling reconstructed tribal huts. Once a month, there is also a tribal market with people selling handmade goods. Open Monday-Friday from 9am-4pm.
- Take in an exhibition at Documentary Arts Asia – This gallery space usually brings in exhibits highlighting humanitarian and activist materials, focusing on the plight of the Burma refugees and the minority hill tribes. If you are looking to inform yourself more about these efforts, this space usually is showing documentaries and artwork, and also offers a library. It’s a great resource to find out more about the historical and political contexts of the region.
- Climb up the Bua Thong Sticky Waterfalls – While a little outside of the city, this makes for a great day trip. The falls, due to the type of limestone lining the waterfall, produces an almost stickiness – allowing you to climb up the cascading water! You feel a bit like Spiderman – not gonna lie. The rocks themselves are interesting, looking a bit like fluffy clouds. Not only is it a neat experience, it’s also a great workout! Pack a picnic, find a spot, and “stick” around for lunch.
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