Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in northern Thailand. It is located among some of the highest mountains in the country and is the the main base of activities for most travelers who come up north. Chiang Mai is full of culture, friendly people, beautiful landscapes, and amazing ruins. It’s become something of the new “it” spot for expats and a lot of people foreigners now live here. I love Chiang Mai. In a country known for its food, Chiang Mai is in a league of its own.
Hostel prices – Dorm rooms can be as little as $3-4 USD, and guesthouses start at around $5 USD per night. For a nicer room with air-condition, expect to pay about $13 USD per night. Most of the hostels and cheap guesthouses are located within the old city.
Budget hotel prices – Budget hotels start at $20 USD per night, and go upward from there for a room with hot water, a comfy bed, and air conditioning.
Average cost of food – Chiang Mai has some of the best street food in Thailand, and dishes cost $0.75-1.50 USD. Most restaurant meals cost around $5 USD for a main dish and a drink. Western food begins at that price as well.
Transportation costs – The most common way to get around Chang Mai is by songthaew (covered shared taxis). The regular fare should be around $0.60 USD for trips around town.
Money Saving Tips
Bargain hard – At all of the markets, when Thai people realize you can speak a bit or you know some of their history, you can immediately spark friendship and save yourself money when buying.
Eat from the street stalls – The cheapest way to eat is at street-side noodle shops, where a bowl of Pad Thai costs just $0.75 USD. A decent curry in a proper, though humble, restaurant costs about $2 USD.
Take the Songthaew – At $0.60 for anywhere in the city, this is the cheapest way to get around (other than walking).
Top Things to See and Do
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 6 pm 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).
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.
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.
Go jungle trekking – This town is a 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 outside 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 let’s you help these beautiful animals. After coming here, you will know why you should NEVER ride an elephant in Thailand.
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 in 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.
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 It occurs Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 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.
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 6 pm. This is a great place to shop for clothes and get some really cheap food.
Eat, eat, eat! – This city is the best place for eating in the country. The night markets and street stalls here are (in my opinion) even better than Bangkok.