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.
This is one of the most visited cities in Thailand for travelers of all types!
Whether you want to backpack Chaing Mai, visit on a budget, or enjoy the luxury hotels here, you will find Chiang Mai full of culture, friendly locals, incredible food markets, dozens of beautiful temples, a relaxed vibe, beautiful landscapes. It’s even become something of the new “it” spot for expats and digital nomads in the last few years.
You can 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 when you visit Chiang Mai and as 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! There’s just a magic to this city.
This travel guide to Chiang Mai can help you plan your trip, eat well, and save money!
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Chiang Mai
1. Visit the Elephant Nature Park
2. Tour all the temples
3. Visit Wat Doi Suthep
4. Bargain at the night bazaar
5. Celebrate the Yi Peng Festival
Other Things to See and Do in Chiang Mai
1. 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.
2. 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!
3. 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 ($25-30 USD).
4. 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.
5. 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 ($8 USD) for one way, 450 THB ($14 USD) for a round-trip.
6. 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.
7. 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 ($55 USD).
8. 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.
9. 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 ($15 USD).
10. 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.
11. Spend time 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.
12. 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.
Chiang Mai Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Hostels start at about 100 THB ($3 USD) range for a large 10-person dorm room. Smaller dorm rooms (6 people) start at around 120 THB ($3.60 USD). The more popular, centrally located hostels (most of which include free breakfast and with air-conditioning) are around 300 THB ($4 USD) for a 4-6 bed dorm room. Private rooms at these same type of hostels start at 800 THB ($25 USD), but can be found throughout the city for as low as 350 THB ($11 USD) for a double room with an ensuite throughout the city. Guesthouses are also an option and start around 200 THB ($6 USD) per night.
Budget hotel prices – Centrally-located two-star hotels start at 400 THB ($12 USD) 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 ($100 USD). There’s also a wide selection of entire apartments or homes ranging from 1,000-1,750 THB ($30-55 USD) per night.
Average cost of food – Chiang Mai has some of the best street food in Thailand, and dishes cost 25-50 THB ($0.75-1.50 USD). Most restaurant meals cost around 80 THB ($2.50 USD) for a main dish and a drink. Western food begins at 170 THB ($5 USD) 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 ($2 USD) 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 ($1 USD) per can. Dada Kafe, Sushi Ichiban, Dash, the Chaing Mai Gate Market and Sunday Market are all foodie spots you shouldn’t miss!
Backpacking Chiang Mai Suggested Budgets
How much does it cost to visit Chiang Mai?
On a backpacking budget, all you need to spend is 900-985 THB ($25-30 USD) per day. This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals or eating cheap street food, and using local transportation.
On a mid-range budget, expect to pay 985-1,645 THB ($30-50 USD) a day. On this budget you would be able to fly between some destinations, eat more delicious seafood dinners and international meals, take more tours and activities, sleep in air-conditioned rooms, and drink more.
If you’re looking to stay in Western hotels or expensive resorts, eat mostly Western food or in tourist areas, drink a lot, do a lot of tours, and fly a lot, you should budget for more than 3,270 THB ($100 USD) per day. After that, the sky is the limit.
Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Chiang Mai can be as a cheap or expensive as you want (like most of Thailand). But if you stick the local markets; avoid the fancy organic, health restaurants that have popped up; and stay in the old city, you can save money easily! Here are some ways to save money in Chiang Mai:
- 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 ($1 USD). 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 ($0.60 USD) 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.
- 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.
Where To Stay in Chiang Mai
Looking for accommodation in Chiang Mai? Here are some of my favorite places to stay in the city:
How to Get Around Chiang Mai
Songthaew – Songthaew is the most common mode of local transportation in Chiang Mai – it’s like a converted pickup truck, with two rows of seats. This is how the locals travel. You can just flag one down in the street, and tell the driver where you’re going! You can get to just about anywhere in the city for 30 THB ($1 USD).
Tuk-Tuk – A trip via tuk-tuk will most likely be more expensive than a songthaew, since it’s a direct service.You can get around town for about 100 THB ($3 USD).
Ride-Sharing – Although Uber is no longer available in Thailand, you can use a mobile app named Grab to request a private songthaew. It works just like Uber, and is one of the most popular ways to get around in Southeast Asia. Just download the app, and go!
Buses – There isn’t a bus network in Chiang Mai (it’s only tuk-tuks and songthaews), but there is a shuttle bus that connects the city to the airport. It’s 40 THB ($1.25 USD) per person.
When to Go to Chiang Mai
The best time to visit Chiang Mai is between October-April, when temperatures are warm but not stifling. You’ll still want to pack a sweater in case the evenings cool off. The average daytime temperature is around 77°F (25°C), but it can dip as low as 59°F (15°C) at night. If you’re here in November, you’ll see the Loi Krathong festivities. Keep in mind, however, that this is peak tourist season!
In April and May, things start heating up. Temperatures can soar as high as 104°F (40°C), and you’ll want to pack light clothing and plenty of sunscreen. If you’re not used to such stifling heat, you might find it uncomfortable for sightseeing.
The rainy season takes place from June to October, when temperatures cool down but the humidity rises. Chiang Mai doesn’t get as much rain as Southern Thailand, but you’ll still want to be prepared. It will rain for maybe an hour each day, and only rarely for days on end.
How to Stay Safe in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel. Petty theft (including bag snatching) is the most common type of crime in Chiang Mai. There are some common scams around, like the motorbike scam where vendors try to charge you for damage to their bike, but for the most part, this is a safe place to travel. People are nice and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble. You can read this post on travel scams to avoid so you don’t fall for any while in town.
Generally, I’ve rarely seen any problems here and I’ve been coming here for over ten years!
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in Chiang Mai.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Chiang Mai Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
Below are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Chiang Mai. They are included here because they consistently turn up the best deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are always my starting point when I need to book a flight, hotel, tour, train, or meeting people!
- Momondo – This is my favorite flight search engine because they search such a wide variety of sites and airlines. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. The big cities have tons of listings! (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Agoda – Other than Hostelworld an Airbnb, Agoda is the best hotel accommodation site for Asia as it has the largest inventory and offers the best rates. If you want a guesthouse or hotel, book it via this website!
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Southern Asia, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer good small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- STA Travel – A good company for those under 30 or for students, STA Travel offers discounted airfare as well as travel passes that help you save on attractions.
- Grassroots Volunteering – For volunteering, Grassroots Volunteering compiles a list of good local volunteer organizations that keep the money within the community.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
Chiang Mai Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, knowing what to pack and the kind of backpack to get can be a little daunting. In this section, I’ll give you my suggestion for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack.
The Best Backpack for Chiang Mai
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for more tips and ticks on how to get the right backpack, prices, and suggested packs.
What to Pack for Chiang Mai
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 6 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 8 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Doctor-prescribed antibiotics
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (a water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
The Beach, by Alex Garland
This story about backpackers and their search for off-the-beaten path “authentic” paradise is one many of us can relate to. Following Richard and his quest to “do something different” in Thailand, he heads off the beaten path in hopes of an authentic experience but finds that things aren’t always what they appear. The book is part adventure and part an exploration of why travelers always search for utopias and the consequences of that quest. It was turned into a movie featuring Leonardo DiCaprio back in the 90s. However, the book is a lot different (and much better). Focusing on the ideal of travel, I can’t recommend the book enough.
Sightseeing, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
This collection of masterful stories from award-winning author Rattawut Lapcharoensap is an absolute must-read if you’re visiting Thailand. Each story has a different theme, whether it’s a tale of family bonds, young romance, generational conflict, or the cultural shifts occurring in modern Thailand. You’ll be hooked right from the first story about a beachside motel owner that falls in love with a young American tourist.
Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Anna Leonowens was a young Englishwomen who inevitably changed the course of Thai history. She was hired in the 1860’s by King Mongkut of Siam to help him communicate with foreign governments, and also to be the tutor to his children (and his favorite concubines). This book is about Leonowens’ experiences, including the tutoring of young prince Chulalongkorn, who was so impressed by Western ideals he went on to become one of the country’s most progressive kings. This book is beautifully written and gives some insight into untouched Thailand.
Mad About the Mekong, by John Keay
The author’s story retraces the voyage of Francis Garnier, a historic 19th-century French explorer who sailed up the Mekong River looking for the “back door” into China. Keay describes the modern world of the Mekong River from Vietnam up through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma, while recreating Garnier’s failed voyage which included two ships bearing naturalists, soldiers, artists, and geologists. It’s a fascinating read.
The Orchid House, by Lucinda Riley
Julia Forrester, a concert pianist, spent much of her childhood in her grandfather’s hothouse at the Wharton Estate in England where he tended to exotic orchids. After losing her child and husband, Julia heads back to the hothouse where she meets Kit Crawford, heir to the estate. When they discover an old diary, Julia sets out to find her grandmother and to uncover the truth about the love affair that almost destroyed the estate. This book jumps back and forth between the world of Wharton Park and Thailand during WWII, with plenty of twists and turns to keep you reading!
Bangkok 8, by John Burdett
Bangkok 8 is a thrilling detective novel based on the murder of a suave Marine sergeant under a bridge in Bangkok. There are just two witnesses: two cops, and within minutes one of them is murdered. His partner, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, sets out on a mission to find the killer. Sonchai is paired with a beautiful FBI agent (who inevitably wins his heart), and is soon launched into a sinister world of drugs, prostitution, and corruption. This one will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Private Dancer, by Stephen Leather
Here’s a little insight into Bangkok’s wild go-go scene. Peter wanders into a go-go bar and meets the love of his life: Joy, a stunningly beautiful (and young) pole dancer. But Pete is soon launched into a life of drugs, sex, and deception as he discovers that his private dancer is not who she says she is. This book is a #1 bestseller in Thailand!
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Chiang Mai Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more tips for your trip? Check out all the articles I’ve written on Thailand travel and continue planning your trip: