Chiang Mai has long been a mecca for digital nomads and expats, and it’s not really hard to see why. Much smaller than its southern counterpart Bangkok, Chiang Mai nevertheless has plenty going for it. It has some of the friendliest people in the world, the food is amazing, it’s a simple city to get around, and there’s an abundance of things to see and do. Chiang Mai is the kind of place you plan to spend a few days and then end up staying for weeks – like I did.
Here’s what you can see and do when on a trip to Chiang Mai.
Thing to see and do in Chiang Mai
Visiting the temples
Chiang Mai is famous for its temples; it has around 300 of them. Obviously, there are a lot to choose from and – unless you plan on seeing them all – it might seem a bit daunting trying to decide which to visit. Here’s some of the best which you should definitely try and check out.
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep: located about 12 kilometers from the center and an iconic image of Chiang Mai, this is the most-visited of all the Chiang Mai temples. Perched on the slopes of Mount (Doi) Suthep, highlights include a large white elephant shrine (the temple is said to have been built on the spot an elephant had chosen before it died) and a replica of the Emerald Buddha.
- Wat Chedi Luang: this temple is situated right in the heart of the Old City and is also the old city’s highest point; its main chedi is 80 metres tall. It has been destroyed many times over the centuries, including in an earthquake in the 16th century, but has now been restored and is a great example of Lanna, northern Thai architecture. It was also once home to the Emerald Buddha, currently housed in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
- Wat Phra Singh: another temple located in the Old City just a stone’s throw away from Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh is high on the list of Chiang Mai’s most visually stunning temples. The main highlight is the Lai Kam assembly hall with its lovingly-restored murals which give an insight into live in the area hundreds of years ago. Lai Kam also houses the revered Phra Singh Buddha image.
- Wat Phra That Doi Kham: this temple may be slightly out of the way in comparison with other temples in the city and the surrounding area, but as such it doesn’t get the same amount of tourists. It also features an impressive 17-metre seated Buddha, which is reason enough to visit. However, there are also plenty of pagodas and shrines set within the tropical garden to explore.
- Wat Umong: the only temple in Chiang Mai set within a forest, the coolest thing about Wat Umong is the unusual underground meditation tunnels. Although meditation doesn’t really take place any more in the tunnels due to tourists, the temple is attached to a still-working monastery, so you will see monks wandering around the grounds. There’s also a pond in the grounds where you can feed fish and turtles.
This is just a small selection of the temples you can visit. Remember that as they are revered places, respect needs to be shown: dress respectfully and take off your shoes before entering.
Do some retail therapy
Night markets are an absolute must in pretty much any Thai destination, but the one in Chiang Mai really is the best. Taking place every night from 6pm to 10:30pm, you can buy everything here – clothing, fake brand goods, handicrafts, bags, furniture – and although you can get the same items at every other Thai night market, the Chiang Mai night market is much bigger and has more atmosphere.
As well as the night market, Chiang Mai holds a Sunday Walking Street that runs right through the Old City. The road from Tha Pae Gate towards Ratchadamnoen Road closes to traffic at 4pm and you’ll find loads of stalls selling a wide variety of souvenirs, handicrafts and accessories as well as a number of food stalls.
Remember that bartering is the order of the day at both of these markets.
Pamper yourself with a massage
Another quintessential Thai experience, Chiang Mai has some of the best massage parlours and spas in the country.
There’s a huge range of places to choose from, from high-end western-style spas to makeshift massage stalls on the street at the Sunday Walking Street. Of course, there are varying degrees of quality and price, but be mindful that more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean a better massage. Because massage is such a personal thing – everyone prefers a different kind of pressure and touch – and as there’s so many dotted around the city – I would advise trying a few out based on how you feel when you see them or ask your accommodation hosts for recommendations.
However, one experience I would highly recommend is the ex-prisoner massage parlour. Run by the women’s prison in Chiang Mai, the programme exists to give women in the prison essential life skills for when they are eventually released. They are watched while they perform the massages but it’s done in a non-intrusive way, so you can still relax and enjoy your massage while contributing to these women putting their lives back together.
Visit an elephant sanctuary
Elephant sanctuaries have had a bad press in the past, but in recent years conditions have improved for the animals and more providers are waking up to the fact that more and more travellers and tourists want to have a more ethical experience. Similar to Kanchanaburi, there are many sanctuaries to choose from. But you should still ask around and, if in doubt, always choose a non-riding park over a riding one; elephants’ backs are very weak and riding on them can be damaging.
One of the best is Elephant Nature Park, about 60 kilometres from Chiang Mai. There are many different programmes to choose from, from one day up to a week, and involve feeding and bathing the animals, but also getting the chance to learn about these magnificent creatures.
Catch a Muay Thai match
Muay Thai – Thai boxing – is the country’s national sport and is incredibly exciting to watch. It’s possible to catch a match at three places in Chiang Mai: Thapae Boxing Stadium, the most central location, in walking distance of the Old City; Loi Kroh Boxing Stadium, which hosts a number of different matches from Tuesdays to Saturdays and which also has lots of beer bars and a pool hall; and Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium, the most professional of the venues and as such tickets are more expensive and harder to come by.
Fly through the rainforest at Flight of the Gibbon
Flight of the Gibbon was Thailand’s first zipline and still is the longest one in the country. Offering an exhilarating experience while still being eco-friendly, you’ll not only get to whip through the amazing rainforest scenery, but also get the chance to learn about the local flora and fauna you’ll see and hear, including the endangered wild gibbon from where the name of the experience gets its name. The whole programme might seem expensive at 4199 Baht, but that pays for a 7-hour experience which includes pick-up and drop-off from your accommodation in Chiang Mai, the chance to encounter wild gibbon, two to three hours of ziplining, and a delicious Thai lunch and refreshments.
Check out trendy Nimman Road
Known widely as the trendiest part of Chiang Mai, Nimmanhaemin Road – sometimes referred to as Nimman Road – is full of cool places to eat and drink as well as being home to a number of fashionable shops and boutique hotels. At the end of the road you’ll find the fairly new, chic Maya shopping mall, which offers upscale shopping and an impressive entertainment complex including a multiplex cinema, a 7D cinema and an arcade. Expats will love Rimping Supermarket in the basement, which has a whole host of imported products – great if you’d like a taste from home. But Nimman Road is mostly known for its huge diversity in nightlife options; whatever your budget and preference, whether its cocktails at sunset, a quiet dinner or dancing the night away, you’ll find something for you.
Enjoy the nightlife
Nimman Road isn’t the only place where you can enjoy a good night out in Chiang Mai. When the night market finishes at 10:30pm, there are many bars you can go to so you can continue your night. The Old City also has plenty of nightlife options, from traditional Thai bars to western-style options such as Irish pubs.
Explore Chiang Mai’s stunning nature
If you’re all templed-out and need a break from the city, Chiang Mai has plenty of opportunities to get out into nature and admire the wonderful scenery. Top of the list is Doi Inthanon National Park, named after the highest mountain in Thailand and where more species of bird than anywhere else in Thailand make their home.
There are a number of waterfalls within easy reach of Chiang Mai. Huay Kaew Waterfall and Mae Sa Waterfall can both be found in Doi Suthep-Doi Pui National Park, but the best one is Bua Tong Waterfalls. Known locally as ‘Sticky Falls’ due to the number of limestone deposits that are present throughout, this is a cool place to come on a motorbike. It’s a popular place for Thai families to come at weekends, so it may be worth avoiding at this time.
Chiang Mai also has a few gardens which are worth checking out. The Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden is the oldest one of its kind in Thailand and has a large collection of rare and endangered plants. The Royal Ratchaphruek has an impressive collection of orchids and the Huay Kaew Arboretum is a small but pleasantly quite spot.
Getting around Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has great infrastructure when it comes to getting around the city. If you’re based in the Old City, getting around on a day-to-day basis by foot is completely feasible. Even if you want to go outside of that area – say, to Nimman Road – it’s only a 45 minute walk from the centre of the Old City to the top of Nimman.
Of course, with the abundance of activities and places to visit situated outside the main city boundaries, you may need to use another form of transportation than your feet. For me, the best – and the one that I use frequently – is Grab. As of 2018, Uber no longer operate in Thailand, giving this Singaporean version the monopoly on car sharing in the city. Grab offer both taxi and bike taxi services and run on the same principle that Uber do; download the app, put in your pick-up point and destination, and then wait for your driver to arrive.
There are plenty of other transportation methods to take advantage of in Chiang Mai. Songthaew – the red trucks you’ll see driving around the city – are a cross between a taxi and a bus, and you can catch them by flagging them down, letting them know where you’re going, and they’ll let you know if they’re going that way. Tuk tuks are also very plentiful around the city.
Like in many Thai destinations, renting a scooter or motorbike is also an option if you’re confident. Be mindful that occasionally the Chiang Mai police do stop-checks of people on the bikes to make sure they have the proper documentation. If you haven’t got your licence, it will be better for you to use an alternative mode of transport.
How to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok
Chiang Mai is a relatively short 680 kilometres away from Bangkok, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a quick trip. There are three main ways to make the journey: bus, train and plane.
I have travelled by long-distance bus in Thailand numerous times and find it one of the best ways of travelling, despite the long journey times. The bus takes between 10 and 12 hours between Bangkok and Chiang Mai (not including time needed for any delays or hold-ups on the way) depending on the connection and where you begin the journey. Many bus companies offer the service through the day and night, so there’s plenty of choice. There’s also a choice in type of service; there are regular and VIP buses. I would highly recommend the VIP bus as they are the most comfortable, with reclining seats, air conditioning, an onboard toilet, a small pillow and blanket, and a snack and drink. Prices vary depending on the operator, but you shouldn’t pay more than 900 Baht.
The quickest way of getting between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is to fly. A variety of airlines fly between the two cities, including the budget ones, so there’s a good chance you’ll get a great deal on a ticket. The flight time is around one hour and 15 minutes and there are over 50 departures a day – from both Bangkok airports – every day of the week.
The most undesirable option – in my opinion – is the train. There are a number of departures every day between Hua Lamphong Station and Chiang Mai and take between 12 and 15 hours, but delays are extremely common. You can get very cheap tickets in third and second class, but it’s not very comfortable. There are night services which, if you buy tickets in the sleeper carriages, make the journey that bit more bearable. However, the price of the train isn’t that much different from travelling with a budget airline so you don’t save any money where you lose time, and as it’s a sleeper you don’t get the advantage of admiring the view. One advantage the train does have is that some services offer female-only carriages – if this is a concern for you – and even carriages for those travelling with small children.
Chiang Mai really is a wonderful place to visit and in many ways offers a more authentic Thai experience than Bangkok. With lots of things to do, see and experience, you’ll love everything that Chiang Mai has to offer.