Most of us have explored the coastline of Thailand and experienced the nightlife of its bustling capital. However, there are considerably fewer who have experienced the green mountains in the north. Located amid these mountains is one of the largest cities in Thailand – Chiang Mai. The city delighted me with its incredible blend of nature and heritage. It’s deep-rooted culture showcased sides of Thailand that I had never known. The plethora of adventure activities spiked my travel with the right dose of adrenaline. These are reasons enough for me to recommend the Best of Chiang Mai with this travel guide.
This travel guide to Chiang Mai will not only convince you to consider your next holiday to Thailand. It will also, help you to start booking one. From what to do in Chiang Mai to places to stay, how to go around, the best time to visit and specific travel tips to the Chiang Mai attractions – I have tried to include it all based on my own experience. So, let’s begin with an introduction to the “Rose city of Thailand”.
- 1 History of Chiang Mai
- 2 How to reach Chiang Mai?
- 3 Best time to visit Chiang Mai
- 4 Where to stay in Chiang Mai?
- 5 How to get around Chiang Mai?
- 6 Best of Chiang Mai
- 6.1 Go temple-hopping
- 6.2 Visit the royal rose gardens of Bhubing Palace
- 6.3 Ride on a hot-air balloon
- 6.4 Pick your adventure
- 6.5 Explore the Chiang Mai markets
- 6.6 Visit the Bo-Sang Handicrafts Center
- 6.7 Discover the Lan Na culture
- 6.8 Experiment with the food in Chiang Mai
- 6.9 Chase the butterflies in an orchid farm
- 6.10 Enjoy a Thai Massage
- 6.11 Other things to do in Chiang Mai
History of Chiang Mai
The name Chiang Mai means “New City”. It was called so after it took over as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom after Chiang Rai. It was chosen for its strategic locations around the highest mountains of Thailand and prosperous land around the River Ping. The then King Mangrai set up the city within high walls. A moat added to the protection of the place. His descendant Phayu further expanded it and build the famous pagoda of Wat Phra Singh – one that has now become the landmark of Chiang Mai.
The city changed hands when the Barmar people – specifically the Toungoo Dynasty annexed the city in 1556. It remained with them till they were ousted out by Taksin of Thonburi Kingdom. Eventually, it became a part of the larger Thailand. Chiang Mai grew as an important city in northern Thailand. It flourished culturally as well as in trade. Recently, it was awarded the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. The green and clean city have plenty to offer from its past and present – making it one of the important places to visit in Thailand.
How to reach Chiang Mai?
- Chiang Mai has an international airport with direct flight connectivity to a lot of Asian countries. In addition to those, there are numerous flights from Bangkok. The internal flights are quite affordable and convenient.
- Railways are another convenient way of reaching Chiang Mai. The train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes around 11- 13 hours. You can book the tickets for the same through this website.
- Bangkok is 700 km from Chiang Mai and there are plenty of buses that ply to Chiang Mai. The travel time ranges from 9 hours to 11 hours. This website offers you various options for the buses.
Best time to visit Chiang Mai
With the cool winter breeze, October to April is the preferred season to visit Chiang Mai. The summer season does tend to be uncomfortable with temperatures soaring to around 40 C. Post June, the rainy season sets in and it get a little wet. However, I happened to visit in July and loved the light showers in the city.
Being a popular cultural center, Chiang Mai is great to enjoy key Thai festivals. Here are some important ones that you should note when you plan your Chiang Mai visit.
The Thai New year takes place in April, usually around the 13th – 15th. Akin to Holi in India, this is celebrated with people throwing water at each other. It is believed that this cleanses the place and people of its sins. You can be a part of the festivities by not only participating in the water party but also, witnessing the vibrant parades. Large statues of Buddhas are taken through the streets and the temples have special ceremonies. Experiencing Songkran is one of the most recommended experiences in Thailand.
Yee Peng Festival
You might have seen pictures of thousands of lanterns floating in the sky. The Lantern Festival or the Yi Peng festival takes place in November (the 12th Lunar Month). It is believed that a wish made when lighting and releasing the lantern will come true, especially if you have earned goodwill through that year. Almost like you need to be nice for Santa to get you a gift in X’mas. ;-). The lantern festival is followed by their annual Loy Krathong Celebrations that have special parades and handicraft exhibitions. It is the Siam equivalent of Diwali – the festival of lights.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai?
- I was treated to a five-star resort by the River Ping. The Anantara Resort in Chiang Mai was an absolute luxury with its lovely spa, dining by the river and theme restaurant. The Service 1921 restaurant used to be the British consulate and the hotel has still kept its legacy with its decor and unique menu. The staff in the resort is well trained and I have no qualms in recommending this resort if you are looking for a luxury stay in Chiang Mai. Here is the link to book Anantara Resorts online.
- In case you have a lower budget, you will be able to get good BnBs, mid-priced hotels and hostels in the same area as Anantara Hotels. You can check their reviews through this link and book them. The area – Charoen Prathet Road is a buzzing area of Chiang Mai. The night market is right here and there are plenty of cafes, restaurants and other facilities in this location.
- For backpackers and budget travelers, the Chiang Mai Old Town is also, a good location. This area is close to all the key attractions of Chiang Mai. You can find a list of the stays in Chiang Mai Old Town through this link.
- Nimman Road is a choice for travelers looking to stay close to the malls and newer area of Chiang Mai
How to get around Chiang Mai?
- Nothing better than hailing the red Songthaew. These are the red truck-like vehicles that you will see everywhere in Chiang Mai. They charge per person and when I visited the city, the rate was 30 THB. The red ones take you anywhere within the city. The white and the other colored Songthaews ply to the nearby towns and districts.
- There are public buses that take you around Chiang Mai.
- Taxis are available on call. Uber and Grab taxis can be booked through your mobile apps. Chiang Mai also has bike taxis.
- You can rent a car when in Chiang Mai. Consider booking one through this website for a discount. You can book a full day or a half day, based on your plans.
Best of Chiang Mai
By now, with this Chiang Mai Travel Guide, you are all sorted to reach the city. Time to answer what to do in Chiang Mai. This is where I promise you will be blown with the options. Whether you are a nature enthusiast, a heritage buff, a culture connoisseur or an adventure junkie, you will find your fix right here. So, let’s get rolling with the best things to do in Chiang Mai. Make sure you click through the highlighted links in the description. They will lead you to posts with greater detail on those attractions.
With over 1000 temples in this city, this is a definite must-do activity in Chiang Mai. The temples of Chiang Mai will evoke a contrast of emotions within you. On one hand, the Lan Na architecture of the temple will get your frenzied. At the same time, the serenity oozing from these temples will calm you do. Start with the oldest temple of Chiang Mai – Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Ascend up the serpent lined staircase of the Doi Suthep temple to see the relics of Buddha.
The carved ubosot (ordination hall) and the viharin (sermon hall) will delight you with their colors. While you are up here, you need to also, head to the wooden pavilion. This is where you get the sweeping views of Chiang Mai and at the same time, get up close and personal with the intricately carved teak wood pillars – that not just showcase skill but tell you an entire story in pictures.
When in the old town, there is no missing the two most important temples. The Wat Phra Singh had me spellbound with their century-old murals. The gold and silver chedis will definitely dazzle you with their glamour as would the enormous Buddha statue within the prayer hall.
The 2nd temple that I recommend in the Old Town is called Wat Chedi Luang. You might recall the part where I mentioned the pagoda that was made by the earliest ruler of Chiang Mai. This is the temple where you will find it. The pagoda has collapsed over the years but will still, impress you with its size and details. Wat Chedi Luang is also, the place where you can indulge in the famed monk chats. Before you leave the place, don’t forget to make a wish on a ribbon and leave it within the main temple.
Besides these key temples, I also, managed to visit a few minor ones. Wat Faham stood out among these. Compared to the other temples, this did not have too many buildings to visit. Possibly it was that simplicity – which appealed to me. This temple is by the riverside in Chiang Mai and is unmissable if you opt for kayaking on the river. (more on that later).
Visit the royal rose gardens of Bhubing Palace
The Bhubing Palace is just a few kilometers ahead of the Doi Suthep Temple. The palace is still in use by the royal family and if they are around, then the entry to the place is restricted. A walk through it introduces you to the simple yet elegant living quarters of the royalty. The royal quarters are quite unassuming but it is the refreshing gardens around that make them majestic. The rose gardens around Bhubing palace were just about blooming when I visited them. The garden was an initiative of the Queen mother and produces roses that are exported by Thailand.
The Queen mother’s abode is another interesting place to see within the premises. A simple wooden home on the green hills with pretty fountains present a very dreamy picture. I found myself wishing for a home like that and I am sure you will too. Just don’t miss the Bamboo gardens near the home.
Ride on a hot-air balloon
Floating amid the clouds, high above the green pastures of Chiang Mai can be quite a heady experience. The hot air balloon ride takes you over the pretty patterns of the Chiangmai farms that are dotted by the vibrant roofs of the Buddhist temples. Somewhere a flock of birds take off below you and in another corner, you will spot hard-working farmers working their green fields. I even saw a heart-shaped pool from those clouds – almost an indication of how Chiang Mai was making its place in mine.
The Hot Air Balloon Ride can be booked right here through this link. The booking includes a hotel pick-up and drop along with a Champagne breakfast after the ride. You also, get a Hot Air Ballooning Certificate.
Pick your adventure
The hot-air ballooning is just a passive adventure that you can try out. For those wanting a little more, try kayaking on the Ping River. All you have to do is hop over to the Canoe Club at Wat Faham and rent a kayak. Float away under the busy bridges of Chiang Mai and see the bustling markets along its shores. The river is calm enough for you to enjoy these sights at your own pace. However, should you want some more action, you can head out for some white water rafting or jungle kayaking on the outskirts of the city.
Ziplining through the rainforests is another popular activity in Chiang Mai. The Flight of the Gibbon is a course of ziplines and canopy walks that allow you to spot Gibbons and other rainforest animals while having fun. A visit to the Grand Canyon in Chiang Mai allows adventurers to get a dose of cliff jumping along with ziplines. The place is an abandoned quarry that has now been converted to a water park – a little away from the main city.
For those who love trekking, the Doi Suthep park is itself, has plenty of hiking trails. The Monk’s trail takes you right upto the Doi Suthep temple and is dotted with really pretty waterfalls. The park also has a path that is popular for mountain bikers.
Explore the Chiang Mai markets
The Chiangmai markets are a perfect way to get closer to the local customs and history of the city. Start with the oldest market – Khad Luang Market (also called Warorot market) that goes back to the age of the missionaries. I got dropped off at the wholesale cloth market and made my way to the main food market. It was here that I had the yummiest mango sticky rice. The open stalls selling local snacks is the best place to get this delicacy. These stalls have been owned by the same families for over 4 – 5 generations. I struck a conversation with the lady selling this sticky rice and she told me all about the fire that burnt down most of the market. She was happy to share pictures of her ancestors and those of her earlier stall.
On the other side of this market, is the flower market. From cheerful sunflowers to delicate orchids and colorful roses, I felt as if I was in paradise. If only I could buy them all and get them home. 😉
The night market of Chiang Mai is just a walk away from the Warorot market. From 6 pm onwards, you will see stalls opening up in this market. Colorful wares, pretty dresses, fancy jewelry and even travel memorabilia like the fridge magnets are available here. I highly recommend trying out the fresh fruit shakes and ice creams that are sold around the stalls. It is a good idea to even try out the fish spas and the make-shift foot massage stalls around the night market.
Visit the Bo-Sang Handicrafts Center
One of the highly recommended places to visit in Chiang Mai is the Bo Sang Village. It is known for its heritage umbrella making factory. A visit to the factory not only demonstrates the various stages of umbrella making but allows you to participate in the process too. You can buy some of these beautiful parasols as well.
Close to the Bo Sang Umbrella center is a wood-carving factory. Yet another place that you should drop by. It is quite mesmerizing to see how a solid piece of teak wood is carved into a masterpiece – a pillar, door or even a table. Should you fancy their work, you can order your own furniture or design and get it delivered to your residence.
Discover the Lan Na culture
Experience the traditional Lan Na dance with the local flavors at the Khum Khantoke restaurant. The crispy tofu, grilled vegetables and the rice noodles were some of the delicacies that I personally, enjoyed. However, what held my attention more than the food was the graceful dances. Quite like the Indian dances, the Lan Na dances used hand gestures and facial expressions to tell you a story. They even had a piece from the Ramayana and while I related to the story, I also, saw the subtle differences that added the Thai flavor to the epic.
A few of the dances were related to harvests and some were folk dances that were performed during festivals. One particular performance showcased the martial arts practiced by the Lan Na men. On the whole, Khum Khantoke is a fun evening.
Experiment with the food in Chiang Mai
Sure there is plenty for the non-vegetarians. But there is enough for the vegetarians and that frankly, it was a delight. I loved the Khao Soi – the noodle curry combination across restaurants in Chiang Mai. The crispy morning glory appetizer was another of my favorites. I tried to order it almost everywhere I went. Among the restaurants, Ginger & Kafe is my recommended option.
The most unique thing about the food in Chiang Mai is that it is locally produced. Most of it is organic. In fact, there is plenty of Farm to Table restaurants that you can try that have a farm right within its campus. Ohkajhu Organic Restaurant that is close to the Bo Sang Village is something that I enjoyed. The salads and the fresh fruit shakes were something that I still crave for.
When in Chiang Mai, you don’t just eat food. You learn how to cook it too. There are plenty of cooking classes in Chiang Mai that you can enroll in. The classes involve all the steps – right from selecting the ingredients to actually converting them into lip-smacking Thai flavors. Definitely an art that you can take back home. Click here for booking one of these classes that even includes a local market tour.
Chase the butterflies in an orchid farm
Take a tour of the orchid farms in Chiang Mai – specifically, the Bai Orchid Farm The refreshing walk through the farm allowed me to see the different types of orchid and the various uses they are put to. I was shown how they are grown from small saplings to an adult plant, how their need for 100% humidity was catered to and finally, the harvest process. Once harvested, a few of them are used to make unique fragrances that go into soaps, shampoos and even air fresheners. The farm also, showed me how a few of these orchids were made into brooches and hair clips.
Within the orchid farm is a small butterfly park. The place is quite delightful as you can catch these winged beauties in their various growth stages. A few of them keep flitting around while a few friendly ones might mistake you as a flower and settle down on your hair. 🙂
Enjoy a Thai Massage
It does not matter where you stay in Chiang Mai. You will always find a massage parlor close to you. From full-body massages to a soothing foot massage and a shoulder massage, you must go for this experience – especially after a long day of exploring. A traditional Thai massage uses no oil but I am partial to the healing, aromatherapy ones. The soothing strokes instantly rejuvenate and you are up and ready for your next adventure.
Other things to do in Chiang Mai
There are plenty of other Chiang Mai attractions in and around the city. However, a few of them sit on a borderline case of ethical travel. There are controversial reports about them and given the dilemma, I chose to stay away from a few of them. In any case, sharing them as I feel so that you can take a call for yourself.
The Elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai appears as a popular outing for travelers. There are a few that still allow riding elephants. I also, found a few that claim to be ethical. The ethical ones do not chain these creatures and restrict them. They allow them free movements and you can interact with the elephants in a safe environment.
A day trip to the Padung Village, 70 odd km from Chiang Mai is yet another thing to add to your Chiang Mai itinerary. This is home to the famous Karen long neck tribes (Kayen tribe). The women in the villages wear neck rings in a bid to elongate their necks. From the age of five, they keep adding one ring every year. Originally from Burma, they now live in this village. They say that the residents were restricted to this village for the purpose of tourism. However, things are said to be changing now and a few of them have moved out to nearby areas. Some of them have also, found employment with the elephant sanctuaries.
Consider a visit to the Chiang Dao caves near the Padung Village. Nothing unethical about them for sure 😉 You can go caving here to see the lovely stalagmites and stalactites – definitely a different kind of adventure.
Well, that is it from my list of places to visit in Chiang Mai. With that, I conclude this Chiang Mai Travel Guide. Hopefully, you now know the best of Chiang Mai – whether attractions, places to stay, time to visit or even how to get here. So go on and pin this so that anyone who wants to get to Chiang Mai knows where to get their information. 🙂
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Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including BBC Travel, Lonely Planet India and Jetwings. I have recently published my first book – When Places Come Alive – a collection of stories that are based on legends, landscapes, art and culture of a place which is available in both ebook and paperback format.