There are plenty of reasons why Chiang Mai regularly features in lists of the world’s best cities to visit. Chiang Mai is a destination steeped in history, but also one that has tastefully adapted to modern life without losing its unique heritage and charm.
Widely regarded as the cultural capital of Thailand, Chiang Mai is the ideal base for an extended trip to explore the delights of the north of the country and a region that used to be known as ‘Lanna’. The name Lanna translates as the ‘land of a million rice fields’ and flying in to Chiang Mai during the green season it’s easy to appreciate why. From the air you see an expanse of emerald green paddy fields glistening in the mountain-framed valleys below. The kingdom of Lanna no longer exists, but the Lanna heritage lives on in the food, language and way of life of the local people. Chiang Mai, and the north of Thailand in general, is distinctly different from Bangkok and the south of the country. This makes Chiang Mai and the north the ideal complement to a beach holiday and provides an example of the amazing diversity that Thailand has to offer.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has an extensive range of accommodation to suit all styles and budgets. Whether you are backpacking on a shoestring, in search of a romantic retreat or holidaying with family, Chiang Mai has got you covered.
Neatly surrounded by water-filled moats and remnants of the ancient city walls, the Old Town area of Chiang Mai is an excellent base to explore the city. Many of Chiang Mai’s most historically important temples lie within the charming confines of the Old Town area. The traffic within the Old Town is light compared to other areas of Chiang Mai making the streets and narrow side sois a pleasure to explore on foot or by bicycle. Suggested hotels:
Staying close to the Ping River puts you in easy reach of the Night Bazaar. From here, it’s convenient to catch local transport to the Old Town and other areas of Chiang Mai. Choose from any one of a number of superb hotels with riverside views. Suggested hotels:
The Night Bazaar itself is quite ‘touristy’ compared to other areas of Chiang Mai, but it can still be a lot of fun and the location is hard to beat. There are an abundance of bars and restaurants close at hand and staying in the Night Bazaar area puts you within comfortable walking distance of the Old Town in one direction and the Ping River in the other. Suggested hotels:
For those looking for a modern city vibe, the trendy Nimmanhaemin district in the west of Chiang Mai is a great choice. The area is brimming with boutiques, coffee shops and local nightclubs where the Thai university students and twenty-something crowd get their groove on. Nimman, as it’s often dubbed, is a cosmopolitan part of town favoured by many long-term visitors with Maya Lifestyle Shopping Centre on the doorstep and some excellent Thai restaurants in the sub-sois off Nimmanhaemin Road and along Sirimangkalajarn Road. Suggested hotels:
Chiang Mai province is home to some stunning countryside with serene mountain views. If you’re visiting Chiang Mai to simply relax and unwind, head out of town to one of Chiang Mai’s outstanding luxury hotels to make the most of the sumptuous setting. Suggested hotels:
What to see and do in Chiang Mai
There is a local saying which roughly translates as, ’you haven’t seen Chiang Mai until you’ve seen Doi Suthep’. The name Doi Suthep refers to the mountain which you can see as you arrive at Chiang Mai airport and which provides the picturesque backdrop to the west of the city. But when local people talk about seeing Doi Suthep, they also mean visiting the temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep located on the mountain. One of the holiest temples in the north of Thailand, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is also one of the most photogenic. If you visit Chiang Mai, do make the short journey out of the city and along the winding mountain road to experience this lovely temple. And talking of temples, there are countless wats dotted all around Chiang Mai. Notable ones to visit in the Old Town include Wat Chedi Luang (and the adjacent teak temple of Wat Phan Tao), Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man.
Natural attractions and responsible tourism
Part of the beauty of Chiang Mai is exploring the natural attractions and great outdoors. Take a trip out to the highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, and enjoy the gorgeous mountain vistas and cool air. Closer to the city, keen gardeners will appreciate the attention to detail and skill of the green-fingered experts at Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens which also boasts lovely views of the surrounding area. Another scenic setting can be found in the rainforests of Mae Kampong where adrenaline junkies can zipline through the tree canopy and help sustain the local eco-tourism village at the same time.
If riding an elephant is high on your wish-list, please reconsider. There are still ways to get up close and personal to these magnificent creatures by supporting responsible tourism instead.
Sports lovers will enjoy Chiang Mai. The province is a haven for golfers with some superb championship standard courses. Football fans should check out the website of Chiang Mai FC to see if the Lanna Tigers are playing at home. A friendly group of supporters usually meet in the Red Lion pub near the Night Bazaar before home games for food, drinks and a chat. Newcomers are welcomed and local transport can be arranged from here to take you to the match and back. Entrance to the main stand is just 120 Baht. You don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy the festivities that surround the annual Chiang Mai International Cricket Sixes. Held in April in the attractive setting of the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club, the event is as much about socialising as it is about sport and is always a lot of fun.
Food and drink in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a delight for foodies. Whichever area of the city you are staying you won’t have to venture too far to find local favourites such as khao soi, the signature dish of Chiang Mai and the region. This creamy curry broth combines soft and crispy noodles and is incredibly moreish. Wash it down with a glass of iced lemon tea for the quintessential Chiang Mai lunchtime dish. You’ll find khao soi served at various locations around Chiang Mai. Two of the most famous khao soi restaurants in Chiang Mai, Khao Soi Fa Ham and Khao Soi Samer Jai, are located in close proximity of each other on the east bank of the Ping River. In the centre of the Old Town, check out the cluster of local restaurants along Intawaworot Road behind the Three Kings Monument.
For a pleasantly affordable treat, sit down to a luxurious afternoon tea. The Anantara and 137 Pillars House both offer afternoon tea to non-guests with the opportunity to enjoy the opulent colonial-style setting. If you do visit 137 Pillars House, make a slight detour to the wonderful Wat Gate temple and its quirky museum crammed with artefacts and sepia photographs of Chiang Mai from a bygone era.
For evening dining and drinks with live music, the Riverside and Good View are always popular with a mix of local Thais, expats and tourists. If you can’t get enough of that delicious northern Thai food and Lanna culture, a khantoke dinner at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre makes for a memorable evening.
Travel and local tips
The Night Bazaar is open every night and can be fun, but it is geared towards tourists. Check out nearby Waworot Market (known locally as Kad Luang) to see how the locals shop. Spend some time too walking around the nearby flower market to enjoy the scents and sounds of Chiang Mai life.
The delightful Walking Street Market sets up every Sunday from 4pm until late in the Old Town. Whether you like shopping or not, this market is a pleasure to experience with fantastic food at every turn, local artisans selling their wares and a charming atmosphere for all the family (smoking and drinking alcohol is not allowed). The Sunday Walking Street Market stretches from Thapae Gate all along Ratchadamnoen Road to Wat Phra Singh. A smaller version sets up on Saturday along Wualai Road just to the south of the Old Town. If you go to the Saturday Walking Street Market combine it with an afternoon trip to the stunning Silver Temple at Wat Srisuphan.
Taxis operate from Chiang Mai airport and to locations outside of the city, but in the city centre the easiest public transport to take is the local songthaews and tuk-tuks. Chiang Mai songthaews are basically covered pick-up trucks with two rows of seats in the back. Songthaews come in a variety of colours depending on the route, but the red ones are the vehicles that tourists find most useful and which travel mainly within the central area of the city. The red songthaews operate as share taxis. Tell the driver where you’re going and if he nods jump in the back and away you go. Fares for most trips within the city are 20 Baht per person. Higher prices can apply depending on where you are going and whether you are hiring the songthaew for private use. Tuk-tuks are usually more expensive and you’ll have to negotiate an agreed price before getting in the back. Not all drivers speak English and it can help if you ask staff at your hotel to write down in Thai the names of locations you may want to visit.
Local festivals and events in Chiang Mai
There are so many local festivals and special activities taking place in Chiang Mai it’s hard to keep track of them all. From art exhibitions to religious events, there is plenty going on in Chiang Mai throughout the year. Check local listings, visit the TAT office in Chiang Mai or ask at your hotel for details of upcoming events. Chiang Mai is one of the best places in Thailand to witness the amazing Songkran New Year Water Festival in April and the list below includes some of the more prominent festivals in Chiang Mai.
Bo Sang Umbrella Festival
Chinese New Year
Chiang Mai Flower Festival
National Thai Elephant Day
Songkran New Year Water Festival
Inthakin City Pillar Festival (at Wat Chedi Luang)
Her Majesty the Queen’s birthday (also celebrated as Mother’s Day)
Khatina Buddhist robes ceremony (various temples in Chiang Mai)
New Year’s Eve religious ceremonies and release of sky lanterns (riverside area and some temples in the city).