If you’re looking for different perspectives of the same Thailand, I recommend that you choose a beach destination in Thailand, Bangkok, and then head to northern Thailand. One of the best places to go in the northern areas of Thailand is Chiang Mai. It’s a great and comfortable launching point to see some of the smaller towns and villages.
And the historic old town Chiang Mai temples are a highlight of any visit. There’s a lot to see and do in Chiang Mai but the temples are certainly one of the primary draws to visit. Here’s what you need to know about visiting Chiang Mai.
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Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and it’s located around 435 miles (700 km) north of Bangkok. It was founded in 1296 in part, due to it’s proximity to the Ping River, a large tributary of the Chao Phraya River that runs through Bangkok. Being near this river offered a significant trade route and led to this city’s importance in the region.
It is located near the highest mountain range in the country, including Doi Inthanon. Chiang Mai is a gateway to many of the small northern villages. It features a quaint and historic center that is only one square mile located inside old city walls. This city center is surrounded by a more modern expanse of the city and outside of that is all lush, green countryside. It’s a much more laid-back city than Bangkok and much more manageable.
Chiang Mai is also an expat and digital nomad hotspot due to the relatively low cost of living, stable and strong internet, easy local transportation, and the nearby international airport. It’s well situated to easily travel around the region and the airport is smaller and more easily manageable than the airports in Bangkok.
Chiang Mai Old City
I’ll admit that when I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I wasn’t really impressed. I had read how quaint and beautiful the city was and found it to be quite the opposite. Buildings were stained by pollution with wide streaks of black spilling from the roof down the walls. Though some building and especially the temples were quite ornate and beautiful, many buildings appeared just thrown together with any available materials. I’m an architecture buff and besides the temples, for the most part, the city seemed pretty ugly to me.
I’m not sure how it changed, but it did. Within a day of wandering around, I really fell in love with the relaxed vibe there. It’s comfortable and easy to get around (well, except for my chronic issues constantly getting lost, but that’s on me!) My host told me it’s very safe to walk around at night and I found that to be the case. No one ever approached me when I was walking alone at night and no one bothered me at all.
So, if you visit Chiang Mai and you don’t fall instantly in love, wait for it. It will come. There’s something so comfortable and quaint about the narrow winding roads of this historic city and it’s worth exploring.
Things to do on a Chiang Mai Itinerary in the Old City
You could spend several days in the Chiang Mai old city and still not really see everything. It’s only a square mile but it’s packed full of things to do both inside the old city and right on the outskirts. And of course, there are a lot of great day trips or longer to take from Chiang Mai.
Explore the Chiang Mai Temples
24 of the Chiang Mai temples are right in the old city, which is a small area of only one square mile. You literally can’t walk more than a few blocks without stumbling upon one, so you can just meander as I did and enjoy them or take a more methodical approach. There are also walking tours to see the temples and this should be part of any Chiang Mai itinerary.
I was so excited to visit the temples that I managed to do a royally poor job documenting those that I saw! My only excuse is that my trip pre-dated my travel blog ever-so-slightly so I just wasn’t on top of it. I saw around ten and specifically looked for at least half a dozen and stumbled upon the test. A few that I know I saw are:
- Wat Chedi Luang — This brick and stucco temple is still the tallest structure in old town Chiang Mai. It once housed the Emerald Buddha, now at the Bangkok Grand Palace.
- Wat Phra Singh — This gorgeous complex includes a couple of gold stupas and classic Lanna-style architecture.
- Wat Chiang Man — One of the oldest temples in the region, built in the 13th century by one of the city’s founders and first Lanna King.
Here is an article with more information about some of the temples in and around Chiang Mai and I promise you, they were worth seeing!
Get a Massage
There are massage places pretty much everywhere throughout Chiang Mai. It’s kind of like the Starbucks of Thailand where you see them on almost every street corner. And there are a number of different kinds of massage you can get, mostly focusing on Thai massage and foot massages, but others are offered as well.
I actually got an acupuncture foot massage which was quite interesting and felt great. I’m ridiculously ticklish on my feet, but the pressure was good and within a few minutes I was putty in her hands. It’s a great way to relax for a bit and to work off the tension from walking around so much!
Tok Sen Massage
If you’re looking for a massage experience unique to Northern Thailand, give Tok Sen massage a try. I’ll warn you—it’s not for the faint of heart. Tok Sen is an ancient style of Thai massage that originated locally. It involves the use of a special wooden mallet (have I lost you already??) The masseuse uses this mallet to tap a wooden wedge to stimulate energy points throughout the body. The massage includes periods of rhythmic tapping with the mallet, then stretching similar to a traditional Thai massage.
It’s unique, interesting, and I found it excruciatingly painful at time. However, the rhythmic tapping is quite soothing and though it felt like lightening bolts shooting through my body, there was something strangely calming about it. He backed off just when I was hitting my threshold. And I’ll tell you, I have never felt so relaxed and floppy as I did after that massage. It was quite an experience!
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Get Massaged by a Prisoner
Believe it or not, this is a popular thing to do on a Chiang Mai itinerary and it’s a pretty unique one. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution has a massage parlor where inmates receive massage training to provide them with a skill they can use when released. It’s inside the old city area. There are also some signs at other massage places around town offering massages from ex-convicts as well.
The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution is located on Ratvithi Rd, Si Phum Sub-district, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand near the Three Kings Monument. It’s open from Monday to Friday from 8 to 4:30 and on Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 4:30. It’s a popular thing to do in Chiang Mai so it’s a good idea to go early to avoid a wait. Massages range in price from around 200 to 400 Baht (around $6.50 USD to $13 USD).
Take a Thai Cooking Class
Just like in Bangkok, a popular thing to do for any Chiang Mai itinerary is to take a cooking class. There are loads to choose from! Many of them take you to a market where you buy the items fresh for your meal, and you learn to make a number of different dishes. Then, you get to enjoy your hard work with a feast fit for a king. Don’t plan to eat for the rest of the day!
Shop in the Night Bazaar
The night bazaar is just outside the old city walls of Chiang Mai and it’s a good place to go souvenir and gift shopping on any Chiang Mai itinerary. It’s a really large building with probably close to a thousand carts and stands including almost everything you can imagine. A lot of the vendors do carry the same or similar items so you’ll start seeing certain things with frequency. For example, there are a lot of places carrying little notepad journals that are bound either with patterned fabric or crafted leather.
Take your time to walk around and compare prices. You can and should barter, especially if you plan to purchase several items from a place. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are massage places just outside the night bazaar and some inside as well. And if you want to try something a bit different, try a fish massage, where you stick your feet in a tub with little fish that eat the dead skin off your feet. It’s an interesting experience unique to Southeast Asia.
There are some restaurants inside and some great street vendors just outside. I got one of the best mango sticky rices I had in Thailand in this area. (And I *might* have had a few during my time in Thailand!) I also got an order of pad thai for the equivalent of $1.50 USD that will be filling and really good. Surprisingly, it tasted just like I get in the U.S. I know Vietnamese food in the United States is very different from what you eat in Vietnam and I have heard the same about Chinese food as well. I expected the same of Thai food but that wasn’t my experience.
Eat at the Sunday Walking Street
The Sunday walking street is one of the most popular street markets on a Chiang Mai itinerary and is open only one night during the week. If you guessed it’s on Sunday, you’re right! You’ll find a lot of things at this night market, just like any other market you visit in Thailand. This one is noted for the food and there are a lot of great things to choose from. There are aromatic pork dumplings called gyoza, pad thai, and mango rice, a sweet and tasty favorite of mine.
You’ll also find other things like souvenirs, collectibles, clothing, and pretty much anything you can imagine here. The night bazaar is an interesting experience however the Sunday walking street feels a bit more authentic to me.
If you’re not there on a Sunday (and sadly, I wasn’t) there is another great, smaller market called the Chiang Mai Gate Market. It’s located at (get this!) one of the entrances to the old city at the location of a gate in the wall surrounding the city. This is the market I slithered to after my Tok Sen massage and it was a great experience. I saw a lot of interesting things including alligator skewers.
Chiang Mai Itinerary: Day Trips from Chiang Mai
There are a lot of great day trips to take from Chiang Mai and as I mentioned, it’s a great gateway to Northern Thailand. Three popular trips are:
One of the most popular trips on a Chiang Mai itinerary in Northern Thailand is to visit the temples in Chiang Rai. The world-famous White Temple is a treat and such an interesting experience. It’s stunning, ornate, and has a very deep and spiritual meaning. There is thought in every inch of this complex and it’s truly amazing. What it’s not, truly, is a temple, but you can forgive that as soon as you see the grounds. It’s breathtaking.
Less famous but even more stunning is the Blue Temple. It’s just as ornate as the White Temple and everything is a bright blue. Inside and outside, and all structures on the grounds are beautiful and intricately designed. It’s less crowded, free, and worth visiting.
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Last is the Black House which is an interesting place. The White Temple represents the spiritual path to heaven and the Black House Museum represents hell. It’s nowhere near as ornate but it’s every bit as thought-provoking. It’s such an interesting contrast to the White and Blue Temples and worth visiting.
While you’re in the area, it may be worth visiting the Golden Triangle. Though it’s a bit of a tourist trap, this area is where the countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand all meet at a river. It was the largest source of heroin in the world until fairly recently and had the notoriety you might expect with it. Now, most of that has changed and coffee farms flourish.
Elephant Nature Park
You should be very, very cautious about supporting animal tourism in Thailand, and for good reason. There are a lot of places that at best treat the animals badly and at worst, seriously abuse them to make a profit. Many elephant camps offering tours while riding the elephants are viciously abusive. And many places that allow you to snuggle a tiger are drugging them to remain placid enough to be safe to approach. It’s best to either avoid animal tourism entirely, or if you are set to go, really do your homework.
I really wanted to see elephants so I researched like a crazy person and chose to visit Elephant Nature Park. It is a sanctuary that gets elephants that are mistreated elsewhere, sometimes suffering horrific abuse, and medically treats them. Those that can be released are, and those that can’t, go to Elephant Nature Park. They also support some free herds and other organizations that support herds throughout Northern Thailand and Cambodia.
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The challenge of this is that they have to pay for the animals they rescue, which supports those organizations. It’s a tough situation and one that you need to consider to make an educated decision. I did decide to go and loved the experience, however, I’ll admit that I have some concerns.
It was an incredible day and we were told what elephants we could safely approach and chose to stay a distance from as they hadn’t forgiven humans for the cruelty they suffered. If you want to learn and mingle with these majestic creatures, this is a great place to go for a Chiang Mai itinerary.
Doi Inthanon National Park is the location of Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand. It can be seen from Chiang Mai and is a popular visit on a Chiang Mai itinerary. If you want some time out of the city and to see this incredible place, it’s worth a day trip to go visit. The national park is stunning and it’s worth a visit. And of course, to hike Doi Inthanon. A highlight is climbing the peak to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple for amazing panoramic views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding region. There are a number of tours that will take you to Doi Inthanon National Park or you can arrange your own transportation.
Weather in Chiang Mai
The peak season for visiting Chiang Mai, similar to the rest of Thailand, is from November to February during the dry season. December and January are the most popular and most crowded months. It’s a touch cooler during this time and a little less humid. It may rain even during the dry season, however, the rains are less frequent and don’t tend to last as long.
March and April are typically the hottest months and the burning season in Northern Thailand is during this time where they are burning the fields preparing them for planting. the smog and pollution can be unbearable so it’s a good time to avoid.
May to October, and even into late April, are the rainy season. Though it rains frequently at this time, it doesn’t always rain all day long. It’s an option to consider as fewer tourists are around and prices tend to be a bit lower. The humidity does ramp up, though. The Songkran holiday, the Thai New Year, is on April 16th, so things do tent do tend to get a bit busier and more expensive around this time. The holiday is known for its water festival and you will get wet! There is a massive water fight and people throw water at each other. Hilarious fun ensues!
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
The old town is definitely the place to be when you visit Chiang Mai. It is safe, provides you with easy access around to see many of the sights you will want to. And it’s the quaint, historic part of the city.
Banh Mi Guest House
I stayed at the Banh Mi Guest House and absolutely loved it. It’s very simple and was a huge contrast to the Ban Sainai Resort but the host was absolutely amazing and made it an incredible experience. And his wife, Aay, was one of the best cooks ever. She made the most incredible Thai fare, blending traditional Thai food with the flavors of her small village in Isaan Thailand. I ate a number of my meals there because I enjoyed it so much. I basically asked Paul what he recommends and I was never disappointed. One dish I highly recommend is the khao soi, a flavorful soup with rice noodles and fried rice noodles on top.
Paul moved here from Scotland when he wanted to make a life change. He met his wife and the rest was history. They live with two children and their little girl is absolutely charming and adorable.
If you’re looking for something a bit more upscale in old town Chiang Mai at a reasonable price, the Tamarind Village may be more to your liking. It’s a boutique property in the heart of the historic district named for the 200-year old tamarind tree that shades the hotel. It’s conveniently located near some of the shopping areas and many temples.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai
A Chiang Mai itinerary is as much about eating as seeing places. As I mentioned, I would wholeheartedly go to the Banh Mi Guest House for a meal (or several)! The food is phenomenal, particularly if you’re open to trying local Thai cuisine. And Paul is pretty amazing. Before long, you’ll get to know him as well as the other folks in the restaurant and will be raising a beer and laughing like old friends.
Other than my guest house, I ate street food and at night markets. I enjoyed the Gate Night Market where there were lots of traditional Thai dishes, roti, crepe pancakes with fillings, sometimes savory and others sweet, skewers, fruit drinks, and lot s of other things. The Night Bazaar also has a lot of street food options inside and around it and pretty much, anywhere you walk you will see carts. Just be smart about eating street food and request that your food be prepared to order so you know it hasn’t been sitting out for a while. It’s also a good idea to choose a place with other people eating at and to not eat raw food, just in case.
How to Get Around on a Chiang Mai Itinerary
For some reason, the historic center of Chiang Mai was a bit of an internet black hole for me. I’m unsure if it was just my carrier (T-Mobile, who offers global coverage—go figure)! Anyways, I rely on Google Maps generally as I have no sense of direction at all and this was a huge fail.
The old town area of Chiang Mai is best explored by foot. And in fact, much of it isn’t driveable by cars though you will see cars in some areas and tuk-tuks everywhere. Walk around and explore every nook and cranny this quaint old town has to offer.
If you’re able to get internet access, Grab is an option. It’s a rideshare organization similar to Uber and Lyft and it’s found around a lot of Southeast Asia. You can also take a tuk-tuk, which can be a lot of fun. However, you do have to negotiate the fare when you get in. And of course, it’s open so not very fun in poor weather.
You also have an option to take a songthaew. It’s an enclosed truck of sorts with bench seats in the back. Prices are low and standard at 30 Baht (around $1 USD). However, you waive it down like a taxi and they will take you only if you are heading in the direction they are. They don’t cover parts of the old city as the streets are a bit too narrow but you will find them in certain areas and outside the old city.
Thankfully, my host saved my bacon. He told me before setting off on my first evening to download the app, Maps.me which works based on GPS and isn’t reliant on the internet. It caught me every time I started to veer off in the opposite direction to where my guesthouse was. My lack of any sense of direction clearly hasn’t improved with age and I got massively lost before remembering I had the app.
How to Get to Chiang Mai
You have the option to fly into Chiang Mai, take a train, or take a bus to get there. Chiang Mai Airport (CNX) is located conveniently close to the city center. However, flights to this airport mostly connect through Bangkok (BKK). there are some regional airports with flights to Chiang Mai as well in China, South Korea, and other Southeast Asia countries. Flights are cheap and frequent from Bangkok so often it’s worth just flying to save time. Flights are available for as low as $25 USD and you can get a taxi cheaply to the city center for around 160 Baht (a little over $5 USD).
You can also take a train from Bangkok, though usually, the cost is more than the cost of a flight. Trains take around 12 to 15 hours and the cost tends to be comparable or higher than flights. I didn’t research this option further as it didn’t seem to make sense to do. There are buses as well though those also take 10 hours or more. They do tend to be a bit cheaper than trains and flights and cost around $20 to $25 USD. However, road conditions can be patchy in some areas and winding as well, so trying to sleep on the bus can be a challenge. Bus Bud is a good site to check into bus options if you decide to go that route. For me, it’s worth a few extra dollars to just fly.
Don’t Forget Bug Repellant
I was warned that dengue is on the rise in northern Thailand so it’s a good idea to bring bug repellant. In fact, a woman I met at Gate Night Market told me she had been to the hospital due to dengue. I hadn’t purchased travel insurance and this was the trip that taught me that lesson. The very next day, I met someone else who had surgery in a Thai hospital as she broke her arm and she, too, was thankful for her travel insurance. I have purchased it ever since whenever traveling internationally.
Malaria is also a concern in many areas as well. Don’t gift your hotel in Bangkok with it as I did! However, you can find places that sell natural bug repellant if you do. I now bring picaridin with me, and sometimes I also use a natural repellant with essential oils. If you’re going to a malaria zone, it’s a good idea to also pre-treat your clothing with a mosquito repellant.
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This city is an amazing place to visit as you can pack a lot into a Chiang Mai itinerary. I’d recommend spending at least 3 to 4 days there, and more if you want to take some day trips. I felt I cut my time in Chiang Mai too short and it’s one of the top places I want to return to the next time I visit Southeast Asia.
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