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Thursday, June 13, 2024

The Ultimate Chiang Mai Travel Guide (2023)

As a passionate explorer and someone who has fallen in love with the charm and beauty of Chiang Mai, I’m thrilled to share this ultimate guide to Chiang Mai with you.

I’ve poured my heart and soul into this guide, ensuring that it covers every aspect of your trip, from planning to accommodation to food and activities.

Wishing you a memorable and enriching adventure in Chiang Mai, and Let’s begin !!

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

1. Getting to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has its own international airport, but the number of direct flights is quite limited.

If you’re coming from outside Asia, you may need to transfer in Bangkok or another hub.

Flights from Bangkok take just over an hour and are generally affordable.

Chiang Mai is also accessible by train and bus from other parts of Thailand. (The State Railway Thailand and Greenbus. We’ll talk more about this later)

However, I don’t really recommend these options as they’re very time consuming and energy draining.

2. Best time to visit Chiang Mai

The BEST time to visit Chiang Mai is from mid November to late January.

It’s the coolest season of the year.

The WORST time to visit Chiang Mai is between February and April.

Chiang Mai goes through extreme air pollution during this season due to burning of the farms.

I highly recommend you to avoid this burning season when planning your visit to Chiang Mai.

3. Visa Requirements

Most tourists can enter Thailand without a visa for up to 30 days.

If you plan to stay longer, you may need to apply for a tourist visa in advance.

Visa requirements will depend on your country, so check your requirement from the website below: https://www.thaievisa.go.th/

4. SIM Cards

eSIM

If you’re visiting Chiang Mai (and other parts of Thailand) for a week or less, I’d recommend getting an eSIM for your convenience.

I personally use Airalo for all my eSim purchases, because their app makes it super easy from purchase to activation.

At the time of writing this article, there are two packages available on Airalo:

  • 10 days of 50GB data and 100 minutes of calling for $9.90 USD
  • 15 days of unlimited data and calling for $19.95 USD

Get $3 USD off on your first eSIM purchase by using my referral code: JASON7126

*Note that not every phone is eSIM compatible, so be sure to check your device compatibility before purchasing an eSIM.

Physical SIM

If you’re staying more than a week, I suggest getting a physical sim card.

It will be way more cost efficient.

You can purchase a SIM card from major providers such as AIS, DTAC, or TrueMove H upon arrival at Chiang Mai International Airport. They offer various data packages for tourists.

Please be aware that not only these kiosks may be closed upon your arrival, but they may also be slightly more expensive than a local mobile shop.

This was the case for me, so I took a cab to an AIS store in old town, activated an unlimited 30 day data plan for 200฿ (~$6 USD). The staffs were super friendly and able to speak English. I’ve never had an issue throughout my 3-month stay Thailand.

5. Currency and money exchange

The currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht ฿.

Credit cards are rarely accepted in Thailand (except some areas in Bangkok) as Thais have their own QR payment network called PromptPay.

So be sure to carry some cash for your travel expenses.

You can exchange money at the airport, banks, or private exchange booths around the city.

I recommend exchanging your money from mr.pierre as they offer a great exchange rate.

mr.pierre – Google Maps

ATMs are also widely available, but you’ll be charged 220 Baht (~$6.50 USD) per withdrawal! 😱

It’s acceptable if you’re just making one huge withdrawal but still that’s about 4~5 Pad Thai dishes!!

ATMs in Thailand

To avoid getting hit with additional fees, please make sure to use a no foreign transaction fee & no ATM withdrawal fee card such as:

There are some reports where people have been able to avoid the 220 Baht withdrawal fee by requesting the withdrawal from a branch person (Bangkok bank and Krungthai bank). So you can also give that a try.

*Check if any of the banks in your country have a partnership with GLN network.

South Koreans for example, can use Thai QR Promptpay through Hana Bank or Toss Bank

6. Travel Insurance/Healthcare

I highly recommend getting a travel insurance before visiting Chiang Mai as it can provide coverage for medical emergencies, trip cancellations, lost luggage, and more.

There are many credit cards that include travel insurance nowadays. Making your travel bookings with the right type of credit card can save you hundreds of dollars.

If you want to purchase your own insurance, Squaremouth is a great website to compare different types of insurance plans, as it allows you to filter out factors like pre-existing medical conditions, the duration of your stay, and the activities you plan to engage in.

If you need to go to a hospital in Chiang Mai, the following hospitals are recommended for tourists and expats:

Chiang Mai Ram Hospital
☏ 053-920-300

Bangkok Hospital Chiang Mai
☏ 052 089 888

Maharaj Nakorn Chiang Mai Hospital
053 936 150

7. Safety and security tips

Chiang Mai is generally a safe destination, but it’s always important to take precautions to ensure a hassle-free trip.

  • Do NOT insult Thai monarchy. Avoid making negative comments, jokes, or even murmurs about the royal family as it could get you in serious trouble.
  • Do NOT leave your drinks unattended in bars or clubs, as drink-spiking incidents have been reported.
  • Use reputable transportation options and negotiate fares in advance when riding tuk-tuks or songthaews.
  • Be cautious of scams involving gem or jewelry stores, as well as tourist attractions that have aggressive touts.
  • Follow local customs and etiquette, especially when visiting temples and religious sites.

Emergency Numbers

8. Useful apps in Thailand

Google Maps

Google Translate

Rideshare apps

Beam: kickscooter sharing app

Anywheel: bike sharing app

QueQ

Lazada/Shopee: online shopping app

Greenbus: official Thai inter-city bus app

D-Ticket: official Thai railway app

AirVisual: air quality monitoring app

GETTING AROUND IN CHIANG MAI

1. Rideshare apps

Grab is the most popular ride-hailing app in Chiang Mai, offering both car and motorbike taxi services.

It has the greatest number of drivers available from my experience, but at the same time, it’s a bit more expensive than other rideshare apps.

Grab accepts major credit cards as payment method, so this will be the best option for tourists. (Who carries cash around in 2023??)

Photo of a Grab delivery driver

Bolt is the second mostly used app.

Similar to Grab, it offers both car and motorbike.

The fare is significantly cheaper than Grab most of the time.

However, there may not be as many drivers as Grab.

2. Taxi, Tuk-tuks, and Songthaews

Taxis are available, but less common than tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized rickshaws) and songthaews (red trucks with bench seating in the back).

Negotiate fares with tuk-tuk drivers beforehand so that you don’t get overcharged upon arrival at your destination.

Tuk-Tuk in Chiang Mai
Songthaew in Chaing Mai

Songthaews in Chiang Mai don’t have fixed routes anymore. (Other than the ones that specifically go to and from Doi Suthep / Tiger Kingdom). If you’re taking a songthaew ride within the city, you should pay no more than 30 baht)

3. Chauffeur, Tour bus/vans

Private drivers and tour buses can be hired for sightseeing and day trips.

Check with your accommodation or tour agencies for inquiries.

There is also an option to hire a driver by the hour on Grab.

However, my experience has been that either the drivers are unfamiliar with this feature or unwilling to provide the service.

One driver informed me that the cost of gas and effort outweighs the amount of money they receive as payment.

4. Renting a car/motorcycle

Car and motorcycle rentals are available for those who prefer to explore on their own.

Make sure to carry your home driver’s license and an international driving permit while driving. (You must have a stamp on Category A on your IDP in order to drive a motorcycle.

Be aware of local traffic laws and always wear a helmet when riding a scooter.

A typical 125cc motorbike cost 200~250 baht per day.

Below are some recommended motorbike rental shops. (Links to google maps)

WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG MAI

1. Overview of neighborhoods

Old City
Historic area with many temples, hostels, and boutique hotels.

Nimman
Trendy area with instagrammable cafes, restaurants, and shopping centers. (Airplane noise can be bothersome)

Santitham
A quieter, residential area with affordable accommodations, local eateries, and a growing number of cafes and bars.

Central Festival
A modern, commercial district with a large shopping mall.

Riverside
Peaceful area along the Ping River with upscale hotels and restaurants.

Night Bazaar
Used to be Popular pre-covid days, but it seems dead lately.

Here are my recommended places to stay in Chiang Mai:

  • For your first time: Old City
  • For backpackers on a budget: Old City
  • For families: Nimman
  • For nightlife: Nimman, Old City
  • For local experiences: Santitham
  • For long-term Stays: Nimman, Santitham, Central Festival

2. Accommodation options

Chiang Mai offers a wide range of accommodations, including hostels, guesthouses, boutique hotels, and luxury resorts.

Consider your budget and preferred location when choosing a place to stay.

3. My hotel recommendations

Best Luxury Stay

U Nimman Chiang Mai (Nimman)

5-star hotel located in Nimmanhaemin road.
Rooftop swimming pool, gym, and sauna on site.
This hotel had the best building quality among places I’ve stayed at.

Best Value for Money Stay

Hotel MAYU (Nimman)

3-star boutique hotel located in north side of Nimman with an outdoor pool and a gym on site.

5-minute walk to Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center

I personally think this is the best bang for the buck hotel in Chiang Mai

Best Budget Stay

Psych Hostel (Santitham)

A unique capsule hostel located in Santitham.

Offers both private and dormitories.

Shared kitchen and common area to socialize.

Amenities include a communal lounge area, shared kitchen, and outdoor terrace.

If you’re a fan of capsule hostels like me, this is it. I feel like I have way more privacy inside a capsule bed compared to a typical hostel bunkbed with curtains.

Hidden Garden Hostel (Old City)

Budget-friendly hostel nestled in a quiet corner of Old City.

Offers both dormitories and private rooms.

Shared kitchen and spacious common area to socialize with other travelers.

Insider Tip:

For those opting to stay in the Nimman area, here’s a little secret for you.

Take a look at the flight path of the airplanes departing from Chiang Mai international airport in the picture below.

It’s best to steer clear of accommodations right under that path or rooms that face it directly.

By avoiding these, you’ll have a much more peaceful and enjoyable stay.

EXPLORING CHIANG MAI

1. Temples and historical sites

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
A must-visit temple located on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai.

Wat Chedi Luang
A large, partially ruined temple in the Old City with a massive chedi.

Wat Phra Singh
A beautiful temple housing an important Buddha statue.

2. Museums and Galleries

Chiang Mai National Museum
Learn about the history and culture of Northern Thailand and the Kingdom of Lanna.

Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre
Explore the city’s history and contemporary arts scene.

Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum
A stunning museum showcasing modern Thai and international art.

3. Markets and shopping malls

JingJai Market
Lively weekend market supplying organic fruits & vegetables, food & beverages, and handcrafts. I highly recommend trying Tinn Coffee here.

Warorot Market
A bustling market with a wide variety of goods, food, and souvenirs. This is where I’d find Thai traditional clothes.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar
A popular night market with street food, shopping, and entertainment. (not as lively as it used to be since covid)

Chiang Mai University Night Market
A bustling night market near Chiang Mai University with a wide range of clothing stores, food stalls, and gift shops. This is my favorite market to grab food and shop around.

Saturday Night Market
Outdoor bazaar with vendors selling traditional street snacks, handmade crafts & souvenirs. Open on Saturdays at Wua Lai walking street.

Sunday Night Market
Bustling market that opens on Sundays for local produce, food, crafts and souvenirs. Located in the Old City

Chiang Mai Gate Market
Open-air market with a wide range of food stalls serving street eats.

Chang Phuak Night Market
Bustling open-air night market with hawkers cooking up local delicacies & Thai street food. Famous Sukiyaki food stall is here. (Although it’s not a Thai dish)

One Nimman
A trendy shopping complex with boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and bars. Many events are held here including live performances.

Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center
A modern shopping mall that has everything from retails to groceries to cinemas. You can pretty much supply all your needs in this building.

Central Festival Chiang Mai
The largest shopping mall in Chiang Mai. If you can’t find something you need from Maya Shopping Center, this is the place to visit.

Central Plaza Chiang Mai Airport
A shopping mall near Chiang Mai airport. It’s quite outdated compared to the former two shopping malls but I find good deals here often as they have sales going on all the time. The foodcourt here is very affordable and clean as well.

FOOD AND DRINKS

1. Local cuisine and must-try dishes

Khao Soi
A creamy coconut curry noodle soup.

Restaurant suggestion:

Sai Oua
Northern Thai Spicy Sausage

Restaurant suggestion:

Som Tum
Spicy green papaya salad

2. International food options

Chiang Mai offers diverse international cuisine, including Italian, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and vegetarian/vegan options. (But seriously, you should be busy trying all different sorts of Thai food!)

3. Street food and night markets

Explore Chiang Mai’s vibrant street food scene at night markets and street food stalls throughout the city.

My favorite is the Chiang Mai University Night Market.

NIGHTLIFE

1. Bars & Live music

The Goodview bar
Located along the Ping River, this restaurant bar is surrounded by grassland and trees. Huge variety of dishes from Thai, Chinese and western dishes. Enjoy the river view and listen to the live band playing rock, jazz, pop, and country music.

HIDELAND.cnx
A rooftop bar and restaurant with beautiful views of Chiang Mai city. Good selection of cocktails and tasty food, and the place has a romantic vibe.

Northgate Jazz Co-op
One of the most popular places to hang out in Chiang Mai. A lively jazz bar with laid-back atmosphere and nightly performances. Tuesdays are the busiest, so be sure get there early to grab a seat.

Thay Nimman
Located in One Nimman, this bar is definitely worth checking out if you’d like to try some Thai music. As the night unfolds, it slowly transforms into a nightclub vibe along with the crowd dancing. I recommend trying the blueberry Absolute tower cocktail here.

Shelby Bar
Another popular bar with Thai live music. The venue is quite small so you’re kind of forced to mingle around with the crowd. Great way to socialize with local Thai people.

2. Nightclubs

Zoe in Yellow
A popular nightlife complex with bars, clubs, karaoke and live music. Whether it’s a weekday or a weekend, this is the place to go if you are seeking for a night out. Mostly open-air bar area with a few dance floors with live DJs. You’ll most likely meet expats and tourists from around the world, rather than local Thai people (Thais prefer to sit down and drink).

Note that Zoe closes quite early at around 12:30AM.

The Spicy bar
If Zoe in Yellow wasn’t enough for you, head over to The Spicy Bar. Most of the crowd from Zoe in Yellow walk over to this place to continue their party night.

Note that you need to buy a drink to get in.

Warm up Cafe
The oldest yet the most popular and sought-after place to hang out among Thai locals. Thai live music in the outer area, and DJs playing EDM in the inner room. If I were to recommend one Thai club to experience, this will be it.

Tha Chang Cafe
The college hotspot. A huge night out complex packed with college students and young adults almost every night. If you want to blend into a Thai youngsters’ night life, this is the place.

Note that there is an entrance fee of 300 THB for foreigners. You will get two drink vouchers though.

86’s Room
Gay friendly club with a live DJ playing Thai music, K-pop, and EDM. It usually gets lit on late night on weekends around 1:00 AM.

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES

1. National parks and national reserves

Doi Inthanon National Park

Located about 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai, it’s the highest mountain in Thailand. Explore waterfalls, forests, and hill tribe villages.

You can either rent a car/motorcycle and drive your way up or book a day tour.

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

Located only a few kilometers northwest of Chiang Mai, this park offers more than just the Doi Suthep Temple. Don’t miss out the amazing trails with forests and waterfalls.

2. Hiking and trekking options

Monk’s Trail to Wat Pha Lat
A 45 minute hike from the west side of Chiang Mai University through the forest to the temple. The trail is quite easy but make sure you wear proper sneakers / hiking shoes. (I climbed up wearing crocs, but I wouldn’t recommend it)

Montha Tan Waterfall Loop
A 1.3km trail loop located inside Doi-Suthep Pui National Park. This 30 minute hike will lead you to the stunning Montha Tan Waterfall.

3. Elephant sanctuaries and wildlife encounters

Elephant Nature Park

A substantial ethical debate surrounds the matter of elephant sanctuaries, so please do your own research on this topic. Nevertheless, it appears that the Elephant Nature Park stands out as a the most reputable sanctuary with a dedicated emphasis on the rescue and rehabilitation of elephants.

I personally just visited Elefin Farm & Cafe to simply feed the elephants and take pictures. It’s also a super nice cafe to grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the scenic view.

Elefin Farm & Cafe

Chiang Mai Night Safari
A nocturnal zoo that is believed to be the first to open in Thailand. It offers a unique opportunity to observe a diverse range of animal species in their natural nighttime habitats.

4. Adventure sports

Jungle Flight Chiang Mai
Thailand’s longest zip line of 1000 meters that offers an exhilarating zip-lining experience through the jungle canopy.

8Adventures
Enjoy white water Rafting, ATV tours, and other outdoor adventures in the Chiang Mai countryside.

Pong Yaeng Jungle Coaster & Zipline
An adventure park with roller coaster and activities like zip-lining, tube slides, and bungee jump.

DAY TRIPS AND NEARBY ATTRACTIONS

1. Nearby attractions

Samoeng Loop
A scenic drive or motorbike ride through the mountains and countryside around Chiang Mai

Doi Saket
A quiet town with a beautiful temple and hot springs. The district predominantly consists of a farming area, containing a mixture of rice fields.

2. Day trips

Mae Kampong
A serene village known for its cool climate and lush surroundings. It offers the chance to experience local hill tribe culture, along with eco-tourism activities like hiking and homestays.

Mon Jam
A Charming hilltop area with panoramic views of Chiang Mai’s landscapes. You can enjoy flower gardens, organic farms, and picturesque nature walks.

Sankampeng
A district famous for its open-air spa with hot springs, pools, and lodging in a lush setting with garden & picnic areas. The district is also known for traditional handcrafts, particularly silk and cotton weaving, as well as paper umbrella making.

Insider Tip:
Tour vans to the mentioned sites are available on a daily bases. However, please be aware that operating hours and fares may be subject to changes. Check their Facebook page in advance.

Mae Wang National Park
Mae Wang is an area known for its adventure activities like elephant trekking and bamboo rafting. However, don’t forget to check out the phenomenal view Pha Chor Canyon.

3. Multi-day trips

Chiang Rai
A city featuring the famous White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten)

Pai
A laid-back town in a picturesque valley, popular for its natural beauty and relaxed atmosphere.

CULTURE AND CUSTOMS

1. Cultural events and festivals

Loi Krathong/Yi Peng
Celebrated in November, this festival involves releasing lanterns into the sky and floating krathongs on waterways. It’s a time of gratitude and letting go of negativity.

Songkran
The Thai New Year water festival celebrated in April, with joyous fights, cleansing rituals, and vibrant parades. This cultural event symbolizes renewal, purification, and the welcoming of the new year with a spirited blend of water, tradition, and community celebrations.

2. Local customs and etiquette

  • Respect the monarchy and avoid making negative comments about the royal family.
  • Dress modestly when visiting temples and religious sites. (I often see tourists walking around shirtless. I know it’s steaming hot, but please respect the people)
  • Remove your shoes before entering someone’s home or a temple
  • Avoid touching people’s heads, as it is considered disrespectful.

3. Language and communication tips

Thai is the official language, but English is widely spoken in tourist areas.

Learn some basic Thai phrases to show respect and make a good impression.

The Thai people appreciate politeness and often use the words “khap” (for men) or “ka” (for women) at the end of sentences to be polite.

4. Tips for respectful tourism

Support local businesses and buy from local artisans.

Avoid riding elephants or visiting unethical animal attractions.

Be mindful of your environmental impact, and avoid using single-use plastics.

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