If you’re looking for a beach, you’ve come to the wrong place. But, if you want a budget-friendly city and food wonderland with a million activities, Chiang Mai is for you.
Chiang Mai is a beautiful city in Northern Thailand speckled with temples on the edge of mountains and lush jungle. Thousands of tourists forgo time at the beach to visit, and there’s a reason digital nomads are flocking here. Normally we skip the hustle and bustle of city life and get into the countryside, but Chiang Mai was different.
So, what’s so great about Chiang Mai that even we would live in a city? We were skeptical of Chiang Mai at first, until we arrived. You get all the perks of a city with easy access to nature.
Below, we’re going to give you a rundown on the ins and outs of visiting Chiang Mai, explaining in-depth why we chose to rate this ancient city a WOW Air 9.5/10.
Food & Culture: 10
There’s a reason there are so many cooking classes in Chiang Mai. This city seems to be the epicenter of Thai food, and people fly here from around the world not only to take a single cooking class but learn traditional cooking techniques through internships or work exchanges. Even if you’re only here for a short time, we highly recommend a cooking class. Usually the class includes a trip to the market to get fresh ingredients, and you always end up cooking a ton of food!
Must-Try Thai Food:
One of the most famous dishes of Northern Thailand is Khao Soi and it lives up to it’s reputation! But really, you can’t go wrong with any Thai dish.
Where to Eat:
There are plenty of places to try. Trip Advisor’s list is fairly accurate in terms of the best places to go meeting any style of food and budget, but our favorite is Tikky Café, right on the edge of the Old City. Full meals at Tikky Café cost between 70-130 THB ($2-$4 USD) on average. This café has everything; a laid-back vibe, low prices, exceptional food, and an amazing staff. The owner, Tikky, is particularly helpful and full of travel information. You may come here to eat, but you will always leave as a friend. Trust us, it’s that good.
If you start feeling sick of Thai food (we don’t judge, it happens!), we highly recommend Beast Burger. Prices are a little higher than Thai food (about $6 for a burger and fries), but completely worth it. And the burger quality is spot on. Trust us, we are hamburger connoisseurs! We stayed in the old city, and it’s a quick 5-minute Grab (SE Asia's Uber) ride to Beast Burger, about 60 THB ($2 USD) each way.
Never intentionally touch someone’s head. In Buddhism the head is the highest part of the body and considered sacred. Feet are the lowest and are considered dirty, so it’s best to avoid pointing at anything with your feet or showing the bottom of your feet to anyone.
Thailand is a modest country, so avoid wearing clothing that may be deemed too revealing. We always pack a lightweight long-sleeve everywhere we go. We’ve also seen many female tourists pack a lightweight sarong in case of any spontaneous temple visits.
Thai food is always going to be the cheapest option. If you are two people and you want to save a little money, you can usually order a green curry or massaman curry with two or three sides of rice and split it.
If you are out comparing prices at restaurants, choose a few main items that most places have as an estimate to how expensive the restaurant is. For example, most places serve Pad Thai, Coca-Cola (or soft drinks in general), smoothies, and coconuts. To get a quick feel for how expensive a restaurant is, always look at the prices of those staple items.
There’s a whole pedestrian-only block of open-air bars located in the heart of the Old City. It’s fairly small, but fun and convenient to easily go from one bar to the next. Even on the weekends a few locals will come out to join in the bar-hopping.
Our favorite place on this block is Roots Rock Reggae Bar. They have a live band that starts at 8:30pm every night and cheap buckets of booze. A bottle of Thai beer (we like Leo the best) is usually around $2 USD and an alcohol bucket is $5 USD. The atmosphere is laid-back, and the music is always great.
If drinking or bar-hopping isn’t your scene you can also walk around one of the night markets. The Sunday Walking Street Market in the Old City is a favorite of ours because of the sheer size and food stalls lining temple grounds. If you’re not around on the weekend, there’s also the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar which is open every evening. The only downside to the night markets is the repetitiveness of knick-knack stands and the number of tourists, but it’s still fun nonetheless.
Early Morning Markets:
Some may still count this as a nighttime activity depending on how late you’re out! The early morning food market opens at 3am, but don’t worry, it lasts several hours so you can sleep off your hangover from the Reggae bar! This is a fun one to walk around because it’s almost all locals buying daily fresh ingredients for their restaurants. There’s also cheap fork-to-mouth-ready food with everything from sausages to fried buffalo skin.
If you want to cook your own food, the early morning market is the way to go. Super low prices and a ton of ingredients to choose from, it’s really just a big farmer’s market!
Activities & Transportation: 10
Chiang Mai has this one down. It’s easy to hop in a cab and go. The best way to get around is by taxi booked through the Grab app or a Rorodaeng (the red trucks). We us the Grab app, which is SE Asia’s version of Uber. Rorodaengs are cheap (about 30 THB per person, per ride), but they can take a long time to get to your destination. If you want a little more comfort and quicker transportation, opt for Grab. Especially if you are two or more people, Grab is usually the same price per person or $1-$2 USD more than Rorodaeng. On average, we pay $2 USD per taxi for a 10-minute ride. Grab is also handy because you can see the prices before you book. We use it all over Thailand.
If you want a little more adventure, you can rent a scooter/moped. You can rent a scooter from a reputable company for as low as 100 THB ($3 USD) per day in Chiang Mai. However, we DO NOT RECOMMEND renting a scooter if you have no previous experience. Too many people get hurt because they aren’t prepared. If you decide a scooter is the adventure you’ve been waiting for, great! It’s an awesome way to get around like the locals do. Make sure to wear your helmet (it’s required, even if locals don’t), and carry your driver’s license and passport when riding. We’ve seen several tourists get stopped by the Chiang Mai police. Better safe than sorry!
Many tourists will also rent a scooter to drive three hours through the mountains to the city of Pai. This is a great drive with hundreds of twists and turns, so make sure to drive when it’s dry. Also, be sure to check with your scooter rental company that you can drive as far as Pai. Sometimes the rental is limited to Chiang Mai city.
If you drive to Pai and have two people on one scooter, opt for the higher-powered scooters. Sometimes it can be a challenge up the hills!
Our Top Three Activities:
#1: Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
Elephants in Thailand are somewhat of a hot topic, especially for tourists. There are several ways you can see Asian elephants in Thailand, whether it's at shows, elephant trekking parks, or elephant sanctuaries. Many tourists are now opting for elephant sanctuaries, although care should be given when doing your research. Some sanctuaries are not as ethical as they claim to be. A favorite of ours is Elephant Nature Park. You can watch a short documentary about this park here. We have done a one-day program with absolutely no riding and felt we had a better connection with the animals than if we were riding them.
#2: Mon Jam Farming Community (Paired with Doi Suthep Temple)
A short 45-minute drive from Chiang Mai, this peaceful mountaintop farming community is not to be missed. We hired a driver for the day to take us to both Mon Jam and the famous Doi Suthep Temple. The road to Mon Jam is steep and winding, set amongst thick jungle. At the peak is a large garden full of beautiful purple wildflowers imperfectly growing every which way along with a coffee and tea stand. One side of the peak overlooks a step-style farm while the other side boasts even more magnificent views with private picnic-style huts where you can enjoy your coffee.
While you can see both Mon Jam and Doi Suthep in the same day, the best way to get the most out of both attractions is to split it into two days and arrive early in the morning before the crowds. We got to Mon Jam around 9am and were just about the only ones there, although you could probably arrive at 8am to be safe. At Doi Suthep, the monks line up at dawn for alms which is a beautiful treat not to be missed. Make sure dress with modesty. Long lightweight pants and something to cover your shoulders should do the trick.
Make sure to visit both Mon Jam and Doi Suthep on a clear day so you can take in the gorgeous views.
#3: Doi Inthanon National Park
This park is a full day trip from Chiang Mai and completely worth the beautiful views and trekking opportunities. Doi Inthanon is located two hours away by car and once again, it’s best to hire a driver (if you can’t drive a scooter). A driver for a day trip to Doi Inthanon costs anywhere from 2500 THB to 3000 THB (USD $75-$90). Once you arrive at the park, go to the temples first to beat the crowds. Either purchase your lunch after seeing the temples or pack a picnic and take it with you to the trek. The start of the trail is only a five-minute drive. When starting your hike, it is required that you hire a local guide. These guides only cost 100 THB ($3 USD) and are located at the start of the trail. Only about 15 minutes into the trek is a beautiful viewpoint where you can sit and enjoy your picnic with sweeping hillside views. The hike can take 2.5-3 hours, depending on how long you stay at the viewpoint.
Definitely go on a clear day, arrive as early in the morning as possible, bring a jacket as it can get a bit chilly in the mountains, and wear clothes suitable for entering temples.
Food prices in the park aren’t inflated, so you don’t have to pack anything in advance.
If you pair the national park with a day or two of Mon Jam and Doi Suthep Temple and you want to use the same driver, you can usually get the cost down since you’re using their service for multiple days. If you are comfortable driving a scooter that is our number one recommendation for all trips. You can go at your own pace and it’s really cheap to rent and purchase gas (make sure to refill your gas tank outside the national park).
After the viewpoint, wear a lightweight, long-sleeve button-up or shirt. Pants are good too. When we were trekking at the tail end of April there were small (harmless) black bugs flocking to our bodies in the hundreds. We were constantly wiping our arms, necks, and faces just to get them off. One of the more unpleasant points to the park, but at least it can be mitigated with proper clothing.
Other Great Activities:
Temples in Chiang Mai are like bunnies on Easter, they’re everywhere! There are so many unique temples to explore both in the Old City and in the surrounding area.
Some temples in Chiang Mai offer “Monk Chats,” where visitors can ask monks questions or just connect with a local. It’s also a great way for the monks to practice their English.
There are a few places to go bamboo rafting, but by far the most popular is along the Mae Hong Song river. You can opt for a guide to steer you along, but it’s more fun to pack a picnic, take your time, and steer yourself!
Like we mentioned before, there are a variety of cooking classes in all price ranges to choose from. Just find one you like and enjoy! Our favorite thing is to meet locals at cafes and learn to cook our favorite dishes from them!
Northern Thailand is known for the many indigenous hill tribes. There are tours available to visit these villages, but it can sometimes feel intrusive when tourists are taking pictures of the people (especially the long-necked Karen women). While I’m sure they are used to this, it is always a much better experience to get to know the people first and ask for pictures at the end. Just something to keep in mind!
Meet the locals!
While all of these activities are great, we can’t stress how amazing it is to just hang out with the locals and dive into the culture. There are several ways to do this, but the best is to just get out of your comfort zone wherever you are and strike up a conversation. There are opportunities with taxi drivers, hotel staff, café or restaurant employees, etc. It is by far the most rewarding part of any trip.
Hospitality & Accommodation: 10
Rating hospitality in Chiang Mai (and Thailand in general) is a no-brainer. We’d rate it higher if we could! The people are absolute gems and are so kind and helpful. Thailand is nicknamed the land of smiles for a reason!
There are places available on any budget in Chiang Mai. Our favorite place to stay is the Old City. You are close to temples, markets, bars, and food. Not to mention it’s a bit quieter. You can find everything from cheap hostels ($5 USD per night) to luxury hotels. For a clean ensuite room with air conditioning and wifi you can expect to pay $20+ for a couple (sometimes including breakfast). There are also Airbnbs available, although most of them are just ads for hotels in the area. You can usually search on Airbnb, then book directly with the hotel or reserve a spot on Booking.com.
If you end up staying at the same hotel for several days, even a week or more, make sure to ask for a discount. We’ve received discounts several times by just asking.
Budget Friendliness: 10
From what we’ve outlined above, you can see that Chiang Mai is extremely budget friendly. For a couple looking for a great double bed ensuite room with air conditioning, wifi, and breakfast, you can find deals for $20 USD. For an amazing lunch and dinner at Tikky Café (because you’ll love it there!), expect to pay $10 per couple per meal and a ton of food (including delicious smoothies)! So, even for a couple having a great place to stay and awesome food, you’re only spending $40 USD per day if you’re getting around on foot. Of course you’ll add more to the price if you’re doing DIY activities like we listed above.
And, if you’re a single person or a couple on a tight budget, you can easily get away with $12-$15 USD per person per day by staying in hostels and eating cheaply.
Well, there you have it! Everything you need to know for visiting Chiang Mai. Still have questions? No problem. Send us an email!
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