Most people visit Thailand for its beaches and southern islands, not knowing that there is a plethora of things to experience in the mountainous and more cultural north. I did my first ever solo backpacking trip to Chiang Mai and it was the best decision ever! ❤️ I had no itinerary at the time. All I knew was that I had 4 days in the town before I head to the south. But when I began to explore the town, I was AMAZED at how much it had to offer. From scenic destinations and rich culture, to fantastic food, shopping, adventure........oh, I can go on! 💛 Chiang Mai has got something for everyone - from backpackers and honeymooners, to families traveling with little kids.
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Where is Chiang Mai? How do I get there?
Chiang Mai is a city located in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand, some 700 km from Bangkok. In fact, it is a popular launching point for trips into other parts on the north, such as Chiang Rai, Pai etc. Also owing its geographical location, the temperatures are much cooler here than the rest of Thailand.
Flights - There are multiple daily flights to Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) from Bangkok (the capital city). The journey is only about 1.5 hours long and internal flight fares can be quite cheap. You can do a quick search for fares on Sky Scanner.
Visas - For information on visas , you can visit the Kingdom of Thailand - Ministry of Affairs website for details pertaining to your nationality.
When should I visit Chiang Mai?
The ideal time to visit Chiang Mai would be between October and April. The temperatures in northern Thailand are way cooler than Bangkok or the southern islands, so that makes exploring around a lot more comfortable. However try to AVOID the monsoon months from June to October as it may hamper your travel plans especially when on a fixed itinerary.
Chiang Mai is most known for its rich cultural heritage so it is also worth timing your visit to coincide with two of their major festivals! 😀
Loi Krathong and Yi Peng is a visually spectacular festival of colors and lights when people release thousands of Chinese lanterns and glowing paper balloons into the sky. This lasts about 3 days somewhere in mid- November (dates vary based on the lunar calendar).
Songkran is the Thai New Year and water festival when people celebrate on the streets by throwing buckets of water on friends and strangers while dancing to music all day. This lasts for about 3 days again somewhere in mid-April.
Where do I stay in Chiang Mai?
We highly recommend staying within the main center, the Old City quarter, since most attractions are within minutes of walking distance from here. Chiang Mai has a wide range of accommodations in terms of budget and quality - from guesthouses and hostels, to star hotels and resorts.
I stayed at the Hostel Lullaby which was also in the heart of old town. This is undoubtedly the BEST hostel I have ever stayed at! I HIGHLY recommend 👌👌 this if you are backpacker on a limited budget but are also looking for great quality. The hosting team is so warm and always willing to help you with arranging tours and activities during your travels. 💖
COST: I spent around 378 THB (approx. 12 US$) per night for a 6-bed mixed dorm!
With my lovely hostel mates at Hostel Lullaby ❤️
How do I get around in Chiang Mai?
Walking Around : The old quarter of Chiang Mai can be easily navigated by foot. And if you have the Google Maps app on your phone, then it can't get any easier.
Taxis: You can also hop onto one of the 'song-thaews' (truck taxis) or grab a 'tuk-tuk' ! The 'tuk-tuk', I guarantee you, is going to be a fun ride 😉
You may also want to install this app called GRAB, which is basically Uber for South East Asia, but much cheaper and especially useful when traveling with families.
Two-Wheelers: You can also rent scooters or mopeds for 200-250 THB per day(approx. 8-12 US$) to explore outside the town. But a word of caution though! Please wear a helmet at all times, and this goes even for the pillion rider. Driving around in South East Asia can be really daunting considering that people don't usually follow safe traffic rules.
Get Lost in the Old Quarter!
Set foot in the Old Quarter and simply EXPLORE! Chiang Mai serves as the 'cultural heart' of the country - it has a rich history and heritage which is still alive in its colourful labyrinth of streets. You can walk aimlessly along its narrow streets and stumble upon temples, boutiques, food stalls, as well as friendly locals who greet you with their pleasant smiles. 🙂 The street views at any point are so picturesque with all the city colors against the mountain ranges in the background. The temperature is also much cooler than Bangkok so you can explore for hours without getting too exhausted.
Shop Till You Drop at the Night Market
Chiang Mai has a daily night market which is fantastic! But if you are there on a Sunday, then you are in for a crazy shopping parade at the Sunday Night Market at the Rachadamnoen Road! 🤩During daylight, this place seems like any other street with cars whizzing past, but come sunset and you witness it transform into a crazy carnival in a matter of few minutes. 😃
With my hostel mates at the night market ❤️
Take a Thai Cooking Class
Discover the secret master chef in you by attending a Thai cooking workshop. For a foodie and traveler like me, just the idea of meeting other travelers and bonding with them over authentic Thai food seemed INCREDIBLE ! I had taken the half-day class at 'Smile Organic Farm Cooking School' which cost about 800 Baht (approx. US$ 25) - which I think is a great deal considering you not only pay for the experience, but also cover your lunch cost for the day. I have also written an entire article on my experience right here. 👈🏽
Trek at the Doi Inthanon National Park
Doi Inthanon is actually the highest mountain of Thailand. The views at this national park are as epic as can be with its lush geography, tropical rain forests, mighty waterfalls and stunning mountainscape. 💚 You can book a full day trip with any tour company (always a good idea to check for their reviews on Trip Advisor). It was a pretty comfortable and not-too-exhausting hike as we covered the very steep parts of the trek in a van, so I would even recommend this activity to families with little kids. There's a little feast to the eyes when you reach the highest point - two magnificent 'pagodas' or temples soaring high in the misty, cold air. 🙏🏽
TIP: Wear a pair of sneakers or good quality covered shoes for the hike. Also carry a shrug or pull-over as it can get quite chilly up in the mountain.
COST: A full day trip costs about 1800 THB (approx. 55 US$) and includes pick-up/drop-off, van journey, drinking water and traditional Thai lunch.
Stunning views captured during the trek to Doi Inthanon ❤️
Get a Thai Massage
After that hike at Doi-Inthanon, it was time for some good ol' traditional Thai massage - hands down one of the best things about Thailand! 💆 What's even better is how pocket-friendly these massages are! A word of caution though - Stay out of the shady areas and questionable massage parlors to avoid any awkward encounters with a service you do not want. 🙈
COST: You could get a foot massage for as cheap as 100THB for 30 minutes (approx. 3 US$) and a full-body massage for 250-300THB an hour (approx 9 US$) at a simple, hygienic parlor by the street. The same at a hotel or luxury spa would probably cost you double or more.
TIP: We recommend giving a generous tip to your masseuse. They would really appreciate the gesture, and much deserve it. 🙂
Zip-line and Abseil through the Jungles of Chiang Mai
If adventure is your thing, then THIS IS IT! 🙌🏽 I went with the Eagle Track Zip-line tour company that conducts these activities in the jungles of Tumbol Maeram, less than an hour's drive from the city center. Their team was amazingly warm and funny, and ensured our safety throughout the adventure. They were also really sweet to handle my camera and captured some very good pictures while I was in motion! 😄
COST: I chose their Early Bird Package that cost about 1900 THB (approx. 58 US$) and includes pick-up/drop-off, van journey, drinking water and traditional Thai lunch.
Feed, Play and Bathe Elephants
Arjun and I are natives of South India, so we consider ourselves lucky to have interacted with many elephants in the past. 🐘 So on my solo trip I decided to give this activity a miss. However, this is still an incredible opportunity for animal lovers to get up-close with these beautiful creatures and spend a day caring for them. ❤️
Well, our only advise is to NOT visit any camp that allows you to ride these animals (it can harm their weak backs). Instead visit one of the sanctuaries or retirement camps where you will find rescued elephants. 🙂 We recommend visiting the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary which is an ethical and sustainable tourism project by some Chiang Mai locals and the Karen-hill tribes. Their costs and packages are well detailed on their website.