Chiang Mai Travel Guide

Elefante Blanco en el Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Tailandia by Edgardo W. Olivera

In a nutshell

Chiang Mai is located in the beautiful mountainous region of northern Thailand and oozes charm and character from its ancient roots. The city was founded in the late 13th century and you can find the remains of its Old City walls still standing behind the moat, boxing in the old Kingdom. Nowadays, Chiang Mai is a wonderful and welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of busy Bangkok and offers more cultural and historical stimulation than island life, which is why many flock north to experience the longstanding Thai traditions, temples, and trekking the area is so famous for.

Why go to Chiang Mai

The city of Chiang Mai is vibrant and eclectic; a mix of both the old and new, and many find themselves staying for days longer than they anticipated.

Chiang Mai’s ‘urban’ scene is cool and quirky, with boutique shops and yoga studios, an abundance of massage parlours, and any number of independent clothing shops to browse through, not to mention lively markets come day and night.

From a cultural perspective, you’ll be spoilt for choice with several hundreds of temples to visit, and just minutes from the city you’ll be met with 9breath-taking landscapes of green lush vegetation, waterfalls, and mountains to trek](/en/thailand/chiang-mai/tours) with local hill tribes welcoming you into their homestays.

Chiang Mai is also known for its elephant sanctuary which is another popular day trip option – depending on your views.

When to go to Chiang Mai

chiang-mai-thailand-temple
chiang-mai-thailand-temple
Attr: Travelbusy.com (cc by)

Thailand is a wonderful country to visit all year round, and Chiang Mai is no exception. Traditionally, the high season in the North is between November to February when the temperatures are at their lowest and local tourists flock to Chiang Mai and around to experience ‘the winter’.

However, to really make the most of the scenery we would recommend visiting during the wet season, between May–October, when the landscape will be at its most green and the waterfalls at their fullest. Don’t worry, it will usually only rain for an hour or two at the most, and on the plus side it will ease off some of the humidity you’re likely to experience.

During the hot season (March–April) it is much hotter and the air can be very arid, not to mention most of the vegetation will have died or been burnt. Smog from the forest fires are not uncommon during this period. But the good thing about this time of year is that Thai New Year, Songkran, falls on the 13th April, bringing many visitors from all around the world to join in this fun celebration involving a three-day water fight with the locals!

Where to stay in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai’s effortless modern-meets-traditional style is present everywhere, from hostels to hotels.

Most travellers and tourists traditionally choose to stay in the northern part of the Old City where you certainly won’t be short of a bed, or two, however, the eastern side of the city, and around the riverside is also opening up guesthouses galore.

If you’re on a backpackers budget you can look to spend around THB300 for a bed in a shared dorm, usually with breakfast included, around the Ratchadamnoen area.

There are also plenty of other options for those with more cash to splash, from mid-range to high-end, and you can easily find Lanna architecture for those looking for something more traditional.

Where to eat in Chiang Mai

One thing worth mentioning about Chiang Mai is the food! You certainly won’t go hungry during your stay in this northern Kingdom, so come with open minds and empty stomachs.

Chiang Mai is known for its delicious traditional Thai food with a regional flare; Northern Thai food has inflections of Burmese and Chinese spices and flavours, resulting in mouth-watering dishes. Khao Soi noodle soup is one of their ‘signatures,’ along with Thai curry gaeng hanglae, and you won’t ever need to break the bank. There are plenty of other Western restaurants serving alternative menus should you be craving a BBQ pulled pork burger, or a smorgasbord of Tapas.

How to get around Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai city centre is small enough to easily walk around, from temple to temple, restaurant to bar.

However, should you be caught in a downpour, or suffer the heat, there are tuk-tuks and shared taxis (songthaews) readily available – just make sure you have practiced your bargaining skills as they will want to overcharge you.

Usually, in a songthaew they will pick people up along the way to fill the ride, so don’t be put off, it’s quite common. Though if you have anywhere to be at a certain time, perhaps ordering an Uber is the most reliable way to get from A to B, with a guaranteed cost.

If you fancy being more autonomous, there are scooters you can rent for the day at THB300 and up, which you can drive up around the roads in the mountains – and even drive up to Pai if you’re feeling adventurous.

How to get to and from Chiang Mai

Whether you’re travelling in from elsewhere Thailand or further afield, a flight to Chiang Mai International Airport is perhaps one of the easiest ways to get there, just 10 minutes from the Old City.

Air Asia, Nok Air, Lion Air, Bangkok Airways, VietJet Air all fly into CNX, daily, and flights start from around THB800 depending on where you’re arriving from.

Another way of getting to Chiang Mai if you’re already in Bangkok is to take the train (the night train proving the most popular) getting you there in 12-15 hours, with tickets starting at THB300.

There are also buses if you’re coming in from the capital, or from any of the major cities of the North, including Chiang Rai (3–4 hours; THB250), or Isan, e.g. Khon Kaen (10 hours; THB600) or Nong Khai (12 hours; USD900; for Vientiane in Laos). It is also possible to get down from Chiang Mai to Phuket (23 hours; THB1700), but it is probably easier to connect via Bangkok.

Remember, always make sure your passport has more than 6 months until it expires and that you have an outbound ticket booked for within 30 days of your arrival into Thailand.

Is Chiang Mai a safe place to visit?

Thailand is known as the land of smiles, and the people of Chiang Mai are no different. Although the city is the second largest in Thailand, it’s nowhere near as busy as Bangkok and certainly feels much safer.

It’s always prudent to be respectful, however, and remember that Thailand is mainly a Buddhist country, so dress modestly so as not to provoke any unwanted attention. While there may be localised attacks reported in the news, the typical ‘traveller trail’ is largely unaffected.

Chiang Mai station guide

Chiang Mai - train

Chiang Mai is a very popular destination for locals and foreigners especially during holidays, festivals and summer escapades.

Traveling Chiang Mai from different parts of Thailand has gotten more convenient as various transportation options are already available to carry travelers back and forth.

The fastest and easiest mode is by Air. Chiang Mai International Airport welcomes 29 Airlines, 21 of which are International. The airport also has two terminals that separate domestic flights from international bound flights.

Railway is another option for those who care for sight-seeing and long land travels. Chiang Mai structured its own railway station that runs 14 daily trains plus 2 special units operating on special holidays.

Usually, travelers coming from Bangkok take the Hua Lamphong Railway Station(connected to MRT) to get to Chiang Mai. The trains come in 1st, 2nd and 3rd sleeper classes. More than that, people who wish to bring their motorcycles and small vehicles along will be provided a cargo space for an extra fee.

Chiang Mai is world famous for its majestic temples, blissful landscapes and cold weather.

Chiang Mai - Bus

Chiang Mai Arcade Bus station is the main long-distance bus terminus for this Northern City, located on the Eastern side of the city about 15 minutes distant by tuk tuk. A new terminal building and ongoing gentrification of the area has improved the services considerably.

From this bus station VIP buses depart hourly to Bangkok, including overnight services and pre-booking online is advised since they are regularly full up for busy dates. You can often show up 30 minutes before but it’s a risk. There are two terminals servicing different routes, with the newer (South side) building set aside for departures to the capital.

Other long distance buses run as far as Udon Thani, Chiang Rai (Mae Sai) and even Luang Prabang in Laos. Within Chiang Mai province itself, local buses (mostly used by locals) run from the Chang Puek Bus Station just North of the moat. Minibuses to Pai depart from the main Arcade Station.

Within each terminal are vendors selling snacks, but international travellers will feel more comfortable in the new Star City Arcade which is a few minutes walk to the east and has a selection of restaurants, international names such as Subway and McDonalds, a pharmacy, a supermarket and shops.

From the Arcade Bus Station you can take a songteaw minibus into the city (20 baht) or hire a tuk tuk to take you to your guesthouse (100 baht), it’s too far to walk. Although there are a few guesthouses nearby they aren’t really recommended, it’s easier to go into the city for a better selection.

The train station is also on this side of town, a tuk tuks can take you between the two for a reasonable fee, in less than 10 minutes. Remember to dress warmly for the super cooled VIP buses to Bangkok. On the whole the station area is safe, if a little chaotic and grubby in places.

Chom Thong - Bus

The most popular attraction in northern Thailand's Chom Thong district is Doi Inthanon National Park, named after the country's tallest mountain peak. The national park's nearest town, also named Chom Thong, contains a lively market and a motorcycle rental place across from its main temple.

The Chom Thong bus stop may not seem easy to find, but is a small bench situated south of the town centre across from the police station and close to a bank. Orange buses travel between Chom Thong, Mae Hong Son, and Chiang Mai. Doi Inthanon National Park is a popular daytrip getaway from Chiang Mai, 59kms to the northeast.

Travel to Doi Inthanon National Park requires hiring vehicles through hotels like the Chom Thong Riverside Resort, organised minibus tours with English-speaking guides, or hiring two-bench open-air songthaew taxis. Booking minibus tours directly through tour operators is much cheaper than through travel agents or hotels.

Aside from its namesake mountain, Doi Inthanon National Park's attractions include some small Meo Hmong and Karen villages and the second-largest number of bird species of all of the country's national parks. Notable waterfalls are Mae Klang, Mae Ya, Wachiratan, and Siriphum. Places to stay in the park include a couple of campgrounds and the Kirimaya Paradise Ecotourism Network.

Doi Tao - Bus

Doi Tao Lake, located in the Orb Luang National Park to the north of Chiang Mai, was created by the construction of the giant Bhumibol Dam across the Mae Ping River. Teak forests, soaring gorges and spectacular views characterise the unspoiled national park, and the lake itself is great for watery activities and fishing.

Doi Tao Lake is just over two hours by road from Chiang Mai via highways 108 and 1103, and the city’s Chiang Puak Bus Station offers a regular daily service running through rural scenery. Getting around is by tuk-tuk or songthaew, and bikes can be hired.

San Pa Tong - Bus

The town of San Pa Tong is 22kms south of central Chiang Mai. It is situated on Highway 108, the road for Doi Inthanon National Park and Mae Hong Son. In the centre of San Pa Tong, Route 1013 branches off for Mae Wang Elephant Camp and Mae Win. It is 700kms to the north of Bangkok.

San Pa Tong does not have its own bus station and the usual means of getting here is to take a bus or train to Chiang Mai and then another bus or songthaew shared taxi for the last stretch. Buses from Bangkok mostly terminate at Chiang Mai Arcade bus station. This station also has buses to Mae Hong Son which drop passengers off in San Pa Tong en route. Songthaews leave from Chiang Mai Gate.

Hot - Bus

Hot is a district that, in part, lies in Op Luang National Park in the province of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is a province renowned for its mountainous countryside and Hot offers up plenty of that for the adventurous traveller who wants to get off the beaten track.

Air-conditioned and second-class buses from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son run several times a day from Chiang Mai’s Chang Puak bus station just off Chang Puak Road on the north side of the moat. Heading southwest out of Chiang Mai on Route 108, they tend to stop in Hot but it’s best to check before booking online.

Hot is located on the Chiang Mai to Sariang road, and buses stop at the Hot-Mae Sariang roundabout. Blue local buses also head to Mae Sariang, Om Koi and Mae Chaem every couple of hours during daytime. There are several places to buy food, drinks and snacks on the main road where the bus stops, but don’t expect to be spoilt for choice.

For nature enthusiasts, Hot is well worth a visit. The Op Luang National Park within the district features a scenic gorge with steep cliffs and a meandering river as well as a range of flora and fauna and some spectacular views from the hilltops.

Mae Chaem - Bus

Lying in the shadow of the majestic mountain of Doi Inthanon, Mae Chaem is a peaceful spot from which to explore this lovely part of northern Thailand. In recent years, local authorities have improved roads to the town and it is now easily accessible. The roads are steep and twisty and too narrow for standard size buses.

Mae Chaem is just over 700kms from Bangkok. Travellers usually head for Chiang Mai first and have the option of flying or taking a train or a bus to the city. The bus trip from Bangkok’s Mochit terminal to Chiang Mai Arcade bus station is around nine hours. The Arcade has several buses a day to Chom Thong.

Slower local buses leave from Chiang Mai Gate for Chom Thong. These depart more frequently and take one hour to get to Chom Thong. Passengers need to change to a songthaew shared taxi at the market here for the last 60kms to Mae Chaem.

The songthaews stop in the streets surrounding Mae Chaem’s colourful market. People from the Karen and Hmong hilltribes are among vendors at the market. Accommodation in town is rustic and includes the Smile House and the Pamview Hotel. Mae Chaem travel agencies offer treks to hilltribe villages and trips to Doi Inthanon National Park.

Phrao - Bus

Situated northeast of the city of Chiang Mai, Phrao is a scenic district of just over 50,000 people in Thailand’s spectacular mountainous north. Although rarely visited by tourists, this beautiful spot of the country boasts some stunning scenery and is perfect for those looking for a weekend getaway on the bike.

Getting to Phrao is far from difficult, with buses departing Chiang Mai more than once an hour between 6:10 and 18:10. These buses leave the city’s Chang Phuak bus station just off Chang Phuak Road heading north from Chang Phuak Gate on the north side of the moat.

Provincial buses running between Chiang Mai and Phrao town lack the comfort of the bigger, VIP buses, but the journey is under 100kms and takes less than two hours. Buses stop in the town centre and travellers can take tuk-tuks or motorcycle taxis to their next port of call.

It is also possible to catch a bus from Phrao to other provincial towns. Booking online first is advisable as many locals take the route, while another option is hiring a motorbike in Chiang Mai and enjoying the journey at your own pace.

Phrao is a small market town set in a valley of paddy fields and surrounded by mountains. There is little in the town, but there are some local restaurants as well as 7-Elevens. The main accommodation, Doi Farang Resort, is seven kilometres outside of town and is reasonably priced.

A major draw of Phrao is its proximity to Chiang Dao, which is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular tourist destinations, offering mountain biking, hiking and the Chiang Dao caves among other activities. Around Phrao, there is also the possibility of trekking in the hills and sampling the rural life as well as checking out some waterfalls and temples.

News

Floods swamp districts of Chiang Mai and Phayao

Days of heavy rainfall has triggered flash flooding in several districts of Thailand’s northern provinces. Video footage posted on social media this morning shows floodwaters washing away motorcycles in the Hang Dong region of Chiang Mai.

12 October 2017

Chiang Mai urban rail system gets thumbs up

The deputy-director of Thailand’s transport division told reporters last week that Chiang Mai and another two popular tourist destinations will get light rail lines. The Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA) will work out routes, budgets and all the other specifics needed to get new rail systems off the ground.

29 August 2017

Jetstar Pacific flights connect Quang Binh and Chiang Mai

Last week saw the inauguration of a new flight route connecting central Vietnam and the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Vietnamese budget carrier Jetstar Pacific launched a twice weekly service last Friday which links the nation’s Quang Binh Province to the Rose of Thailand’s North.

17 August 2017