The First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

The First-Timer’s Travel Guide to Chiang Mai, Thailand

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There’s something about Chiang Mai. Many long-term travelers seem to fall in love with this place. I’ve read a few blogs and their stories are always the same. They go to Northern Thailand expecting to spend a couple of weeks there, then they wind up renting an apartment and staying for months, years even. For some, it’s become a permanent home.

What is it about Chiang Mai that makes it so alluring to expats and digital nomads? Was it the mountainous landscape? The creative vibe? The welcoming locals and their delicious bowls of khao soi? Chiang Mai is attractive for a variety reasons to many people, but for me, it came down to two things: sky lanterns and rescue elephants. I’ve been wanting to scratch the Yee Peng Festival and Elephant Nature Park off my bucket list for many years, and I finally got to do that in 2017.

Whatever your reasons may be for wanting to visit the “Rose of the North”, I hope this first-timer’s travel guide to Chiang Mai helps you plan your trip.

GUIDE TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Chiang Mai at a Glance
  2. Best Time to Visit
  3. Traveling to Chiang Mai
  4. Where to Exchange Currency
  5. Where to Stay
  6. Things to Do
  7. Day Tours from Chiang Mai
  1. Where to Eat
  2. Points of Interest (Map)
  3. How to Get Around
  4. How Many Days to Stay / Sample Itinerary
  5. Budget / Summary of Expenses
  6. Travel Tips

CHIANG MAI AT A GLANCE

Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand. It was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and is considered one of the most culturally significant cities in the region. At its historical center is the Old City, a roughly 1.6 km walled and moated square that’s home to over 30 Buddhist temples, some of which are as old as the city itself.

As well-preserved as it is, don’t let the city’s historical and cultural appeal fool you. Chiang Mai has modernized in many ways and expanded far beyond the walls of the Old City. In fact, it’s become a haven for backpackers and digital nomads in recent years. Go through the travel blogosphere and you’ll find that many long-term travelers have spent a good amount of time in Chiang Mai. I don’t know when it all started, but I think the city’s laid back atmosphere and relatively low cost of living have a lot to do with it.

If you’re on a gap year and traveling to Chiang Mai for the first time, then don’t be surprised if you wind up staying longer than anticipated. Many people do. Chiang Mai is that type of destination.

BEST TIME TO VISIT CHIANG MAI

Weather-wise, November to February is the ideal time to visit Northern Thailand. It’s the coolest and driest time of the year. We visited Chiang Mai in early November to partake in the Yee Peng and Loy Krathong Festivals. It’s a popular event that attracts thousands of tourists every year, making it one of the most vibrant times to be in the region.

NOV-FEB: As advised, November to February is the most comfortable time to be in Chiang Mai. Daytime temperatures hover around 25°C (77°F) with few rainy days. The Yee Peng Festival usually happens in November every year so you may want to plan your trip around that. This year, it’ll be celebrated on November 22, 2018. If you enjoy flowers, then you may want to go in February to attend the Chiang Mai Flower Festival.

MAR-MAY: March to May is the hottest time to be in Northern Thailand with temperatures often reaching 40°C (104°F). It isn’t the most comfortable time to visit, but Songkran or the Thai New Year is celebrated every April and turns the city into a giant water fight. Our Grab driver was telling us how much fun it is to be in Chiang Mai for Songkran, so we’ll probably make that trip in the not too distant future.

JUN-OCT: This is the monsoon season in Northern Thailand and probably not the best time to visit the region.

Climate: Annual Monthly Weather in Chiang Mai

To help you better understand the weather in Chiang Mai, I’ve put together average temperature and annual rainfall graphs below. Suggested months to visit are indicated in orange.

Average Temperature
Average Temperature in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Annual Rainfall
Annual Rainfall in Chiang Mai, Thailand

TRAVELING TO CHIANG MAI

From Bangkok, we flew and spent a couple of nights in Chiang Rai first before taking the 3-hour Green Bus to Chiang Mai. Between the two Northern Thai cities, Chiang Mai is more frequently visited so I imagine most tourists would probably fly or take a train there directly from Bangkok.

From Bangkok

BY AIR: Several airlines make that 1 hr and 15 min flight directly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. You can do a search on a flight aggregator like skyscanner.com to find the cheapest flights available. If you need to arrange for a private transfer from the airport to your hotel, then you can do so through Klook.

BY TRAIN: If we had more time, then I would have loved to travel to Chiang Mai from Bangkok via overnight sleeper train, which costs about the same as a flight on a low cost carrier. It takes longer, about 13-14 hours, but the views are better. Plus there’s something romantic about traveling by rail. You can follow this link or use the widget below to purchase train tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on 12Go Asia.

From Chiang Rai

BY BUS: As described, this is how we arrived in Chiang Mai. We bought advanced tickets through 12Go Asia and took the 3-hour Green Bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. Looking at their website, it looks like buses leave every hour or so from around 6AM till 6PM.

You can go via Express or VIP bus. We took the VIP bus which is a comfortable air-conditioned bus with a bathroom and a steward serving refreshments. You can follow this link or use the widget below for a bus timetable and to buy advanced tickets. Be sure to purchase tickets with “Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 1” as the origin.

From Other Cities

We took a bus to Chiang Mai from Chiang Rai but there are other ways to get there depending on where you are. I suggest checking 12Go Asia to find route options available to you. You can click on the link or use the widget below.


WHERE TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY

The unit of currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht (THB). Based on what I’ve read online, SuperRich Money Exchange appears to give the best exchange rates in Thailand. We exchanged our currency at a SuperRich in Bangkok and we did get outstanding rates, way better than what we got at the airport.

We exchanged enough to last us our entire trip, but there are three SuperRich branches in Chiang Mai. One is located within the Old City while the other two are just outside, through the Eastern Gate (Tha Phae) and before the Ping River. For your convenience, I’ve pinned all three branches on this location map.

Another option is to withdraw THB from an ATM. The rates are competitive, with some people saying that they may even be better. If you plan on using your ATM, then it may be a good idea to inform your bank beforehand so you don’t have any problems. In my case, my ATM works in some machines but not in others.

WHERE TO STAY IN CHIANG MAI

Before our first trip to Chiang Mai, I thought you had to stay in the Old City to be in the mix of things, but that isn’t true. While the Old City is centrally located and a convenient place to stay, it isn’t your only option. Chiang Mai turned out to be bigger than I thought with plenty of good areas to choose from. I’ve stayed in two thus far – the Old City and the Nimman area.

OLD CITY: Sherloft Home & Hostel

The Old City is the historical part of town and the heart of Chiang Mai. Measuring about 1.5 sq km and surrounded on all sides by a moat, it’s a former walled city that’s home to many temples, hotels, and restaurants.

When we stayed at Sherloft in early November 2017, it looked like they had been open for just a few months so everything looked and felt brand new. Based on its name, I believe it’s known primarily as a hostel but they do have several private rooms as well. I know many young travelers like staying at “Instagrammable” places these days and Sherloft is exactly that without breaking the bank. Check out my post on Sherloft Home & Hostel to see if it’s worthy of your Instagram feed.

We booked a room at Sherloft through AirBnB but you can make reservations through Booking.com or Agoda as well. If you’d like to stay in the area but don’t feel that this is the right place for you, then you can search for alternate listings in the Old City on these sites: AirBnB | Booking.com | Agoda. If you’re new to AirBnB, then you can get up to USD 43 free travel credit when you sign up via this link.
Sherloft Home & Hostel, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Approximate Room Rate: USD 34 for a private room, USD 11 for the dorm (as of Jan 2018, breakfast included)

NIMMANHAEMIN: 1 Nimman Gallery Hotel

Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman for short, is a trendy area northwest of the Old City. It’s a lively area with plenty of modern bars and restaurants. If you’d prefer to stay in a more contemporary part of town, then this is probably where you’ll want to be.

1 Nimman Gallery is a boutique hotel just off Nimmanhaemin Road, close to the Maya Lifestyle Shopping Centre. It’s a Lanna-style hotel characterized by dark wood furnishings and ethnic accents.

I booked a room at 1 Nimman Gallery Hotel through AirBnB but you can make reservations through Agoda as well. If you’d like to stay in the area but don’t feel that this is the right place for you, then you can search for alternate listings in the Nimman area on these sites: AirBnB | Booking.com | Agoda. As described, you can get up to USD 43 free travel credit if you’re new to AirBnB and sign up via this link.
1 Nimman Gallery Hotel, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Approximate Room Rate: Around USD 36 per night (as of Aug 2018)



Booking.com

THINGS TO DO IN CHIANG MAI

1. Celebrate the Yee Peng & Loy Krathong Festivals

If you’re planning on visiting Chiang Mai in November, then chances are you’re looking to be a part of this. The Yee Peng Festival is celebrated around November every year and is characterized by the simultaneous release of thousands of sky lanterns. We went in 2017 and the sight of those lanterns floating into the night sky was one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely magical. The Loy Krathong Festival happens around the same time as Yee Peng and involves the release of buoyant leaf containers floated down a river.

This year’s Yee Peng Festival will be celebrated on November 11, 2019. Tickets for the private event are usually on sale as early as January. If you want to purchase tickets or need help planning for it, then you can refer to our guide on how to plan for the Yee Peng Festival in Chiang Mai.
Yee Peng & Loy Krathong Festivals, Thailand

Approximate Length of Event: Around 7 hrs / Cost: Starts at THB 4,000 per person
003A8622” by John Shedrick, used under CC BY 2.0

2. Take a Thai Cooking Class

One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai is to take a cooking class, which isn’t surprising considering how delicious and widely accepted Thai food is. Dishes like Pad Thai and tom yum are favorites among travelers so why not take a cooking class and learn how to make it yourself? We took a cooking class at Mama Noi Thai Cookery School where I made the best Thai green curry I’ve ever tasted in my life. I’m not kidding, it was that good. You can book this class on KKday or Klook.

If you’d like to sift through more cooking classes in Chiang Mai, then you can do so on Cookly. They’re a booking platform that focuses only on cooking classes. For me, there’s no better place to find one-day cooking classes around the world than on Cookly. Follow the link for a list of available cooking classes in Chiang Mai.
Mama Noi Thai Cookery School, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Class Length: At least 4 hrs / Cost: Starts at THB 750

3. Go on a Chiang Mai Food Tour

Ren and I don’t like going to touristy restaurants. As much as possible, we try to find places frequented mostly by locals. This guided food tour by A Chef’s Tour takes you some of Chiang Mai’s best local markets and eateries where we were treated to Northern Thai favorites like sai oua (sausage), larb (pork salad), and nam ngiaw (Shan noodle soup). These aren’t the type of restaurants you’ll find on your own so if you like eating like a local when you travel, then I highly recommend you take this tour. Check out my post on the Chiang Mai Northern Food Tour by Truck for more pictures and information.
Chiang Mai Northern Food Tour by Truck with A Chef's Tour

Length of Tour: 4.5 hrs / Cost: USD 59 per person (inclusive of food and drink)

4. Go Temple Hopping in Chiang Mai Old City

The Old City is an attraction on its own. Small but big enough to keep you interested, it’s one of those places that begs to be explored on foot. Within the ancient city’s walls are several temples you can visit, the most beautiful of which is Wat Phra Singh. There you’ll find a stunning golden chedi that’s one of the city’s biggest and most beautiful. If you have an afternoon to spare, then I suggest spending a few hours temple hopping in Chaing Mai Old City.
Chiang Mai Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Estimated Time to Spend: About 2-4 hrs / Admission: FREE

5. Pamper Yourself at a Spa

Ren didn’t want to join me at Doi Inthanon National Park so I treated her to a deep tissue massage at Kiyora Spa. She’s used to getting massages in our home country of the Philippines but she called this massage the best she’s ever had. Kiyora Spa is one of many spas in Chiang Mai where you can pamper yourself with a relaxing massage or spa treatment. If you’re interested in booking a massage here, then you can do so through Kkday. Klook offers several spa treatment vouchers in Chiang Mai as well.
Kiyora Spa, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Length of Massage: At least 90 mins / Cost: Starts at THB 1,511

6. Enjoy a Khantoke Dinner and Show

If you’re in the mood for culture, then you may want to catch a Khantoke dinner and show at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. A khantoke is a traditional Thai Lanna lunch or dinner offered to guests to celebrate special occasions. Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center has been offering these khantoke dinner shows to tourists since 1971.

To be honest, the experience did feel a bit touristy. Nonetheless, we enjoyed sitting on the ground and eating our dinner off the round pedestal trays used to serve these meals. That was the main draw for us. Check out my post on this khantoke dinner for more pictures and information. If you’d like to experience this, then you can book it through KKday or Klook.
Khantoke Dinner and Show, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Activity Duration: About 7 hrs / Cost: THB 570 (with roundtrip transportation)

7. Experience and Give Back with Backstreet Academy

I became a fan of Backstreet Academy after watching this video. Backstreet Academy is one of the pioneers of impact travel, a movement that aims to provide tourists with genuine experiences that simultaneously benefit the local communities. In Chiang Mai, you can learn glass blowing from a master glass artisan, join a silversmith workshop, or learn the art of soap carving with up to 80% of tour revenues going back to the artisans.

Follow the link to check out all Backstreet Academy experiences in Chiang Mai.
Backstreet Academy, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Picture borrowed from Backstreet Academy

8. Go on a Bike Tour

We didn’t do this but a bike tour is always a great way of exploring a smaller city like Chiang Mai. You can book bike tours on Klook or KKday that take you to some of the city’s most interesting sites like Tha Pae Gate and Somphet Market.
Bike Tour, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Length of Tour: 5 hrs / Cost: THB 1,200 per person
Free Bikes, Santitham Guesthouse, Chiang Mai” by David McKelvey, used under CC BY 2.0
/ Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

DAY TOURS FROM CHIANG MAI

1. Pamper Pachyderms at Elephant Nature Park

Aside from the Yee Peng Festival, this is what I was most excited about in Chiang Mai. Elephant Nature Park is an animal sanctuary and rescue center about an hour and a half away from Chiang Mai Old City. They presently have over 35 elephants at the park, most of whom were rescued from the tourism or illegal logging industries. The park employs a Visit & Volunteer program where tourists can stay for the day or up to an entire week working with the elephants. You can check out my post on Elephant Nature Park for more pictures and information. We made the reservation directly with ENP but it looks like you can get a small discount if you book this tour through Kkday.

It’s important to note that Chiang Mai province is known for these elephant centers, many of which pose as “sanctuaries” but still partake in cruel practices like elephant riding and painting. Elephant Nature Park has built a reputation for being one of the best and most reputable rescue centers in Thailand, thanks to the work of its founder Lek Chailert who was hailed in 2010 as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Length of Tour: 10 hrs for the Single Day Visit / Cost: THB 2,500 per person

2. Marvel at the Beauty of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

I visited many temples in two weeks in Thailand and I found Wat Phra That Doi Suthep to be the most beautiful. Glistening in gold against a clear blue sky, it’s a stunning sight and one of the most popular temples in Chiang Mai. It takes less than an hour to get there by songthaew so it’s one of the easiest day trips you can make from the Old City, but if you’d rather go on a guided tour, then you can book one through Klook. Check out my post on Wat Phra That Doi Suthep for more pictures and information.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Estimated Time to Spend: Half a day / Admission: THB 50

3. Spend the Day at Doi Inthanon National Park

Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s highest mountain. At its peak, it has an elevation of 2,565 meters (8,415 ft) and offers the most picturesque views in Chiang Mai. The park is known for its many waterfalls and hiking trails, though its perhaps best known for its towering twin chedis built in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.

Doi Inthanon National Park is over two hours away from Chiang Mai Old City so it’s easiest to visit on a guided tour which you can book through KKday or Klook. You can check out my post on Doi Inthanin National Park for more pictures and information.
Doi Inthanon National Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Length of Tour: About 10 hrs / Cost: THB 1,120 for adults, THB 720 for kids

4. Go Ziplining in the Jungle

We were deliberating on doing this till the very end. Ziplining in the Northern Thai jungle is one of the most popular things you can do in Chiang Mai. We’re not that into ziplining so we decided against it, but if you want to experience gliding through the forest canopy, then there are many of these aerial adventure parks to choose from. Follow the link for a list of ziplining adventure activities in Chiang Mai.
Ziplining, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Length of Tour: About 6 hrs / Cost: THB 1,531 per person
Dragon Flight” by VnGrijl, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped, processed in Photoshop and Lightroom

5. Take a Day Trip to Chiang Rai

Similarly named and just three hours away by bus, Chiang Rai is synonymous with Chiang Mai. Many tourists who travel to the region often visit both. Chiang Rai isn’t as big as Chiang Mai but it’s home to one of Thailand’s most interesting and unique temples, Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple.

You can visit Chiang Rai on a day tour from Chiang Mai (option 1 | option 2 | option 3). If you’d like to stay longer, then you can go there on your own by bus. Check out our first-timer’s travel guide to Chiang Rai to help you plan your trip.
Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Chiang Rai, Thailand

Length of Tour: About 12 hrs / Cost: Starts at THB 854 per person

WHERE TO EAT IN CHIANG MAI

1. Khao Soi Khun Yai

As I described in our Chiang Rai travel guide, every trip to Northern Thailand should begin with a bowl of khao soi. It’s the quintessential Northern Thai dish of crispy and soft egg noodles in a creamy, curry-like sauce made with coconut milk. We had khao soi several times in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and the version here at Khao Soi Khun Yai was our favorite. It was delicious, rich and creamy without being too sweet.
Khao Soi Khun Yai, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Expect to Spend: THB 35 per bowl of khao soi

2. Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak (Cowboy Hat Lady)

If khao soi is Chiang Mai’s most famous dish, then this food stall is arguably its most popular. Manning the stall is a lady badass wearing a 10 gallon cowboy hat. Known as the Cowboy Hat Lady, she’s been described as a Chiang Mai institution with a reputation for serving some of the best khao kha moo in town. Khao kha moo is braised pork leg cooked in Chinese five spice and served over rice with a medium-boiled egg. Cowboy Hat Lady’s khao kha moo is fall-off-the-bone tender and absolutely delicious.
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Expect to Spend: THB 30 per small order of khao kha moo

3. Suki Koka

Located in the same cluster of food stalls as the Cowboy Hat Lady, this bowl of Thai suki was one of Ren’s favorite things to eat in Chiang Mai. Served wet or dry, Suki Koka’s Thai suki consists of vegetables cooked with mung bean noodles and a mix of seafood or your choice of meat. Suki Koka makes their Thai suki with heaps of cabbage cooked briefly in a wok at high heat, keeping it crunchy whilst giving it that wonderful smokey wok hei flavor. Like Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, it’s one of the most popular eateries in this cluster of North Gate food stalls. Don’t leave Chiang Mai without eating at both.
Suki Koka, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Expect to Spend: THB 40 per order of suki

4. Cherng Doi Roast Chicken

If you’re in the mood for kai yang or roast chicken, then Cherng Doi should be at the top of your list. Kai yang is an Isaan dish that’s now popular throughout Thailand. A whole chicken is often halved and pounded flat before being marinated then slowly grilled over a low charcoal flame. Together with SP Chicken, Cherng Doi Roast Chicken is often cited for serving some of the best kai yang in Chiang Mai. Both were fantastic, but I preferred Cherng Doi. The meat was tender and juicy with nicely crisped skin. Delicious!
Cherng Doi Roast Chicken, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Expect to Spend: THB 80 per order of kai yang nung krob

The four eateries listed above were our favorite places to eat in Chiang Mai. But if four isn’t enough for you, then you can check out our post on 11 must-eat restaurants and street food stalls in Chiang Mai for more recommendations.
Where to Eat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If pictures aren’t enough to whet your appetite, then check out this short video I put together featuring some of the eateries recommended here.

POINTS OF INTEREST IN CHIANG MAI

To help you get your bearings, I’ve created this map so you get a better sense of where everything is. All the places recommended in this guide are pinned on this map.

HOW TO GET AROUND

If you’re staying in the Old City, then it’s easy enough to get around on foot. But there are times when you may have to go farther. The cheapest and most common way of getting around Chiang Mai is via those red trucks with two rows of seats called songthaews. If you’ve been to the Philippines, then you’ll find them similar to public jeepneys.

I only rode it once to go to Doi Suthep and from what I understand, they cost a minimum of THB 30 per ride. You can hail any passing songthaew and tell the driver where you want to go. If he’s going in that direction, then he’ll quote you the fare amount and tell you to hop in the back. If not, then you can wait for the next one to come along. I don’t have too much experience with them but you can refer to this excellent post on public songthaews for more information.

While songthaews may be the cheapest form of transportation, it isn’t the most convenient. Whenever Ren and I needed to go somewhere outside of the Old City, we would use Grab instead. It was more expensive than songthaews but still relatively cheap, especially since our hostel would provide us with promo codes.

We took 7 Grab rides in all and they averaged out to just over THB 51 per ride, with the most expensive trip being from our hostel to the airport for THB 85. If you aren’t traveling too far and don’t want to deal with the hassle of public songthaews, then Grab is an excellent alternative.
Red Songthaew, Chiang Mai, Thailand

HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY / SAMPLE ITINERARY

Chiang Mai isn’t a metropolis like Bangkok but there’s a lot to do here. On top of that, it’s one of those destinations that invite slow travel. Assuming you aren’t in town to celebrate festivals like Yee Peng or Songkran, then I’d say 5 full days is enough to get a good feel for the city. It’ll give you enough time to do almost everything in this guide. Here’s a sample 5D/4N Chiang Mai itinerary I put together to help you plan your trip.

DAY ONE

• Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
• Wat Phra Singh
• Wat Chedi Luang
• Wat Chiang Man
• Wat Lok Molee
• North Gate Food Stalls
DAY TWO

• Elephant Nature Park
• Khantoke dinner and show at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center
DAY THREE

• Zipline adventure
• Spa massage
• Ploen Ruedee Night Market
DAY FOUR

• Day trip to Chiang Rai
DAY FIVE

• Thai cooking class
• Chiang Mai food tour

BUDGET / SUMMARY OF EXPENSES

Chiang Mai isn’t an expensive city. Hostel accommodations are as low as USD 3 a night and meals can be had for less than USD 2 a plate. It’s budget-friendly reputation is part of what makes it such a popular tourist destination and a haven for digital nomads.

Assuming you’ll be sharing mid-level accommodations with one other person, then a daily budget of around THB 850-1,000 per person should be plenty. This takes into account your accommodations, transportation, meals, drinks, and pocket wifi rental. Here’s a quick breakdown of expenses:

ACCOMMODATIONS

This varies from person to person. We booked a private room at a lovely but inexpensive hostel for about THB 1,070 a night. Expect to pay much less if you’re staying in a dorm room.
MEALS

Again, this is subjective, but based on our experience, I’d say around THB 150 a day per person. Many filling meals can be had for THB 50 or less.
TOUR / ACTIVITY FEES

This will stretch your budget. Visiting Elephant Nature Park or going on a zipline adventure won’t be cheap. It all depends on what you want to do so I’ve excluded any tour fees from the estimated budget. You can refer to the cost indicated beneath each activity and add it to the total.
POCKET WIFI RENTAL

If you’re sharing the cost with one other person, then you’ll each be paying THB 90 per day.
TRANSPORTATION

We didn’t take it often but the cheapest way of getting around Chiang Mai is by public songthaew, which costs a minimum of THB 30 per ride. As described, we used Grab more often which was still pretty cheap. Assuming you’ll be traveling short distances by songthaew and Grab, then a budget of around THB 100 per day should be enough.
TOTAL

This comes out to THB 875 a day per person. As advised, this baseline estimate doesn’t include tour costs or shopping. Most of your budget will go to tours so you can add any activity costs to this amount. Ren and I are middle of the road travelers who enjoy good food and drink, so the recommended budget is a good baseline for travelers like us. Adjust accordingly based on your own travel habits.

TRAVEL TIPS

1. Plan your Trip with Sygic Travel

This has been my go-to trip planning app for several years now. I use it to create all our itineraries before a trip. It allows me to visualize all points of interest on a map so I can see exactly where they are in relation to each other. Check out my article on the Sygic Travel app for more information.

DOWNLOAD: iOS / Android

Sygic Travel is what I used to create the location map above. You can view it as a day-to-day itinerary as well. Follow this link to check out our 6-day Chiang Mai itinerary on Sygic Travel. You can also download it in editable Word format from our EAT-ineraries page.

2. Rent a Pocket Wifi Device

It goes without saying that having internet access is a necessity these days. We need it to perform daily tasks like checking email and connecting on social media. On a trip, it becomes even more important because we need it to navigate and do last minute research.

Assuming you’ll be spending time in Bangkok first, you can rent a 4G pocket wifi device through Klook which you can pick up and drop off at either airport (Suvarnabhumi or Don Mueang). If you’d rather get a 4G sim card, then you pick one up in Bangkok (option 1 | option 2) or at Chiang Mai International Airport.

3. Plan Early for the Yee Peng Festival

If you’re traveling to Chiang Mai to celebrate the Yee Peng Festival like we did, then you’ll need to plan your trip early. It’s a popular event which sees thousands of tourists flocking to the city and trying to snap up a limited number of tickets. They will sell out quickly so I suggest booking your tickets and planning your trip as early as possible.

As advised, this year’s event will be held on November 11, 2019 with tickets to the Doi Saket Private Event on sale as early as January. You can refer to my post on planning for the Yee Peng Festival for ticket and event information.

4. Pick the Right Elephant Sanctuary

Chiang Mai is known for its many elephant centers. However, not all are legitimate. Many pose as “sanctuaries” to attract tourists but still engage in cruel practices. If you read about any facilities that allow elephant riding or force the animals into performing tricks like doing headstands or painting pictures, then that’s probably not the sanctuary you want to go to. People are entertained out of ignorance but these tourism-related activities are rooted in cruel practices like elephant crushing and the use of bull hooks to control the animals.

If you’re an animal lover and don’t want to support elephant cruelty, then go to a true sanctuary and rescue center like Elephant Nature Park. It’s one of the best and most reputable in Thailand. You can check out my post on Elephant Nature Park for more pictures and information.

5. Check for Discount Passes

There are many websites that offer discount passes to tours and services. But for trips around Asia, my favorites are Klook and KKday. They’re reliable companies and almost always have the best prices. If you’re looking for deals on tours, shows, transfers, etc, then you may want to search through Klook or KKday for a list of Chiang Mai attractions. Here’s a list of some of Kkday’s most popular deals in Chiang Mai: (pictures borrowed from kkday.com)

6. Get Travel Insurance

To be honest, we don’t always get travel insurance. It depends on where we’re going and what we’ll be doing. If we’re just going on a quick trip to shop and eat, then we probably won’t get it. But if we plan on doing anything physical, then we definitely will. We bought insurance policies for this trip to Chiang Mai just in case we got accidentally sat on (or shat on) by a rogue pachyderm.

We buy inurance from World Nomads or SafetyWing. They’re both leading travel medical insurance providers often used by digital nomads. Check out my article on why we buy travel insurance for more information. You can follow the links to get a free quote from World Nomads or SafetyWing.

7. Bring the Right Power Adapter

Electrical outlets in Thailand typically feature two-pronged round or flat sockets, either Type A, Type B, Type C, or Type F. Be sure to bring the right power adapters for your devices. Electrical voltage is 220V and the standard frequency is 50Hz.

Have fun!

By no means am I an expert on Chiang Mai but I do hope this guide helps you plan your trip. I’m only sharing some of the things that I learned from our time there. If you have any questions or comments, then please feel free to leave them in the comment section below. You’re welcome to join our Facebook Travel Group as well.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great time exploring Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand!

OUR GEAR

These are some of the things we brought with us to Chiang Mai. Check out our “What’s in Our Backpack?” post for a complete list of our travel gear. (NOTE: The following links are Amazon affiliate links.)

Disclosure

We’re a Kkday affiliate and worked with them on this trip. We paid for our airfare, accommodations, and incidental expenses like transportation and food, but we were allowed to go through their website and choose activities and services in exchange for an honest account of the experience. They gave us vouchers to the Khantoke dinner, Doi Inthanon day tour, and Mamai Noi Thai cooking class. They didn’t ask us to do any of these things. We chose them on our own volition. As always, all words and opinions expressed in this post are mine and mine alone.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning we’ll earn a small commission if you make a purchase at no extra cost to you. We only recommend products and services that we use ourselves and firmly believe in. We really appreciate your support as this helps us make more of these free travel guides. Thank you!

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There are 15 comments for this article
  1. Gina at 1:00 pm

    Just spent the last 3 months in Chiang Mai and I already miss it! Had to escape as burning season was starting.

    And for the westerners reading this that need a break… don’t miss out on Why Not for amazing Italian food (no really, the owner is from Italy and everything is imported and I am an Italian food snob) and Salsa Kitchen for Mexican (and they do a good job also!).

    And not sure if travel insurance would save you if an elephant sat on you LOL! Reading this made me want to go back… like today! Thanks guys!

  2. JB Macatulad at 3:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing Gina! There are so many restaurants in Chiang Mai, both Thai and international, that food alone is a good enough reason to stay. And yes, I don’t think travel insurance will help you much either haha…thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  3. Jamie at 6:18 pm

    What an in-depth article! I found that I preferred Chiang Mai to Bangkok and will no-doubt be returning in the future! Thanks for sharing.

  4. JB Macatulad at 6:42 pm

    Thanks for stopping by Jamie! Yes, Chiang Mai is a chill place, much more relaxed than Bangkok. We prefer it over Bangkok too. 🙂

  5. Yohan at 2:02 pm

    Hi JB!

    This Chang Mai guide is just what I needed! As a fellow Filipino, I like that you provided information relevant to us! MY wife and I will be visiting Chang Mai towards the end of March; I would appreciate help from you on the following questions:

    1. Did you buy/use a local SIM Card when using GRAB? I’m thinking of using GRAB as well when travelling in Chiang Mai but my cellphone is locked to a Philippine service provider.

    2. We will be flying into Chiang Mai through a connection in Bangkok. Any advice on where to exchange money? Are there any good currency exchange in the departure/transit area of both airports or is it better to exchange money in Manila?

    3. What’s the best time do you think to visit Doi Suthep? We are staying near the south gate of Chiang Mai, any advice on how best to reach the temple?

    Thanks in advance for any advice you may give!

  6. JB Macatulad at 4:14 pm

    Happy you found the guide useful Yohan! Please find my responses below:

    1. We always rent a pocket wifi device whenever we travel. For Thailand, we rented one through Klook and you can pick it up and drop it off at either airport in Bangkok. We just find pocket wifi devices to be easier than local SIM cards. We have roaming activated on our phones so people can still reach us in the event of an emergency.

    2. The exchange rate at the airport isn’t the best so I suggest changing a small amount there, just enough to get you to your hotel. In our experience, SuperRich Money Exchange is the best place to exchange your currency in Thailand. They have a few branches in Chiang Mai. You can refer to the location map in this guide to find them. I find that rates are better in the destination country rather than in your home country.

    3. You’ll find songthaews that’ll take you directly to Doi Suthep just outside the North Gate of the Old City. I suggest just walking there from your hotel. The Old City is small so it doesn’t take long to walk from one end to the other.

    Hope that helps and enjoy your trip! Let me know if you need help with anything else. 🙂

  7. Julia Kwek at 11:25 am

    Hi JB,

    My family and I have planned to go to Chiang Mai on the coming month – Sad to know its not really a good weather to visit (wished I found your website sooner!).

    Just want to know how to get around all the areas? Were there any communication issues?

  8. JB Macatulad at 8:40 am

    Hi Julia, apologies for the late reply. June is just getting into rainy season so it may not be as ideal as earlier in the year, but it shouldn’t be so bad. Rain in Southeast Asia tends to be stop and go anyway. I’m going back in August myself.

    By “get around all the areas”, do you mean within the Old Town? It’s fairly small so yo can easily walk from end to the other. For longer distances or if we didn’t feel like walking, we’d take Grab. The cheapest way to get around is by songthaew but I only took that once to go to Doi Suthep. We didn’t experience communication issues anywhere. Hope that helps and enjoy your trip! 🙂

  9. Pingback: The Legal Nomads Chiang Mai Guide: Where to Eat and Where to Stay
  10. nick at 11:16 am

    Chiang mai is wonderful place. we suggest to visit Wat Umong , it is tunnel temple located near Chiang mai University . It is tunnel temple , not famous among traveler but famous for local Thai. The accommodation place recommendation at Rustic River Boutique . the place is decorated in Rustic style with Thai style furniture. http://www.rusticriverhouse.com

  11. JB Macatulad at 10:10 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation Nick. Wat Umong is indeed interesting, different from the other temples in the area.

  12. Sacheen at 8:48 pm

    Hi JB,

    I am glad to know that my schedule for Chiang Mai is a good month to visit 🙂

    Regarding the pocket wifi, I checked Klook for the rent and it says P266 device only. It did not say for how many days the rent is good for, and you also mentioned about a daily wifi fee.

    Does that mean that the P266 is the rent of the device only? Then there is a THB180 per day for the wifi use? If that is the case, would you know how the daily wifi fee is paid (THB180 daily)? via Klook? or I’ll pay over the counter when I claim the device? They also require a deposit fee right?

    Thank you!!! and I just want you to know your blogs are my life savers :))))

    Sacheen

  13. JB Macatulad at 1:25 pm

    Hi Sacheen, happy to hear that you found our guides useful! 🙂

    The PHP 266 is the daily rate. When you make a reservation on Klook, it’ll ask you how many days you’ll need it for then calculate the total amount. Hope that helps and enjoy your trip!

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