Chiang Mai Ultimate Travel Guide
While Bangkok boasts it luxury malls, fancy dining and sky bars, Chiang Mai takes pride in religious sites, wildlife, and pristine nature. With the elephant camps, mountains and valleys on all sides, magnificent Buddhist temples, and Lana ruins, so many things to do and see in Chiang Mai that can seem a little overwhelming to first visitors. To simplify things, follow our guide to start your journey at the “Rose of North Thailand”
As a gateway to northern Thailand (700 km north of Bangkok), Chiang Mai is easily accessible by air, rail, and bus. The most common route to Chiang Mai is from Bangkok. Due to the large distance between these two cities, a flight is the best choice to save time. The flight’s cost starts from 1,000 baht to 5,000 baht for 60 - 70 minutes on the sky, depending on the airline and the tourist season. Traveling by train is also convenient and popular, with a range of options from overnight sleeper trains to express ones, which depart from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station. The trip will take between 12 and 15 hours with the cost varies from 800 - 2,000 baht depending on the level of the comfort you want. Despite the lengthy time, the train offers an opportunity to experience some of Thailand’s beautiful sceneries as you make your way to the north. The cheapest way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is on a bus. Bus run roughly every hour, departing from Bangkok Mo Chit Station. The journey takes 9 - 12 hours to complete. The prices vary depending on which type of bus you opt for but expect somewhere between 450 and 850 baht.
Traveling by train is convenient and popular. The trains depart from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station and offer some of Thailand’s beautiful sceneries (Photo: Tiki)
The best time to visit Chiang Mai is between October and April when the weather is perfect for all kinds of outdoor activities. January is always considered the best month with a high influx of visitors. If you love mango, plan a trip in March when this fruit is ripping. November is the time of Loy Krathong festival - the most attractive lantern festival in Chiang Mai. Temperatures are at their peak in April but it’s also the time for the craziest celebration of the country: Songkran - the famous water festival which will last about 5 days. May can be called the month of Buddha because he was born, enlightened, and died this month. Temperatures can rise up to 40 Celsius degree but you still can enjoy the beaches and head out after the sunset. June to October is the rainy season so this may not the best time for jungle trekking and photography. But if you are looking for a quiet holiday in an ancient town, then this is the time for you.
October to April is the best time to visit. The weather is perfect for all kinds of outdoor activities
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or Doi Suthep, is one of the most historical and spiritual places in Thailand. It offers great views of the surrounding area and the best place to listen to the monks chant at 6 pm every day. The temple was established in 1383 and remains a legend in itself. It enshrines a piece of shoulder bone which is said of Buddha. The bone was brought to Lana King by a monk and it broke into two pieces at Lamphun, in northern Thailand. The smaller piece was enshrined at Wat Suan Dok. The large piece was placed on the back of a white elephant before releasing it into the jungle. The sacred elephant is said to die at Doi Suthep where the temple was chosen to construct.
Doi Suthep is one of the most historical and spiritual places in Thailand. It remains a legend in itself.
Doi Suthep isn’t the only must-visit temple in Chiang Mai. This city, the former center of the ancient Lanna Kingdom which dated back in the 13th century, is home to more than 300 ‘Wats’ scattered throughout the city - more than any province in Thailand. Most temples have ‘Lana’ style with curved wooden roofs with their own stories to tell. There are a few significant constructions that you’re hard to ignore: Wat Chedi Luang - the highest temple in Chiang Mai Old City; Wat Phra Singh to see a lot of beautiful stupas and pagodas on the ground; Wat Sri Suphan, or the Silver Temple because of its impressive handcrafted silver decoration; and Wat Umong - the forest temple.
Chiang Mai is home to more than 300 ‘Wats’ scattered throughout the city
8 km Southeast of Chiang Mai is Ban Bo Sang where you can witness local artisans making famous Sa Paper umbrellas and cloth umbrellas from the start to finish. The paper is produced by drying the woody stems of Sa plant then cover bamboo struts to form the umbrellas. They are dried out beforehand painted in flowers or landscapes in different colors. Not only decorate the umbrellas, the artists here are always willing to paint on any items that you bring to them. Therefore, when you plan a visit to Ban Bo Sang, bring with you anything you like such as t-shirts, jeans, handbag, purse then renew them with beautiful designs at a reasonable price.
The local dry woody stems of Sa plant to make paper, then use the paper to cover bamboo struts to form the umbrellas.
The elephant is a precious treasure of Chiang Mai but many of them have been mistreated, poorly fed and overworked in the logging and tourism industry. There are few of elephant sanctuaries have been set up in Chiang Mai to rescue the beautiful beasts from abuse. They also bring a good chance for visitors to ethical interact with the elephant. The most famous establishment is Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park. Here, you can interact with more than 200 beautiful beasts in a variety of ways. Another option is Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. You can take the elephants to the river to bathe and caress them to soothe the abuse, feed them bananas, and follow them into the jungle on a trek. To learn more about taking care of an elephant, head to Patara Elephant Farm. The farm provides a special program in which you will be trained to approach your elephant correctly, check its health, and communicate through different spoken commands to create trust and relationship. I’m sure that your trip will be more meaningful with these activities.
The elephant is a precious treasure of Chiang Mai
This village is situated about 4km away from Doi Suthep and owns an interesting history. Formerly, Hmong people in the village settled in Baan Pang Pa Ka and cultivated opium. In 1953-1954, after big campaigns hold by the government to eradicate drugs in the village, the villagers migrated to Baan Doi Pui. But the opium cultivation hadn’t stopped until 1972. Only a small patch of opium poppies is grown as ingredients for Hmong natural medicine preparation. The village is spread over the side of the forested hill, offer an insight into Thailand’s tribe life. Hmong people still remind their culture by wearing traditional clothes most of the time and living in Hmong-style houses. You can talk to the local, visit the museum, and buy souvenirs. A lot of nice things can be found in small shops, in traditional clothing with distinctive colors to ethnic jewelry. The daily market is a major part of the Hmongs income. So by buying here, you’re contributing to the community.
Drive about 4km away from Doi Suthep and learn an interesting history of the H'mong village on Doi Pui
Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, is a national combat sport that uses the entire body movement: rotating the hip with each kick, punch, elbow, and block. It is also called ‘the art of eight limbs’ because it is the combination fists, elbows, knees, and shins make a full-contact fighter very efficient. If you know that thousands of Muay training camps spread out across the globe, you won’t want to miss a chance to watch real Thai boxing at one of several stadiums in Chiang Mai with the entrance fee is between 400-600 baht. If you have more time, take a one-week Muay training course is a good idea, too.
You can either watch a Thai boxing match or take a one-week training course (Photo: Chiangmaiboxingstadium)
- Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium: starts at 8.30 pm every Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
- Kawila Boxing Stadium: starts at 9.30 pm every Tuesday and Friday.
- Thapae Boxing Stadium: starts daily at 8 pm (closed on Sunday).
I am sure that not many people can resist a Thai dish and most of us want to bring these dishes back home. Everybody knows that Bangkok is the most famous city for street food, but Chiang Mai is the most popular places for cooking classes. There are a variety of classes with the price starts from 1,000 baht. You begin your class by going to the market, learn about local ingredients before heading back to the kitchens to learn how to balance the sweet, spicy, salty, bitter, and sour (the 5 main flavors of Thai cuisine).
Bangkok is the most famous city for street food, but Chiang Mai is the most popular places for cooking classes
- May Kaidee’s Cooking School: runs twice daily at 9 am and 2 pm - Sammy's Organic Thai Cooking School: a Full-day course from 9 am to 4 pm - Thai Farm Cooking School: Full-day course from 9 am to 5 pm
The Thai massage is well-known worldwide as a therapy for body and soul, and Chiang Mai is one of the most famous sanctuaries. The Spa centers offer a variety of massage packages, steam, sauna, and body treatments to visitors who want to pamper themselves while on holiday. Local medical herbs and traditional Lana massage treatments are used for relaxation, rejuvenation, and healing.
Chiang Mai is a sanctuary for ancient Lana massage (Photo: Cheevespa)
- Cheeva Spa Chiang Mai:
Open hour: 10 am - 9 pm Price: starts from 900 baht for 1-hour massage
- The Oasis Spa Lanna
Open hour: 10 am - 10 pm Price: starts from 1,200 baht for a 1-hour massage.
- Kiyora Spa Chiang Mai
Open hour: 10 am - 10 pm Price: starts at 1,000 baht for 1.5 hours massage.
Yi Peng and Loy Krathong are important festivals that take place every November in Chiang Mai. In Loy Krathong, people place a candle and incense on their baskets (krathong) which made from banana leaves then make a wish before sending the krathong down the Ping river. Yi Peng, on the other hand, is all about driving off bad luck. People release giant lanterns into the sky as a symbol of letting go of the bad and sins. Although the two festivals are slightly different, both are truly remarkable sights. You will feel like thousands of stars twinkling both in the sky and the river.
People release giant lanterns into the sky as a symbol of letting go of the bad and sins in Yi Peng festival
For anyone interested in the 700-year-old history and culture of Chiang Mai, the Art and Culture Centre Museum is a trustful source of information. This museum is located right in the heart of the Old City. You can learn the local lifestyle and the glorious history of Lana Kingdom through many photos, artifacts, and dioramas displaying in different exhibitions.
Learn 700-year-old history and culture of Chiang Mai at the museum
Open hours: 8.30am - 5 pm, from Tuesday to Sunday.
Ticket cost: 180 baht
With more than 95% of the population are Buddhists, you may want to take a look insight into monks life and beliefs. While doing a tour of temples, there is an opportunity for this unique experience. A few of temples in Chiang Mai offer a “Monk Chat” program. This is when the monks are available for anyone to ask about anything such as the country’s religion, culture, and meditation. In return, they can practice their English with foreign tourists. A monk chat can last 5 minutes or a couple of hours depending on how long you want to talk. All visitors are welcome, including women. Make sure you dress respectfully, and the ladies shouldn’t touch or be alone with a monk. Some temples also offer meditation programmes in one or two days. You can practice several kinds of meditation to calm your mind. A very different experience that no one should miss.
A monk chat can last 5 minutes or a couple of hours depending on how long you want to talk (Photo: Annie Chambers)
- Wat Chedi Luang: Monk chat available daily from 9am-6pm. There are up to 50 monks for a chat.
- Doi Suthep: Monk chat available daily from 1-3pm.
- Wat Suan Dok: free Monday, Wednesday and Friday 5-7pm; you can also do a 2-day meditation retreat weekly on Tuesday & Wednesday.
- Wat Umong: Available Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 5:30pm-7: 30 pm.
- MCU Buddhist University, Chiang Mai Campus: Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 5-7: 30 pm.
Bua Thong waterfall is about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai and easy to get. This waterfall is small but beautiful, make a great day trip. Thanks to the limestone, the rocks are quite “sticky” which allow you to climb up easily without any equipment. There are 5 levels and each of them is a great place to stop and enjoy the surroundings. At the top of the waterfall, you can sit, have a picnic, and admire the green mountains and jungle.
It's a great idea to make a day trip to Bua Thong waterfall
This is a personal highlight of Chiang Mai. Starting at 4 pm and goes into the night, Sunday night market extends for nearly one kilometer down the full length of Ratchadamnoen Road, fills with stalls and vendors. It is a wonderful mix of colors, smells, and sounds where you can find clothes, souvenirs, arts, crafts, and of course, the Thai mouth-watering street food. There are a number of coffee shops and bars in the area where you can stop for a drink. Street entertainers, musicians, puppeteers, dancer, and bands start to perform after dark, make the market truly comes alive.
Chiang Mai Sunday walking market is a heaven for retail shoppers (Photo: ol'pete)
If you are in Chiang Mai, don’t miss out on Pai - a dreamland of many travelers. It’s only 4-hour trip but what you receive is countless. Deep valleys, lush mountains, beautiful waterfalls, natural hot springs, hiking trails, and even the strange Land Split, there are so many beautiful things to see and interesting activities to do on this dreamy town.
Pai is a dreamland for many travelers
If you’re interested in Chiang Mai, contact our experts here to help you tailor your own trip.