Welcome to Chiang Mai! Chiang Mai is known as one of the cheaper areas to visit in Thailand—with incredible food markets, beautiful temples and landscapes. Although Chiang Mai is the 5th most populated city in Thailand, it is the largest city in northern Thailand. In Thai dialect, Chiang is “city” and Mai is “new”, together means “New City.”
Most people, especially in tourist areas, do speak English.
Things NOT to Do: Disrespect the Royal Family—this includes the king, the queen, and their children. There is no mercy for anyone disrespecting the royal family, including foreigner.
All visitors are given a 30 days visa on arrival, you must provide a return ticket. If you overstay your visa without extending it, you will be subjected to a fine. Check the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs website for up-to-date info. Also remember that your passport must be valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry.
A minimum of 5 days is needed to do all the activities that we are recommending below.
It is very easy to get around in Chiang Mai. The most common way to get around town is by songthaew (covered pick-up truck), around 20 to 30THB ($0.80-$1.20CAD) per person within the town square. You could ask other travellers or hotel for the approximate fare to help you bargain. Uber is also a good choice if you have 2 or more travellers.
For activities, you might consider hiring a taxi driver for half-a-day or a full-day, costs 500-800baht. If possible, see if other tourists want to go to the same places and split the cost.
Transportation from Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX):
Taxi. Cost 150baht if you take a metered taxi. Located near baggage claim. Do NOT take a taxi that isn’t in a queue or without a meter, they will quote a very high flat rate. Don’t be afraid to walk away if the driver does not turn on the meter for you.
Tuk-Tuk or Songthaew. Cost 50baht per person. When taking a Tuk-Tuk, remember to negotiate for the price of what you are willing to pay—usually at least half of what they quoted or you will end up paying too much. To avoid being taken as a naive tourist, make sure to get the fixed price before getting in to the vehicle. Tip: Bargain until the taxi driver reject you, that’s when you go too low. Then ask “What is your best price?”
Public Buses. Bus is located outside the airport terminal, you can take bus 4 or 9 to get to the city center. Cost 20baht. The bus is not used by many people and their schedules are not very regular. With very little difference in price, it might not be an ideal option.
Uber. They have reasonable fixed price.
We stayed at the The Grand Napat Serviced Apartment, the hotel staff was very friendly and helpful, the room was spacious, and the hotel was close to the laundry mat, which was cheaper to wash your clothes than the hotel’s rate. The restaurant food was delicious! The only complaint, and the reason why I wouldn’t return, is the location. The hotel is located outside of the the town square, so a ride into town would cost about 100baht by Songthaew if the staff calls them for you, and about 60-80 baht if you hail one from the road (price for 2 people). Uber only charges 60baht.
The price is not a lot, but it adds up if your making multiple trip into town and back.
If this is your first time and you want to be close to the action, we recommend staying anywhere within the town square.
As with the rest of Thailand, Chiang Mai has only 3 seasons: hot, cool and rainy. It is also much cooler when compared to Bangkok.
December to February, is the cool season. Temperatures gets high during the day, but gets chilly in the evening. December is the busiest month for tourists to visit due to the cool weather.
Late March to Early April is the worst months to visit due to the low visibility of mountain views, thick air with dust from rural burning. During this month, agricultural waste and garbage are being burned as part of the annual “slash-and-burn” season.
April to June, is the hot season, with April being the hotest. There is no rain during this period. Day time temperatures could reach 40C. The annual Songkran water festival is a popular reason for tourists to visit. To deal with the heat, just pour cold water over your head, it will cool you down, and you will be dry again after 10 mins. This was what I did in order to cope with the heat.
July to November, is the rainy season. Rainfall is heaviest in September.
I love the food in Chiang Mai, I cannot think of a single place where I thought the food was horrid. The food here is delicious, especially at the market. There are so many varieties of food at such good prices.
The most popular market occurs on Saturday and Sunday, but there is a mini market everyday and multiple markets per day.
Top activities to do in Chiang Mai
1. Elephant Nature Park.
This park is a sanctuary for abused and injured elephants, as well as a bunch of dogs and cats. After coming here, you will learn that riding on an elephant’s back is very harmful and why you should never ride one in Thailand. Please try not to go on excursions that involve elephants, as these people treat them cruelly. It’s wonderful seeing the elephants roaming around freely, living the rest of their lives in a sanctuary. We did a full-day tour; however, if you are short on time, a half-day tour is just as good.
You will be pestered by Tuk-Tuk drivers shouting “I can take you to Tiger Kingdom!” This is because these drivers also get paid a commission to take you there. I have not read any review of bad treatments of tigers from Tiger Kingdom, that is why I decided to visit. During my visit, I see that the tigers are being fed very well. Many people may think that it is unethical and inhumane to force these tigers to live in an unnatural lifestyle where people line up to have their photos taken with them—but what is the difference between this and the zoo? They think the tigers were beaten to submission and that is why they do not attack humans—but why is it so hard to believe that a tiger raised by humans will not attack humans?
If you decide to visit, you will get a short orientation on how to approach and touch the tiger when you arrive. You get to spend 15 minutes with the tiger afterward. Price varies based on whether you want to see a small or big tiger and how many. Expect to pay 500baht and up. Tip: Go early, as it is more crowded in the afternoon with longer wait times. You might consider spending extra for photographers to take photos of you, as is hard and a bit unnerving to use a selfie stick with a tiger next to you. However if you go into the cage with someone you know, you can interchange taking pictures of each other. No point in asking the keeper, they will say they are not allowed.
There are height requirements you must meet in order to be in the cage with the tigers, please check the requirements before going. Click here to go to the Tiger Kingdom page.
We took an Uber there for 160baht and caught a ride with another couple back into town. This was a much cheaper rate than hiring a driver for half a day, cost 500baht. Because Tiger Kingdom is further out of town, not many Songthaew would take you there without guaranteeing a fair back, so they charge extra to wait for you.
In the zoo, there are no annoying fences to block your view, allowing you the opportunity to get really close to the animals—if you really wanted to. There is also no fence between you and the tigers, just a big pit in between. I guess the only peace of mind is knowing the tigers will fall in the pit if they tried launching at you! We came to the zoo for the pandas, and were shocked to see how close we could get to some of the animals. Pandas, unfortunately were one of the animals you cannot get close to.
Overall, I did not like the environment, not the best treatment of animals. They have an elephant, but poor thing didn’t have any room to move around.
Recommend: Bring a copy of your passport or driver license in order to rent a golf cart to drive around the zoo. The zoo is pretty big, so we definitely recommend doing this instead of taking the bus. Unfortunately we did not bring our ID, so our only option was the bus, which did not stop at every animal location.
3. Wat Rong Khun, aka White Temple.
Located 13km outside the city of Chiang Rai. Built by Chalermchai, who felt that white, instead of gold, is a symbol of the purity of Buddha. To get into the main temple hall, you will first cross a bridge, where you will see a sea of hands reach up, a symbol of death and rebirth. The demon is a symbol of impure desires, and the mirrors is a symbol of Buddha’s wisdom. All these are symbolic of Buddhist teachings—which is escaping desire, greed and passion to attain a state of nirvana. Once inside, you get to see the white temple hall, wander the grounds to see sculptures, and visit the Golden toilet, a symbol of how people worship worldly desires.
Entrance to the temple is free, but they recently instituted a policy to make it mandatory for foreign tourists to hire a guide in order to visit the main temple building. This is available at the temple to hire for several hundreds baht. The policy is not always enforced, so you can still enter without a guide.
If you are short on time, it might not be worth the round trip just for the white temple alone. That is why we recommend doing a tour here. Your Hotel can book it for you.
4. What Doi Suthep and its 304 steps.
Built in 1383, this is the most famous temple in Chiang Mai. The temple can be reached by climbing a steep staircase of 304 steps or ascend by railway. At 6pm each day, you can watch the monks chant. Cost 50baht. If you must visit one temple, this would be it. Once at the top, you will get a scenic view of the city.
Remember to not wear inappropriate attire to Temples. This means no shorts or sleeveless shirts or sandals. However, the temple main entrance has free sarong or wrapper for you to borrow and cover yourself.
5. Cooking School.
Chiang Mai is the most popular place in Thailand for cooking classes, and there are tones of cooking school you can choose from to help you master your culinary skills. We chose Asia Scenic, costs 1000baht for a half-day cooking class. The class is small and intimate, you start by making a stop at the nearby market to choose your ingredients and then head back to cook at your individual cooking station. There was so much food, I could not eat it all.
6. Thai Massage.
Cost is 300baht (~$12CAD) for 60 mins massage. Request the Thai massage. Ask for a light or medium pressure massage. Don’t be hesitant to ask them to go lighter if the pressure gets too much.
7. Market Shopping.
Warorot Market, open until 6pm. This is a great place for cheap clothes and food.
Night Bazaar, open from 6pm to midnight. This is the place to buy all sorts of crafts—where you will find the best deals in Thailand!
There are multiple night markets happening throughout Chiang Mai. The most famous ones are the Saturdays and Sunday night market. But each are located in different locations on their respective days. Make sure to google your directions to visit the right place on the right night or else you’ll end up being at the wrong market.
Sunday Night Market Walking Street-The Phae Gate. Do not go here to eat as price inflated with western menus.
Prices are usually fixed in shopping malls and boutiques, but bargaining is expected in markets and at street stalls. Even if they have posted price, do not pay the price, negotiate! If they say no, walk away, I am sure another seller will be willing to negotiate.
7. Zip lining.
There are many operators offering beginner courses. Flight of the Gibbon and Eagle Trekkers are the two biggest operators. Tip: Book with local shops and tour operators when you get there, it is much cheaper and you can negotiate to get a good price. We booked with Eagle Trekkers, it was way cheaper than Flight of the Gibbon. We weren’t a fan, we were hoping for speed and an adrenaline rush, but it was pretty tame for us. If you are heading to Phuket, you might consider doing it there. We heard Phuket is a great place for zip lining.